Zipporah, Gershom and Eleazer
The children of great men and women are often swallowed up in the greatness of their parents. It is the rare son or daughter who survives unscathed growing up in the shadow of a parent who is always in the spotlight. It is not surprising, then, that we know next to nothing about Moses’ two sons.
And Moses was content to dwell with the man: and he gave Moses Zipporah his daughter. And she bare him a son, and he called his name Gershom: for he said, I have been a stranger in a strange land.
We know from Exodus 2:21 that Moses married Zipporah, the daughter of the Midianite priest, Jethro (also known as Reuel). Verse 22 tells us that Zipporah bore Moses a son, whose name was Gershom.
The next mention of either Zipporah or Gershom is found in Exodus 4:20, which says, “And Moses took his wife and his sons, and set them upon an ass, and he returned to the land of Eygpt: and Moses took the rod of God in his hand.” Although only one son (Gershom) had been mentioned in the initial account of Moses’ marriage to Zipporah (Exodus 2:21-22), evidently Eleazer (the second son) had been born during Moses’ forty-year stay in Midian.
There is no biblical record of when or under what circumstances Zipporah and her two sons returned to her father (Jethro) from Egypt. However, many Bible commentators think that Moses sent his family back for safety. Following is a quote from the Jamieson-Fausset-Brown Commentary by Robert Jamieson concerning this.
“There is no express mention of Zipporah and her sons having been sent back to remain with her father. But it is certain that she was sent back; and whether, as the Jewish rabbis say, this was done by the advice of Aaron; whether the motive for it was a tender regard for the safety of the family, to keep them away from the intensely agitating and engrossing scenes of the exodus, or, as some suppose, a domestic feud, caused by the circumcision of the younger son, had produced a sudden strife and alienation between Moses and Zipporah, there is no doubt that she returned to sojourn under her father’s roof.”
The next mention of Zipporah and her sons is found in Exodus 18:2 where the account begins with Jethro taking Zipporah and her two sons, Gershom and Eleazer, back to Moses “…in the wilderness, where he encamped at the Mount of God” (v. 5).
A further passage referring to Moses’ sons is 1 Chronicles 23:14-16: “Thus, Moses’ sons were ranked with the Levites generally, but not introduced in to the distinctive portion of the descendants of Levi who were appointed to the special functions of the priesthood.” (Jamieson-Fausset-Brown Commentary, Vol. I, p. 498, Robert Jamieson).
Did Moses Have a Second Wife?
The only other reference found in the Bible pertaining to Moses’ wife is found in Numbers 12:1. Is this a reference to Zipporah, his only recorded wife, or does it refer to a new wife? Dr. Harold L. Willmington, in his commentary Numbers, in the Liberty Bible Commentary says: “The word ‘Ethiopian’ (Cushite) in verse 1 may indicate it was a new wife. If so, she could have been either a foreigner saved out of Egypt with the Israelites, or a daughter of the Cushites dwelling in Arabia. At any rate, neither marriage would have been wrong, for the prohibition in Exodus 34:16 referred only to the Canaanites” (Liberty Bible Commentary, Vol. I. p. 277).
Dr. W. A. Criswell, in the Criswell Study Bible, says: “It is possible Zipporah the Midianite was the only wife Moses had and the terms “Cushan” and “Midian” may be synonymous.”
Whatever the case, there is no further reference in the Bible to either Moses’ wife, Zipporah, or his sons, Gershom and Eliezer. We do not know when or how they died.
A grateful Jethro gives Moses his daughter Zipporah in marriage, despite their religious differences. They marry and have two sons, Gershom and Eliezer. A few years later, after God speaks to Moses through a burning bush, Moses sets out with his family to return to Egypt to free his people from slavery.
After the Jews left Egypt, Moses’ sons (Gershom and Eliezer), along with their mother (Zipporah) and grandfather (Jethro), rejoined their father in the desert. This is the last overt mention of Moses’ sons in the Torah.
In fact, when the time came to choose a successor for Moses, our Sages2 relate that Moses requested one of his sons be appointed. G‑d responded, “Your sons sat and did not occupy themselves with Torah. Joshua, who served you, is fitting to serve Israel.”
And while Moses’ physical progeny did not live up to his example, Aaron’s sons—who succeeded their father as priests—did carry on the noble traditions of their father and uncle. G‑d considered Moses’ nephews as his children, for he was the one who taught them Torah. This is reflected in Numbers (3:1), which begins “These are the descendants of Moses and Aaron…” but only lists Aaron’s four sons.
Thus G‑d reassured Moses, explaining that even Joshua would need to confer with Aaron’s son, the High Priest, to know G‑d’s will.
What else does our Bible tell us about Eliezer or his older brother, Gershom? While we learn nothing about Gershom himself, we do learn that his son, Jonathan (also identified as Shebuel), becomes an apostate priest, leading the tribe of Dan in the worship of an idol.
The book of Judges, Chapter 18, concludes with these astonishing verses, branding the grandson of Moses as an idolater: “Then the Danites set up an idol [from the home of Micah] for themselves. Jonathan, son of Gershom, son of Moses, and his sons were priests to the tribe of the Danites until the time that the land went into captivity. So they maintained as their own Micah’s idol that he had made, as long as the house of God was at Shiloh.” (Judges 30-31.)
While we learn nothing about Eliezer himself, it seems safe to say that his progeny did not become idolaters who led others into idolatry. We find this snippet in Chapter 23 of I Chronicles: “… but as for Moses, the man of God, his sons were to be reckoned among the tribe of Levi. The sons of Moses: Gershom and Eliezer. … The sons of Eliezer: Rehabiah the chief; Eliezer had no other sons, but the sons of Rehabiah were very numerous.” (I Chronicles 15, 17.)
So what else is there to say about this second son of Moses? We know that he died sometime during the 40 years the Israelites were wandering in the midbar, that forbidding desert wilderness of the Sinai Peninsula and the desolate stretch of land east of the Jordan River and the Dead Sea. We know this because, with the exception of Joshua and Caleb, all those born before the Exodus, spiritually deadened by the slave mentality, were doomed to die in the wilderness, never setting foot in the Promised Land.
On the other hand, we can assume that Eliezer’s son and grandsons, members of the tribe of Levi, did serve as some sort of religious functionaries once the Israelites settled in Canaan.
We don’t know if Eliezer ever managed to forgive Moses for being an absentee father, entrusting all parenting duties to Zipporah. Where in his father crowded world of crushing responsibilities was there room for him?
Perhaps, as Eliezer matured, he came to value Moses’ total engagement in the historic mission of leading his people from bondage to freedom, from darkness to a great light. Maybe, even though wounded by his father’s neglect, Eliezer came to take pride in Moses’ enormous accomplishments.
I would like to think that Eliezer lived out his life in the desert satisfied with his lot. Yes, he was understandably disappointed with Moses as a father, but he quieted his discontent with the hope that through his tireless efforts, his father would ensure the future of the Jewish people l’dor vador, from generation to generation.
Moses’ second son does have a name, Eliezer, but he does not have a story…except in the imaginations of those who wonder what happened to him, his unnamed wife, his one son and his many grandchildren. It could be that if we were able to trace our lineage back far enough, we would discover that Eliezer, son of Moses, is a root in our own family tree and, as such, a humble participant in an ancient chapter of our own stories.
Moses’s elder son, Gershom, apparently had several children, the most significant of whom was Shevuel (1 Chronicles 23:16), also known as Shuvael (1 Chronicles 24:20); his descendants were made caretakers of the royal treasuries (1 Chronicles 26:24). As for Eliezer, he had only one son, Rechaviah (1 Chronicles 23:17), who in turn had a large number of descendants. 1 Chronicles 24:21 names Yishiah as the head of the Rechaviah family during David’s time (roughly 10th century BC), and 26:25-28 names several of Rechaviah’s descendants: Yeshayahu (presumably the same as the aforementioned Yishiah), Yoram, Zichri, and Shelomit. In context, this seems to imply a genealogical sequence, i.e., each man named is the son of the one preceding; some commentators, though, take them to be brothers. In any case, the last in the list, Shelomit, and his brothers were placed in charge of accumulated spoils of war to be disbursed to the populace and to the army.
Moses had descendants, but they weren’t anything special — just garden-variety Levites
Of course, biblical scholars never leave things so simple. The Talmud (a compilation of rabbinic commentary) contains an interesting (if, like many Talmudic and Midrashic tales, somewhat far-fetched) story about Shevuel, son of Gershom and grandson of Moses. Judges 17 and 18 tell of an idol set up in the territory of Dan by a man named Micah, and the Levite who served as its priest, named by Judges 18:30 as “Jonathan, son of Gershom, son of Manasseh.” This would seem clearly to be a different Gershom, but for a calligraphic oddity in the traditional text of the book of Judges. The Hebrew characters spelling the name Manasseh — equivalent to M-N-Sh-H (the vowels aren’t written out in scriptural Hebrew) — appear with the N raised somewhat above the others, as if it didn’t really belong there.
The Talmud explains this anomaly as follows: in order to disassociate the irreproachable Moses from the evil deeds of his idol-worshiping grandson Jonathan, the name Moses — in Hebrew M-Sh-H — was disguised by the addition of an N, turning it into Manasseh. The story relates that Jonathan was eventually rehabilitated and appointed royal treasurer by David himself, and given the name by which he’s known in Chronicles: Shevuel or Shuvael, or “one who returned to God.”
One wonders why so little is made of Moses’s descendants, considering that even in Chronicles, Moses is referred to as the “man of God.” A significant passage in this regard is Numbers 3:1-4, which begins “These are the generations of Aaron and Moses” but goes on to list only the children of Aaron. The Midrash interprets this passage to mean that Aaron’s sons can be considered the “generations” of Moses because they were taught by him, and understands it to convey the lesson that the relationship between master and pupil is as significant as that between parent and child. Moses wasn’t succeeded by his blood descendants — well-meaning men, presumably, but unremarkable scholars — but rather by his students. Fittingly, the honorific that Jews have applied to Moses down through the generations is not “our leader,” or “our redeemer,” or “our prophet,” but Moshe Rabbeinu – Moses, our teacher.
Exodus 2:21-22; 4:20, 18:4
I Chronicles 23:14-17; 24:20-21; 26:24-28
Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Bava Basra, p. 109a
Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Sanhedrin, p. 19b
Jerusalem Talmud, Tractate Berachos, Chapter 9, Law 2
Midrash Aggadah on Numbers 11:27