Don Isaac Abravanel (1437-1508) was a preeminent Jewish thinker, scholar, and prolific Biblical
commentator. In Exodus Chapter 4, God bids Moses to return to Egypt. There, he was to address his
fellow countrymen, who had been enslaved by Pharaoh. God assured His prophet success, courtesy of
divine miracle after miracle. Though initially reticent about being up to the task ahead, the Maker chided
the prophet. Ultimately, Moses acquiesced.
A technical issue arose: Would Moses’ employer, Jethro, grant a leave of absence? Abravanel puts Moses’ request and Jethro’s response into focus.
“And Moses went and returned to Jethro his father-in-law, and said unto him: Let me go, I pray you, and return unto my brethren that are in Egypt, and see whether or not they are still alive.”
Abravanel finds Moses’ request to Jethro ambiguous, if not self-contradictory. “Let me go, I pray you,
and return unto my brethren” implies a long sojourn in Egypt. Moses desired to relocate and dwell
among his fellow Jews. However, “And see whether or not they are still alive” suggests a quick visit.
Abravanel takes Bible students behind the scenes, per se. After Moses accepted his role in God’s plan,
he left Mount Sinai and returned to Midian, where he would visit his father-in-law, Jethro, and seek
permission to go. Without a doubt, Abravanel teaches, Moses had not breathed a word about the
prophecy he had experienced at Sinai. Instead, he asked: “Let me go, I pray you, and return unto my
brethren that are in Egypt.” Moses insinuated a temporary leave of absence.
Bolstering the impression of a visit of short duration, Moses continued: “And see whether or not they
are still alive.” The prophet sorely missed his family and brethren, Moses told Jethro. As for tending
Jethro’s flocks, the prophet professed interest in keeping his job.
Jethro, however, was very astute, a brilliant thinker. He was also kind. Notwithstanding Jethro’s
benevolence, he had put two and two together, suspecting that Moses’s trip was about more than a
family reunion; it was about saving Jews. Jethro further figured that the Jews would not believe Moses,
nor would they heed his speeches.
“And Jethro said to Moses: Go in peace.” For Abravanel, these were not words of permission to leave.
They were, instead, a forewarning.
Egypt, for Moses, was a perilous place. Jethro recalled that the first time Moses went to see his
brethren, it ended with him killing an Egyptian. The second time Moses interfered with the Hebrews,
they snitched on him to local police, who promptly put a bounty on Moses’ head.
“And Jethro said to Moses: Go in peace” is now clearer. For Moses, Egypt was fraught with mortal
danger. His fellow Jews seemed to have a penchant for twisting Moses’ good intentions. Jethro worried
that the treacherous precedent would raise its ugly head, putting Moses’ life at risk. Who knows, the
sage from Midian imagined, perhaps the old charges against Moses would resurface.
“Go in peace”, Jethro cautioned his so-in-law. Though he advised Moses to stay under the radar while in
Egypt and keep a low profile, the perceptive father-in-law understood that would not be the case.
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