I have been taking a video course in biblical Hebrew. I have never before gotten into Hebrew much beyond learning the alphabet and how to use study aides to determine what individual words mean. The course has given me a better understanding of how Hebrew hangs together. For instance, it is much easier for me now to see why the word elohim in the first verse of Genesis means God and not gods. Although the “im” ending is plural, the form of other words in the verse require a singular meaning.
Still I am mostly working on the meaning of individual words. We are accustomed to certain translations that have been carried on in English from the KJV through all the various revisions: the American Standard, the Revised Standard, the New American Standard, the English Revised, and the New Revised Standard. Even translations that are not supposed to be revisions tracing back the the KJV often adopt traditional translations.
This traditionalism sometimes misleads.
One example of this is in Exodus 2:15.
The KJV has this:
“Now when Pharaoh heard this thing, he sought to slay Moses. But Moses fled from the face of Pharaoh, and dwelt in the land of Midian: and he sat down by a well.”
And the NRSV is:
“When Pharaoh heard of it, he sought to kill Moses. But Moses fled from Pharaoh. He settled in the land of Midian, and sat down by a well.”
The NRSV drops the Hebrew idiom “fled from the face of”, but otherwise is pretty much the same.
Based on this translation I have in my mind this picture of how Moses fled through a sun-parched desert very thirsty. When he finally found an isolated well, he sat down by it to draw water and quench his thirst. When it says “sat down”, I think of it as a one-time action that took place on a particular day in response to a particular situation. I imagine Moses falling asleep and waking up when Jetho’s daughters and the shepherd ruffians arrive (vs. 16) This is the impression conveyed by the traditional series of English revised translations.
However, look at the NET-the New English Translation:
“When Pharaoh heard about this event, he sought to kill Moses. So Moses fled from Pharaoh and settled in the land of Midian, and he settled by a certain well.”
The Modern English Version has:
“Now when Pharaoh heard this thing, he sought to slay Moses. But Moses fled from the presence of Pharaoh and settled in the land of Midian, and he dwelled by a well.”
“He settled by a certain well.” That gives a different picture and alters my imagined biography of Moses. After killing an Egyptian and perhaps attempting a slave revolt, Moses goes to Northwest Arabia—Midian–and lives there at a well or oasis until the incident where he stands up for the daughters of Jethro.
Although the Hebrew word transliterated as weyyeseb once in a while just means to sit down like a judge sitting in a case, it usually means to settle, dwell, or stay. Thus Cain settled in the land of Nod (Genesis 4:16). Abram dwelt by the Oaks of Mamre (Genesis 13:18). The Israelites stayed at Kadesh (Numbers 20:1).
Particularly interesting is Genesis 19:30 where Lot leaves Zoar because he is afraid to live there anymore and settles in the mountains. Like Moses, he flees one place and settles in another.
We do not know how long the Exodus passage envisions Moses staying by the well and how long he stayed with Jethro. The timeline is that Moses spent decades in Midian. But how long did he live there before he connected with Jethro and married Zipporah?
I have been puzzled by the fact that when Moses goes back to Egypt he seems to have an infant son (Exodus 4:24-26). This is odd if he married very early in his time in Midian. So perhaps we should think of Moses’ marriage and becoming a father as something that happened late in his Midianite sojourn.