A Staff Report from the Straight Dope Science Advisory Board

What became of Moses's sons?

August 21, 2007

Dear Straight Dope:

I was wondering: what happened to Moses's son after he traveled from Midian to Egypt with his family? The Bible never tells what happened to him in his later years. Please shed some light on this.

Your question comes at the perfect time, as I have a book to promote. In it, film historians examining footage edited out of The Ten Commandments discover puzzles, anagrams, and riddles of Hebrew numerology revealing that a cabal of Jewish moguls in the early days of Hollywood was protecting the secret of the Mosaic bloodline. It turns out his descendants quietly toil among us to this day as American government bureaucrats, making certain that the Ark of the Covenant remains safe in a military warehouse to await the coming of the Messiah (though there was a messy little slip-up involving some archaeologists in the mid-30s). My book will be called . . . The DeMille Code.

Alas, the truth (biblically speaking, that is) isn't so sinister or exciting. A brief introduction: Moses's children are explicitly mentioned only very briefly in the Pentateuch. Moses's marriage to Jethro's daughter, Zipporah, and the birth of their first son, Gershom, are recorded in Exodus 2:21-22. After being instructed by God to return to Egypt and free the Israelites, in Exodus 4:20 Moses loads his wife and sons (plural) onto a donkey and hits the road. The second (and only other) son, Eliezer, isn't named until Exodus 18:4. And that's the last we hear of the kids, at least directly, in the Bible, although a Midrashic interpretation -- a rabbinical reading preserved in Jewish oral tradition -- says that Gershom is the lad in Numbers 11:27 who warns Moses that people have been seized with the divine spirit.

Moses's descendants are referred to in the first book of Chronicles, one of the more obscure books of the Bible. Chronicles was written in the earliest days of the Second Temple Era (circa 500 to 350 BC), organizing and preserving records of genealogy and history of the royal house of the kingdom of Judah, the descendants of King David. Seven chapters of this book go into great detail about the arrangements David made for the first temple (built by his son Solomon) and specifically about the grouping of the tribe of Levi (of which Moses and Aaron were members) into families for assignment to various roles in the temple. (This subject was of great contemporary importance at the time Chronicles was written, when a new temple was being organized.) Chapter 23, verse 14 very clearly makes the point that in contrast to Aaron's sons, who became the cohanim, or priests, Moses's sons were merely included among the rest of the Levites, who received miscellaneous nonpriestly temple posts, e.g. as choristers, musicians, gatekeepers, or, as we'll see, treasurers.

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.

Jewish accountants -- go figure.

That's it as far as the Bible takes it. Recap: 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.

References:

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

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