Exodus 4:20 KJV

20 And Moses took his wife and his sons, and set them upon an ass, and he returned to the land of Egypt: and Moses took the rod of God in his hand.

Is "sons" plural a mistranslation? If not, why is Moses' second son named Eliezer and mentioned only after Moses lead Israel out of Egypt?

Exodus 18:4 KJV

4 and the name of the other was Eliezer; for the God of my father, said he, was mine help, and delivered me from the sword of Pharaoh:

What made me question this in the first place was that I was wondering why Moses had not circumsized his son when the Lord met him and sought to slay him (Ex 4:24-26).

If he had two sons at the time as 4:20 indicates, was the firstborn already circumsized back in Midian? Why was the second son then neglected? It seems odd to neglect the second if he had already remembered to keep the strict ordinance upon his first.

Edit: I am %100 for the King James Bible and I know it is 99.9% correctly translated. Please do not let a silly rare insignificant translation give you doubt concerning your KJB. With that said this probably isn't even a mistranslation.


You are making a lot of assumptions that aren't supported from the text. Moses had both of his sons in the land of Midian. This is evident from the etymology of their names given in the bible, and from 4:20 (sons, plural). The fact that it is only mentioned after the Exodus does not suggest that the second one was born later, historical events never follow a strict chronological order in the bible. So to reiterate, this is no mistranslation, and neither is there reason to believe that this is a scribal error (LXX agrees with MT).

As for why Moses circumcised the first but not the second: There is no indication in the text that Moses was neglectful or anything. Some commentators (Rashi, Ibn Ezra) suggest that Moses didn't want to circumcise the baby while traveling (as it is a dangerous procedure, and traveling may worsen the baby's precarious condition). For proof of this idea (that it was not customary to circumcise while traveling), see Joshua 5:7. So you see, Moses could have had his reasons for not wanting to circumcise his baby now, it does not reveal anything about the circumcision of his first son Gershom and does not pose any problem to 4:20.

My original post only addressed the OP's problem from his perspective (namely that 18:4 and 4:24 are incompatible with 4:20). However, as Abu Munir has pointed out to me, 2:22 does pose a problem, since only Gershom is mentioned and not Eliezer. If Eliezer was born in Midian as well why isn't he mentioned together with Gershom? This may actually indicate that there were different biblical traditions regarding when Moses' sons were born. Chapter 2 may represent a biblical tradition which favors Gershom being born in Midian, while 4:18-26 may represent a different tradition in which both of Moses' sons were born in Midian (18:4 does not indicate either way as I have indicated in my post). This solution of course is only plausible if one believes in the Documentary Hypothesis. Others however believe that this is a scribal error (a scribe who meant to fix but in reality complicated it), and that the original text indeed had the singular "son". However, I do not see any reason or justification to amend the text.

In my original post I merely pointed out that 18:4 and 4:24 are fully compatible with 4:20, contrary to the reasoning of the OP; 2:22 however poses a significant problem.

  • 1
    ".. evident from ... 4:20 (sons, plural)" is the OP question, not the answer. The ibn Ezra on 20 recognizes the OP's problem and attempts to address it in the beginning of his comment on verse 20, לא ידענו אם נולד גרשום בימי בחורותיו ו או בזקנתו. The Rashi and the Ibn Ezra that you refer to do not address the OP question at all, they address verse 24. The whole second paragraph is not relevant to the OP question.The Ramban attempts to address the plural problem in this verse by surmising that Ziporra was pregnant during the journey. Not down-voting, but this is not a helpful answer IMHO. – Abu Munir Ibn Ibrahim Apr 17 '19 at 13:57
  • @AbuMunirIbnIbrahim wow you totally missed everything. Did you even read the last paragraph of OP? The sole purpose of second paragraph of my post is to address this point. Without it, my answer would be almost worthless. I'm not sure how you could have missed this! As for the Ibn Ezra, I will reiterate: there is no problem with this verse as I have indicated in my post so the Ibn ezra surely would not be addressing a problem that isn't there! – Bach Apr 17 '19 at 15:26
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    The OP question is about the plural. The last two OP paragraphs are not the question, they are the motivation for the question. You answered the motivation for the question, not the actual question "Is this a mistranslation in Exodus 4:20 of the KJV?" – Abu Munir Ibn Ibrahim Apr 17 '19 at 15:34
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    @AbuMunirIbnIbrahim right. I could have just answered in one line: No this is no mistranslation. But this would have been quite a lame response. Instead of doing that I offered a detailed answer and explained why his motivation for the question is mistaken and that the circumcision narrative does not pose any significant problems to the plural "sons". Why would you call that "not a helpful answer"??! I think such an answer is quite useful! – Bach Apr 17 '19 at 15:37
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    Look at this commentary piece I found on Exodus 4:20 by the "Cambridge Bible for Schools and Scholars": "his sons] The birth of only one son has been hitherto mentioned (Exodus 2:22); and Exodus 4:25 suggests strongly that only one son was with Moses at the time: Di. and others are therefore probably right in thinking that we should read his son, the plural being an alteration due to an editor or scribe who thought that account should be taken of Exodus 18:2-4." Link to that commentary page: biblehub.com/commentaries/exodus/4-20.htm – www.gffg.info Apr 17 '19 at 22:23

@www.gffg.info "I dont see a problem with 2:22. I do see a problem with the meaning of Eliezer's name, being that if he was born in Midian, the Lord had not yet delivered Moses from Pharoah. Or I just thought, which Pharoah is being referenced here. The Lord delivered Moses twice from two different? Pharoahs"

Yes, God delivered Moses from at least 2 different Pharoahs.

When Moses was born God saved him from being killed according to Pharoah's decree that all the Hebrew male babies be killed.

When Moses was grown up, and he killed an Egyptian slave driver for whipping a Hebrew slave, Pharoah sought to kill Moses, but Moses escaped to the land of Midian. This help from God is surely what the name Eliezer refers to in Exo 18:4. So Eliezer was born in Midian, pre-Exodus.

When Moses returned to Egypt as the instrument to free God's people, God tells Moses that all the people that sought your life are dead. So this was a different Pharoah. There is no indication that Moses was ever scared for his life this time with Pharoah. He was frustrated with God not delivering the Hebrews as fast as Moses expected.

Why doesn't Exo 2 mention the birth of Eliezer? We don't know for sure. God is merciful to not include every fact in the Bible, which would make it burdensome to read. I think the reason that Eliezer is not mentioned in Exo 2 is because he was not circumcised. God did not consider Eliezer part of God's people if he was not circumcised (Gen 17:14). Incidentally, Jews name their sons at their circumcisions.

If he had two sons at the time as 4:20 indicates, was the firstborn already circumsized back in Midian?

Yes, the 1st son, Gershom had already been circumcized in Midian because Zipporah circumcized only 1 son.

Why was the second son then neglected? It seems odd to neglect the second if he had already remembered to keep the strict ordinance upon his first.

Because Moses was not perfect. By the birth of his 2nd son, Moses had apparently given up on the idea that he would deliver the Hebrews from bondage. His wife Zipporah considered circumcision to be disgusting (Exo 4:25-26), and Moses maybe didn't have the energy to fight with her. At ~85 years old, he considered his useful life was about over. He probably didn't see a future for the Hebrews as a people and didn't think his son would become a part of them. But he did still have faith in God, and was thankful just to be alive in Midian.

  • I think you make a good point concerning the name of Moses' second son but I think you make a lot of assumptions in the rest of your post. Especially the last paragraph. And I dont think by Moses naming his son concerning the Pharoah that sought to slay him before his first departure from Egypt proves that Eliezer was born in Midian pre-exodus. He could have named him that after the exodus as well. Which would also make it more likely to be concerning the 2nd pharoah. – www.gffg.info Apr 19 '19 at 14:02
  • Exo 4:20 plainly says "sons", so Eliezar was there, born pre-Exodus. – Steve Miller Apr 19 '19 at 14:07
  • That's what this whole thread is about. Is 4:20 a possible mistranslation? – www.gffg.info Apr 19 '19 at 14:22
  • It has been answered multiple times that "sons" is the correct translation of the Hebrew text. There is no question about that. Also the Samaritan Pentateuch and LXX have "sons". – Steve Miller Apr 19 '19 at 14:37
  • The Pentateuch nor the Septuagint are original manuscripts but copies. There is no doubt, room for error. – www.gffg.info Apr 19 '19 at 19:06

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