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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.

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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.

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    ".. 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.
    – user17080
    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?"
    – user17080
    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
    – GFFG
    Apr 17 '19 at 22:23
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I've been researching this topic for a few weeks. I'd like to mention my observations.

The scene where Zipporah circumcises her son (Ex 4:24) comes immediately after God tells Moses to give Pharaoh a message: "let my firstborn son go, or I'll kill your firstborn". Gershom is mentioned by name for the first time in Ex 2:22, where Eliezer is not mentioned by name until Ex 18:4. I believe it's most likely Gershom that was the son being circumcised. That would fit with the context of the preceding passage referring to firstborn sons and whatnot, and maybe the significance of that is this: how can Moses be the divinely appointed spokesperson for God in demanding the release of God's firstborn if Moses has himself not put his whole household under the covenant of circumcision by not circumcising his own firstborn? Under that law, which had already stood for a few generations by that time, that son would have to be cut off, ie killed for not being circumcised. It would seem inappropriate on Moses' part, and maybe at least part of, if not the whole reason for God seeking to kill him (if indeed the word 'him' in that passage is referring to Moses and not the son, but 'him' being Moses is the most straightforward and sensible explanation, given the context).

The LXX mentions the son in question as a παιδίον 'paidion' ie. small child. It's just a translation, but it would seem to fit with the fact that Moses could fit his wife and sons on one donkey - the boys would have to be babies for this to be possible. Donkeys are tough animals, but putting three humans onto one of them is way too much to ask unless two of those humans are tiny. Reading into the law of circumcision, the boy had to be circumcised on the 8th day, so this might suggest Gershom's age, except that Zipporah could not possibly have been pregnant with a second child merely 8 days after giving birth to her first. So if she was pregnant, the firstborn had to have been at least a year old, more plausibly two to three years old, which is a reasonable age gap between pregnancies to allow the mother time to recover. There's a rather remote possibility that mention of 'sons' here, if it isn't a scribal error, could be referring to the firstborn and the unborn together.

Granted, I've never seen in the bible an unborn child being referred to together with born sons in this way. But if it can be demonstrated that the Hebrew language does allow for this, it can explain why "sons" are mentioned once in Ex 4, while only one son is named, and one son is circumcised, and all this without having to invoke a possible scribal error. Although, the most common scribal errors in the MT is the transposition of Waw ו and Yod י, and corrupt spelling (ie. inconsistent use or non-use of Waw ו or Yod י as long-vowel markers), so it's not too absurd to think a Yod was placed where it should not have been. Stranger things have happened. Technically, if one son was unborn, it's correct grammatically and in reality to say that he put his wife and 'sons' on a donkey, if you want to include the unborn son as one of them. And 'sons' is masc. pl., which is inclusive of females in groups. So it would still be correct to say 'sons' even if the unborn child turned out to be a girl because if Zipporah was pregnant they wouldn't have known if the child was a boy or girl until it was born. That's also a good reason not to name the child until that point.

Less absurd than this or suggesting scribal error is to suggest that Zipporah might have already given birth to Eliezer when she circumcised Gershom, and maybe Eliezer was less than 8 days old, so he wasn't ready for circumcision at that time. This would explain why in context it would be clear which son was being circumcised, and why he wouldn't be mentioned by name. Under this theory, maybe Moses naming Eliezer was referring to the fact that his deliverance from the sword of Pharaoh had finally been fully realized, in that everyone who wanted to kill Moses was now dead, as God had told him. It also makes the two sons young enough to have entered the promised land under Joshua 40 years later, as a side note.

This was just for me to process my thoughts and ideas on this topic, and open it up to constructive criticism. Let me know what you all think.

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  • Welcome to the site, Andrew, and thank you for sharing your research with us. Answers are not actually up for constructive criticism, though someone might use the comment box to make a point that could improve your answer. The 'Tour' (below, left) shows how this site is different to other sites - it's not for debate or on-going exchanges, for example. But your answer is appreciated and I hope you answer other questions.
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    Oct 15 at 17:05
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Exodus 4:20 KJV

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.

and sons,
בָּנָ֗יו (bā·nāw)
Noun - masculine plural construct | third person masculine singular

Is "sons" plural a mistranslation?

No. The Hebrew word is plural.

If not, why is Moses' second son named Eliezer and mentioned only after Moses lead Israel out of Egypt?

The infant son might not have been given a name at this point. John the baptizer was given his name at the circumcision ceremony, Luke 1:

57When it was time for Elizabeth to have her baby, she gave birth to a son. 58Her neighbors and relatives heard that the Lord had shown her great mercy, and they shared her joy.

59 On the eighth day they came to circumcise the child, and they were going to name him after his father Zechariah, 60but his mother spoke up and said, “No! He is to be called John.”

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Yes, by the time of Moses' re-entrance to Egypt he had fathered two sons. The Hebrew speaks of them in plural in several instances, including before he went before Pharaoh.

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. (Exodus 4:20, KJV)

And Jethro, Moses' father in law, came with his sons and his wife unto Moses into the wilderness, where he encamped at the mount of God: (Exodus 18:5, KJV)

In the New Testament, we have a clear statement that both of Moses' sons had been fathered while he was in Midian.

Then fled Moses at this saying, and was a stranger in the land of Madian, where he begat two sons. (Acts 7:29, KJV)

The oldest had been circumcised as was the practice among the descendants of Abraham. Perhaps witnessing this had been traumatic for his wife, Zipporah, because she had persuaded Moses not to circumcise the next one. When Zipporah saw the sword-wielding angel, both Moses and Zipporah knew what it must be about, because Moses had neglected to circumcise the younger son. Moses, being the head of the house, was ultimately responsible, and the one about to be punished for this neglect--and Zipporah, fearing her husband was about to be killed, and perhaps convicted of her responsibility in the matter, took it upon herself to right the wrong.

How do we know Zipporah's feelings about circumcision?

So he let him go: then she said, A bloody husband thou art, because of the circumcision. (Genesis 4:26, KJV)

She was blaming Moses for this--not herself, not the angel, and certainly not her son, from whom the blood had flowed. And, if Moses had not heretofore done the circumcision, he was certainly not the one to have made it "bloody." But the words of Zipporah open a window into her disagreement on the issue. As we know, the Midianites were also descendants of Abraham (see Genesis 25:1-2), but they were from his wife Keturah, a separate family line, and perhaps the practice of circumcision had been less carefully preserved among them.

Until every duty had been properly performed, God could not be their protector in Egypt. Remember what happened when Achan had stolen goods from Jericho? Thirty six men of Israel died during their next battle without God's protection. Moses and his family must have God's protection as he journeyed to Egypt to face off with the enemy of God's people, and the angel had been sent to warn Moses and ensure that he was fully obedient to God's covenant law.

Conclusion

The KJV is translating correctly in Exodus 4:20 when it speaks of "sons" in the plural. The actual Hebrew word, בָּנָ֗יו, is plural for "sons" and singular for "his"--the possessive pronoun attached as a pronominal suffix. But the Bible tells us that Moses' sons were both born to him in Midian, so there is no ambiguity on this point.

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@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.

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  • 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.
    – GFFG
    Apr 19 '19 at 14:02
  • Exo 4:20 plainly says "sons", so Eliezar was there, born pre-Exodus. Apr 19 '19 at 14:07
  • That's what this whole thread is about. Is 4:20 a possible mistranslation?
    – GFFG
    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". Apr 19 '19 at 14:37
  • The Pentateuch nor the Septuagint are original manuscripts but copies. There is no doubt, room for error.
    – GFFG
    Apr 19 '19 at 19:06

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