Yesterday, we noted the confusion surrounding the brief account in Parashat Beha’alotekha (10:29-32) of Moshe’s exchange with “Chovav, son of Reuel, Moshe’s father-in-law,” just before Benei Yisrael’s departure from Mount Sinai, asking Chovav to join them. The conventional understanding, as we saw, is that “Chovav” is another name for Yitro, Moshe’s father-in-law, with whom we are familiar from earlier sections in the Torah. This reading, however, gives rise to the question of why Yitro here is referred to as the son of Reuel, given that in Sefer Shemot (2:18), Moshe’s wife’s father is called Reuel. Moreover, the Torah tells later in Sefer Shemot (18:27) that Yitro returned to his homeland after his brief visit with Benei Yisrael at Sinai. It thus seems difficult to understand why he was again with Benei Yisrael at the time they disembarked from Sinai to begin their journey towards the Land of Israel.
In light of these difficulties, a different approach has been suggested, asserting that Chovav and Yitro were not, in fact, the same person. Rather, Chovav was Yitro’s son, or Moshe’s brother-in-law. (Yesterday, we noted Ibn Ezra’s suggestion that Chovav was Moshe’s brother-in-law, and that he was also Yitro; here, we suggest that Yitro was Moshe’s father-in-law, and Chovav was his son.) This theory avoids both questions raised above: Chovav was indeed the son of Reuel, another name for Yitro, as indicated in Sefer Shemot; and although Yitro returned to his homeland after his visit to the Israelite camp, his son, Chovav, remained. Now, when Benei Yisrael prepared to journey from Sinai, Moshe turned to his brother-in-law and invited him to join them as they made their way to Eretz Yisrael.
According to this reading, when the Torah introduces Chovav as “son of Reuel, Moshe’s father-in-law,” the phrase “Moshe’s father-in-law” modifies Reuel, not Chovav. Reuel is another name for Yitro, who was Moshe’s father-in-law, and Chovav was Reuel’s son.
The difficulty with this interpretation, however, arises from a verse in Sefer Shoftim (4:11) which tells of Chever, a member of the Keini tribe, which descended from Yitro. The verse relates, “Chever, the Keinite, separated from Kayin, among the children of Chovav, Moshe’s father-in-law.” This tribe is described as having descended from “Chovav, Moshe’s father-in-law” – clearly indicating that, as most commentators explain, Chovav was Yitro, Moshe’s father-in-law, not his brother-in-law. In order to maintain the theory postulated above, we would have to read the phrase “Moshe’s father-in-law” in this verse as referring not to Chovav, but rather to Keini, who is mentioned earlier in this verse (“Chever the Keinite”). As we know from earlier in Sefer Shoftim (1:16), Keini was another name for Yitro, and so it could perhaps be suggested that it is Keini – and not Chovav – who is described here as Moshe’s father-in-law.
(Based on Rav Hillel Martzbuch’s article, “Mi Ata Chovev Ha-chaviv?”)