The Torah in Parashat Beha’alotekha tells of Moshe’s invitation to “Chovav, the son of Reuel, Moshe’s father-in-law” to join Benei Yisrael on their journey from Sinai to the Land of Israel (10:29). The conventional understanding is that “Chovav” is another name for Yitro, who, as we know from earlier in the Torah (Shemot 18:1), was Moshe’s father-in-law. The Ramban comments that converts to Judaism commonly assume a new name after joining the Jewish People, and so Yitro took a new name – Chovav – after leaving Midyan and joining Benei Yisrael. Rashi, based on the Sifrei, explains that the name “Chovav” refers to the fact that “chibeiv et ha-Torah” – Yitro “cherished” the Torah.
The question arises, according to this view, as to why Yitro was present in the Israelite camp at this time. Earlier, in Sefer Shemot (18), we read that Yitro came to visit Moshe and Benei Yisrael as they encamped at the “mountain of God” (Shemot 18:5), which refers, presumably, to Mount Sinai. After Yitro’s stay in the Israelite camp, we are told, he returned to his homeland (“va-yeilekh lo el artzo” – Shemot 18:27). And yet, according to the conventional reading of the text here in Parashat Beha’alotekha, Yitro was again present in the camp nearly one year later, just before Benei Yisrael’s departure from Mount Sinai. The Ramban (Shemot 18:1) answers that evidently, Yitro later returned to the Israelite camp, which was not very far from Yitro’s homeland, Midyan. Indeed, as the Ramban notes, Moshe ended up at Mount Sinai while he lived with Yitro and shepherded his flocks (Shemot 3:1), proving that Yitro’s home was in the vicinity of Mount Sinai. It is thus not unreasonable to speculate that although Yitro returned home after visiting Benei Yisrael at Sinai, he came again at a later point, while they were still encamped at the mountain.
Another difficulty that the commentators addressed in reference to this verse is the identity of Reuel. Here, Chovav is identified as the son of Reuel, yet in Parashat Shemot (2:18), Reuel is named as the father of Moshe’s wife, Tzipora. Rashi, citing the Sifrei, answers this question by suggesting that when the Torah refers to Reuel as the father of Tzipora (and her sisters), it actually means that he was her grandfather, and indeed, people sometimes refer to their grandfather as their father. This answer is also given by the Ramban (Shemot 2:16) and Ibn Ezra (Shemot 2:18), who give numerous examples of instances where grandchildren are referred to as children, and grandparents as parents.
An entirely different – and surprising – approach is taken by Ibn Ezra in his commentary here in Parashat Beha’alotekha, where he suggests that the exchange recorded here was not between Moshe and his father-in-law, but rather between Moshe and his brother-in-law. As indicated in Parashat Shemot, Tzipora’s father was named “Reuel,” and it therefore stands to reason, Ibn Ezra writes, that “Chovav, son of Reuel,” whom the Torah mentions here, is Tzipora’s brother. Ibn Ezra then proceeds to propose that this is also Yitro, who is described earlier as having visited Benei Yisrael. Although Yitro is referred to in Sefer Shemot (18:1) as “chotein Moshe” – “Moshe’s father-in-law” – Ibn Ezra boldly suggests that the word “chotein” can also mean “brother-in-law.” Ibn Ezra arrives at this theory based on the fact that Yitro is described as having joined Moshe “in the desert where he encamped” (“el ha-midbar asher hu choneh sham” – Shemot 18:5), and here Moshe says to Chovav, “…and you are familiar with our encampment in the desert” (“yadata chanoteinu ba-midbar” – 10:31), suggesting that Yitro and Chovav were the same person. Thus, if Chovav was Moshe’s brother-in-law, then Yitro must likewise have been his brother-in-law, and not Moshe’s father-in-law, as is commonly understood.
As noted, in his commentary to Sefer Shemot, Ibn Ezra follows the more conventional reading, that Reuel was Tzipora’s grandfather, and Yitro – who was also known as Chovav – was Moshe’s father-in-law.