After God reassures Moses that he will be successful in his mission to Egypt demanding the release of the enslaved Israelites, Moses returns to his father-in-law Jethro for whom he worked as a shepherd. Moses asks permission to be released from his duties: “Let me return (elkha na) to my kinsfolk in Egypt” (Exodus 4:18) which Jethro gives graciously. Immediately afterwards, the narrative states that God appeared to Moses in Midian and commanded him to return to Egypt (Exodus 4:19). The order is strangely problematic. If Moses had already decided to return to Egypt and received permission to do so, what is the need for God’s command? And if Moses was to return to Egypt at God’s command, what is the point of asking permission? Or, to put the problem somewhat differently, verse 19 should precede verse 18: first, Moses receives God’s command, and afterwards and as a courtesy, he asks for his father-in-laws’ permission.
An alternate way of reading the text, however, addresses the problem and concomitantly provides a lesson in how human beings rely on others. Elkha na need not be read as a request for permission but as an expression of intent: “I am thinking of returning to Egypt,” says Moses, whereupon Jethro says “Should you decide to return, you have my permission.” Moses was still unsure. His mind was not made up. Even though God had taken pains to reassure Moses that his mission would succeed, Moses – true to his character – remained reluctant. So God, again, acts to forestall Moses’ equivocation and commands him to go.
Many people, like Moses, go through life with indecision. Wavering between various options, like Buridan’s Ass, people end up making no choice at all and thus condemn themselves to disaster. Sometimes the only solution must be an external one. It takes an outside power to impose a solution. In Moses’ case, that power was God. In other cases it might be a parent, a superior, or an official. But whoever it might be, the results are the same. Moses embarks on his journey not because he wanted to go but because he was commanded to go.