Exodus 18: Jethro’s Advice

1 Jethro, the priest of Midian, Moses’ father-in-law, heard of all that God had done for Moses and for Israel his people, how the Lord had brought Israel out of Egypt. 2 Now Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, had taken Zipporah, Moses’ wife, after he had sent her home, 3 along with her two sons. The name of the one was Gershom (for he said, “I have been a sojourner in a foreign land”), 4 and the name of the other, Eliezer (for he said, “The God of my father was my help, and delivered me from the sword of Pharaoh”). 5 Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, came with his sons and his wife to Moses in the wilderness where he was encamped at the mountain of God. 6 And when he sent word to Moses, “I, your father-in-law Jethro, am coming to you with your wife and her two sons with her,” 7 Moses went out to meet his father-in-law and bowed down and kissed him. And they asked each other of their welfare and went into the tent.

-Five times we read the word “father-in-law” which seems to be hammering in the idea that Jethro was the father-in-law despite reading about the name “Reuel” earlier as being “their father” in reference to the daughters. As discussed in Exodus 2, there is no specific word for “father-in-law” in ancient Hebrew but rather the Hebrew word “chathan” is used which just means “in-law”. Hobab is described in Numbers 10:29 as the son of Reuel, Mose’s “chathan”. So it would seem that either Reuel and Jethro are one person with two different names, one “Reuel” meaning “friend of God” and another “Jethro” meaning “his abundance”, or they are two different people and Jethro is actually the brother-in-law since Reuel is twice identified as a father of the daughters included Moses’ wife Zipporah and of Hobab. I personally believe the Torah has one author, Moses, and he knows who his father-in-law and brother-in-laws are. It’s not something he’d likely mess up or confuse and certainly not without explanation. So I think the simple solution to this mystery is that Jethro is a son of Reuel and the one who received his father’s inheritance. Reuel could have been very elderly or deceased at this point if Moses was 80 years old and married to his daughter. Jethro would likely be closer to the same age if he was the oldest son. Remember, people are only living until about 120 now and so the father-in-law would have to be close to this age now and probably not spry enough to catch up with the Israelites and offer advice. It makes sense too Jethro would identify himself so many times as an “in-law” if he was only a brother-in-law to prove he is an ally.

8 Then Moses told his father-in-law all that the Lord had done to Pharaoh and to the Egyptians for Israel’s sake, all the hardship that had come upon them in the way, and how the Lord had delivered them. 9 And Jethro rejoiced for all the good that the Lord had done to Israel, in that he had delivered them out of the hand of the Egyptians. 10 Jethro said, “Blessed be the Lord, who has delivered you out of the hand of the Egyptians and out of the hand of Pharaoh and has delivered the people from under the hand of the Egyptians. 11 Now I know that the Lord is greater than all gods, because in this affair they dealt arrogantly with the people.” 12 And Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, brought a burnt offering and sacrifices to God; and Aaron came with all the elders of Israel to eat bread with Moses’ father-in-law before God.

-Whoever Jethro is, he is not a Hebrew and is a Midianite so this is quite special that he would come and sacrifice to the Hebrew God and believe their stories. He even says “Now I know that the Lord is greater than all gods” which seems to be a statement of conversion. We don’t know if Jethro’s household joins the Israelites and becomes circumcised but we know Hobab is with Moses later in the Book of Numbers. The second part of verse 11, “because in this affair they dealt arrogantly with the people” seems to be referring to the Egyptian leaders, whether if be the gods or Pharaoh it seems to work both ways.

13 The next day Moses sat to judge the people, and the people stood around Moses from morning till evening. 14 When Moses’ father-in-law saw all that he was doing for the people, he said, “What is this that you are doing for the people? Why do you sit alone, and all the people stand around you from morning till evening?” 15 And Moses said to his father-in-law, “Because the people come to me to inquire of God; 16 when they have a dispute, they come to me and I decide between one person and another, and I make them know the statutes of God and his laws.” 17 Moses’ father-in-law said to him, “What you are doing is not good. 18 You and the people with you will certainly wear yourselves out, for the thing is too heavy for you. You are not able to do it alone. 19 Now obey my voice; I will give you advice, and God be with you! You shall represent the people before God and bring their cases to God, 20 and you shall warn them about the statutes and the laws, and make them know the way in which they must walk and what they must do. 21 Moreover, look for able men from all the people, men who fear God, who are trustworthy and hate a bribe, and place such men over the people as chiefs of thousands, of hundreds, of fifties, and of tens. 22 And let them judge the people at all times. Every great matter they shall bring to you, but any small matter they shall decide themselves. So it will be easier for you, and they will bear the burden with you. 23 If you do this, God will direct you, you will be able to endure, and all this people also will go to their place in peace.”

-There are some who have interpreted this as a bad thing but I cannot see this other than a good thing. Jethro is suggesting an order and hierarchy of government and justice for this nation of Israel. Can you imagine one man listening to hundreds of thousands of petitions and complaints every day? It must have been maddening. Nothing Jethro, a Midianite, suggests is sinful in anyway and is in fact wise. It’s even implied last chapter that God directed Moses to do some of this already in creating water before the elders. Pastors and other leaders need other people to share the burden and as long as there is some kind of system of checks and balances, this can work far greater than one ruler deciding everything. Order is not worldly wisdom but rather is quite Godly as everything in creation is greater with order and balance. God is an ordered and balanced God and this can only please Him and as far as we know, this plan works out great. Moses would still be the chief judge and leader but all easier disputes would be settled on lower levels. In the United States, our own justice system works somewhat the same with different levels of county courts, appellate courts, state supreme courts, and the highest US supreme court.

24 So Moses listened to the voice of his father-in-law and did all that he had said. 25 Moses chose able men out of all Israel and made them heads over the people, chiefs of thousands, of hundreds, of fifties, and of tens. 26 And they judged the people at all times. Any hard case they brought to Moses, but any small matter they decided themselves. 27 Then Moses let his father-in-law depart, and he went away to his own country.

-And just like that, Jethro is gone from the story forever. We hear of Hobab later, Moses’ brother-in-law which only lends to the theory that Jethro and Hobab are different sons who have their own households and can go where they want. Jethro decided to go back where he is a priest but Hobab seems to choose to stay and become an Israelite. If Jethro was the father, it seems likely Hobab would have gone with him.

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