The biblical record of Jethro the Midianite, Moses’ father-in-law, is limited to a few instances in Exodus and a passing reference in Numbers (cf. Exod 3:1; 4:18; 18:1-27; Num 10:29). Yet, while Jethro may be a peripheral figure in the Torah, his judicial advice to Moses reveals his extraordinary ingenuity and attentiveness to God. When we examine the Hebrew narrative of Jethro’s meeting with Moses, we see that the Midianite’s method for ameliorating Israelite legislation mirrors God’s own work of creation in Genesis. The man from Midian reasserts the value of divine creativity and applies it for the flourishing of Israel.
When Moses acts as a judge for his people, Scripture states that “the people stood around Moses from the morning until the evening (הבּקר עד-הערב; ha’boqer ad-ha’arev)” (Exod 18:13). This description of duration both recalls and reorders the days of creation, in which there was “evening and there was morning” (ערב ויהי בקר; erev vayahi voqer; cf. Gen 1:5, 8, 13, 19, 23, 31). Seeing his son-in-law’s judicial responsibilities, Jethro asks Moses, “What is this that you are doing for the people? Why do you sit alone, and all the people stand around you from morning until evening (הבּקר עד-הערב)?” (Exod 18:14). The inversion of the Genesis’ “evening and morning” progression in Exodus tells the reader that Moses’ approach to legislation suffers from an organizational problem: it is a topsy-turvy version of God’s perfect organization at creation.
Just as Jethro’s question to Moses underscores the need for creativity on the scale of Genesis 1, the advice he gives to Moses parallels God’s statement in Genesis 2. After Jethro asks Moses why he sits and judges “alone” (בּדד; badad; Exod 18:14), he tells his son-in-law, “What you are doing is not good (לא-טוב; lo-tov)” (18:17). The Midianite’s assessment echoes God saying, “It is not good (לא-טוב; lo-tov) for the human to be alone (בּד; bad); I will make an equal helper for him” (Gen 2:18). The priest of Midian undergirds God’s negative evaluation of solidarity and reaffirms the need for others’ support. When Jethro suggests that Moses appoint other judges to lighten his legislative load (see Exod 18:19-24), this foreign father-in-law acts in accordance with the divine will, and lives up to his second name, Reuel (רעואל): “friend of God” (Num 10:29). In this way, Scripture provides an instance of the Lord using those outside of Israel to enlighten, alleviate, and organize God’s people.