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.

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14 COMMENTS

  1. You can’t cease to amaze me. Everyday I read these short scriptural versions it feels like I’m unwrapping a gift. You make the Bible to be more interesting. Thank you for the insight. Very interesting

  2. I was took a business management class where the professor quoted the story of Jethro counseling Moses about delegation of authority.

    • Jethro is likely from the Hebrew יתר (yeter), which can mean either “remainder/left over” or “abundance/richness.” Thus, the name would mean either “His Remainder” or “His Abundance”; based on Jethro’s role in the biblical narrative, the latter seems more appropriate.

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  3. I am interested in registering with Israel Bible Center but I do not know how. I am a South African and I want to check if courses are also in English. How long do they take. Are they full time or part-time

  4. The significance of names. Possibly Jethro was the one of the Lord’s “remnant” just as the cream of milk is abundantly rich in fat-soluble vitamins and nutrients and is what remains as a remnant of milk once the cream has separated from the milk through having risen to its top.

  5. A meaning for the common idiom “cream rising to the top” is “A good person or idea cannot go unnoticed for long, just as cream eventually rises to the top.” Jethro seemed to embody the essence of being a good person with good ideas, for which he was recognized/memorialized.

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