17.2. Jethro Comes to Moses (18:1-12)

 (1) Jethro priest of Midian, Moses’ father-in-law, heard all that God had done for Moses and for Israel His people, how the Lord had brought Israel out from Egypt.

(2) So Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, took Zipporah, Moses’ wife, after she had been sent home,

(3) and her two sons — of whom one was named Gershom, that is to say, “I have been a stranger in a foreign land”;

(4) and the other was named Eliezer, meaning, “The God of my father was my help, and He delivered me from the sword of Pharaoh.”

(5) Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, brought Moses’ sons and wife to him in the wilderness, where he was encamped at the mountain of God.

(6) He sent word to Moses, “I, your father-in-law Jethro, am coming to you, with your wife and her two sons.”

(7) Moses went out to meet his father-in-law; he bowed low and kissed him; each asked after the other’s welfare, and they went into the tent.

(8) Moses then recounted to his father-in-law everything that the Lord had done to Pharaoh and to the Egyptians for Israel’s sake, all the hardships that had befallen them on the way, and how the Lord had delivered them.

(9) And Jethro rejoiced over all the kindness that the Lord had shown Israel when He delivered them from the Egyptians.

(10) “Blessed be the Lord,” Jethro said, “who delivered you from the Egyptians and from Pharaoh, and who delivered the people from under the hand of the Egyptians.

(11) Now I know that the Lord is greater than all gods, yes, by the result of their very schemes against [the people].”

(12) And Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, brought a burnt offering and sacrifices for God; and Aaron came with all the elders of Israel to partake of the meal before God with Moses’ father-in-law.

(1-6) Jethro priest of Midian, Moses’ father-in-law … Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, took Zipporah … Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, brought Moses’ sons … He sent word to Moses, “I, your father-in-law Jethro …”: The phrase “Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law” is repeated four times in this passage. This is not necessary merely to convey information – for that, just once would suffice – but to emphasize the importance of Moses’ and Jethro’s relationship.

We’ve already mentioned earlier[1] that Jethro considers himself Moses’ teacher. We cited the Midrash which told of Adam’s staff that stood in Jethro’s courtyard, after having been owned and used in the interim by Noah, Abraham, and Jacob – i.e., it is the tradition of humanity’s spiritual leadership, which passed through Jethro to Moses. Thus, the tradition harking back to the Patriarchs reached Moses through Jethro specifically, and the verse “Now Moses, tending the flock of his father-in-law Jethro…” (3:1) is understood to mean that Moses was the eldest of Jethro’s disciples, and Jethro therefore appointed Moses as a mentor to the others.

Jethro, then, is a thoroughly worthy and wise, spiritually advanced individual who sees Moses as his disciple. Now that his student has achieved outstanding success, as the leader of the Jewish people who has brought them out of Egypt, Jethro makes his way to Moses. He wishes better to understand the outcome of his student’s activities, and, possibly, to share with Moses some important suggestions and advice of his own.

There is also a Midrashic tradition that Jethro, Balaam and Job had all attained such an advanced level of spiritual development that the Torah could potentially have been given through them. The differences of approach between Moses and Jethro, to be discussed later, are thus essential for understanding why the Torah was nevertheless given only through Moses, and not through Jethro.

(2) So Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, took Zipporah, Moses’ wife, after she had been sent home: The Torah stated earlier that when God ordered Moses to leave Midian for Egypt, Moses took his wife and his sons with him (4:19). But nothing further is said about them until this verse. The Midrash believes that when Aaron went out to greet Moses in the wilderness, and met him at the mountain of God (4:27), he persuaded Moses at that time to not take his wife and children with him to Egypt. And Moses sent them back to Jethro before the Exodus from Egypt.

(3-4) And her two sons — of whom one was named Gershom, that is to say, “I have been a stranger in a foreign land”; and the other was named Eliezer, meaning, “The God of my father was my help, and He delivered me from the sword of Pharaoh”: Earlier, when Gershom was born (2:2), the Torah recorded his name, but only here does the Torah report the name of Moses’ second son. However, the Torah will make no further mention of either of Moses’ sons, who play no role whatsoever in future events – unlike Aaron’s sons, who will be mentioned very prominently again and again in their role as priests.

There are two possible explanations for this: (1) Moses’ sons were far from the people at critical moments in Jewish history: the Egyptian plagues, the death of the firstborns, the Exodus, the crossing of the Sea of Reeds, and the crises of the water shortage and the manna. They therefore could not forge an inextricable internal link between themselves and the Jewish nation, and could not play an important role in it. (2) After descending from Mount Sinai, Moses separated from his wife (as we shall explain in greater detail in our commentary on Num. 12:1 and Deut. 5:27). Because Moses did not properly participate in raising his children, they did not grow up to be leaders.

(5) Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, brought Moses’ sons and wife to him in the wilderness, where he was encamped at the mountain of God: Moses and the people are already stationed near Mount Sinai, in preparation for receiving the Torah.

(6) He sent word to Moses, “I, your father-in-law Jethro, am coming to you, with your wife and her two sons”: Jethro comes not only as a father-in-law, in recognition of the past, but also as a guarantee of the future: “I, Jethro, am coming to you with your sons.” Jethro will continue to play a significant role in Moses’ life.

(7) Moses went out to meet his father-in-law; he bowed low and kissed him; each asked after the other’s welfare, and they went into the tent: By going out to meet Jethro, Moses shows the entire nation that he acknowledges Jethro as one of his teachers.

(8) Moses then recounted to his father-in-law everything that the Lord had done to Pharaoh and to the Egyptians for Israel’s sake, all the hardships that had befallen them on the way, and how the Lord had delivered them: Above (v. 1) we read: “Jethro … heard all that God had done for Moses and for Israel His people, how the Lord had brought Israel out from Egypt.” Before coming to Moses, Jethro had heard the “positive” side of the Exodus story. Now, Moses tells Jethro also about the problems, the “negative” aspects: the punishments visited on Pharaoh and the Egyptians, and Moses’ difficulties with Israel.

(9-10) And Jethro rejoiced over all the kindness that the Lord had shown Israel when He delivered them from the Egyptians. “Blessed be the Lord,” Jethro said, “who delivered you from the Egyptians and from Pharaoh, and who delivered the people from under the hand of the Egyptians: Jethro continues to assimilate only the positive elements of the situation. This itself demonstrates Jethro’s lofty spiritual attainments. He focuses on life’s positive aspects, not on its problems.

(11) Now I know that the Lord is greater than all gods, yes, by the result of their very schemes against [the people]”: Jethro understands even the punishment of the Egyptians in an exclusively positive sense.

(12) And Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, brought a burnt offering and sacrifices for God: Bringing sacrifices is an expression of gratitude.

And Aaron came with all the elders of Israel to partake of the meal before God with Moses’ father-in-law: The Torah would have no reason to mention the simple partaking of a meal, unless it wanted to attach to it some special importance, or to make a particular point.

The emphasis here is on the Almighty as the “God of life.” Even the simple but life-affirming act of “eating a meal” is integral to the process of strengthening one’s connection with God, Who only wants us to live (and not to die). This concept, expressed repeatedly throughout the Tanakh, stands in stark contrast to the idea of the “inevitability of death when meeting with the Divine” that is so prevalent in the larger world.

We have examined this issue in detail in our commentary on the story of the Sacrifice of Isaac (Gen. ch. 22)[2].

[1] See §4.4.

[2] See Bible Dynamics on Genesis, §23.9.

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Bible Dynamics, VOL. 2. EXODUS Copyright © by Orot Yerushalaim / P. Polonsky / English translation of the Torah by the Jewish Publication Society, New JPS Translation, 1985. With sincere gratitude for the permission to use. All Rights Reserved.

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