he only other thing we are told about Jethro, aside from his daughters and flocks, is that he was a priest of Midian. We discover this in Exodus 2:16 and 18:1.
The people of Midian came from a man named Midian, who was a son of Abraham by his second wife Ketuvah. Presumably Midian had received from Abraham something of the knowledge of the true God. It doesn’t mean that they were all faithful or that all understood this; but we remember that knowledge of the true God was dispersed a bit more widely in this area of the world than we might be inclined to think. Although the Old Testament traces the line of Abraham through the Jews to the coming of Jesus Christ, we have a story like Job, who doesn’t seem to be part of that picture, and yet Job understood a great deal about the true God and worshiped Him. Jethro was not necessarily a priest of the true God, but he may very well have understood something of God. In his prayer here in Exodus 18, Jethro does acknowledge God by the name Jehovah. Thus, by this time in Jethro’s life he is worshiping the true God.
The next scene is very touching. In the formal way of a tribal chieftain, Jethro sends a messenger ahead and announces to Moses that Jethro, his father-in-law, is coming. Moses rises to the occasion in all of the courtesy of the desert. He goes out to meet Jethro, and, coming to him, Moses bows down and kisses him in a very courteous and proper fashion.
These two old men have a great deal to share. Moses begins to rehearse to him all of the things that God had done on behalf of the people. Moses told of traveling to Egypt, meeting with the elders, and encountering Pharaoh, who rejected God’s demands. Moses told of the plagues and their significance. And then there was the night of the Passover, as the angel of death came through the land and killed all the firstborn of Egypt. After that, Moses recounted how Israel left in a hurry, and God saw them across the Red Sea and protected them in the desert, including delivering them from the Amalekites in that first great battle. In response, Jethro begins to praise God (vv. 10-11).
Now, before we get to the heart of this chapter, which has to do with judging and the advice Jethro gives, there is a question at this point that needs to be addressed. It has to do with where this happened and when. I am well aware that not everybody is interested in that kind of a question, but some people are interested and may think that if I pass over it, the reason is because I am avoiding a difficult problem.
Chapter 17 puts the Israelites at Nephilim, which leads us to think that chapter 18 is also at Nephilim. Then you go on to chapter 19, and it says that in the third month after they left Egypt, on that very day they came to the desert of Sinai. So it looks like they were at Nephilim when Jethro came, and then after Jethro had gone they went on to Sinai. The problem, however, is that if you read it a bit more carefully, Exodus 18:5 makes it sound as if they were already there at Sinai. In addition, Deuteronomy 1:6-18 describes the appointing of these officials who are going to judge companies of thousands, hundreds, fifties, and tens. We are told that this happens at the very base of Sinai. So where did this happen—at Nephilim or Sinai?
There are three different positions. One is that the appointing of the officials happened at Nephilim, which is where Exodus suggests. Walter Kaiser, a very respected Old Testament scholar, holds this view, arguing that Deuteronomy 1:6-18 is loosely written, referring to something that happened earlier.1 The second possibility is that Moses received Jethro’s advice early, but he enacted his suggestions later at Sinai. John J. Davis believes that’s the solution.2 The third possibility, suggested by William Taylor, is that everything happened at Sinai.3
I think the event probably took place later, at Sinai, simply because it doesn’t have to be fit in early, and it does seem that Deuteronomy 1 is placing it later. But if that’s the case then somebody will say, “Why does it appear here in Exodus?” There could be three reasons.
The first is that it may have been brought in at this point to suggest that not all of the pagans were as wicked and as hostile as the Amalekites. Jethro is not of Jewish stock, and yet he’s sympathetic and he knows the true God. Right from the beginning, we have an idea that the gospel has expanded to what we would call the Gentiles.
Second, it might have been placed here to keep the material on the giving of the law at Sinai intact. Exodus 19 tells about the preparation for the giving of the law, and the twentieth chapter gives us the Ten Commandments. You don’t really want to dump a story about the appointing of officials into the middle of all of that. In other words, if you divided the book of Exodus into two parts, the first part dealing with the exodus itself, and the second part with the giving of the law, this story fits better in the early part.
Third, the passage might have been placed here from a desire to keep the good but, nevertheless, human advice that Jethro gave separate from the divine commands that occupy the rest of the book. Someone sensitive to the nature of the material, as Moses the author certainly was, might want to arrange it that way.
1Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., Exodus, in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, vol. 2, Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, ed. Frank E. Gaebelein (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1990), 411.
2John J. Davis, Moses and the Gods of Egypt: Studies in Exodus (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1971), 189.
3William M. Taylor, Moses the Law-Giver (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1879), 164-68.