The placement of stories in the Bible is sometimes as instructive as the narratives themselves. The story of Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, in the Torah portion of Yitro (Exodus 18:1-20:22) is a prime example of this intricate storytelling. At first glance, the narrative appears straightforward—Jethro, after hearing of the great miracles God performed for the Israelites, brings Moses’ family to reunite with him in the desert. There, he observes Moses’ exhausting schedule as the sole judge for the people and wisely suggests a system of delegated leadership, advice Moses accepts. The next morning, Jethro returns home to Midian.
Yet, this seemingly simple story is filled with chronological ambiguities that invite us to delve deeper into the narrative.
The text places Jethro’s arrival at the Mountain of God, another name for Mount Sinai (Exodus 18:5), yet the Israelites’ journey to Mount Sinai takes place in the following chapter. Moreover, Moses is depicted as teaching the Torah to the people (Exodus 18:16), yet the Torah has not yet been revealed. Finally, the narrative describes Jethro’s departure (Exodus 18:27), but the text in Numbers (Numbers 10:29-34) describes a conversation between Moses and his father-in-law as the Israelites prepare to travel from Mount Sinai to the Holy Land. These discrepancies have led scholars and sages, like Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra, to suggest that the account of Jethro as it is written in the Torah, does not align with the chronological order of events.
Ibn Ezra suggests that the entire episode with Jethro occurred later on, after the giving of the Torah, but was strategically placed in the text after the war with Amalek to juxtapose the malevolent intentions of Amalek with the virtuous character of Jethro. Amalek represents the pinnacle of moral and spiritual decay, embodying hostility and enmity towards the Israelites. In stark contrast, Jethro epitomizes virtues such as charity and faith. Amalek represents the archetype of evil, while Yitro embodies righteousness. The juxtaposition of these two narratives emphasizes that while the Israelites are commanded to remember and confront the threat of Amalek, there is also potential for friendship and goodwill in their interactions with other nations. While some nations choose the path of evil and immorality, others choose the path of righteousness and virtue. While Amalek and those who follow in their path must be destroyed, those who follow in the footsteps of Jethro must be embraced.
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch delves deeper into this contrast, highlighting Jethro’s spiritual journey toward the divine. While the Amalekites heard about the Exodus from Egypt and chose to ignore the role of God, attributing it all to chance, the journey of Jethro, from a priest of Midian to someone who embraced the God of Israel, exemplifies the potential for spiritual growth among the nations.
In contemporary times, these narratives hold profound implications for the dynamics between Jews and the other nations, as well as the relationship between the nations and the God of Israel. As Israel is in the midst of a war against Hamas, the spiritual heirs of Amalek, the story of Jethro serves as a reminder that while evil, depravity and hostility all still exist, there is also the potential for understanding, respect, and spiritual kinship with our non-Jewish friends, as exemplified by Jethro. Similarly, while some embrace evil and violence and take to the streets in support of terrorists, others champion the values, ethics and morals of the God of Israel.
While it’s crucial to be vigilant and resolute against evil and injustice symbolized by Amalek, it’s equally important to remain open to the possibilities of friendship, support, and shared spiritual journeys, as embodied by Jethro. This narrative invites us to recognize and cherish the potential for partnership across different communities, fostering a world where respect and understanding pave the way for a harmonious coexistence.
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