Jethro: Midianite Priest and Father-in-law of Moses

Jan 17, 2022

וַיָּבֹא יִתְרוֹ חֹתֵן מֹשֶׁה וּבָנָיו וְאִשְׁתּוֹ אֶל־מֹשֶׁה אֶל־הַמִּדְבָּר אֲשֶׁר־הוּא חֹנֶה שָׁם הַר הָאֱלֹהִים׃

Jethro, Moshe' father-in-law, brought Moshe' sons and wife to him in the wilderness, where he was encamped at the mountain of Hashem.

Exodus 18:5

The Torah portion, comprised of Exodus 18:1–20:23, is named after Moses’ Midianite father-in-law, Jethro. It tells of Jethro’s counsel to Moses, and God’s revelation of the Ten Commandments to the Israelites at Mount Sinai.

Jethro came to meet the Children of Israel after their military victory over the Amalekites. Jethro, a priest to many pagan gods, had heard of all the miracles God did for the Jews in taking them out of Egypt and declared, “Now I know G‑d is greater than all other gods.” The Midrash relates that when Moses arrived at the well in Midian, Jethro’s daughters were being harassed because their father, the main priest of the region, had just rejected idolatry. After hearing of the events in Egypt, Jethro came to convert and accept the God of Israel. 

In the Talmud, there is a debate over what precisely Jethro heard that convinced him: the war against Amalek, the splitting of the sea, or the giving of the Torah at Sinai. Accordingly, there here is a debate in the Talmud over whether Jethro arrived before or after the giving of the Torah.

According to Mechilta, Jethro the priest had seven names: Reuel (Exodus 2:18), Yeter, Yitro (because he did many good deeds), Hobab (Numbers 10:29), Heber, Keni, and Putiel. Each name bears its own significance. He is called Yeter (literally “add”) because an entire section of the Torah, the one describing the revelation at Sinai, was included because of his merit. Hobab (lit. “love”) because he loved the Torah. Reuel because he was a friend (Re’a) of God (El). The Midrash explains that this is not unusual, as God also has several names. The Midrash goes on to say that each human being receives at least three names: the name given by the parents, the nickname given by the friends, and the one he creates for himself. Each name relates to a different aspect of the person.

Jethro had an enormous influence on Moses. He was Moses’ his father-in-law, who gave refuge and one of his seven daughters, Zipporah, in marriage to the “stranger from Egypt.” He was also Moses’ employer for 40 years. 

So it was no surprise that when Jethro advised Moses to restructure the judicial system, Moses accepted his advice. Jethro suggested that there be a system of judges appointed to oversee the Jewish people: judges of thousands, judges of hundreds, judges of fifties, and judges of tens. God told Moses to implement this suggestion. The medieval commentator known as Rashi explains that what prompted Jethro to give this advice was that he was disturbed when he saw the Jews waiting for their chance to ask Moses their questions from morning until night, and not receiving their answers in a timely manner. The Abarbanel believes that what motivated Jethro was his concern that Moses was unavailable for other roles in serving God. 

Later (Exodus 18:27), Jethro returned to Midian. One Midrash explains that Jethro left because he wanted to bring more converts from his homeland. Another Midrash explains that he left before the giving of the Torah because he did not merit being at the revelation at Sinai since he didn’t go through the pain of the enslavement in Egypt. Yet another opinion is that he didn’t want to abandon his property and the possessions he had in Midian, especially since he wouldn’t get a portion in the land of Israel.

Though we are told Jethro left before the revelation at Sinai, the verse in Numbers 10:29 relates that Moses pleaded with him to remain with the Jewish people as they prepared to leave Mount Sinai. In that conversation, Jethro wished to leave the desert and return home, but the verses don’t state clearly if he ultimately agreed to stay. It is not clear if Jethro had previously left and came back, in which case perhaps he agreed to remain with the Jewish people, or if the verse in Exodus which said that he left is really just foreshadowing the end of the conversation between Moses and Jethro in Numbers, in which case he did not travel with the Jews through the desert.

In any case, we later see (Judges 1:16) that Jethro’s descendants lived in the land of Israel; though Sifri relates that this allocation of land was only until the Temple was built. Then, the tribe in whose portion the Temple would be built would relocate to the portion that was given to Jethro and his descendants.

 According to Nachmanides, a leading medieval Jewish scholar known as the Ramban, the descendants of Jethro receive a portion of land in Israel, specifically the fertile land surrounding Jericho, just like the tribes of Jacob, and they assisted in conquering the land when the Jews entered 40 years after Sinai. Also, according to Jewish tradition, Jethro’s granddaughter married Phinehas, the son of Elazar the son of Aaron, the High Priest.

The connection between Jethro and the Jewish people continues to this day. The Druze, an Arabic-speaking esoteric ethnoreligious group indigenous to the Middle East, have a strong tradition that they are the descendants of Jethro who they call Shuaib

Israeli Druze Scouts march to Jethro’s tomb (Wikimedia Commons)

Despite accompanying the Jews since Mount Sinai, little is known about the Druze. 143,000 Druze live in villages scattered around northern Israel and have a principle of not seeking to rule, but rather to aid, their host country. A religious minority everywhere they live, they are secretive about their religious teachings and some of what is known is inaccurate.

Much like Jews, the Druze are a persecuted group in the Middle East. There are fewer than 1 million Druze around the world – Syria is home to the majority of them (approximately 600,000) with Lebanon and Israel following with populations of 200,000 and 150,000 respectively. Most Druze ethnically identify as Arabs but are considered infidels by Islam and, as such, have been targeted for attack by Islamist groups like Al-Nusra and ISIS in Syria.

Since the establishment of the state of Israel, the Druze have been volunteering in the IDF. In 1956, following an agreement with the head of the Druze community, a law was passed obligating Druze men to join the IDF. Today, 83% of Druze men serve in the military, with 60% serving in combat units—rates that are higher than those of the Jewish population.

Druze officers have attained high ranks in Israel’s security force. But this service has come at a high price. Over 505 have fallen serving in the IDF and over 1,500 were injured.

Druze commander of the IDF Herev battalion (Wikimedia Commons)

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