The biblical book of Exodus tosses off some odd and enigmatic scenes in the life of Moses, Israel’s liberator and law-giver. Curiously, his erstwhile Midianite wife Zipporah plays a role in more than one of them.
The narrator allows us to stumble upon details that we feel we should have known but do not. For example, the fact that Moses had ‘sent away’ not only Zipporah but the two sons whom she had borne to him.
Matter-of-factly, her father Jethro brings them back:
After Moses had sent away his wife Zipporah, his father-in-law Jethro took her back, along with her two sons. The name of the one was Gershom (for he said, ‘I have been an alien in a foreign land’), and the name of the other, Eliezer (for he said, ‘The God of my father was my help, and delivered me from the sword of Pharaoh’). Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, came into the wilderness where Moses was encamped at the mountain of God, bringing Moses’ sons and wife to him. He sent word to Moses, ‘I, your father-in-law Jethro, am coming to you, with your wife and her two sons.’ Moses went out to meet his father-in-law; he bowed down and kissed him; each asked after the other’s welfare, and they went into the tent. Then Moses told his father-in-law all that the LORD had done to Pharaoh and to the Egyptians for Israel’s sake, all the hardship that had beset them on the way, and how the LORD had delivered them. Jethro rejoiced for all the good that the LORD had done to Israel, in delivering them from the Egyptians.
Though capable of genuine pleasure over how well YHWH has shepherded his Hebrews through hostile territory, Jethro is no devotee of classic Israelite monotheism. Still, Moses’ jovial in-law is capable of knowing a good thing when he sees it. In a remarkable display of ecumenical spirit—manifested not only by Jethro but also by his Hebrew friends—Jethro joins in the pre-Sinai rituals by which it appears that YHWH is to be thanked. Pushing close to biblical claims about YHWH’s uniqueness, Jethro pronounces himself persuaded that YHWH is ‘greater than all the gods’:
Jethro said, ‘Blessed be the LORD, who has delivered you from the Egyptians and from Pharaoh. Now I know that the LORD is greater than all gods, because he delivered the people from the Egyptians, when they dealt arrogantly with them.’ And Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, brought a burnt offering and sacrifices to God; and Aaron came with all the elders of Israel to eat bread with Moses’ father-in-law in the presence of God.
We may manage to suppress our initial surprise at the text’s generosity towards a non-Israelite whom one might expect to feel estranged from Moses over the detail of the latter’s arguably shabby treatment of his daughter and her children. One may even see the welcome he receives into ritual matters that are commonly seen as in-house affairs affairs as a not unprecedented inclusive gesture in an otherwise rigorous religious system.
Yet what follows is positive astounding. Jethro the Midianite not only becomes an observer of Moses’ political-bureaucratic management of his people’s complaints and altercations. He also critiques them with considerable severity and even convinces emerging Israel to restructure its leadership model and processes.
Moses’ father-in-law said to him, ‘What you are doing is not good. You will surely wear yourself out, both you and these people with you. For the task is too heavy for you; you cannot do it alone. Now listen to me. I will give you counsel, and God be with you! You should represent the people before God, and you should bring their cases before God; teach them the statutes and instructions and make known to them the way they are to go and the things they are to do. You should also look for able men among all the people, men who fear God, are trustworthy, and hate dishonest gain; set such men over them as officers over thousands, hundreds, fifties and tens. Let them sit as judges for the people at all times; let them bring every important case to you, but decide every minor case themselves. So it will be easier for you, and they will bear the burden with you. If you do this, and God so commands you, then you will be able to endure, and all these people will go to their home in peace.’
Set in the context of YHWH’s very particular redemption of his Hebrews from their slavery, even of his extraction of them out of the mass of humanity and nations as a special, priestly contingent that would live out its days in intimacy with him, Jethro’s insertion into the soul of the people is staggering.
Counsel, the text allows one to surmise, will come from unexpected quarters, its utility undiminished by its origin outside the camp.
Jethro, impressed with Israel’s deity but no closet monotheist, shapes YHWH’s tribes with a good word at the proper moment.