Now Jethro, the priest of Midian, Moses’ father-in-law, heard of all that God had done for Moses and for Israel his people, how the Lord had brought Israel out of Egypt.
A man of too many names
Moses’ father-in-law is something of a curiosity in the Bible. He is called by more than one name, which makes him even more curious and mysterious. He is first introduced as the priest of Midian (Exod. 2:16), then named Reuel (Exod. 2:18), then several verses later, and without explanation, he is called Jethro, the priest of Midian (Exod. 3:1). He next appears with a variant spelling, as Jether (Exod. 4:18), then later in the same verse as Jethro again. But wait, we aren’t finished: after appearing with the name Jethro throughout Exodus chapter 18, in Num. 10:29 a certain “Hobab the son of Reuel the Midianite, the father-in-law of Moses” enters the picture, only to re-appear in Judges 4:11 as himself the father-in-law of Moses! For the sake of clarity, I will stick with the name Jethro.
Another curiosity are the Kenites, who are mentioned several times in the Bible and have odd relationships to Israel and other peoples. And what do you know, they, Moses’ father-in-law and the Kenites, are related! (cf. Judges 1:16, 4:11)
Idolater or proselyte?
The rabbis of the Talmud aren’t sure what to do with Jethro; they offer different opinions about him, some positive but others not. They as much as call him an idolater, for he “fattened calves for idol worship.” (Sotah 43a; Baba Batra 109b) They say he was motivated by self-interest, for “he drew near to Moses for his own honor.” (Berakhot 63b) On the other hand, he was worthy enough that his descendants the Kenites would come to sit as scribes in the Temple, in the meeting-place of the Sanhedrin! (Sotah 11a; Sanhedrin 106a; cf. I Chron. 2:55)
What status does Jethro have with respect to Israel? A possible answer is suggested by the rabbis in the following passage:
Zevachim 116a (adapted from Soncino edition)
This is a controversy of Tannaim: Now Jethro, the priest of Midian, heard (Exod. 18:1): what news did he hear that he came and turned a proselyte? R. Joshua said: He heard of the battle with the Amalekites, since this is immediately preceded by, And Joshua overwhelmed Amalek and his people with the edge of the sword (Exod. 17:13). R. Eleazar of Modim said: He heard of the giving of the Torah and came.… R. Eleazar said: He heard about the dividing of the Red Sea, and came…
Two things stand out: (1) Jethro was considered a proselyte, a convert to the religion of Israel, and (2) He may have come to Israel because he heard about the defeat of Amalek, i.e., his tribe may have had some connection to the Amalekites.
Both of these conjectures are supported in the Bible references to the Kenites, who are said to be descendants of Jethro (aka Hobab aka Reuel):
(1) A proselyte?
And the descendants of the Kenite, Moses’ father-in-law, went up from the city of palm trees with the sons of Judah, to the wilderness of Judah, which lies in the south of Arad; and they went and lived among the people.
In other words, the Kenites lived among the people of Israel? More likely, they lived among the unnamed people of the area described. The text is not clear, and it has been argued that the word translated people (am) may be corrupted from the original Amalekite. So this verse by itself does not prove that either Jethro or his descendants joined the community of Israel.
Nevertheless, the Kenites remained in close connection to Israel. The heroic story of “Jael the wife of Heber the Kenite” (Judges 4:17ff, 5:24ff) points to a high regard for the Kenites. Some of the Kenites were later included among the scribes of Israel (I Chron. 2:55) and one of them, Jehonadab the son of Rechab, professed his “zeal for the Lord.” (II Kings 10:15-16)
But what about Jethro himself? Are the rabbis correct when they say he became a proselyte? No, I really don’t think so. For at the end of Exodus chapter 18, after his last known encounter with Moses and Israel, he returned to his own land, which implies that he returned to his own people and for all we know his own religion. He no doubt took some knowledge of the God of Israel with him (cf. Exod. 18:11), but he chose to continue in his own way, apart from Israel. Similarly, when Hobab the son of Reuel declined to go with Israel to the land of promise, he said, “I will not go [with you], rather I will go to my land and to my people.” (Num. 10:29-30) It is true that Moses asked him again to continue on as their guide and share in their success, but we are not told whether Hobab agreed to this or not. (Num. 10:31-32)
So perhaps Jethro occupies that middle space, neither idolater (at least not any longer) nor proselyte, i.e., in the full sense of attaching himself to Israel in his worship of God. He may be compared to Melchizedek, priest of the Most High God (Gen. 14:18f). Both of these men are presented in a favorable light; in fact nothing bad is said about them in the Bible. But they do not become part of Israel.
(2) An Amalek connection?
I Samuel 15:6
And Saul said to the Kenites, Go, depart, go down from among the Amalekites, lest I destroy you with them; for you showed kindness to all the people of Israel when they came up from Egypt. So the Kenites departed from among the Amalekites.
In other words, the Kenites had a close connection to the Amalekites in the time of Saul, so R. Joshua wasn’t engaging in baseless speculation when he related Jethro’s decision to come to Moses with news of the defeat of Amalek. The juxtaposition of the two accounts (Exod. 17:8-16 and 18:1-27) may be intentional, as Martin Buber writes: “[The redactor] wishes to show here, immediately after the battle with the Amalekites, how clear a distinction has to be drawn historically between the Amalekites and the Kenites, in view of the fact that this tribe or part of it afterwards united temporarily with the former.” (Moses, p. 94) Buber’s point is a bit different than the teaching of the Talmud given above. R. Joshua suggested a historical-causal relation between the events of the two accounts. Buber is saying that in the time of Jethro the Kenites did not have any alliance with the Amalekites, but since they did at a later time the compiler of the Torah put these passages side-by-side to clear their name. For if the Kenites had been allied or united with the Amalekites then, the cordial reunion in Exodus chapter 18 wouldn’t have happened. The two accounts have a thematic relation, but the one did not necessarily follow the other in chronology or causality.
In Jethro we have the third father-in-law to play a significant role in Biblical narrative. Before him Laban traded tricks with Jacob (Gen. 29-31), and Judah paid for treating Tamar unfairly (Gen. 38). Neither Laban nor Judah demonstrated that quality known as wisdom.
But Jethro proved to be different. He offered sound advice to Moses for leading, teaching and judging Israel, and Moses “listened to the voice of his father-in-law, and did all that he said.” (Exod. 18:24) This speaks well of Moses who at the age of 80 was still willing to learn from his father-in-law. As for Jethro, his wise counsel was of sufficient importance to be reiterated later as Moses’ own instruction! (cf. Deut. 1:9-17)
The advice Jethro gave included a set of high standards for the persons Moses would choose as leaders: “Men of valor who fear God, men of truth who hate dishonest gain.” (Exod. 18:21) These stated qualifications reflect back on Jethro, if not his own integrity, then at least the values and aspirations he held. Wisdom surely consists of more than intellect: one may be an intellectual genius but a moral idiot. Jethro was a wise man in both practical imagination and moral judgment.
Regarding those names
No satisfactory explanation has, to my knowledge, been offered for the different names attached to this person I have called Jethro. It would seem obvious that the different names come from different sources, just as the names of God are thought to vary according to the sources. For those of us who accept some form of the documentary hypothesis, the J source is thought responsible for the references to Reuel and to Hobab the son of Reuel, while the E source uses Jethro and the (probably accidental) variant Jether. That leaves Judges 4:11 which does not fit with either of these sources.
Commentators are often driven to harmonize such contradictory materials, as if the truth of their religious beliefs depended on it. My view of sound Biblical criticism may be summed up as follows: Harmonize where there appears to be harmony; suspend judgment when the evidence is lacking for a reasonable conclusion; admit the possibility of error when the weight of the evidence suggests error; above all, give up the overriding principle of inerrancy.
I have never understood the need for inerrancy in Scripture. What ultimately matters is the truth of our understanding of God’s ways, not even whether we have all the truth, but simply whether we are looking in the right direction. For Scripture to serve this purpose trivial matters such as the name of Moses’ father-in-law cannot possibly be important enough to confirm or deny our faith.
Baruch Spinoza wrote in 1670:
The commentators who attempt to harmonize these evident contradictions draw on their imagination, each to the best of his ability; and while professing adoration for each letter and word of Scripture, only succeed in holding up the sacred writers to ridicule, as though they knew not how to write or relate a plain narrative. Such persons effect nothing but to render the clearness of Scripture obscure. (A Theological-Political Treatise, translated by R.H.M. Elwes, ch. 10, p. 153)