Bible Commentaries
Exodus 18

Coffman's Commentaries on the BibleCoffman's Commentaries


Fields' suggestion as a title for this chapter is "Jethro and the Judges"; and this is certainly acceptable in view of the fact that the whole chapter deals with the visit of Jethro to Moses in "the mountain of the Lord," Horeb-Sinai, the royal reception accorded him by Moses, and the ensuing advice from Jethro with reference to the judges. Jethro's arrival with Moses' wife and their two sons (Exodus 18:1-6); his conversation with Moses (Exodus 18:7-11); his worship of the true God (Exodus 18:12); his observance of Moses' work (Exodus 18:13-16); his advice to Moses (Exodus 18:17-23); Moses' acceptance of that advice (Exodus 18:18-26 and Deuteronomy 1:9-18); and Jethro's departure (Exodus 18:27) are subdivisions of the chapter.

Keil suggested that Jethro here appears as the first-fruits of the heathen world who would in time seek the kingdom of God and enter religious fellowship with the people of God. Jethro brought with him Moses' wife and two sons who had turned back from the journey to Egypt upon the occasion of the circumcision of Eliezer. He joyfully received the marvelous news of what Jehovah had done in the delivery of Israel from bondage, confessed his faith in Jehovah, offered burnt-offerings and sacrifices, and enjoyed a meal of religious fellowship with the leaders of Israel.

Both the Midianites and the Amalekites were descended from Abraham, therefore kinsmen of Israel; and those two peoples in the persons of Jethro and the army of the Amalekites thus demonstrated the two diverse attitudes of the non-Jewish world toward Israel. "They foreshadowed and typified the twofold attitude which the heathen world would assume toward the kingdom of God."[1]

Since Jethro is the principal character, except Moses, in this chapter, we shall note here at the outset the often cited problem regarding the names applied to him in the sacred text.

  1. In Exodus 4:18 we have "Jethro his father-in-law," an expression found nine other times.

  2. In Judges 4:11 (cf. Numbers 10:29), we have "Hobab the father-in-law of Moses," and

  3. we read in Exodus 2:18 that Moses' wife and sisters-in-law returned to "their father Reuel."

The solution is quite simple: "All three names may refer to the same person."[2] "Reuel may be a tribal, rather than a personal appellation."[3] The father-in-law of Moses in Judges 4:11; and Jethro is called his father-in-law in Exodus 3:1, and here (Exodus 18:1), but as Rawlinson pointed out the Hebrew word rendered `father-in-law' actually means "almost any relationship by marriage."[4] Based on that, Rawlinson understood Jethro to be the brother-in-law of Moses, and a son of Reuel the actual father-in-law. These explanations are more than sufficient, and due to the preponderance in the ASV of the term father-in-law as applied to Jethro, we shall stick with that designation in the notes. Even if Reuel was the actual father-in-law and Jethro was the brother-in-law, it is evident that Jethro was the priest of Midian (having succeeded his father Reuel), and any fuller knowledge of the problem would not affect in any manner the message of the holy text.

Verses 1-4

"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 that Jehovah had brought Israel out of Egypt. And Jethro, Moses' father-in-law, took Zipporah, Moses wife, after he had sent her away, and her two sons, of whom the name of the one was Gershom; for he said, I have been a sojourner in a foreign land: and the name of the other was Eliezer; for he said, The God of my father was my help, and delivered me from the sword of Pharaoh."

The vast importance of this visit was noted by Jones, "It affected for all time the constitutional history of Israel, separating the judicial and legislative functions of the community."[5]

Both [~'Elohiym] (God) and [~Yahweh] (Jehovah) are used in these verses for God, furnishing another example of the breakdown of allegations regarding the alleged sources of the Pentateuch, according to Allis.[6] At the time of this interview, there can be little doubt of Jethro's being a priest of the Most High God, the one and only Jehovah, but if as Keil thought, Jethro was a representative of the pagan world, it would have been possible: (1) if Moses had converted Jethro out of paganism; or (2) if Jethro had received the truth handed down through his ancestors, thus having known the true God throughout his life, in which case he would as a "faithful remnant" still have come from the pagan world. It is amazing that critics are so anxious to support their notions regarding "the evolution of monotheism," using every conceivable excuse to credit Midianites, or anyone else, with the introduction of the idea to Moses. Monotheism was known BEFORE paganism. It did not "evolve" at all. It was revealed to all mankind repeatedly throughout all of antiquity.

"He had sent her away ..." This does not mean that Moses had divorced Zipporah. Although the word here occasionally can be made to mean that, "Here it merely means that he `let her depart,' as in Exodus 18:27."[7] After God revealed to Moses the resistance that he would encounter in Egypt, and following the circumcision of Eliezer, Moses sent Zipporah and the children back to Jethro until after the exodus. The appearance here of Jethro with Moses' family is a strong proof of the goodwill that existed in the whole family. A Jewish writer assures us that the technical term here translated "sent her away" does not mean that at all, but means "sent her to her father's home."[8]

The fact of Eliezer's name being a derivative of [~'Elohiym] has led some critics to allege that Moses knew nothing of Jehovah until after Exodus 6, but, as Fields said, "To assert this is to deny the historical accuracy of all the uses of [~Yahweh] (Jehovah) throughout Genesis."[9] As noted above, Jochebed is a derivative of Yahweh. More and more it is evident that various names used for God may often be for no other reason than for variety. Gershom, Moses' oldest son, was given a name which means "I was a sojourner," and Eliezer means "God is my help." Thus, these names express respectively his despondency that was natural to exile, "and the gratitude of one who has just learned that the term of his banishment has ended."[10]

Verses 5-7

"And Jethro, Moses' father-in-law, came with his sons and his wife to Moses into the wilderness where he was encamped, at the mount of God: and he said unto Moses, I, thy father-in-law Jethro, am come unto thee, and thy wife, and her two sons with her. And Moses went out to meet his father-in-law, and did obeisance, and kissed him, and they asked each other of their welfare; and they came into the tent."

"In the mount of God ..." This has no reference whatever to some ancient pagan shrine located there, but it is merely the designation that Moses gave to the entire area in the vicinity of Horeb-Sinai where God, through Moses, had wrought such wonders and made such world-shaking revelations. Johnson noted the critical objection that questions the sequence of this chapter on the grounds that they did not reach Sinai until the beginning of the next chapter, saying, "Since even at Rephidim they could have been said to be at the mountain of God, there seems to be no real problem in the order of the narrative."[11]

In Exodus 18:5, the translation is somewhat ambiguous, since it does not clarify "his sons and his wife" as belonging to Moses. Newer versions correct this. Also, in Exodus 18:6, it sounds as if Jethro is speaking to Moses, but the next clause states that Moses went to meet him. This is clarified by the fact that Jethro "sent this word" to Moses.[12]

"And kissed him ..." Jethro was received with all due honors, and we need not be surprised that nothing is said of Moses' kissing his sons and his wife. Jewish customs did not permit the mentioning of such intimate things, and besides, the same inhibitions might also have prevented such a demonstration in public. Fields commented on Moses' enthusiastic and cordial greeting of Jethro thus:

"Moses respected Jethro for his wisdom, as well as his age, and for being his father-in-law. Such humility and respect for age is not popular in our times, but it is highly commended in the Scriptures, and needs to be restored."[13]

Verses 8-10

"And Moses told his father-in-law all that Jehovah had done unto Pharaoh and to the Egyptians for Israel's sake, all the travail that had come upon them by the way, and how Jehovah had delivered them. And Jethro rejoiced for all the goodness which Jehovah had done to Israel, in that he had delivered them out of the hand of the Egyptians. And Jethro said, Blessed be Jehovah, who hath delivered you out of the hands of the Egyptians, and out of the hand of Pharaoh; who hath delivered the people from under the hand of the Egyptians."

"All the travil that had come upon them ..." Significantly, there is no mention of the repeated murmurings and rebellious unbelief of the people. It was an act of forbearance and generosity that Moses thus shielded the reputation of the people whom he loved.

"And Jethro rejoiced ..." The Septuagint (LXX) renders "amazed" instead of "rejoiced," basing it upon such Jewish opinions as that of Rashi who stated that the Hebrew word is related to [~hiddudiym], "denoting prickling with horror."[14] If this is the meaning, or "horrified" as some have translated it, it is paralleled in the N.T. instance of Felix being "terrified" at the preaching of the gospel (Acts 24:25). Certainly, we must reject the interpretation that supposes Jethro's reaction as due to his being "stung with grief and horror" because the Egyptians had to be destroyed![15] Our own version here is almost certainly correct, reminding us of those many instances in Acts, where it is stated that converts "went on their way rejoicing." As it stands, this word is strong presumptive proof that Jethro was already a worshipper of Jehovah.

Verses 11-12

"Now I know that Jehovah is greater than all gods; yea, in the thing wherein they dealt proudly against them. And Jethro, Moses' father-in-law, took a burnt-offering and sacrifices for God; and Aaron came, and all the elders of Israel, to eat bread with Moses' father-in-law before God."

We should notice here a ridiculous mistranslation of Exodus 18:10,11 in the RSV, as pointed out by Fields:

"The last clause of Exodus 18:10 (who hath delivered the people from under the hand of the Egyptians) is removed and placed in the middle of Exodus 18:11! This is supported neither by the Hebrew text nor the LXX, and is an example of the numerous arbitrary renderings in the RSV that so impair its usefulness."[16]

These verses are the highlight of the whole chapter and the focal point of interest. The great question here is, "What kind of a priest was Jethro?" We believe that, like Melchizedek, Jethro stands a great monolithic witness of the true monotheism which continued to be known (though perhaps imperfectly) on earth during that long and rapid descent of the post-diluvian world into the debaucheries of paganism. Certainly Noah knew the one true and Almighty God, for the N.T. is witness that Jesus Christ was the Spirit that preached in Noah (1 Peter 3:20). Melchizedek (Genesis 14) was also a true priest of "the Most High God" and recognized in the N.T. as a vivid type of Christ, which no idolatrous priest could have been. Jethro appears to be just such another monotheist as were Noah and Melchizedek. Nothing could be more false, misleading, or actually ridiculous than the misguided passion of certain critics to accredit Israel with having "developed" monotheism. The very purpose of God in the election of a Chosen Race, was not to develop a new conception of God, but to preserve for all the world the true perception of the One and Only God which was already in the world and in danger of being erased by the immoralities of the post-diluvians and the resultant resurgence of paganism. Monotheism was first on earth, not paganism, and the threat against the universal acceptance of that truth has always come about from basic sensualities so dear to human flesh. However, those sensualities cannot be indulged without some kind of psychological justification, and that is exactly what paganism is.

Among the scholars there appear three distinct ideas with reference to Jethro.

  1. There are those who accept the view that we believe is correct, that Jethro was indeed a priest of the true God. Davies accepted this view: "Yahwism (the worship of Jehovah) had been practiced by Jethro and his people for a long time."[17] Fields has this: "The fact that Aaron and the elders came (Exodus 18:12) stresses the validity of Jethro's priesthood. He was a legitimate priest before God, like Melchizedek."[18] It is impossible for us to believe that Moses, Aaron, and all the elders of Israel would have sat down for a sacrificial meal with anyone who was NOT a priest of the true God. "Exodus 18:12 shows that Jethro was recognized as a priest of the true God."[19]

  2. Another view is that Moses converted Jethro, making him, as Keil thought, a kind of first-fruits from paganism (cited above). Esses held this view, writing, "In witnessing to his father-in-law, Moses won him to the Lord ... Jethro forsook idolatry, became a proselyte to Judaism, and accepted the living God."[20] Johnson also believed that the narrative here evidences "a conversion experience" on the part of Jethro, thus "invalidating the theory that it was from Jethro and the Midianites that the Israelites learned of Jehovah.[21] Of course, the view in (1) above also invalidates it.

  3. Another very radical view is held by some. Advocates of the `Kenite hypothesis,' "(namely, that the Israelites learned to worship God as Yahweh, `Jehovah,' from the Midianites and Kenites)"[22] brashly declare that, "Jethro imparted to Israel the ritual customs and the rules of the God of Sinai."[23] Such a view contradicts the truth that Jethro was the LEARNER not the TEACHER on this occasion, and the truth that there was no "God of Sinai" in the sense of a local deity being worshipped there. It is called "the mount of God," not because of some old shrine there, but because of what Jehovah did there. Trying to find the source of the knowledge of God anywhere except in his revelation to Moses and the prophets forces men who are otherwise intelligent into some very foolish and impossible postulations!

Rawlinson summed up the view that we believe to be correct as follows:

"Moses, Aaron, and the elders partook of the sacrificial meal, regarding the whole rite as one legitimately performed by a duly qualified person, and so as one in which they could properly participate. Jethro, like Melchizedek, was recognized as a priest of the true God."[24]

Another element of the very greatest importance appears here in the bringing by Jethro of both burnt-offerings and sacrifices to God. Here is independent proof that the Jewish priesthood did NOT invent or originate the system of sacrifices associated with their religion. The principle of offering burnt-offerings and sacrifices to God existed independently of Judaism, as evidenced by Jethro's actions in this passage. Where, exactly, did the principle of sacrifice begin? "Sacrifice was known long before Sinai. In fact, it was instituted from the very fall of the race (Genesis 4:4)."[25] (See my comment on Genesis 4:4 in this series.) In the light of this, it is impossible to suppose that "Jethro was initiating the Israelites into the worship of Jehovah!"[26] Why? Because Jethro had the same information that already belonged to all mankind since the sacrifice made by Abel in the Gates of Paradise, the same information utilized by Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and all the patriarchs in the sacrifices that they offered. There is absolutely no cultic ceremony in the sacrifices which appear in this chapter. Thus, we must reject the allegation that, "Jethro led in a cultic ceremony."[27]

"(They came) to eat bread with Moses' father-in-law before God ..." The last two words of this are sometimes alleged to mean that this sacrificial meal took place at some ancient pagan shrine at a place called "the mount of God" (Exodus 18:6). See comment above under Exodus 18:5-7. The last two words "before God," have no reference whatever to any place, least of all a pagan shrine, but, any sacrifice, no matter where offered would by the very nature of sacrifice be "before God."

Verses 13-16

"And it came to pass on the morrow, that Moses sat to judge the people: and the people stood about Moses from the morning unto the evening. And when Moses' father-in-law saw all that he did to the people, he said, What is this thing that thou doest to the people? why sittest thou thyself alone, and all the people stand about thee from morning unto even? And Moses said unto his father-in-law, Because the people come unto me to inquire of God: When they have a matter, they come unto me; and I judge between a man and his neighbor, and I make them know the statutes of God and his laws."

"I make them know the statutes of God and his laws ..." This has no reference to the Decalogue, which was not yet given, but is a reference to that vast body of rules and regulations that Moses had already communicated to the people upon the commandment of the Lord, for example, the matter of gathering the manna, when, how much, how to use it, etc. There had also, in all probability, been many other things of a similar nature. Also, perhaps all of those great principles laid down in the Decalogue were already known by Moses prior to their formal announcement from Sinai. In his work, such as that witnessed by Jethro, Moses would often have conferred with God to receive the correct basis for his judgments. That was the very thing taking up so much time. We do not believe that Moses was merely formulating rules "on his own" during those days. The point of these remarks is the refutation of the following claim: "The statutes here are those given on the mount (Sinai), this passage being out of place."[28] We find no fault whatever with this narrative.

The situation in view in this passage is that of a faithful well-meaning individual trying to take care of all the details himself. Moses appears here as a perfect example of a poor administrator, a preacher, or elder, who tries to do it all by himself. Through this fortunate visit of Jethro, he learned the secret of DELEGATING authority.

Verses 17-20

"And Moses' father-in-law said unto him, The thing that thou doest is not good. Thou wilt wear away, both thou, and this people that is with thee: for the thing is too heavy for thee; thou art not able to perform it thyself alone. Hearken now unto my voice, I will give thee counsel, and God be with thee; be thou for the people to Godward, and bring thou the causes unto God: and thou shalt teach them the statutes and the laws, and shalt show them the way wherein they must walk, and the work that they must do."

The advice that Jethro gave did not in any manner encroach upon Moses' authority nor erode his position as Leader and Lawgiver for the people, but it merely opened up some ways by which Moses would be able to conserve his energies and strength for more important matters, while, at the same time delegating numerous and less important things to others. In the next paragraph, Jethro suggested some qualifications for such men as Jethro would recommend for appointment to the delegated places of authority Jethro had suggested.

Verses 21-23

"Moreover thou shalt provide out of all the people able men, such as fear God, men of truth, hating unjust gain; and place such over them, to be rulers of thousands, rulers of hundreds, rulers of fifties, and rulers of tens: and let them judge the people at all seasons: and it shall be, that every great matter they shall bring unto thee, but every small matter they shall judge themselves: so shall it be easier for thyself, and they shall bear the burden with thee. If thou shalt do this thing, and God command thee so, then thou shalt be able to endure, and all this people also shall go to their place in peace."

The tact and graciousness of Jethro are visible here. Note that he did not suggest that Moses take any of his advice, except upon the proviso that God would approve of it and command it. Moses, of course, would personally handle all the "Big Decisions!" It was only the "small things" that would be delegated to others.

Note also the qualifications for the judges. It would be difficult, even today, to draw up a list of qualifications needed in such positions which would in any manner rival these for applicability and importance.

  1. Able men. Incompetent persons should never be trusted with authority. Even a wicked man who is competent makes a better governor than a righteous incompetent. The N.T. examples of Felix and Festus illustrate this perfectly. Felix was notoriously wicked, and Festus was hailed as "the best" man of a generation in the post of governor, but his incompetence, vacillation, blindness to realities, and other elements of incompetence would have resulted in the murder of the apostle Paul had it not been for Paul's appeal to Caesar.

  2. Such men as fear God. What an important quality this is! Profane and irreligious persons are always unsuitable in any place of authority, especially in the judiciary.

  3. Men of truth. Truth is the cornerstone of trust and justice. Lying judges were the "evening wolves" referred to in the prophets.

  4. Hating unjust gain. In other words, men who could not be bribed! In fact, some of the versions render this, "Choose men ... who hate a bribe." "Bribery is common in the courts of many countries, and the Bible condemns both those who take bribes and those who offer them (Psalms 26:10; Job 15:34)."[29] For Christians it is significant to remember that the apostle remained in prison for two years after the governor (Felix) had declared him to be innocent, and the only thing it would have taken to get Paul's freedom would have been for the Christians to have satiated Felix's lust to receive a bribe.

When the judiciary of a state has been corrupted through the appointment of immoral, dishonest, greedy and unjust judges, such a nation cannot long endure. The corruption of the judiciary soon communicates the rottenness of a society to the entire corpus of it, hastening the destruction of it. The minor prophets poured out the wrath of God against unjust judges, and by Jesus' use of a parable concerning an "unjust judge," he demonstrated that such a character was universally known to the people of his times. The Lord spoke of an unjust judge who "feared not God, and regarded not man" (Luke 18:2). In about forty years, that whole nation which supplied Jesus with such a subject perished from the face of the earth.

Jethro promised great benefits provided Moses agreed (with God's approval) to put Jethro's advice in operation. He said: "If you do this, all this people shall go to their own place in peace" (Exodus 18:23). This is almost always recognized as meaning "the land of Canaan" as "their own place." This recognition on Jethro's part that Canaan was the rightful place of Israel indicates his knowledge of the promises of God to the patriarchs. Jethro himself being a descendant of Abraham, and all of this adds weight to the identification of Jethro as a legitimate priest of the one true God.

Verses 24-27

"So Moses hearkened to the voice of his father-in-law, and did all that he had said. And Moses chose able men out of all Israel, and made them heads over the people, rulers of thousands, rulers of hundreds, rulers of fifties, and rulers of tens. And they judged the people at all seasons: the hard causes they brought unto Moses, but every small matter they judged themselves. And Moses let his father-in-law depart; and he went his way into his own land."

Moses followed the excellent advice of the Priest of Midian, his father-in-law, although it is a mistake to think that he did it the same week Jethro was visiting him. The implementation of such an extensive system as that suggested by Jethro was not a task to be undertaken hastily. Moses' statement in this chapter to the effect that he did what Jethro suggested is included here with the narrative, where it belongs, but the actual appointment of the judges came later in Deuteronomy 1:12-18, where it appears that Moses also added a refinement of his own. He charged the people with the responsibility of picking out their judges, much in the same way as the apostles instructed the people to choose The Seven (Acts 6:3f).

The last verse of the chapter tells of the departure of Jethro. A moment's reflection will emphasize what an important and significant visit he had made: (1) He restored Moses' family to him, after their having been separated about one year; (2) as a legitimate priest of the Highest One, Jethro no doubt encouraged Moses, mentioning their peaceful entry into Canaan; (3) through his timely suggestion of a system of judges, he made a significant contribution to all subsequent history of Israel; (4) by the same device, he also greatly alleviated the heavy burden of administration which until then had rested upon Moses; and (5) he also offered burnt-offerings and sacrifices to the true God and enjoyed a wonderful meal of religious fellowship with the leaders of God's Chosen People. A Jewish writer complained of the blunt translation, "he let him depart," stating that this rendition "misses the idiom, the meaning being that, `Moses bade his father-in-law farewell,' as at Genesis 26:31."[30] Based on that, Rawlinson understood Jethro to be the brother-in-law of Moses. Surely, after such a glorious period of time together, the departure of Jethro must have been marked with all of the honors and courtesies that had welcomed him upon the occasion of his arrival.

All Israel must have deeply appreciated Jethro, because when the division of the land of Canaan was made among the tribes of Israel, Jethro (perhaps in the person of his descendants) received a portion (Josephus, op. cit., p. 151).

Bibliographical Information
Coffman, James Burton. "Commentary on Exodus 18". "Coffman's Commentaries on the Bible". Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. 1983-1999.