Bible Commentaries
Exodus 18

Whedon's Commentary on the BibleWhedon's Commentary


JETHRO’S VISIT TO MOSES, Exodus 18:1-27.

It is interesting to note that the hostile conflict with Amalek is immediately followed in this record by the friendly visit of Jethro, the Midianite. “Of all the characters that come across us in this stage of their history, he is the purest type of the Arabian chief. In the sight of his numerous flocks feeding round the well in Midian, in his courtesy to the stranger who became at once his slave and his son-in-law, we seem to be carried back to the days of Jacob and Laban. And now the old chief, attracted from far by the tidings of his kinsman’s fame, finds him out in the heart of the mountains of Sinai, encamped by the mount of God.… He listens, and with his own priestly sanctity acknowledges the greatness of his kinsman’s God; he officiates (if one may so say) like a second Melchizedek, the high priest of the desert.… He is the first friend, the first counsellor, the first guide, that they have met since they cut themselves off from the wisdom of Egypt, and they hang upon his lips like children.” Stanley. This narrative stands, therefore, in its contrast with the battle with Amalek as a typical portraiture of those other non-Israelitish peoples who, unlike the hostile Amalekites, were ready to recognise in the God of Israel a personality and power above all other gods. Thus in the history of God’s chosen people, and in the development of his kingdom, while some are fast and bitter to fight against his truth, others recognise in it the wisdom and power of the Most High. On the chronological order of this event see note on Exodus 18:5.

Verse 1

1. Jethro See note on Exodus 2:18, and concluding note at the end of that chapter . He was, like Melchizedek, a patriarchal priest, and, as Exodus 18:12 shows, was wont to offer burnt offerings and sacrifices unto God.

Heard of all that God had done The marvels of the Exodus sounded out among the heathen far and wide. Compare Joshua 2:10. Such wonders made it conspicuous that no human hand or power, but Jehovah, had brought Israel out of Egypt. Thus was the name of Israel’s God magnified among the nations .

Verse 2

2. After he had sent her back See notes on Exodus 4:24-26. The discrepancies which some interpreters find between this account and Moses’s return into Egypt narrated in Exodus 4:18-26, are creations of their own fancy . Our historian has not given us all the details . The statement of Exodus 4:20, that Moses took his wife and sons, and “returned to the land of Egypt,” is seen from the immediate context to mean that he started with them to return, and that they accompanied him until the incident which occurred by the way (Exodus 18:24-26) served as an occasion for her returning with her sons to her father’s house . This simple and natural supposition solves all the difficulties, and is itself suggested by the record here given . The work and exposures of Moses in Egypt made it expedient that his wife and children return and abide in Midian until he should return home from Egypt at the head of his people . Another reasonable hypothesis is, that Moses took his wife and sons to Egypt, and that after the opposition to his mission became formidable, he secretly sent them back from Egypt to the home of Jethro.

Verse 3

3. Gershom See on Exodus 2:22.

Verse 4

4. Eliezer Here for the first time mentioned by name, but both sons are referred to in Exodus 4:20, and it is supposed that this younger son was the one circumcised by the way, (Exodus 4:25. ) The name means, my God is a help, and was given either in remembrance of Moses’s past deliverance from the sword of Pharaoh, or as expressing his hope for the future . The fear of execution as one guilty of blood, and the purpose of Pharaoh to slay him, were the cause of his flight from Egypt, (Exodus 2:15.) The same old fear may have arisen at the thought of his returning, and if Eliezer were born about that time there would have been a special appropriateness in the name. We should then render: and he will deliver me, etc.

Verse 5

5. Where he encamped at the mount of God This most naturally means that Jethro’s visit occurred after the Israelites had reached Sinai and encamped before the mountain . No other view, probably, would have been entertained were it not for the statement of Exodus 19:2, which seems to place the arrival at Sinai chronologically subsequent to this visit of Jethro . The mount of God means, in this verse, the same as in Exodus 3:1; but there appears no insuperable objection to understanding by it the whole Sinaitic range or mass of mountains known as Horeb. So far, therefore, as the words here used determine the question, we may admit that Jethro’s visit might have occurred either at the encampment of Rephidim or of Sinai. But the account of what was done during this visit especially the laborious work of Moses in Exodus 18:13, and the appointment of judges recommended by Jethro, Exodus 18:14-26, implies more time than the halt at Rephidim supposes. A comparison of Exodus 16:1; Exodus 19:1, appears to put all the journeys and events between the arrival at the wilderness of Sin and the arrival at Sinai within about fifteen days . This perhaps was time enough for all that is here recorded, including the visit of Jethro; and yet it is certainly more natural to understand that the adoption of Jethro’s counsel and the appointment of judges occupied more time than such a crowding of events assumes . The adoption of Jethro’s counsel, however, and the choosing of judges described in Exodus 18:24-26 need not be supposed to have occurred until a later time . The writer might have introduced the statement at this point to show that the valuable advice of the aged Midianite priest was observed, without meaning to say that all this occurred during Jethro’s stay . But, on the other hand, it is not probable that such a sitting to judge the people as is described in Exodus 18:13-16 would occur at Rephidim; but, after the more permanent encampment “before the mount,” (Exodus 19:2,) such appointed seasons of judgment became a necessity . We incline, therefore, to the opinion that the events of this chapter belong to a period subsequent to the arrival at Sinai, and are designedly introduced out of their strict chronological order for the purpose of separating them from the more sacred revelation and legislation which proceeded from Jehovah, and which the writer wished to place by themselves. The friendly Midianite, as we have observed, is brought to our attention in immediate contrast with the hostile Amalekite, and such associations and contrasts are made more prominent by the sacred writer than mere chronological order.

Verse 6

6. He said unto Moses That is, as the context shows, and as true Oriental custom required, he said this word to Moses by messengers sent before him to announce his coming . The Vulgate reads: He sent word (mandavit) to Moses, saying . Septuagint: It was told Moses, saying, Behold Jethro, thy father in law, is come to thee .

Verse 7

7. Did obeisance This brief but vivid description is true to the warmth and emotion of genuine Oriental greeting . The interest of the occasion was greatly enhanced by the reunion of Moses and his wife and children and the wondrous events that had taken place since they were last together .

Verse 8

8. Moses told A thrilling tale! Such wonders as the plagues of Egypt and the miracles of the exodus would have speedily become the subject of national song and history . The presumption, in the absence of any evidence, that Moses would also commit the great events of his time to writing, is far greater than that he would not . By the travail that found them by the way we understand the hunger and thirst and exhaustion which caused the people to murmur; also the war with Amalek .

Verse 9

9. Jethro rejoiced For he was possessed of that high, reverent spirit which gladly accepts the lessons of God’s mighty works . Although outside of the chosen people, he joyfully accepts and profits by their higher revelations .

Verse 10

10. Jethro said Lange regards this utterance of Jethro as lyrical . Exodus 18:10-11 may be thrown into poetic form as follows:

Blessed be Jehovah,

Who delivered you from the hand of the Egyptians,

And from the hand of Pharaoh .

Who delivered the people from under the hand of the Egyptians .

Now know I that Jehovah is greater than all the gods;

For [he magnified himself] in the thing

In which they acted proudly against them .

Verse 11

11. He was above them The exact sense of the latter half of this verse is uncertain . The English translators understood the עליחם to refer to the false gods, and supplying he was would most naturally make these gods rather than the Egyptians the subject of the verb זדו , acted proudly . But inasmuch as something is to be supplied, it seems better to carry over into this last sentence of the verse the thought expressed in the גדול מן of the preceding line . It seems probable that some word or words have fallen out before בדבר , in the thing, and we take the sentiment to be: Jehovah is greater than all the gods, for he showed this in all the things wherein the Egyptians acted proudly against the Israelites . Comp . Nehemiah 9:10. Reference is to the oppression and persecution which Israel received from the Egyptians, and the pursuit which ended at the Red Sea, where Jehovah triumphed gloriously .

Verse 12

12. Burnt offering and sacrifices for God Jethro, the venerable priest, according to ancient usages of patriarchal worship, presides and officiates at this sacrifice and festival. The Levitical ritual and institutions had not yet been established, and no one but Jethro could, on that occasion, have so appropriately acted as priest. This great patriarch, with an intensified faith in Jehovah as the only true God, (Exodus 18:10-11,) worships in thorough accord with Moses and Aaron and all the elders of Israel. All these probably assisted in some form at this sacrifice. Comp. Genesis 31:46-54. “This passage is of great importance in its bearings upon the relation between the Israelites and their congeners, and upon the state of religion among the descendants of Abraham.” Speaker’s Commentary.

Verse 13

13. On the morrow After the sacrificial feast described in Exodus 18:12. The duties of friendship, love, and hospitality must give place to those of public responsibility and care. The very next day after the joyful feast the great lawgiver and judge resumes his arduous work. It has been suggested that difficulties arising out of the division of the spoil of the Amalekites occasioned the disputes which Moses sat all day to decide. This, however, is a pure supposition, and we have no evidence that the Israelites captured any considerable amount of spoil from the defeated Amalekites. Various causes of dispute and strife would naturally arise from time to time among the thousands of Israel, and nothing can be determined from this fact as to the date of Jethro’s visit.

Verse 14

14. Why sittest thou thyself alone? A question which might well be put to others besides Moses, who never appear to reflect that much important work is often better done by many than by one . He who assumes to do all the judging and counselling in the Church and congregation of the Lord is likely both to injure himself and to hinder others from entering fields of useful labour .

Verse 15

15. The people come unto me to inquire of God They recognised Moses as their divinely chosen lawgiver and judge, and his decision in any given case would be of the nature of a divine oracle . If we understand that this event occurred soon after the first Sinaitic legislation, it has a force not otherwise so apparent . See especially note on next verse .

Verse 16

16. A matter A matter of controversy requiring the intervention of a judge .

I do make them know the statutes of God, and his laws The statutes and laws ( torahs) are not naturally understood of such enactments and “judgments” as Moses is commanded, in Exodus 21:1, to set before the people . As matters of dispute arose, the judgments sought of Moses afforded him a most fitting opportunity to communicate to the people such statutes and laws as many of those recorded in chaps. 21 and 22. The people observed that Jehovah talked from heaven with their great leader, (Exodus 20:18-22,) and would thenceforth accept his word as a God-given oracle. Compare Exodus 18:15. The way in which Moses in this verse speaks of his judging the people, and making them know the laws, implies something that had already become habitual with him a thing hardly supposable before their arrival at Sinai. This passage also suggests how Moses may have orally set forth many statutes and ordinances both before and after he had written them in a book.

Verse 18

18. Wear away Hebrews, fading thou wilt fade . That is, as a leaf that withers and decays . Excessive labour and anxiety will send the strongest and holiest man into decline .

And this people The people as well as the judge would necessarily become weary and restless by long waiting and delay of judgment, and some, perhaps, would be tempted to go away and take the judgment into their own hands .

Verse 19

19. I will give thee counsel Like Melchizedek, “priest of the Most High God,” (Genesis 14:18,) who blessed Abram, the father of the faithful, Jethro, another priest of like rank, assumes to counsel Moses the man of God . Conscious of holding an approved relationship toward God, he put forth his advice as one having a measure of authority over his son-in-law .

Be thou for the people to God-ward That is, be thou the representative and spokesman of the people before God, as the next sentence further explains . That thou mayest bring the causes ( הדברים , matters of controversy, comp . Exodus 18:16) unto God Matters of great moment, on which divine counsel was to be sought, should be intrusted to Moses; but affairs of less importance might be left to inferior judges . Exodus 18:22.

Verse 20

20. Teach them ordinances and laws Equivalent to making “them know the statutes and laws” in Exodus 18:16. The word rendered teach (Hiphil of זהר ) means to shed light upon . Moses was to exercise the twofold office of appearing in behalf of the people before God and of revealing God’s truth to the people . Thus he was an honoured mediator, being intercessor, advocate, lawgiver, and judge .

The way… the work Two important and comprehensive phases of godliness, equivalent to life and action .

Verse 21

21. Able men Men of strong, commanding character, and manifestly competent for the work to be done . Four distinguishing qualities of the ideal judge are here expressed: able, (competent, capable,) God-fearing, truth-loving, and bribery-hating . Without these qualities no man is fit to occupy a judgment seat . בצע , here rendered covetousness, means unrighteous gain, obtained by way of extortion . The righteous ruler “despiseth the gain of oppressions, shaking his hands from holding bribes . ” Isaiah 33:15.

To be rulers Chiefs or princes .

Thousands,… hundreds,… fifties,… tens “This minute classification of the people is thoroughly in accordance with the Semitic character, and was retained in after ages . The numbers appear to be conventional, corresponding nearly, but not exactly, to the military or civil divisions of the people . ” Speaker’s Com . Comp . Numbers 1:16; Numbers 10:4; Joshua 22:14.

Verse 22

22. Great matter… small matter See note on Exodus 18:19.

Verse 23

23. To their place Some think that Jethro here refers to Canaan as the promised home or place of Israel . But the more simple reference is to the common place of abode, the tent or home, to which the people, having had their matters of controversy adjusted, could speedily return .

Verse 24

24. Moses hearkened He was meek, deferential, and prompt to profit by the counsel of the venerable priest .

Bibliographical Information
Whedon, Daniel. "Commentary on Exodus 18". "Whedon's Commentary on the Bible". 1874-1909.