On this day: Jethro

On this day, in the Office of Readings, the story of Moses continues, as Jethro, Moses' father-in-law, gives him some advice.

Jethro had arrived at the Israelites' encampment the day before. Back in Midian, he had heard the news of the Israelites' victory over the Amalekites. He made his way into the Sinai to talk to Moses, bringing Moses' wife and two sons with him.

"Moses went out to meet his father-in-law, bowed down before him, and kissed him. Having greeted each other, they went into the tent. Moses then told his father-in-law of all that the Lord had done to Pharaoh and the Egyptians for the sake of Israel, and of all the hardships they had had to endure on their journey, and how the Lord had come to their rescue. Jethro rejoiced over all the goodness that the Lord had shown Israel in rescuing them from the hands of the Egyptians. 'Blessed be the Lord,' he said, 'who has rescued his people from the hands of Pharaoh and the Egyptians.' Now I know that the Lord is a deity great beyond any other; for he took occasion of their being dealt with insolently to deliver the people from the power of the Egyptians.' Then Jethro, the father-in-law of Moses, brought a holocaust and other sacrifices to God, and Aaron came with all the elders of Israel to participate with Moses' father-in-law in the meal before God."

Exodus, Chapter 18.

It was "Jethro, the priest of Midian, not Moses, the chosen emissary of Yahweh, or Aaron, the high priest of Israel, who performed the Bible's first recorded ritual of sacrifice to Yahweh on the wilderness of Sinai. When the knife was wielded on the sacrificial beast, when blood was spilled on the altar, when flesh was burned as an offering to Yahweh, it was a pagan who presided over the sacred event. Indeed, Moses is not mentioned at all."

--Moses: A Life, by Jonathan Kirsch, Ballantine Books, 1999, p. 232.

In the second half of Chapter 18, the portion read today, Jethro watches Moses sitting in judgement for the people, all day long. "You are not acting wisely," Jethro says. "You will surely wear yourself out." Jethro "instructed his son-in-law in statecraft. Moses ought to shift some of his burdens of office to trusted subordinates". According to "the conventional common structure of ancient armies, Jethro prescribed the appointment of 'rulers of thousands, rulers of hundreds, rulers of fifties, and rulers of ten.'"

--Kirsch, p. 240.

The old man who had taught Moses how to herd sheep now gave him an important lesson in shepherding people. Moses listened to Jethro and did as he advised. His mission accomplished, Jethro went home.

True story? "Folklore and rabbinical tradition found the figure of Jethro--a pagan priest who was mentor to the founder of ethical monotheism--to be both intriguing and troubling. But some modern scholars have suggested that the strong bond between Moses and Jethro as depicted in the Bible as good evidence that the biblical account of Moses in Midian is not mere myth and legend."

--Kirsch, p. 101.


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