וַיֹּ֛אמֶר חֹתֵ֥ן מֹשֶׁ֖ה אֵלָ֑יו לֹא־טוֹב֙ הַדָּבָ֔ר אֲשֶׁ֥ר אַתָּ֖ה עֹשֶֽׂה׃
Moses’ father-in-law replied, “What you are doing is not good.
Yitro (Jethro), the father-in-law of Moses, is one of only three people who have a parashah named after them (Balak and Pinchas are the others). How odd that two of the three are not Israelites at all, and that Yitro’s portion is among the most powerful moments in Torah: the first actual meeting with the God of Israel.
Here is Eli Wiesel’s charming description of him:
One can see Jethro clearly: His demeanor is surely elegant, sincere, irreproachable. He is present only when needed. He speaks only when asked. Everything he does, he does without guile. He never thinks of taking advantage of his position as first counselor to the great leader Moses. No one would ever accuse him of nepotism.
Rabbis have always been amazed that this portion gives such honor to someone who is not a member of the House of Israel (although many commentators regard him as a convert to the faith of Moses). There is even some dispute as to his name.
Now Moses was tending the flock of Jethro his father-in-law, the priest of Midian, and he led the flock to the far side of the desert and came to Horeb, the mountain of God.
When the girls returned to Reuel their father, he asked them, “Why have you returned so early today?”
Now Moses said to Hobab son of Reuel the Midianite, Moses’ father-in-law, “We are setting out for the place about which the LORD said, ‘I will give it to you.’ Come with us and we will treat you well, for the LORD has promised good things to Israel.”
Now Heber the Kenite had left the other Kenites, the descendants of Hobab, Moses’ father-in-law, and pitched his tent by the great tree in Zaanannim near Kedesh.
Thus, the man is either Yitro, Reuel, Hobab the Midianite, or Hobab the Kenite. (Once, when I presented this apparent inconsistency to a man who believes that every word in the Torah is true, he replied: Big Deal! Lots of people are known by three or four names.)
A more scholarly analysis can be found in the Jewish Publications Society commentary:
- Hobab and Jethro are the same person and Reuel is their
- Choten means either brother-in-law or father-in-law (relation of the bride).
- Reuel is a clan name, choten is really chatan (son-in-law), so that Hobab is really Moses’ son-in-law.
- Midian is a confederation of tribes, one of which is the
Moses and the Midianites
It is also interesting to point out that the main god of the Midianites was Jahe, a volcano god. Several historians note that the revelation of the Torah is accompanied by what appears to be a volcano. Still others (including Freud) speculate that JHVH is an amalgam of the Midianite volcano god with the Egyptian Aton (sun god), who fell out of favor in the reign of Rameses II. Thus, the “Israelites” marching through the desert may well have been a collection of disaffected Egyptian monotheists (led by Moses the Egyptian) merged with a Midianite cult led by Yitro. (There is a related idea, called the Kenite hypothesis, that Yitro introduced YHVH to the refugees from Egypt.)
The exchange between Moses and Yitro is profound and strange. Indeed, Exodus 18:7 states that Moses bowed to Yitro (in other translations: prostrated himself, paid obeisance) in a manner that seems altogether inconsistent with Hebrew School Purim stories about Jews not bowing to anyone but God. Indeed, it is in this very passage that the simple relationship between Israel and its God¾previously based almost entirely on a covenant of loyalty and a disavowal of other gods¾begins to be overlaid with a growing cover of ordinances and priestly functions. In other words, the pure, abstract religion of Moses/Aton is beginning its transition into the realm of priestly Judaism.
Yitro the First Management Consultant
When I was a professor at a Jesuit business school, I was interested to learn that Yitro is also regarded as the “first management consultant.” He analyzes Moses’s workflow and creates an organization to process his activities more efficiently.
Exodus 18:13 – 24
The next day Moses took his seat to serve as judge for the people, and they stood around him from morning till evening. When his father-in-law saw all that Moses was doing for the people, he said, “What is this you are doing for the people? Why do you alone sit as judge, while all these people stand around you from morning till evening?” Moses answered him, “Because the people come to me to seek God’s will. Whenever they have a dispute, it is brought to me, and I decide between the parties and inform them of God’s decrees and laws.”
Moses’ father-in-law replied, “What you are doing is not good. You and these people who come to you will only wear yourselves out. The work is too heavy for you; you cannot handle it alone. Listen now to me and I will give you some advice, and may God be with you. You must be the people’s representative before God and bring their disputes to him. Teach them the decrees and laws, and show them the way to live and the duties they are to perform.
But select capable men from all the people–men who fear God, trustworthy men who hate dishonest gain–and appoint them as officials over thousands, hundreds, fifties and tens. Have them serve as judges for the people at all times, but have them bring every difficult case to you; the simple cases they can decide themselves. That will make your load lighter, because they will share it with you.
If you do this and God so commands, you will be able to stand the strain, and all these people will go home satisfied.”
Moses listened to his father-in-law and did everything he said.
(In an endearing commentary, Rashi observes: Can it be that Moses judged the people all day long; if so, when did he have time to study or teach Torah? [Note the typically ahistorical posture. What Torah would Moses have been studying, since it had not yet been revealed!] Rather, the sages teach that a judge who decides a case properly and justly is regarded as if he had studied Torah all day long, and as if he had become a partner in Creation.)
A British company called Blue-Plate Consulting offers this review of Yitro’s consulting process and results:
1. Observed the situation
“…Moses sat to judge the people: and the people stood by Moses from the morning unto the evening”
2. Recognized there was a problem
“..what you are doing is not good. You will surely wear away, both you and this people with you: for this thing is too heavy for you and you are not able to do it alone”.
3. Recommended a solution
“ teach them ordinances and laws, and show them what to do and how to do it”
“find the best men, such as fear God, men of truth, hating covetousness; and place these people in charge, to be rulers of thousands, and rulers of hundreds, rulers of fifties, and rulers of tens”
4. Advised how to implement effectively and efficiently
“And let them judge the people at all seasons: and it shall be, that every great matter they shall bring to you, but every small matter they shall judge..”
5. And explained the benefits
“so shall it be easier for you, and they shall bear the burden with you.”
Indeed, Yitro is given credit for having invented the system of Rabbinical courts which have been the engine of Judaic thought and education for thousands of years.
Yitro in the Koran
Many personages from the Torah also appear in the Koran: Abraham (Ibrahim), Ishmael, Joseph, David, and more. The stories are never identical, but the Koran versions often borrow accents and episodes of the Bible versions. For example, the basis for Joseph’s arrest in Egypt involves a mishap with Potiphar’s houseguests, as in one of the midrashim about Joseph.
Yitro is not only prominent in the Torah, he also makes an important appearance in the Koran as well. Although a different name is used, the Koran identifies Moses’s father- in-law, the high priest of Midian, as Shoaib. Moreover, he is described as the grandson of Abraham (Ibrahim) through Esau, twin brother of Jacob.
The Druze of Israel revere Shoaib and some claim that they are the actual biological descendants of the man. The largest annual religious celebration observed by the Druze takes place at a spot in Tiberias known as the Tomb of Jethro. (There is also a Shoaib tomb/mosque in Jordan.) Interestingly, the Druze enclaves throughout the Middle East distinguish themselves as being loyal to the local secular authority while still honoring their Islamic faith. They erect, if not a wall, then at least a comfortable separation between state and religion.
How did Israel and the Midianites become Enemies
In Exodus, the Midianites take in the fleeing fugitive Moses, arrange a marriage with the daughter of their high priest, and provide him a safe environment for about 40 years. Interestingly, YHVH first communicates with Moses in a burning bush growing in Midian! But by Bamidbar, the relationship between the Israelites who fled Egypt and the Midianites has changed. Balaam and Balak are both Midianites, along with other named enemies.
Numbers 25: 16-18
YHVH said to Moses, “Treat the Midianites as enemies and kill them, because they treated you as enemies when they deceived you in the affair of Peor and their sister Cozbi, the daughter of a Midianite leader, the woman who was killed when the plague came as a result of Peor.”
Cozbi makes a strange and grotesque appearance in the Torah—on the end of Pinchas’ lance! She is the foreign woman found in flagrante with an Israelite man, both of whom Pinchas (Phineas) impales, later bringing the skewered couple to the tent of meeting.
Intermarriage, especially Israelites marrying women from other tribes, is not in itself sinful in the Hebrew Bible. It often leads, though, to the most dangerous sin of all: idolatry, worshipping one’s wife’s god(s). (This process of putting one’s wife’s will against YHVH’s will is an echo of Adam’s uxoriousness in the beginning of Genesis.) The incidence of intermarriage and idolatry is apparently so great at Peor that it causes God to send a plague—which promptly ends with Pinchas’ act of murderous righteousness.
- They yoked themselves to the Baal of Peor and ate sacrifices offered to lifeless gods;
- they aroused the Lord’s anger by their wicked deeds, and a plague broke out among
- But Phinehas stood up and intervened, and the plague was
- This was credited to him as righteousness for endless generations to
This profound change of heart toward Midian is strange and noteworthy. Often, in repetitions of earlier passages, the text replaces the hated Moabites with hated Midianites. Some documentary critics see in this the retelling of earlier JE stories with later P (priestly) stories, the change of enemy reflecting the changing geopolitics of the region.
Priests versus Prophets
Yitro is a remarkable and central figure in the Torah narrative. (Freud even speculated that Yitro was a kind of Moses2, leading the end of the journey to Canaan.)
What’s most remarkable about him is how different he is from the prophets of the Tanach. He is quiet; as Wiesel said, speaking when spoken to. He commands profound respect from Moses, without threat or leverage. And he teaches Moses his most useful skill: adaptability. Like the modern Druze, he can accept and adapt to profound changes in his situation, forgetting ideology and solving practical problems. He lacks Moses’s obsessiveness and thundering self-righteousness; he slays no non-believers; he does not preach or pontificate; and he recommends that the distribution of power and decision-making among the tribes of Israel replace the centralized, monarchic style of Moses. (Putting problem solving as close as possible to the problem is a key principle of management efficiency.)
He won favor from the Israelites and early Muslims and retained it even after the Israelite powers-that-be decided that Midianites were persona no grata. However curious and elliptical his story may be, we must always remember that it was Yitro who sheltered Moses from Pharaoh, created his government in exile, and accompanied him to his volcanic encounter at Sinai.