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EXODUS 18

PARAGRAPH DIVISIONS OF MODERN TRANSLATIONS

NASB NKJV NRSV TEV NJB
Jethro, Moses' Father-in-Law Jethro's Advice Jethro's Visit Jethro Visits Moses The Meeting of Jethro and Moses
18:1-4 18:1-12 18:1-9 18:1-12 18:1-4
18:5-12 18:5-11
18:10-12
18:12
The Appointment of Judges The Appointment of Judges
18:13-16 18:13-23 18:13-23 18:13-14 18:13-23
Jethro Counsels Moses 18:15-16
18:17-23 18:17-23
18:24-27 18:24-27 18:24-27 18:24-26 18:24-26
18:27 18:27

READING CYCLE THREE (see "Bible Interpretation Seminar")
FOLLOWING THE ORIGINAL AUTHOR'S INTENT AT THE PARAGRAPH LEVEL

This is a study guide commentary, which means that you are responsible for your own interpretation of the Bible. Each of us must walk in the light we have. You, the Bible, and the Holy Spirit are priority in interpretation. You must not relinquish this to a commentator.

Read the chapter in one sitting. Identify the subjects. Compare your subject divisions with the five translations above. Paragraphing is not inspired, but it is the key to following the original author's intent, which is the heart of interpretation. Every paragraph has one and only one subject.
  1. First paragraph
  2. Second paragraph
  3. Etc.

CONTEXTUAL INSIGHTS

  1. Moses' father-in-law has been the subject of much discussion among both Jewish and Christian theologians for the following reasons.
    1. He is a priest of Midian, yet he offers a sacrifice to God in which Aaron and the elders participated (cf. Exod. 18:12).
    2. Moses greets him with much respect (cf. Exod. 18:7).
    3. He offers a blessing to YHWH (cf. Exod. 18:10).
    4. He makes a strong theological affirmation of YHWH's uniqueness (cf. Exod. 18:11).
    5. Although he is possibly a pagan, Moses takes advice from him on how to structure the legal system of Israel (cf. Exod. 18:13-23,24).
    6. This man is known by at least four different names.
      1. Jether, Exod. 4:18
      2. Reuel, Exod. 2:18 (cf. Num. 10:29)
      3. Hobab, Num. 10:29; Jdgs. 4:11
      4. Jethro, Exod. 18:1

  2. This is the only chapter where we are introduced to Moses' second son, Eliezer. We know nothing more about him except that his name means "God is my help" (BDB 45). This is a much more encouraging title than the name of the first son, Gershom, which means "sojourner" (BDB 177). The last time we see Zipporah (BDB 862, meaning "little bird"), Moses' wife, she is on the way to Egypt with Moses and, yet, here in Exodus 18, she had apparently been sent home to her father (cf. Exod. 18:2). The exact relationship between Exod. 4:20 and this chapter is uncertain.

WORD AND PHRASE STUDY

NASB (UPDATED) TEXT: 18:1-4
1Now 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. 2Jethro, Moses' father-in-law, took Moses' wife Zipporah, after he had sent her away, 3and her two sons, of whom one was named Gershom, for Moses said, "I have been a sojourner in a foreign land." 4The other was named Eliezer, for he said, "The God of my father was my help, and delivered me from the sword of Pharaoh."

18:1 "Jethro" See note A. in Contextual Insights.

▣ "the priest of Midian" Because Jethro is allowed to offer a sacrifice in Exod. 18:12 and because he is so pleased to hear what God has done for Israel, Exod. 18:9, and also because he uses such YHWHistic terms to speak to God, Exod. 19:10,11, many have assumed that he knew YHWH before he met Moses. Some have even assumed that Moses learned about God from Jethro. This has been called the "Kenite theory" because the Midianites and Kenites are related and this may go back to an earlier group who followed YHWH. However enticing this theory might be, there is just not enough evidence to advocate it.

▣ "God. . .the Lord" These are the two major names for God. Elohim is usually translated "God" and "YHWH" is usually translated "the Lord" (see SPECIAL TOPIC: NAMES FOR DEITY, C. and D.). The JEPD source theory assumes that this comes from two different authors. This chapter is a good example of how ridiculous this theory is when pushed to extremes. Both of the terms, Elohim and YHWH, are used repeatedly in this chapter in one obvious literary unit. See SPECIAL TOPIC: PENTATEUCH SOURCE CRITICISM (J.E.P.D).

18:2-4 This seems to be a historical flashback giving information about Moses' family. TEV has Exod. 18:3b-4 in parentheses.

18:2 "Zipporah" This name means "a little bird" (BDB 862). Some believe it specifically refers to "a warbler" (cf. Exod. 2:21).

▣ "after he sent her away" This term meant "divorce" in rabbinical Judaism (cf. Deut. 24:1). In this context, however, it only meant sending her back to her father for a period of time, probably for safety reasons. The rabbis say that this was at the instigation and encouragement of Aaron. It seems to be related to the very difficult and ambiguous passage in Exod. 4:24-26, but the exact "what" and "why" is uncertain. When we last saw Moses and Zipporah they had only one son and now, two (cf. Exod. 18:4).

18:3 "Gershom. . .Eliezer" Gershom is the first son who we were introduced to earlier in Exodus. His name means "sojourner," which reflects Moses' discouraged attitude. The second son, whom we knew nothing about, has a more encouraging name, "God is my help" (cf. Exod. 18:4). The fact that this son is mentioned and not spoken of later is a good evidence for the historicity of this account (see SPECIAL TOPIC: OT HISTORIOGRAPHY COMPARED TO NEAR EASTERN CULTURES). It also shows the selective nature of Hebrew historical narrative (see SPECIAL TOPIC: HEBREW NARRATIVE).

NASB (UPDATED) TEXT: 18:5-12
5Then Jethro, Moses' father-in-law, came with his sons and his wife to Moses in the wilderness where he was camped, at the mount of God. 6He sent word to Moses, "I, your father-in-law Jethro, am coming to you with your wife and her two sons with her." 7Then Moses went out to meet his father-in-law, and he bowed down and kissed him; and they asked each other of their welfare and went into the tent. 8Moses told his father-in-law all that the Lord had done to Pharaoh and to the Egyptians for Israel's sake, all the hardship that had befallen them on the journey, and how the Lord had delivered them. 9Jethro rejoiced over all the goodness which the Lord had done to Israel, in delivering them from the hand of the Egyptians. 10So Jethro said, "Blessed be the Lord who delivered you from the hand of the Egyptians and from the hand of Pharaoh, and who delivered the people from under the hand of the Egyptians. 11Now I know that the Lord is greater than all the gods; indeed, it was proven when they dealt proudly against the people." 12Then Jethro, Moses' father-in-law, took a burnt offering and sacrifices for God, and Aaron came with all the elders of Israel to eat a meal with Moses' father-in-law before God.

18:5 "the mount of God" This sometimes goes by the non-Semitic name of Sinai, which seems to be related to the Wilderness of Sin and reflects either the soil, climate, or vegetation. This mountain is also referred to by the Hebrew name Horeb (cf. Exod. 3:1; 4:27; 24:13), but we are uncertain of the etymology.

18:6 Israel would be leery of approaching groups of people.
The LXX and Syriac translations have "Lo!" (cf. RSV, REB, NJB, cf. Gen. 48:2) instead of the MT's pronoun "I" (JPSOA, NRSV), which would imply Jethro speaking directly to Moses before he arrived at the Israelite campsite. It is possible that this direct speech is from a servant sent ahead to give Moses the message (UBS Handbook, p. 430).

18:7 "Moses went out to meet his father-in-law, and he bowed down and kissed him" Rabbinical Judaism is perplexed by this verse because of the gracious greeting of Moses, the man of God, to Jethro, the unbeliever (in their opinion). However, this seems to be the common Oriental greeting, not some kind of theological gesture.

▣ "welfare" This is literally shalom. See SPECIAL TOPIC: PEACE (OT). They truly seem to care for each other (note same idiom in Gen. 43:27).

18:8 This shows the oral culture of the ANE. See John H. Walton and D. Brent Sandy, The Lost World of Scripture.

▣ "delivered" This VERB in the Hiphil stem (BDB 664, KB 717, cf. Exod. 18:10 [twice]) denotes snatching something out of the hand (i.e., power) of another (cf. Exod. 2:19; 2 Sam. 14:16; 19:9; 22:1; 2 Kgs. 20:6; 2 Chr. 32:11; Ezra 8:31). Notice in the Piel stem it is used of Israel "plundering" the Egyptians in the exodus (cf. Exod. 3:22; 12:36).
Notice the emphasis is on the power of YHWH (i.e., Holy War), not Moses nor the Israeli army.

18:9 "Jethro rejoiced over all the goodness which the Lord had done to Israel, in delivering them from the hand of the Egyptians" This is a tremendous theological passage which contains many characteristic YHWHistic, covenant terms. I personally believe that Jethro must have known about YHWH before this encounter. The rabbis say that he was converted in this experience, but it seems obvious to me that he is reflecting previous knowledge and is rejoicing in YHWH's continued goodness and promises.

18:11 "Now I know that God is greater than all the gods" This is either evidence that Jethro received new knowledge about YHWH, which is the assertion of the rabbis, or this is a Hebrew idiom (cf. Ps. 135:5). See SPECIAL TOPIC: MONOTHEISM.
The ending of this verse is unusual. The Jerusalem Bible footnotes (p. 101) assert something has been left out, as does Brevard S. Childs, The Book of Exodus, p. 320. It seems to refer to the idols of Egypt specifically. The plagues and the exodus showed the weakness of Egypt's gods/idols (cf. Exod. 12:12; Num. 33:4).
It is hard to know if confessions of YHWH's power directly relates to personal faith in YHWH.

  1. Rahab - Jos. 2:8-11
  2. a woman - 1 Kgs. 17:24
  3. Naaman - 2 Kgs. 5:15
  4. Cyrus II - Isa. 45:3
  5. Nebuchadnezzar - Dan. 2:46-47; 3:28-30; 4:2-3,37
  6. Darius - Dan. 6:25-27
  7. sailors in Jonah - Jonah 1:9,14
  8. Nineveh - Jonah 3:5-10
I affirm faith in YHWH has always been wider than Israel (i.e., Melchizedek, cf. Genesis 14; Abimelech, cf. Gen. 20:3-7; Job; Caleb; Uriah; just to mention a few). These "believers" foreshadow YHWH's desire for all humans made in His image, for fellowship, to have a personal knowledge and awe for Him (see SPECIAL TOPIC: YHWH'S ETERNAL REDEMPTIVE PLAN.

18:12 The "sacrifice" may be a friendship covenant or peace offering (cf. Gen. 31:54). It seems that Moses is making a covenant with Jethro by means of a sacrifice and by consummating it in a communal meal in the presence of Aaron and the elders. The exact purpose of this sacrifice with Jethro is uncertain, unless it is a gesture of thanksgiving to God (cf. Exod. 18:8-9).
There are two sacrifices mentioned here.

  1. a burnt offering, usually totally consumed on the altar by fire
  2. a peace offering, where the offerer and his guest eat part of the animal (i.e., in God's presence)

NASB (UPDATED) TEXT: 18:13-16
13It came about the next day that Moses sat to judge the people, and the people stood about Moses from the morning until the evening. 14Now when Moses' father-in-law saw all that he was doing for the people, he said, "What is this thing that you are doing for the people? Why do you alone sit as judge and all the people stand about you from morning until evening?" 15Moses said to his father-in-law, "Because the people come to me to inquire of God. 16When they have a dispute, it comes to me, and I judge between a man and his neighbor and make known the statutes of God and His laws."

18:13 "the next day that Moses sat to judge the people, and the people stood about Moses from the morning until the evening" The terms "sat" and "stood" are legal terms. This procedure involved an extremely long wait for justice. The same thing caused trouble later in David's reign. Jethro apparently saw the problem, not intentionally but by accident, and offered a very practical suggestion to Moses.
The VERB "judge" (BDB 1047, KB 1622) is used often in this chapter (cf. Exod. 18:13,16,22 [twice], 26 [twice]). See SPECIAL TOPIC: JUDGE, JUDGMENT, and JUSTICE.

18:15 "because the people come to me to inquire of God" It must be remembered that at this point, there is still no priesthood. The tabernacle and priesthood do not come until later in Israel's history (cf. Exodus 25-31; 35-40). Currently Moses was standing as a priest for the people (cf. Exod. 18:19). He also teaches the people (cf. Exod. 18:20) and judges the people (cf. Exod. 18:15). The last three of these will later become aspects of the Aaronic priesthood.

NASB (UPDATED) TEXT: 18:17-23
17Moses' father-in-law said to him, "The thing that you are doing is not good. 18You will surely wear out, both yourself and these people who are with you, for the task is too heavy for you; you cannot do it alone. 19Now listen to me: I will give you counsel, and God be with you. You be the people's representative before God, and you bring the disputes to God, 20then teach them the statutes and the laws, and make known to them the way in which they are to walk and the work they are to do. 21Furthermore, you shall select out of all the people able men who fear God, men of truth, those who hate dishonest gain; and you shall place these over them as leaders of thousands, of hundreds, of fifties and of tens. 22Let them judge the people at all times; and let it be that every major dispute they will bring to you, but every minor dispute they themselves will judge. So it will be easier for you, and they will bear the burden with you. 23If you do this thing and God so commands you, then you will be able to endure, and all these people also will go to their place in peace."

18:18 "You will surely wear out, both yourself and these people" The term "wear out" means "to fade away like a leaf." This is intensified by the use of an INFINITIVE ABSOLUTE and an IMPERFECT VERB from the same root (BDB 615, KB 663). This system of justice would hurt Moses and the people. The delegation of authority is good, not only for Moses, but for those who share the leadership and for those whom they serve.

18:20 "teach them the statutes and the laws, and make known to them the way in which they are to walk and the work they are to do" It is very important that Moses was to show the people what they were to do. Teaching the elders to be responsible for different groups is a tremendously practical piece of advice.
For "the statutes," "the laws," "the ways" see SPECIAL TOPIC: TERMS FOR GOD'S REVELATION. God's revelation at Sinai will begin in Exodus 19. The giving of the law which occurs in Exodus 20-24, may reflect this suggestion of Jethro. God reveals to Moses and he passes it on to the covenant people.
The VERB translated "teach" (BDB 264, KB 265, Hiphil PERFECT with waw) denotes not just information but a warning to obey. In this way it theologically parallels shema (cf. Deut. 6:4), which means "hear so as to do." The covenant with Israel was conditional on obedience (see SPECIAL TOPIC: COVENANT).

18:21 "you shall select out of all the people able men who fear God, men of truth, those who hate dishonest gain" Here is a fourfold qualification which is similar to the one described concerning the specially called group in Acts 6:3 and the church leaders of 1 Tim. 3:1ff. In the account of this event in Deut. 1:9-18, Moses asks the tribes to choose the judges (cf. Deut. 1:13).

▣ "of thousands, of hundreds, of fifties and of tens" This refers to military units (cf. 1 Sam. 29:2; 2 Sam. 18:1). One of the tractates of the Talmud, Sanhedrin 19A, has calculated the number of judges it would take for the number of people mentioned in Exod. 12:37 and have come up with a total of 78,600 judges. See SPECIAL TOPIC: THOUSAND (eleph).

18:23 "If you do this thing and God so commands you" Jethro is obviously speaking in Oriental politeness but the theological underpinnings are very significant. Also, the teachableness of Moses is quite evident (cf. Exod. 18:24).

NASB (UPDATED) TEXT: 18:24-27
24So Moses listened to his father-in-law and did all that he had said. 25Moses chose able men out of all Israel and made them heads over the people, leaders of thousands, of hundreds, of fifties and of tens. 26They judged the people at all times; the difficult dispute they would bring to Moses, but every minor dispute they themselves would judge. 27Then Moses bade his father-in-law farewell, and he went his way into his own land.

18:25 "able men" This NOUN (BDB 298) has several meanings (i.e., "strength," "efficiency," "wealth," "army") but here it denotes a moral and judicial ability.
Notice it does not specify a particular tribe.

18:27 This seems very different from Num. 10:29-32.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

This is a study guide commentary which means that you are responsible for your own interpretation of the Bible. Each of us must walk in the light we have. You, the Bible, and the Holy Spirit are priority in interpretation. You must not relinquish this to a commentator.

These discussion questions are provided to help you think through the major issues of this section of the book. They are meant to be thought-provoking, not definitive.

  1. Who is Jethro and why has there been so much controversy concerning him?
  2. Who is Zipporah and why is the second son only now mentioned?
  3. Why does Moses show such respect to Jethro?
  4. Is Exod. 18:11 a profession of faith?

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