JETHRO (jĕth'rō, Heb. yithrô, excellence). A priest of Midian and father-in-law of Moses (Exod.3.1). Reuel, which means “friend of God,” seems to have been his personal name (Exod.2.18; Exod.3.1), and Jethro his honorary title. When Moses fled from Egypt to Midian, he was welcomed into the household of Jethro because of his kindness to the priest’s seven daughters, whom he helped water their flocks. Moses married Zipporah, one of the daughters and kept his father-in-law’s flocks for about forty years (Exod.3.1-Exod.3.2). After the Lord commanded Moses to return to Egypt to deliver the enslaved Israelites, Jethro gave him permission to depart. Moses took with him his wife Zipporah and their two sons (Exod.4.18-Exod.4.20), but later he sent the three back to stay with Jethro temporarily. After the deliverance from Egypt, before the Israelites reached Sinai, Jethro came to see Moses, bringing back to him his daughter and her two sons (Exod.18.1-Exod.18.7). We are told that “Jethro was delighted to hear about all the good things the Lord had done for Israel,” and that he offered a burnt offering to the Lord. When he saw how occupied Moses was in deciding disputes among his people, he suggested the appointment of judges of various grades to help him decide cases of minor importance. Moses acted on his advice. Jethro then returned to his own country.
JETHRO jĕth’ rō (יִתְרֹ֥ו; LXX ̓Ιοθὸρ, abundance or excellence). Priest of Midian; father-in-law of Moses.
There is some confusion concerning the names used for Moses’ father-in-law. Jethro is also called Reuel in two places (Exod 2:18; Num 10:29). He is called Hobab in Judges 4:11, but in Numbers 10:29 Hobab seems to be Reuel’s (Jethro’s) son. In all other passages the name Jethro is used. The Scriptures do not explain the difficulty. Jethro apparently was known by all of these names. As a priest of Midian, it may be that he was given a different name by the various Midianite tribes that he served in the Sinai peninsula and the area E of the Gulf of Aqaba.
When Moses fled from Egypt (Exod 2:15), he came to the land of Midian. Stopping at a watering place, he had occasion to champion the cause of seven shepherdesses, and thus gain the favor and protection of their father Jethro, a priest of Midian. Moses was content to dwell with Jethro and tend his sheep. In time he married Zipporah, one of his daughters. We are not told in what religion Jethro served as priest, nor the name of its deity. We are told, however, that Moses was vouchsafed a theophany by “the God of Abraham...Isaac...Jacob...” while tending Jethro’s sheep (Exod 3:1ff.). In this divine-human encounter he was commissioned to deliver the enslaved Israelites from Egypt. In due time Moses took his wife and children and set out for Egypt (Exod 4:20), but apparently he sent his family back to Midian, for they joined the camp of Israel for the first time when Jethro made his visit there (Exod 18:5ff.).
In addition to reuniting Moses and his family, the visit of Jethro was important for at least two reasons: (1) he either acknowledged or reaffirmed his faith in the supremacy of Israel’s God, and (2) he assisted Moses in setting up an administrative and judicial system for Israel.
On Jethro’s arrival in camp, Moses seemed eager to tell his father-in-law of God’s marvelous deliverance of Israel at the Red Sea, and of God’s continued protection and guidance in the wilderness. When he had finished, Jethro was so deeply impressed that he began to bless the God of Israel, saying, “Now I know that the Lord [Yahweh] is greater than all gods” (Exod 18:11). He then witnessed his faith in Israel’s God by conducting a sacrificial meal to which, along with Moses, Aaron and the elders of Israel were invited. Was Jethro already acquainted with the God of the Hebrews? Some scholars think he was.
Jethro’s next contribution came when he observed Moses trying to serve as judge and moderator for the vast multitude of ex-slaves (Exod 18:13). He immediately saw that it was too much for one man. He advised Moses to set up a system that would organize the Israelites into a respectable nation of people, and at the same time relieve their leader of an unmanageable amount of responsibility. He outlined his method of organization (18:17-23): the multitude should be separated into units, with a leader over each unit to whom authority for settling minor problems is delegated. In this way only the more difficult problems would come to Moses. Moses quickly saw that his father-in-law was correct in his evaluation of the situation, and accepted his advice.
For several decades scholars have sought to credit Jethro for originating Mosaic religion. Involved in the problem is the name for God used in the OT. Basing their views on Exodus 6:3, these scholars claim that God was not known to Israel as Yahweh (the Lord) until the time of Moses. They insist that Moses learned all he knew about Yahweh from Jethro who was a Yahwistic priest among the Midianites. Moses, in turn, introduced this tribal god of the Kenites (see Kenites) to Israel, perhaps changing things a bit to suit his needs.
Although much at this point is hidden from our view, it is evident from the Scriptures that God was known by His name Yahweh (the Lord) in the Palestinian area long before the time of Moses (see Gen 4:26; 6:3, 5; 12:1, 4, et al.). To say that Moses and the children of Israel had never heard of Yahweh before meeting Jethro is inaccurate. He was none other than “the God of your fathers” (Exod 3:6, 13). On the other hand, it is true that Moses took an old and familiar name and deepened and enriched its meaning from his own experience with God at the burning bush, at the Red Sea, and on Mt. Sinai—and in doing so he became the founder of Heb. religion.
Because “Yahweh” was a well-known name for God among the tribes of the Middle E, it is altogether possible that Jethro knew and worshiped God as Yahweh before visiting Moses’ camp. When one remembers that the Midianites (see Midian, Midianites) were descendants of Abraham by Keturah (Gen 25:2, 4; 1 Chron 1:32, 33), it is not unlikely that at least some of the Midianite tribes, such as the Kenites (Judg 1:16; 4:11), may have continued to worship God as Yahweh until the time of Moses.
F. James, Personalities of the Old Testament (1939), 24, 25; N. Glueck, Rivers in the Desert (1959), 132-134; G. L. Archer, SOTI (1964), 110-115; W. Harrelson, Interpreting the Old Testament (1964), 77-80.
International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)
jeth’-ro, je’-thro (yithro, "excellence," Ex 3:1; 4:18 b; 18:1-12 (in 4:18a, probably a textual error, yether, "Iether," the King James Version margin, the Revised Version margin); Septuagint always Iothor): The priest of Midian and father-in-law (chothen) of Moses.
1. His Relation to Reuel and Hobab:
2. His Hearty Reception of Moses:
When Moses fled from Egypt he found refuge in Midian, where he received a hearty welcome into the household of Jethro on account of the courtesy and kindness he had shown to the priest’s 7 daughters in helping them to water their flock. This friendship resulted in Jethro giving Moses his daughter, Zipporah, to wife (Ex 2:15-21). After Moses had been for about 40 years in the service of his father-in-law, the angel of the Lord appeared to him in the burning bush as he was keeping the flock at Horeb, commanding him to return to Egypt and deliver his enslaved brethren out of the hands of Pharaoh (Ex 3:1 ). With Jethro’s consent Moses left Midian to carry out the Divine commission (Ex 4:18).
3. His Visit to Moses in the Wilderness:
When tidings reached Midian of "all that God had done for Moses, and for Israel" in delivering them from Egyptian bondage, Jethro, with a natural pride in the achievements of his relative, set out on a visit to Moses, taking Zipporah and her two sons with him (Ex 18:1-12). On learning of his father-in-law’s arrival at the "mount of God," Moses went out to meet him, and after a cordial exchange of courtesies they retired to Moses’ tent, where a pleasant interview took place between them. We are told of the interest Jethro felt in all the particulars of the great deliverance, how he "rejoiced for all the goodness which Yahweh had done to Israel," and how the conviction was wrought within him that Yahweh was "greater than all gods; yea, in the thing wherein they dealt proudly against them" (Ex 18:11). In this condition so expressed there is evidently a reference to the element by which the Egyptians thought in their high-handed pursuit they would be able to bring back Israel into bondage, but by which they were themselves overthrown.
It is worth noting that in the religious service in which Jethro and Moses afterward engaged, when Jethro, as priest, offered a burnt offering, and Aaron with all the elders of Israel partook of the sacrificial feast, prominence was given to Jethro over Aaron, and thus a priesthood was recognized beyond the limits of Israel.
4. His Wise Counsel:
This visit of Jethro to Moses had important consequences for the future government of Israel (Ex 18:13-27). The priest of Midian became concerned about his son-in-law when he saw him occupied from morning to night in deciding the disputes that had arisen among the people. The labor this entailed, Jethro said, was far too heavy a burden for one man to bear. Moses himself would soon be worn out, and the people, too, would become weary and dissatisfied, owing to the inability of one judge to overtake all the eases that were brought before him. Jethro, therefore, urged Moses to make use of the talents of others and adopt a plan of gradation of judges who would dispose of all eases of minor importance, leaving only the most difficult for him to settle by a direct appeal to the will of God. Moses, recognizing the wisdom of his father-in-law’s advice, readily acted upon his suggestion and appointed "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." Thereafter, Jethro returned to his own country.
5. His Character and Influence:
The story of Jethro reveals him as a man of singular attractiveness and strength, in whom a kind, considerate disposition, a deeply religious spirit, and a wise judgment all met in happy combination. And this ancient priest of Midian made Israel and all nations his debtors when he taught the distinction between the legislative and the judicial function, and the importance of securing that all law be the expression of the Divine will, and that its application be entrusted only to men of ability, piety, integrity and truth (Ex 18:21).