Exodus 18
Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges
The visit of Jethro to Moses. Appointment of judges to assist Moses in the administration of justice

Entirely, or with unimportant exceptions (as perhaps in vv. 9–11), from E: notice the predominance of God. The chapter is one of great historical interest: it presents a picture of Moses legislating. Cases calling for a legal decision arise among the people: the contending parties come to Moses to have them settled; he adjudicates between them; and his decisions are termed ‘the statutes and directions (tôrôth) of God.’ It was the function of the priests in later times to give oral ‘direction’ upon cases submitted to them, on matters both of civil right Deuteronomy 17:11)1[158], and of ceremonial observance (ib. Exodus 24:8)1[159]; and here Moses himself appears discharging the same function, and so creating the primitive nucleus of Hebrew law. He is not represented as giving the people a finished code, but as deciding upon cases as they arose: decisions given in this way, especially in difficult cases (v. 26), would naturally form precedents for future use (cf. on Exodus 21:1): an increasing body of civil and criminal law would thus gradually grow up, based upon a Mosaic nucleus, and perpetuating Mosaic principles, but augmented by the decisions of later priests or judges, framed to meet the needs of a wider and more varied national life. Collections of such laws, dating, as we have them, from post-Mosaic times, are preserved in the ‘Book of the Covenant’ (Exodus 20:23 to Exodus 23:33), and in the Code embedded in the discourses of Deuteronomy.

[158] EVV. teach: but the Heb. verb is the one used technically of the priests, and meaning to direct (viz. how to act in a given case): see the small print note on p. 162.

[159] EVV. teach: but the Heb. verb is the one used technically of the priests, and meaning to direct (viz. how to act in a given case): see the small print note on p. 162.

The Hebrew tôrâh (‘law’) had a threefold character: it was viz. judicial, ceremonial, and moral. The ceremonial and moral tôrâh as well as the judicial tôrâh is represented in the ‘Book of the Covenant,’ and in Dt.; the moral tôrâh also in parts of the ‘Law of Holiness’ (Leviticus 17-26.); and the ceremonial tôrâh especially in P (the ceremonial laws of Lev. Nu.); but the tôrôth of Exodus 18:15; Exodus 18:20, as the context shews, are exclusively judicial.

Tôrâh, it may be worth while here further to explain, is derived from the verb hôrâh, to point out, direct, mentioned in footnote 1; and means properly pointing out, direction. It may be used of oral direction given by prophets (as Isaiah 1:10; Isaiah 5:24; Isaiah 30:9); but it is used especially of oral direction given by the priests to the laity, in accordance with a traditional body of principles and usages, chiefly on points of ceremonial observance; in process of time the term came further to denote a body of technical direction (or ‘law’) on a given subject (e. g. on leprosy, Leviticus 14:2; Leviticus 14:32; Leviticus 14:54; Leviticus 14:57), and finally to denote ‘the law,’ as a whole. For examples of the use of both the verb (EVV. teach) and the subst. (EVV. law) in the senses explained, see Leviticus 10:11; Leviticus 14:57, Deuteronomy 17:10-11 (‘according to the direction wherewith they shall direct thee’), Exodus 24:8, Exodus 33:10, Micah 3:11 Jeremiah 18:18, Ezekiel 7:26; Ezekiel 44:23, Haggai 2:11 (render, ‘Ask, now, direction of the priest’), Malachi 2:6-9 (see the writer’s notes in the Century Bible); and see further DB. iii. 65 f.

It is another point of interest that Moses, in the establishment of his judicial system, adopted as his instructor a foreigner (Midianite or Kenite: see the note on Exodus 2:18). Hobab (= Jethro) is in Numbers 10:29-32 invited to be the Israelites’ guide through the wilderness; and the Kenites actually accompanied them into Judah (Jdg 1:16). The contact with the family and people of Moses’ father-in-law was thus considerable; and the fact has led to the conjecture that their influence upon early Israel may have been greater than is actually described in our extant narratives, and may have even extended to religious matters (pp. xlix. f., lxiv. n.; comp., with reserve, ATLAO.2 413 f., 433).

There are strong reasons for thinking that this episode stood originally at a later point in the narrative. (1) In v. 5 the ‘wilderness where he was encamped, at the mount of God,’ cannot be Rephidim (Exodus 17:1), but can only be the ‘wilderness of Sinai,’ the arrival at which, however, is not mentioned till Exodus 19:1-2 a. (2) The Deuteronomist quite clearly places the episode at the close of the Israelites’ sojourn at Horeb: he describes viz. the appointment of these judges (Exodus 1:9-18), after the Israelites have been told that they have remained long enough in Horeb, and are directed to leave it (Exodus 1:6-8), and before the statement that they did leave it (Exodus 1:19). Hence it is almost certain that this narrative stood originally in E immediately before E’s account of the departure of Israel from Sinai (narrated in our existing Pentateuch only by P, Numbers 10:11 ff., and J, Numbers 10:33); and that it was still read there by the write of Dt. (Numbers 10:29-32 seems to be J’s account of another incident connected with the same visit of Hobab (i.e. Jethro: see on Exodus 2:18) to Moses.

When Jethro, the priest of Midian, Moses' father in law, heard of all that God had done for Moses, and for Israel his people, and that the LORD had brought Israel out of Egypt;
1. Jethro (Exodus 3:1), the priest of Midian] See on Exodus 2:15-16.

how that] for.

1–7. Meeting of Jethro and Moses.

Then Jethro, Moses' father in law, took Zipporah, Moses' wife, after he had sent her back,
2–4. In all probability an addition of the compiler, made for the purpose of harmonizing the statement in v. 5 that Moses’ sons (in the plural) and his wife were with Jethro, with Exodus 2:15 (J) which mentions the birth of Gershom only, and Exodus 4:25 (J) which implies that Moses had no other son, and with Exodus 4:20 a, 24–26 (also J), where it is stated that Moses took Zipporah back with him to Egypt. The compiler removes the first of these difficulties by supplying the name of Moses’ younger son, and the second by the statement that Moses had ‘sent’ Zipporah ‘away,’ i.e. had sent her back to Midian at some time after the incident Exodus 4:24-26.

And her two sons; of which the name of the one was Gershom; for he said, I have been an alien in a strange land:
3. I have been a sojourner in a foreign land] Repeated verbatim from Exodus 2:22. Eliezer is mentioned only here.

And the name of the other was Eliezer; for the God of my father, said he, was mine help, and delivered me from the sword of Pharaoh:
4. the God of my father] Exodus 3:6 (E), Exodus 15:2 (the Song).

from the sword of Pharaoh] cf. Exodus 2:15.

And Jethro, Moses' father in law, came with his sons and his wife unto Moses into the wilderness, where he encamped at the mount of God:
5. into the wilderness, &c.] The ‘mount of God’ (Exodus 3:1) is Horeb, the ‘wilderness’ consequently can be only the ‘wilderness of Sinai,’ ‘in font of the mount,’ which, however, the Israelites do not reach till Exodus 19:1-2, and which (if Rephidim be in W. Feiran, and Jebel Mûsâ be Sinai) was at least 24 miles beyond Rephidim (see on Exodus 19:1 b, 2). The passage affords a strong argument for the supposition (see above) that Exodus 18 stood originally at a later point in the narrative.

And he said unto Moses, I thy father in law Jethro am come unto thee, and thy wife, and her two sons with her.
6. am come] rather, am coming (the ptcp.; cf. Genesis 29:6 cometh,’ lit is coming). ‘Said’ must mean here, ‘said by the hand of messengers’: see the next verse. Perhaps it is better, however, to read, with LXX. Sam. Pesh., הנה, ‘Behold,’ for אני, ‘I’; i.e. ‘And the said (Genesis 48:1 Heb.) unto Moses, Behold, thy father-in-law, Jethro, is come,’ &c.

And Moses went out to meet his father in law, and did obeisance, and kissed him; and they asked each other of their welfare; and they came into the tent.
7. Moses receives his father-in-law with the usual Oriental etiquette.

did obeisance] lit. bowed himself down, in Eastern fashion: cf. Genesis 23:7; Genesis 23:12; Genesis 33:3; Genesis 33:6-7; Genesis 42:6, &c.

And Moses told his father in law all that the LORD had done unto Pharaoh and to the Egyptians for Israel's sake, and all the travail that had come upon them by the way, and how the LORD delivered them.
8. the travail] lit. weariness: cf. Numbers 20:14 (in a similar connexion), Lamentations 3:5, Nehemiah 9:32†.

8–12. Jethro rejoices to hear of the deliverances vouchsafed to Israel; and offers in thankfulness a sacrifice (v. 12), in which Aaron and the elders of Israel take part as his guests.

And Jethro rejoiced for all the goodness which the LORD had done to Israel, whom he had delivered out of the hand of the Egyptians.
9. rejoiced] A very rare word in Heb., occurring besides only Job 3:6, and (in the causative conj.) Psalm 21:6 b; but common in Aramaic.

delivered them out of the hand of the Egyptians] cf. Exodus 3:8.

And Jethro said, Blessed be the LORD, who hath delivered you out of the hand of the Egyptians, and out of the hand of Pharaoh, who hath delivered the people from under the hand of the Egyptians.
10. from under the hand] as 2 Kings 8:20; 2 Kings 8:22; 2 Kings 13:5; 2 Kings 17:7.

10, 11. Jethro is moved to bless and praise Jehovah for Israel’s deliverance.

Now I know that the LORD is greater than all gods: for in the thing wherein they dealt proudly he was above them.
11. greater than all gods] cf. Exodus 15:11.

for in (or by) the thing wherein they dealt proudly against them …] The end of the sentence has accidentally dropped out; and something like he hath destroyed them must be supplied. Jehovah’s superiority to other gods was shewn by His overthrow of the Egyptians; and this was a consequence of their proud pursuit of the Israelites.

dealt proudly against them] cf. the reminiscence in Nehemiah 9:10.

And Jethro, Moses' father in law, took a burnt offering and sacrifices for God: and Aaron came, and all the elders of Israel, to eat bread with Moses' father in law before God.
12. a burnt offering and sacrifices] see on Exodus 20:24.

to eat bread] i.e. to take part in the sacred meal accompanying the sacrifice: the ‘sacrifice’ here meant being of the nature of the later ‘peace-offering,’ an essential part of which was the accompanying sacred meal, in which the worshipper and his friends partook, and by which they entered symbolically into communion with the Deity (Leviticus 7:15; Deuteronomy 12:7; Deuteronomy 12:18; Deuteronomy 27:7). For other cases in which ‘eating’ (sometimes accompanied by ‘drinking’) is to be understood similarly of the sacred meal, see Genesis 31:54; Exodus 24:11; Exodus 32:6; Exodus 34:15 (in the worship of heathen gods: so Numbers 25:2, Psalm 106:28); 1 Samuel 9:13; Psalm 22:26; Psalm 22:29.

before God] i.e. before the altar, presupposed by the sacrifices.

And it came to pass on the morrow, that Moses sat to judge the people: and the people stood by Moses from the morning unto the evening.
13. to judge the people] Moses discharged the duties which the sheikh, or head of a tribe, still does among the Bedawin.

13–23. Jethro’s advice to Moses, to appoint officers to assist him in the administration of justice.

And when Moses' father in law saw all that he did to the people, he said, What is this thing that thou doest to the people? why sittest thou thyself alone, and all the people stand by thee from morning unto even?
And Moses said unto his father in law, Because the people come unto me to inquire of God:
15. to inquire of God] i.e. to obtain from Him a legal decision. In early times judgement was a sacred act; legal decisions were regarded as coming from God, the judge being his representative, or mouthpiece (cf. v. 16 end)1[160], accordingly ‘God’ is sometimes used, where we should say ‘judge’ (see on Exodus 21:6). Perhaps in very primitive times the decision was given by the sacred lot (cf. the use of the Urim and Thummim in 1 Samuel 14:41 LXX. [see Kennedy’s note in the Century Bible, or DB. iv. 839b]; and the ‘breastplate of judgement,’ ch. Exodus 28:15): but the same view of the nature of judgement prevailed, even after this method of obtaining it was given up, or only resorted to exceptionally. To inquire of (or seek) God (דרש) in later times, means often to seek Him generally, in prayer and worship; but it means also, particularly in the early language, to resort to Him for the sake of obtaining an oracle, either in answer to some particular question, or, as here, a legal decision (LXX, ἐκζητῆσαι κρίσιν παρὰ τοῦ θεοῦ): see Genesis 25:22 the answer follows in v. 23), 1 Samuel 9:9, 1 Kings 22:8, 2 Kings 3:11; 2 Kings 8:8; 2 Kings 22:13; 2 Kings 22:18, Jeremiah 21:2 (so, of inquiring of the dead, or of heathen gods, 1 Samuel 28:7, 2 Kings 1:2, Deuteronomy 18:11, Isaiah 8:19 al.).

[160] So in Homer, θέμιστες are spoken of as received by kings from Zeus (Il. i. 239 οἵ τε θέμιστας Πρὸς Διὸς εἰρύαται); and cf. Sir Henry Maine, Ancient Law, ch. 1.

When they have a matter, they come unto me; and I judge between one and another, and I do make them know the statutes of God, and his laws.
16. a matter] i.e. a matter in dispute, cf. Exodus 22:9, Exodus 24:14. So vv. 22, 26 (‘cause’ in vv. 19, 26, is also the same Heb.: lit. word).

the statutes of God and his directions] ‘ “Statutes” (ḥuḳḳîm) were definite rules, stereotyped and permanent; “laws” (tôrôth) were “directions” or pronouncements delivered as special circumstances required them [see p. 161]. The present passage must belong to the period after Moses received the divine statutes on the mountain [cf. p. 162]’ (McNeile). Observe that the decisions of Moses on civil disputes are here called distinctly the ‘directions (tôrôth) of God’ (cf. on v. 15, and pp. 161, 162).

And Moses' father in law said unto him, The thing that thou doest is not good.
Thou wilt surely wear away, both thou, and this people that is with thee: for this thing is too heavy for thee; thou art not able to perform it thyself alone.
18. wear away] The word usually means to fall and fade as a leaf (Psalm 1:3); in Psalm 18:45 rendered fade away (fig. of foes failing in strength and courage).

Hearken now unto my voice, I will give thee counsel, and God shall be with thee: Be thou for the people to God-ward, that thou mayest bring the causes unto God:
19, 20. be thou (emph.) to the people in front of God] i.e. be thou (as hitherto) God’s representative to the people, and bring thou (again emph.) the causes,—i.e., from the context (cf. vv. 22, 26), the more important or difficult cases,—unto God for decision; and warn them of the statutes and the directions, and make them to know the way wherein they should walk, and the work that they should do. All this relates to what Moses has done already: he is, as he has already done, to bring important cases to God, and to advise the people of the general laws which follow from their determination (as, for instance, from a particular case of damage, there might result a decision which would give such a law as Exodus 21:33-34), and so make known to them how they are to act when such cases arise. Jethro’s fresh suggestions for the future follow in vv. 21–23.

and God be with thee] or, more probably (G.-K. § 109 f), that God may be with thee to assist thee—as He hardly will be, if thou undertakest what is altogether beyond thy powers.

And thou shalt teach them ordinances and laws, and shalt shew them the way wherein they must walk, and the work that they must do.
Moreover thou shalt provide out of all the people able men, such as fear God, men of truth, hating covetousness; and place such over them, to be rulers of thousands, and rulers of hundreds, rulers of fifties, and rulers of tens:
21. Observe the stress laid on the moral qualifications of the judges selected.

provide] a peculiar usage. The Heb. word itself (חזה, ‘see’) is very unusual in prose; and never elsewhere occurs in the sense of look out, provide. The usual word for ‘see’ (ראה) occurs in the same sense Genesis 22:8; Genesis 41:33, and elsewhere. E uses sometimes rare words.

able] or, capable, worthy: the expression implies moral and physical efficiency, rather than intellectual ability: it is rendered worthy, 1 Kings 1:42; 1 Kings 1:52, virtuous, Ruth 3:11, Proverbs 12:4; and often valiant, as 1 Samuel 14:52.

rulers] or, overseers (cf. on Exodus 1:11): in Deuteronomy 1:15 rendered ‘captains.’ Not the word rendered ‘ruler’ in Exodus 16:22. Except in Deuteronomy 1:15 (repeated from here), the word (sar), when followed by ‘of thousands,’ &c., is used only in connexion with the army, being then rendered ‘captain’ (1 Samuel 8:12, 2 Kings 1:9 : ‘captains of tens,’ however, occurs only here and Deuteronomy 1:15). Such an organization of the people for judicial purposes seems strange; and it is difficult to understand how it would work practically. If the ten, fifty, &c. mean so many individuals, the number of judges appointed seems excessive; hence it has been supposed (though there is nothing in the text to suggest it) that the numbers are intended to denote not individuals, but heads of families: but even so, as each individual Israelite would belong apparently to four groups, and be under the jurisdiction of four judges, it is not clear which of these judges particular cases would come before for trial.

21–23. But all minor cases Jethro counsels him no longer to deal with himself, but to leave to the decision of subordinate judges appointed for the purpose.

And let them judge the people at all seasons: and it shall be, that every great matter they shall bring unto thee, but every small matter they shall judge: so shall it be easier for thyself, and they shall bear the burden with thee.
22. at all seasons] i.e. in all ordinary cases.

so &c.] Heb. and make it light off thyself, i.e. relieve thyself.

If thou shalt do this thing, and God command thee so, then thou shalt be able to endure, and all this people shall also go to their place in peace.
23. this thing] Their position in the Heb. shews that these words are emphatic.

command thee so] i.e. approve and sanction thy doing this.

go to their place in peace] return quickly to their houses satisfied, without having to stand all the day before Moses (v. 14).

So Moses hearkened to the voice of his father in law, and did all that he had said.
24–26. Moses listened to Jethro’s counsel, and appointed the assistant judges accordingly.

And Moses chose 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.
And they judged the people at all seasons: the hard causes they brought unto Moses, but every small matter they judged themselves.
26. The tenses are all frequentative; and describe their custom.

And Moses let his father in law depart; and he went his way into his own land.
27. into his own land] Midian: see on Exodus 2:15. Cf. Numbers 10:30.

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