Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
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;XVIII.
THE VISIT OF JETHRO.
(1) Jethro, the priest of Midian, Moses’ father in law.—On Jethro’s probable relationship to Moses, see the second Note on Exodus 3:1. On the priesthood of Reuel, which Jethro seems to have inherited, see Note on Exodus 2:16. It has been very unnecessarily supposed that the chronological order of the narrative is here deranged, Jethro’s visit having been really paid after the legislation of Sinai and the setting up of the Tabernacle (Aben Ezra, Ranke, Kurtz). Both the position of the chapter and its contents are against this theory.
And that the Lord had brought Israel out.—Rather, in that the Lord had brought Israel out, It was this fact especially which Jethro had heard, and which induced him to set out on his journey.
(1) The people want decisions which they can feel to have Divine sanction—they “come to him to enquire of God”—and the ruling of inferior judges would not be regarded by them as equally authoritative.
Then Jethro, Moses' father in law, took Zipporah, Moses' wife, after he had sent her back,(2)After he had sent her back.—Heb., after her dismissal. The fact had not been previously stated, but is in harmony with the general narrative, which has been absolutely silent concerning Zipporah since Exodus 4:26. Moses had sent Zipporah back to her own relations, either in anger, on account of the scene described in Exodus 4:24-26, or simply that he might not be encumbered with wife and children during the dangers and troubles which he anticipated in Egypt. Jethro assumed that, as the main troubles were now over, he would be glad to have his wife and children restored to him.
(2) He does not simply judge—i.e., decide the particular question brought before him; but he takes the opportunity to educate and instruct the people in delivering his judgments—he “makes them know the statutes of God and His laws”—he expounds principles and teaches morality. Both reasons were clearly of great weight, and constituted strong arguments in favour of his practice.
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)Gershom.—See Note on Exodus 2:22.
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) Eliezer.—Eliezer is supposed to have been the boy whom Zipporah circumcised in the wilderness (Exodus 4:25). He grew to manhood, and had a son, Rehabiah (1Chronicles 23:17), whose descendants were in the time of David very numerous (1Chronicles 23:17; and comp. 1Chronicles 26:25-26). It is uncertain whether Moses gave him his name before parting from him, in allusion to his escape from the Pharaoh who “sought to slay him” (Exodus 2:15), or first named him on occasion of receiving him back, in allusion to his recent escape from the host which had been destroyed in the Red Sea.
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) Where he encamped at the mount of God.—It is quite possible that “the mount of God” may be here used, in a broad sense, of the entire Sinaitic mountain-region, as “wilderness” is just before used in the broad sense of the infertile region between Egypt and Palestine. Or the movement described in Exodus 19:1-2 may have taken place before Jethro’s arrival, though not related until after it. We must bear in mind that Exodus was probably composed in detached portions, and arranged afterwards. The present chapter has every appearance of being one such detached portion.
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 went out . . . And did obeisance.—Oriental etiquette required the going forth to meet an honoured guest (Genesis 18:2; Genesis 19:1, &c). The obeisance was wholly voluntary, and marks the humility of Moses, who, now that he was the prince of his nation, might well have required Jethro to bow down to him.
And kissed him.—Kissing is a common form of salutation in the East, even between persons who are in no way related. Herodotus says of the Persians: “When they meet each other in the streets, you may know if the persons meeting are of equal rank by the following token: if they are, instead of speaking they kiss each other on the lips. In the case where one is a little inferior to the other, the kiss is given on the cheek” (Book i. 134). (Comp. 2Samuel 15:5; 2Samuel 19:39; 2Samuel 20:9; Matthew 26:48-49; Acts 20:37, &c.; and for the continuance of the custom to the present day, see the collection of instances given in the article Kiss, in Smith’s Dictionary of the Bible, vol. ii., p. 46.)
They asked each other of their welfare.—Heb., wished peace to each other—exchanged, that is, the customary salutation, “Peace be with you.”
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) Moses told . . . All.—Jethro had only heard previously a very imperfect account of the transactions. (See Note 2 on Exodus 18:1.) Moses now told him all the particulars.
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, 11) Jethro said, Blessed be the Lord.—Heb., Jehovah. The Midianites, descendants of Abraham by Keturah, acknowledged the true God, and the Israelites could rightfully join with them in acts of worship. But it is scarcely likely that they knew God among themselves as “Jehovah.” Jethro, however, understanding Moses to speak of the supreme God under that designation, adopted it from him, blessed His name, and expressed his conviction that Jehovah was exalted above all other gods. The pure monotheism of later times scarcely existed as yet. The gods of the nations were supposed to be spiritual beings, really existent, and possessed of considerable power, though very far from omnipotent. (See Deuteronomy 32:16-17.)
Now I know that the LORD is greater than all gods: for in the thing wherein they dealt proudly he was above them.(11) For in the thing . . . —Heb., even in the matter in which they dealt proudly against them. Jehovah’s superior power had been shown especially in the matter in which the Egyptians had dealt most proudly—viz., in pursuing the Israelites with an army when they had given them leave to depart, and attempting to re-capture or destroy them.
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) Jethro . . . took a burnt offering and sacrifices for God.—Jethro had brought sacrifices with him, and now offered them in token of his thankfulness for God’s mercies towards himself and towards his kinsman. He occupied a position similar to that of Melchizedek (Genesis 14:18), holding a priesthood of the most primitive character, probably as patriarch of his tribe, its head by right of primogeniture. As Abraham acknowledged rightly the priesthood of Melchizedek (Genesis 14:19; Hebrews 7:2-9), so Moses and Aaron rightly acknowledged that of Jethro. They markedly indicated their acceptance of his priestly character by participation in the sacrificial meal, which, as a matter of course, followed his sacrifice. They “ate bread with Moses’ father in law” (or rather, brother-in-law) “before God.”
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) On the morrow.—The day following Jethro’s arrival.
Moses sat to judge the people.—The office of prince, or ruler, was in early times regarded as including within it that of judge. Rulers in these ages were sometimes even called “judges,” as were those of Israel from Joshua to Samuel, and those of Carthage at a later date (suffetes). Ability to judge was thought to mark out a person as qualified for the kingly office (Herod. i. 97). Moses, it would seem, had, from the time that he became chief of his nation, undertaken the hearing of all complaints and the decision of all causes. He held court days from time to time, when the host was stationary, and judged all the cases that were brought before him. No causes were decided by any one else. Either it had not occurred to him that the duty might be discharged by deputy, or he had seen reasons against the adoption of such an arrangement. Perhaps he had thought his countrymen unfit as yet for the difficult task. At any rate, he had acted as sole judge, and had, no doubt, to discharge the duty pretty frequently. Knowing that there was much business on hand, he did not allow the visit of his near connection to interfere with his usual habits, but held his court just as if Jethro had not been there.
The people stood by Moses from the morning unto the evening.—So great was the number of causes, or so difficult were they of decision, that Moses was occupied the whole day in deciding them. Following the usual Oriental practice, he began early in the morning, and found himself compelled to continue until nightfall. It is not clear whether his “sessions” were always of this length, or whether on this occasion the ordinary time was exceeded. Some have suggested that the division of the Amalekite spoil would naturally have led to disputes, and so to complaints.
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?(14) Why sittest thou thyself alone?—The emphatic word is “alone.” Why dost thou not, Jethro means, devolve a part of the duty upon others?
And Moses said unto his father in law, Because the people come unto me to inquire of God:(15, 16) Moses assigns two reasons for his conduct.
And Moses' father in law said unto him, The thing that thou doest is not good.(17) The thing that thou doest is not good.—Weighty as the arguments were, they failed to convince Jethro. He brought forward counter-arguments. By continuing to act as hitherto, Moses would, in the first place, exhaust his own strength, and, secondly exhaust the patience of the people. His practice was un advisable, both on his own account and on theirs. To keep suitors waiting all day, and perhaps finally dismiss then without their turn having come, was not fair upon them.
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) God shall be with thee.—Rather, may Go be with thee. May He give thee wisdom to direct the course aright.
Be thou for the people to God-ward.—Be the person, i.e., to bring before God whatever needs to be brought before Him. Continue both to act as representative of the people towards God, and as representative of God towards the people. Take all difficult causes to Him, and pronounce to the people His decision upon them. Be also the expounder to the people of God’s laws and ordinances; be their moral instructor, and the guide of their individual actions (Exodus 18:20). All this is quite compatible with the change which I am about to recommend to thee.
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) Provide out of all the people able men.—This was the gist of Jethro’s advice. It seems somewhat surprising that it should have been needed. In Egypt, as in all other settled governments, while the king was the fountain of justice, it was customary for him to delegate the duty of hearing causes to officials of different ranks, who decided in this or that class of complaints. In Arabia a similar practice no doubt prevailed. Jethro himself had his subordinates, the head men of the various clans or families, who discharged judicial functions in “small matters,” and thereby greatly lightened the burthen which would otherwise have rested upon his shoulders. His advice to Moses was simply that he should adopt this generally established system—one which belongs to a very early period in the history of nations.
Jethro’s definition of “able men”—men, i.e., fitted to exercise the judicial office—is interesting. He requires them to be (1) God-fearing, (2) truthful, and (3) men of integrity. The second and third requirements would approve themselves to men of all times and countries. The first would generally be deemed superfluous. But it really lies at the root of all excellence of character, and is the point of greatest importance.
Rulers of thousands, and rulers of hundreds.—An organisation of the entire people on a decimal system is implied in the arrangement suggested. Such an organisation may not improbably have existed at the same in connection with the march and the encamping. See the Comment on Exodus 13:18.) Jethro thought that it might be utilised for judicial purposes. One an out of ten might be competent to judge in “small matters.” If either party were dissatisfied, there might be an appeal to the “ruler of fifty”—from him the “ruler of an hundred,” and then to the “ruler
Of a thousand.” In all ordinary disputes this would suffice, and the contest would not require to be carried further.
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.—Not on occasional court days, as had been the custom of Moses, but day by day continually.
Every great matter they shall bring unto thee.—It must have been left to the judges themselves to decide what were “great” and what were “small matters.” Under ordinary circumstances, courts would be inclined to extend their jurisdiction, and take enlarged views of their competency; but the difficulties of desert life were such as to counteract this inclination, and induce men to contract, rather than widen, their responsibilities. When the wilderness life was ended, the judicial system of Jethro came to an end also, and a system at once simpler and more elastic was adopted.
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) If thou shalt do this thing, and God command thee so.—A reference of the entire matter to God, before any final decision was made, is plainly indicated. Moses must have already had some mode of consulting God on any point which required to be settled, and obtaining an answer. Was it by the “Urim and Thummim”?
Thou shalt be able to endure.—Comp. Exodus 18:18, where the inability of Moses to endure, unless he made some change, was strongly asserted.
And all this people shall also go to their place in peace.—The people, i.e., will go on their way to Canaan peacefully and contentedly, without suffering the inconvenience to which they are now subject.
So Moses hearkened to the voice of his father in law, and did all that he had said.(24, 25) Moses hearkened.—The appointment of judges, according to Jethro’s advice, was not made until after the giving of the Law and the setting up of the Tabernacle. (See Deuteronomy 1:9-15.) In one particular Moses departed from the counsel given to him. Instead of directly choosing the “able men” himself, he left the selection to the people (Deuteronomy 1:13). And contented himself with investing the men chosen with their authority. Comp. the course taken by the apostolic college with respect to the first deacons (Acts 6:3-6).
And Moses let his father in law depart; and he went his way into his own land.(27) Moses let his father in law depart.—Heb. Moses dismissed his connection. The supposed identity of Hobab (Numbers 10:29; Judges 4:11) with Jethro seems precluded by this statement, for Hobab clearly remained with Moses till the close of the stay at Sinai, and Moses, instead of “dismissing” him, was most unwilling that he should depart.