To modern ears, the author(s) of the Torah did not always exhibit a strong sense of narrative logic. Today’s sedra is a case in point. The first 27 verses present a visit by Jethro, Moses’ Midianite/Kenite father-in-law, to the Israelites encamped at the mountain of God. Jethro has a heimische visit with Moses, after which he rejoices over God’s deeds and sacrifices to Him. He then takes the opportunity to observe Moses judging the people, and shows him how to make the judicial system more efficient by appointing magistrates at various levels.
As both medieval and modern commentators have noticed, this story seems out of place. Last week’s sedra, Beshalach, recounts what happens to the Israelites after they leave Egypt: how God leads them in a cloud by day and fire by night, the crossing of the sea, the manna, various mutterings, and, finally, the defeat of Amalek at Rephidim. At the start of today’s sedra, the Israelites are at the mountain of God – but they’re not actually described as arriving there until after Jethro leaves them. In Jethro’s conversations with Moses, it appears that the latter already knows “the laws and teachings of God” – but these won’t be given until the Revelation.
To maintain the flow of the story, today’s sedra should begin with Ex. 19:1,2 – the passage from Rephidim to Sinai. The narrative would then build, in a happy state of geographic, chronological, and thematic harmony, from the exodus to its culmination in the theophany and the covenant between God and Israel. So what’s the Jethro story doing there?
Many commentators explain the intrusion by pointing to the contrast with Amalek. Here, they say, is a good foreigner – Jethro – to contrast with the bad foreigner, Amalek. Indeed, a close reading reveals many parallels between the language of the two sections. But this seems insufficient. There are plenty of ways Jethro could be contrasted with Amalek without having him help establish a system of judicial administration.
I suggest the answer lies at least partly in the unique nature of the covenant between God and Israel, and the tension between the democratic ideology expressed therein (“If you…keep my covenant, you shall be My treasured possession….a kingdom of priests and a holy nation”; Ex. 19:5,6) and the practical need for religious leadership. God promises the people that if they obey the law, they will have a direct, unmediated relationship with Him. But these words, and the people’s response, are conveyed through Moses! Moreover, in order to obey the law, the people will, at times, need someone to interpret the law.
It is crucial that Moses, interpreter par excellence, who speaks face-to-face with God, is not seen as himself godlike. It must be clear before Moses ascends the mountain that while he mediates between God and Israel, he is only human, and the covenant about to be established will continue even without him. Jethro is brought in to bring Moses down to earth, as it were. By making Jethro advise Moses on how to apply the law – the very law that Israel must obey to fulfil the covenant – the narrator shows that Moses’ special role comes from God, not from any qualities inherent in himself. That accomplished, Jethro can go “to his own land”, and the preparation for Revelation can begin.
Meira Ben-Gad is a member of Kol Nefesh Masorti Synagogue