By Nahum Gordon
We call him Jethro, but his Hebrew name is Yitro. Its root is probably from Yeter, which Joan Comay, in her classic Who’s Who in the Old Testament, translates as “excellence”. Presumably, she is referring to Jacob’s use of the word in his deathbed blessing to Reuben (Gen 49:3). So, Yitro might mean “His Excellency”. Reuben Alcalay, in his indispensable Hebrew-English dictionary, offers “abundance” or “excess”. Well, in the Torah, Jethro overflows with goodness. No character flaws are evident. In contemporary parlance, if the term isn’t outdated by now, Jethro is a cool guy.
We first encounter him when he chides his seven daughters for not bringing Moses back with them to break bread after the latter had helped the women gain access to much-needed water for their sheep. Jethro’s hospitality exceeds that of Abraham – he shares his home with Moses who agrees to stay, he gives his daughter Zipporah to his Egyptian guest, and his son-in-law becomes the shepherd of his flock. There are no problems between them, such as those between Jacob and Laban. In his chosen occupation, Moses seems to follow in the footsteps of his illustrious ancestors – Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and 11 of Jacob’s sons – but with one important difference: he has been chosen to shepherd an entire people. His headache is that, unlike sheep, they are unwilling to be led!
After Moses has failed to persuade God that he is ill-equipped for the Exodus, he dutifully returns to Jethro and respectfully seeks permission to return to Egypt. However, a whiff of Genesis deception is introduced at this point; Moses cannot bring himself to tell Jethro the whole truth, presumably because he fears that his father-in-law would conclude that he was embarking on a suicide mission. Which father would knowingly allow his daughter and her two boys to place themselves in such mortal danger?
Well, unbeknown to us, the rest of the family do return home, for the next time we encounter Jethro is at the beginning of this week’s parasha, when he brings Zipporah, Gershom and Eliezer from the ancestral home in Midian to be re-united with Moses at the foot of Mt Sinai, just in time for God’s descent and The Revelation. Jethro’s timing is impeccable. Moses has not lost his humility and civility, and goes out to meet his father-in-law, bows low and kisses him. Echoes of Jacob seeing Esau after 20 years and Joseph after 22 years, except that the text in both those cases leads me to suspect that neither of those meetings was the reconciliation that most commentators claim.
Jethro is so impressed by God’s beneficence and power that he acknowledges Him as the Greatest and brings a burnt offering and sacrifices, but not so overwhelmed that he abandons his faith and his own people, for he is after all their cohen, their priest and chief. Before he takes his leave, he counsels Moses to create a judiciary, delegating not abdicating responsibility. And Jethro makes no charge for his advice. Now that’s a business consultant worth cultivating.
The Tenach suggests that Jethro was not just from Midian, but from the friendly Kenite clan. Sisera’s nemesis, Yael, was from the same sect. Saul and David remembered these deeds and dealt kindly with them. May Jews in every generation be blessed with the unconditional friendship of the outsider.
Nahum Gordon was one of the co-founders of Kol Nefesh Masorti Synagogue and the founder of Torah Chat, a Bible study group. He is an informal educator, with a particular interest in Tenach and Jewish history.