Exodus 18

The Advice of Jethro

This chapter forms the transition to the Law. There has been the deliverance, the testing passages, the provision in the wilderness, and the warfare. Any God who can do all this for his people deserves their allegiance. In chap. 18 the Lawgiver is giving advice, using laws and rulings, but then he is given advice to organize the elders to assist. Thus, when the Law is fully revealed, a system will be in place to administer it. The point of the passage is that a great leader humbly accepts advice from other godly believers to delegate responsibility. He does not try to do it all himself; God does not want one individual to do it all. The chapter has three parts: vv. 1–12 tell how Jethro heard and came and worshiped and blessed; vv. 13–23 have the advice of Jethro, and then vv. 24–27 tell how Moses implemented the plan and Jethro went home. See further E. J. Runions, “Exodus Motifs in 1 Samuel 7 and 8, ” EvQ 52 (1980): 130-31; and also see for another idea T. C. Butler, “An Anti-Moses Tradition,” JSOT 12 (1979): 9-15.
Jethro, the priest of Midian, Moses’ father-in-law, heard about all that God had done for Moses and for his people Israel, that
This clause beginning with כִּי (ki) answers the question of what Jethro had heard; it provides a second, explanatory noun clause that is the object of the verb – “he heard (1) all that God had done… (2) that he had brought….” See R. J. Williams, Hebrew Syntax, 81, #490.
the Lord had brought Israel out of Egypt.
This is an important report that Jethro has heard, for the claim of God that he brought Israel out of bondage in Egypt will be the foundation of the covenant stipulations (Exod 20).


Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, took Moses’ wife Zipporah after he had sent her back, and her two sons, one of whom was named Gershom (for Moses
Heb “he”; the referent (Moses) has been specified in the translation for clarity (also in the following verse).
had said, “I have been a foreigner in a foreign land”),
and the other Eliezer (for Moses had said,
The referent (Moses) and the verb have been specified in the translation for clarity.
“The God of my father has been my help
Now is given the etymological explanation of the name of Moses’ other son, Eliezer (אֱלִיעֶזֶר, ’eliezer), which means “my God is a help.” The sentiment that explains this name is אֱלֹהֵי אָבִי בְּעֶזְרִי (’elohe avi beezri, “the God of my father is my help”). The preposition in the sentiment is the bet (ב) essentiae (giving the essence – see GKC 379 #119.i). Not mentioned earlier, the name has become even more appropriate now that God has delivered Moses from Pharaoh again. The word for “help” is a common word in the Bible, first introduced as a description of the woman in the Garden. It means to do for someone what he or she cannot do for himself or herself. Samuel raised the “stone of help” (Ebenezer) when Yahweh helped Israel win the battle (1 Sam 7:12).
and delivered
The verb “delivered” is an important motif in this chapter (see its use in vv. 8, 9, and 10 with reference to Pharaoh).
me from the sword of Pharaoh”).

Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, together with Moses’
Heb “his”; the referent (Moses) has been specified in the translation for clarity.
sons and his wife, came to Moses in the desert where he was camping by
This is an adverbial accusative that defines the place (see GKC 373-74 #118.g).
the mountain of God.
The mountain of God is Horeb, and so the desert here must be the Sinai desert by it. But chap. 19 suggests that they left Rephidim to go the 24 miles to Sinai. It may be that this chapter fits in chronologically after the move to Sinai, but was placed here thematically. W. C. Kaiser defends the present location of the story by responding to other reasons for the change given by Lightfoot, but does not deal with the travel locations (W. C. Kaiser, Jr., “Exodus,” EBC 2:411).
He said
This verse may seem out of place, since the report has already been given that they came to the desert. It begins to provide details of the event that the previous verse summarizes. The announcement in verse 6 may have come in advance by means of a messenger or at the time of arrival, either of which would fit with the attention to formal greetings in verse 7. This would suit a meeting between two important men; the status of Moses has changed. The LXX solves the problem by taking the pronoun “I” as the particle “behold” and reads it this way: “one said to Moses, ‘Behold, your father-in-law has come….’”
to Moses, “I, your father-in-law Jethro, am coming to you, along with your wife and her two sons with her.”
Moses went out to meet his father-in-law and bowed down and kissed him;
This is more than polite oriental custom. Jethro was Moses’ benefactor, father-in-law, and a priest. He paid much respect to him. Now he could invite Jethro into his home (see B. Jacob, Exodus, 496).
they each asked about the other’s welfare, and then they went into the tent.
Moses told his father-in-law all that the Lord had done to Pharaoh and to Egypt for Israel’s sake, and all the hardship
A rare word, “weariness” of the hardships.
that had come on them
Heb “found them.”
along the way, and how
Here “how” has been supplied.
the Lord had delivered them.

Jethro rejoiced
The word חָדָה (khada) is rare, occurring only in Job 3:6 and Ps 21:6, although it is common in Aramaic. The LXX translated it “he shuddered.” U. Cassuto suggests that that rendering was based on the midrashic interpretation in b. Sanhedrin 94b, “he felt cuts in his body” – a wordplay on the verb (Exodus, 215–16).
because of all the good that the Lord had done for Israel, whom he had delivered from the hand of Egypt.
10 Jethro said, “Blessed
This is a common form of praise. The verb בָּרוּךְ (barukh) is the Qal passive participle of the verb. Here must be supplied a jussive, making this participle the predicate: “May Yahweh be blessed.” The verb essentially means “to enrich”; in praise it would mean that he would be enriched by the praises of the people.
be the Lord who has delivered you from the hand of Egypt, and from the hand of Pharaoh, who has delivered the people from the Egyptians’ control!
Heb “from under the hand of the Egyptians.”
11 Now I know that the Lord is greater than all the gods, for in the thing in which they dealt proudly against them he has destroyed them.”
The end of this sentence seems not to have been finished, or it is very elliptical. In the present translation the phrase “he has destroyed them” is supplied. Others take the last prepositional phrase to be the completion and supply only a verb: “[he was] above them.” U. Cassuto (Exodus, 216) takes the word “gods” to be the subject of the verb “act proudly,” giving the sense of “precisely (כִּי, ki) in respect of these things of which the gods of Egypt boasted – He is greater than they (עֲלֵיהֶם, ‘alehem).” He suggests rendering the clause, “excelling them in the very things to which they laid claim.”
12 Then Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, brought
The verb is “and he took” (cf. KJV, ASV, NASB). It must have the sense of getting the animals for the sacrifice. The Syriac, Targum, and Vulgate have “offered.” But Cody argues because of the precise wording in the text Jethro did not offer the sacrifices but received them (A. Cody, “ Exodus 18, 12: Jethro Accepts a Covenant with the Israelites,” Bib 49 [1968]: 159-61).
a burnt offering and sacrifices for God,
Jethro brought offerings as if he were the one who had been delivered. The “burnt offering” is singular, to honor God first. The other sacrifices were intended for the invited guests to eat (a forerunner of the peace offering). See B. Jacob, Exodus, 498.
and Aaron and all the elders of Israel came to eat food
The word לֶחֶם (lekhem) here means the sacrifice and all the foods that were offered with it. The eating before God was part of covenantal ritual, for it signified that they were in communion with the Deity, and with one another.
with the father-in-law of Moses before God.

13  On the next day
Heb “and it was/happened on the morrow.”
Moses sat to judge
This is a simple summary of the function of Moses on this particular day. He did not necessarily do this every day, but it was time now to do it. The people would come to solve their difficulties or to hear instruction from Moses on decisions to be made. The tradition of “sitting in Moses’ seat” is drawn from this passage.
the people, and the people stood around Moses from morning until evening.
14 When Moses’ father-in-law saw all that he was doing for the people, he said, “What is this
Heb “what is this thing.”
that you are doing for the people?
This question, “what are you doing for the people,” is qualified by the next question. Sitting alone all day and the people standing around all day showed that Moses was exhibiting too much care for the people – he could not do this.
Why are you sitting by yourself, and all the people stand around you from morning until evening?”

15  Moses said to his father-in-law, “Because the people come to me to inquire
The form is לִדְרֹשׁ (lidrosh), the Qal infinitive construct giving the purpose. To inquire of God would be to seek God’s will on a matter, to obtain a legal decision on a matter, or to settle a dispute. As a judge Moses is speaking for God, but as the servant of Yahweh Moses’ words will be God’s words. The psalms would later describe judges as “gods” because they made the right decisions based on God’s Law.
of God.
16 When they have a dispute,
Or “thing,” “matter,” “issue.”
it comes to me and I decide
The verb שָׁפַט (shafat) means “to judge”; more specifically, it means to make a decision as an arbiter or umpire. When people brought issues to him, Moses decided between them. In the section of laws in Exodus after the Ten Commandments come the decisions, the מִשְׁפָּטִים (mishppatim).
between a man and his neighbor, and I make known the decrees of God and his laws.”
The “decrees” or “statutes” were definite rules, stereotyped and permanent; the “laws” were directives or pronouncements given when situations arose. S. R. Driver suggests this is another reason why this event might have taken place after Yahweh had given laws on the mountain (Exodus, 165).


17  Moses’ father-in-law said to him, “What
Heb “the thing.”
you are doing is not good!
18 You will surely wear out,
The verb means “to fall and fade” as a leaf (Ps 1:3). In Ps 18:45 it is used figuratively of foes fading away, failing in strength and courage (S. R. Driver, Exodus, 166). Here the infinitive absolute construction heightens the meaning.
both you and these people who are with you, for this is too
Gesenius lists the specialized use of the comparative min (מ) where with an adjective the thought expressed is that the quality is too difficult for the attainment of a particular aim (GKC 430 #133.c).
heavy a burden
Here “a burden” has been supplied.
for you; you are not able to do it by yourself.
19 Now listen to me,
Heb “hear my voice.”
I will give you advice, and may God be with you: You be a representative for the people to God,
The line reads “Be you to the people before God.” He is to be their representative before God. This is introducing the aspect of the work that only Moses could do, what he has been doing. He is to be before God for the people, to pray for them, to appeal on their behalf. Jethro is essentially saying, I understand that you cannot delegate this to anyone else, so continue doing it (U. Cassuto, Exodus, 219–20).
and you bring
The form is the perfect tense with the vav (ו) consecutive; following the imperative it will be instruction as well. Since the imperative preceding this had the idea of “continue to be” as you are, this too has that force.
their disputes
Heb “words”; KJV, ASV “the causes”; NRSV “cases”; NLT “questions.”
to God;
20 warn
The perfect tense with the vav (ו) continues the sequence of instruction for Moses. He alone was to be the mediator, to guide them in the religious and moral instruction.
them of the statutes and the laws, and make known to them the way in which they must walk
The verb and its following prepositional phrase form a relative clause, modifying “the way.” The imperfect tense should be given the nuance of obligatory imperfect – it is the way they must walk.
and the work they must do.
This last part is parallel to the preceding: “work” is also a direct object of the verb “make known,” and the relative clause that qualifies it also uses an obligatory imperfect.
21 But you choose
The construction uses the independent pronoun for emphasis, and then the imperfect tense “see” (חָזָה, khazah) – “and you will see from all….” Both in Hebrew and Ugaritic expressions of “seeing” are used in the sense of choosing (Gen 41:33). See U. Cassuto, Exodus, 220.
from the people capable men,
The expression is אַנְשֵׁי־חַיִל (’anshe khayil, “capable men”). The attributive genitive is the word used in expressions like “mighty man of valor.” The word describes these men as respected, influential, powerful people, those looked up to by the community as leaders, and those who will have the needs of the community in mind.
God-fearing,
The description “fearers of God” uses an objective genitive. It describes them as devout, worshipful, obedient servants of God.
men of truth,
The expression “men of truth” (אַנְשֵׁי אֱמֶת, ’anshe emet) indicates that these men must be seekers of truth, who know that the task of a judge is to give true judgment (U. Cassuto, Exodus, 220). The word “truth” includes the ideas of faithfulness or reliability, as well as factuality itself. It could be understood to mean “truthful men,” men whose word is reliable and true.
those who hate bribes,
Heb “haters of bribes.” Here is another objective genitive, one that refers to unjust gain. To hate unjust gain is to reject and refuse it. Their decisions will not be swayed by greed.
and put them over the people
Heb “over them”; the referent (the people) has been specified in the translation for clarity.
as rulers
It is not clear how this structure would work in a judicial setting. The language of “captains of thousands,” etc., is used more for military ranks. There must have been more detailed instruction involved here, for each Israelite would have come under four leaders with this arrangement, and perhaps difficult cases would be sent to the next level. But since the task of these men would also involve instruction and guidance, the breakdown would be very useful. Deut 1:9, 13 suggest that the choice of these people was not simply Moses’ alone.
of thousands, rulers of hundreds, rulers of fifties, and rulers of tens.
22 They will judge
The form is the perfect tense with the vav (ו) consecutive, making it equivalent to the imperfect of instruction in the preceding verse.
the people under normal circumstances,
Heb “in every time,” meaning “in all normal cases” or “under normal circumstances.” The same phrase occurs in v. 26.
and every difficult case
Heb “great thing.”
they will bring to you, but every small case
Heb “thing.”
they themselves will judge, so that
The vav here shows the result or the purpose of the instructions given.
you may make it easier for yourself,
The expression וְהָקֵל מֵעָלֶיךָ (vehaqel mealeykha) means literally “and make it light off yourself.” The word plays against the word for “heavy” used earlier – since it was a heavy or burdensome task, Moses must lighten the load.
and they will bear the burden
Here “the burden” has been supplied.
with you.
23 If you do this thing, and God so commands you,
The form is a Piel perfect with vav (ו) consecutive; it carries the same nuance as the preceding imperfect in the conditional clause.
then you will be able
The perfect tense with vav (ו) consecutive now appears in the apodosis of the conditional sentence – “if you do this…then you will be able.”
to endure,
Heb “to stand.” B. Jacob (Exodus, 501) suggests that there might be a humorous side to this: “you could even do this standing up.”
and all these people
Literally “this people.”
will be able to go
The verb is the simple imperfect, “will go,” but given the sense of the passage a potential nuance seems in order.
home
Heb “his place.”
satisfied.”
Heb “in peace.”
See further T. D. Weinshall, “The Organizational Structure Proposed by Jethro to Moses (Ex. 18:17),” Public Administration in Israel and Abroad 12 (1972): 9-13; and H. Reviv, “The Traditions Concerning the Inception of the Legal System in Israel: Significance and Dating,” ZAW 94 (1982): 566-75.


24  Moses listened to
The idiom “listen to the voice of” means “obey, comply with, heed.”
his father-in-law and did everything he had said.
25 Moses chose capable men from all Israel, and he made them heads over the people, rulers of thousands, rulers of hundreds, rulers of fifties, and rulers of tens. 26 They judged the people under normal circumstances; the difficult cases they would bring
This verb and the verb in the next clause are imperfect tenses. In the past tense narrative of the verse they must be customary, describing continuous action in past time.
to Moses, but every small case they would judge themselves.

27  Then Moses sent his father-in-law on his way,
The verb וַיְשַׁלַּח (vayshallakh) has the same root and same stem used in the passages calling for Pharaoh to “release” Israel. Here, in a peaceful and righteous relationship, Moses sent Jethro to his home.
and so Jethro
Heb “he”; the referent (Jethro) has been specified in the translation for clarity.
went
The prepositional phrase included here Gesenius classifies as a pleonastic dativus ethicus to give special emphasis to the significance of the occurrence in question for a particular subject (GKC 381 #119.s).
to his own land.
This chapter makes an excellent message on spiritual leadership of the people of God. Spiritually responsible people are to be selected to help in the work of the ministry (teaching, deciding cases, meeting needs), so that there will be peace, and so that leaders will not be exhausted. Probably capable people are more ready to do that than leaders are ready to relinquish control. But leaders have to be willing to take the risk, to entrust the task to others. Here Moses is the model of humility, receiving correction and counsel from Jethro. And Jethro is the ideal adviser, for he has no intention of remaining there to run the operation.


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