Parashat Yitro 5778

Rabbi Pete Tobias – 2 February 2018

So who, exactly, is Jethro? His name is given to this week’s Torah portion, which is the second word of chapter 18 of the book of Exodus. Yet he makes only a very brief appearance, then, at the end of chapter 18, he’s gone: ‘Then Moses sent his father-in-law on his way, and Jethro returned to his own country.’ (Exodus 18:27).

We know that Jethro is a priest of Midian and we also know that the Israelites and the Midianites aren’t destined to enjoy friendly relations with one another once the former enter the Promised Land (Judges 6, 7) or even while they were on the way there and Numbers 31 where God’s instruction to Moses, to ‘…treat the Midianites as enemies and kill them’ (Numbers 25:17) is carried out.

Maybe Moses forgets about Jethro as soon as he has left the scene at the end of the first chapter of this week’s parashah. After all, things get pretty hectic after Jethro’s departure: God appears at the top of Mount Sinai, accompanied by all sorts of pyrotechnics, and Moses goes up the mountain to receive the Ten Commandments. It’s a mysterious encounter that smacks in so many ways of an extract from Steven Spielberg’s ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind’. But the bit where Moses and Aaron, Aaron’s sons and the 70 elders of the Israelites have a picnic with God on His shiny sapphire coloured (spaceship?) floor is in next week’s portion, so I’ll leave that for someone else.

So what happened to Jethro? He was a Midianite priest, but we don’t know anything about the religion of the Midianites. We think we know where Midian was: it is thought to have been in the north-west of modern day Saudi Arabia, east of the Sinai Peninsula and the Gulf of Akaba.

Jethro’s brief visit, probably significantly shorter than the journey to and from wherever the Israelites were camped, contained three important elements. Firstly Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, reintroduces him to his wife, Zipporah, and his two sons. Having abandoned them once, we are not told what happens to them next. Then Jethro makes a burnt offering to Israel’s God, giving thanks for their liberation from Egypt. Finally, before he departs, he gives Moses some excellent advice on how to delegate.

By the time the Israelites encounter the Midianite tribe, the people to whom Jethro was supposedly ministering, there is little common ground between the two groups. We are now in the book of Numbers where, rathet curiously, there is a conversation between Moses and Hobab, who appears to be his brother-in-law. This suggests several things: firstly that Jethro did not just bring his daughter and grandchildren with him to meet Moses and secondly that his son, Hobab, remained behind and presumably witnessed the revelation at Mount Sinai. Moses implores Hobab to stay with him and the Israelites and make the journey to the Promised Land: ‘Now Moses said to Hobab son of Reuel the Midianite, Moses’ father-in-law, “We are setting out for the place about which the Eternal One said, ‘I will give it to you.’ Come with us and we will treat you well, for the Eternal One has promised good things to Israel.” He answered, “No, I will not go; I am going back to my own land and my own people.” But Moses said, “Please do not leave us. You know where we should camp in the wilderness, and you can be our eyes. If you come with us, we will share with you whatever good things the Eternal One gives us.” (Numbers 10:29-32)

The Midianite we next meet is determined to lead the Israelites in a rather different direction. She is Kozbi, the daughter of Zur and she leads Zimri the son of Salu, an Israelite, astray. In chapter 25 of the book of Numbers – a particularly unpleasant chapter – the erring couple feel the spear of Pinchas pass through them, after which Moses demands that all the Midianites be slaughtered. So either Moses has forgotten his loyalty to his father-in-law and his friendship with Jethro’s son Hobab or Kozbi’s sin is so great, that she obliterates and vestige of goodwill between Israelites and Midianites. All in all a sorry tale of hostility and violence which continues into the book of Judges.

How different it might have been if Jethro had stayed with the Israelites and witnessed the revelation at Mount Sinai. Perhaps he, along with his son Hobab, might have been able to deal with the Israelites more effectively, and give poor Moses support and advice, as demonstrated in Exodus chapter 18. And perhaps the Israelites and the Midianites could have been united in a more effective way than that chosen by Zimri and Kozbi. We might have done better with Jethro and the Midianites in the Israelite camp in a positive way rather than pitted against it.

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