The Diffusion of Holiness (Exodus 18:1-20:23)

Moses' quiet meeting with Jethro sheds light on the Revelation at Sinai

The Bible abounds with narrative episodes that seem to suggest little connection one with the other. This week's Torah portion of Jethro, for instance, begins with a quiet meeting between Moses and his father-in-law, Jethro (Chapter 18), and concludes with nothing less sensational than the oral transmission of the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai (Chapter 19).

But even though Biblical stories can seem to lack any substantive connection, their very juxtaposition forces them into dialogue with one another, like two sonnets in a sonnet sequence. And this juxtaposition generates meaning.

The story of Jethro and Moses is a beautiful moment in the Exodus story. Since the Israelites were dislodged from Egypt three months before, a familiar political model has been coalescing: Israel versus everyone else. By definition, the burgeoning nation is sworn enemy to the Egyptians who enslaved them, to the Amorites and the Canaanites, who will have their land dispossessed by Israel, and to Amalek with whom Israel just did battle. It seems Israel can't get along with anyone.

But between Moses and Jethro, the priest of the Midianites, there has been only goodwill. When Moses first arrived in Midian, Jethro offered him his daughter in marriage, his sheep to tend, and his support when Moses received his calling from God. Now, Jethro resurfaces to restore to Moses his family, who had returned to Midian prior to the Exodus.


But there is another facet to Jethro's appearance. When he observes Moses in his role as leader, Jethro is troubled, and wisely advises his son-in-law that he is working too hard: "The thing that thou doest is not good. Thou shall surely wear away, both thou, and this people with thee: for this thing is too heavy for thee."

Jethro counsels him to teach others how to lead and distribute authority throughout the people. "Provide out of the people able men, such as fear God, men of truth to be rulers of thousands, and rulers of hundred, rulers of fifties and rulers of tens." On the other hand, he says, "Be thou the link between the people and God."

Jethro departs for his own land only after demonstrating that despite his primary attachment to his people, he has only friendship for the Israelites. And in his judicious words to Moses, Jethro offers the key to understanding the difficulties in the upcoming narrative of the Sinai experience.

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