News about everything God had done for his son-in-law Moses and the people of Israel reached Jethro (Iothor [LXX], Ietheglaios [Josephus]; also known as Reuel, Ragouel (LXX), Ragouelos [Josephus]). He heard that YHWH had delivered the Israelites out of Egypt. In his role as priest of Midian, Jethro may have functioned as a chieftain who led his family in worship. Likely he received the report about Moses from a messenger. (18:1)
Somewhere along the route on his way to Egypt, Moses had sent his wife Zipporah (Sepphora [LXX]) and his two sons Gershom and Eliezer back to Jethro. The name Gershom (Gersam [LXX]) indicted that Moses found himself as a resident alien in a foreign land, for the name is linked to the Hebrew expression ger sham, which may be translated a “resident alien there.” Eliezer, the younger son, also had a name that reflected Moses’ circumstances after he had fled from Egypt to escape from being killed. The name Eliezer means “my God is help [or a helper]” and served to express how Moses felt about what God had done for him, “for,” as Moses said, “the God of my father [his own father Amram, his ancestor Abraham, or his forefather Jacob from whom he descended through the line of Levi] [was] my help and he delivered me from the sword of Pharaoh.” Upon coming to know that Moses was encamped with the Israelites in the wilderness in the proximity of the “mountain of God” (Mount Sinai) Jethro, accompanied by his daughter Zipporah and his two grandsons Gershom and Eliezer, set out to meet his son-in-law Moses. (18:2-5)
Upon receiving a messenger’s report that his father-in-law Jethro and his wife and his two sons were on their way, Moses went to meet him. He respectfully prostrated himself before his father-in-law and kissed him. The two of them asked about each other’s welfare (literally, “peace”). Apparently so that he might have a private conversation with his father-in-law, Moses conducted him into his tent and related to him everything YHWH had done to Pharaoh and to the Egyptians for the sake of Israel, all the hardships the Israelites experienced during their journey, and how YHWH had delivered them. Jethro rejoiced over the report about “all the good that YHWH had done for Israel” when delivering the people “out of the hand [or power] of the Egyptians.” He was moved to say, “Blessed be YHWH who delivered you [Moses and all those with you] out of the hand of the Egyptians and out of the hand of Pharaoh.” Jethro acknowledged that he then knew that YHWH was greater than all other gods, basing this on the overwhelming evidence that YHWH had acted against the people who had dealt arrogantly with the Israelites. (18:6-11)
Jethro apparently had brought with him animals for sacrifice, and he presented a burnt offering and other sacrifices to God. Thereafter Aaron and the elders of Israel shared with Jethro in the communal meal of the meat from the animals that had been sacrificed. (18:12; see the Notes section.)
When later observing the people standing before Moses from morning to evening so that he might render judgment concerning them and make known to them God’s statutes and laws, instructions, or teachings, Jethro advised that his son-in-law make an adjustment to this arrangement, for the responsibility was too great for him to handle by himself. He recommended that Moses choose capable, trustworthy, God-fearing men, men who hated bribery, assigning them to handle the less serious cases. These men would then have the responsibility as rulers or chieftains over groups of various sizes — thousands, hundreds, fifties, and tens. While they would be handling minor disputes, Moses would handle the major disputes that they would bring to him. The benefit would be that Moses would be able to bear the burden of responsibility without becoming overwhelmed, and the people would not be wearing themselves out by having to wait a long time for him to hear their respective cases. After Moses accepted the recommendation of his father-in-law and wished him well, he departed for his own land. (18:13-27; see the Notes section.)
According to Josephus (Antiquities, III, iii), Moses is the one who offered the sacrifice and “made a feast for the multitude.” This does not agree with the extant Hebrew text nor the rendering of the Septuagint. A number of modern translations are definite in identifying Jethro as having brought the animals to be sacrificed. “Then Jethro brought an offering to be burned whole and other sacrifices to be offered to God; and Aaron and all the leaders of Israel went with him to eat the sacred meal as an act of worship.” (TEV) “Then Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, brought a burnt offering and sacrifices to God. Aaron and all the elders of Israel came out and joined him in a sacrificial meal in God’s presence.” (NLT)
Josephus (Antiquities, III, iv, 1) indicates that Moses’ father-in-law did not say anything while he observed him handling disputes, not wanting to interfere with what he was doing. “But afterward he took him to himself, and when he had him alone, he instructed him in what he ought to do.” He advised him to leave the “lesser causes to others but himself to take care of the greater.” If those to whom Moses delegated the responsibility to handle cases found one that was too difficult for their determination, they were to bring it to him. Jethro is quoted as adding, “By these means two advantages will be gained: the Hebrews will have justice rendered to them and you will be able to attend constantly on God and procure him to be more favorable to the people.”
According to the Hebrew text of verse 23, matters would work out well for Moses and for the people if God directed him to accept Jethro’s recommendation or if he approved of it. In their renderings of this verse, a number of translations are more specific than is the Hebrew text. “If you follow this advice, and if God commands you to do so, then you will be able to endure the pressures, and all these people will go home in peace.” (NLT) “If you do this, as God commands, you will not wear yourself out, and all these people can go home with their disputes settled.” (TEV) “This is the way God wants it done. You won’t be under nearly as much stress, and everyone else will return home feeling satisfied.” (CEV) “If you do this, then God will direct you and you will be able to go on. And, moreover, this whole people will arrive at its destination in harmony.” (REB) The Septuagint conveys a different meaning. It indicates that God would “strengthen” Moses if he followed Jethro’s advice.