Jethro appears to be portrayed as a monotheist who is a fellow worshiper of the God of the Hebrews.
The character of Jethro, as he appears in the Book of Exodus, is an enigmatic figure in the biblical narrative. As a descendent of Midian, his ancestry goes back to Abraham (Gen. 25:1, 2; Ex. 2:16; 3:1). Among Abraham’s children outside the covenant line, there would have been an opportunity to know about his relationship to God and his faith in divine providence. Yet polytheism was practiced among the Midianites (Num. 25:16–18). This history forms a backdrop from which to examine the person of Jethro. In the Book of Exodus, Jethro appears in three distinct roles: a priest of Midian (Ex. 2:16; 3:1), Moses’ father-in-law (3:1; 18:1, 6), and as an advisor to Moses (18:13–27).
The Midianites are not mentioned as a people group outside the Bible, making the Bible the only clear source of information about them. They appear to have been a loosely organized conglomeration of peoples scattered over a relatively wide geographical range. When the Midianites appear in a religious context, apart from the narratives that include Jethro, they mostly appear to participate in polytheism or magic. As an initial example, when Balak sent for Balaam to come and curse the Israelites, the elders of Midian carried objects or money associated with divination (Num. 22:7). The practice of divination was expressly condemned in the Bible (Deut. 18:10; 1 Sam. 15:23; 2 Kings 17:17). There were also Midianites present at the incident involving Baal of Peor in which Moabites and Midianites enticed the men of Israel to participate in idolatrous practices (Num. 25:6, 14, 15, 17, 18; 31:2, 3). The worship of Baal was polytheistic, as Baal formed part of the pantheons of the Ancient Near East.
Following the entrance of the people of Israel into Canaan, there are several more references to Midianite religious practices. There is an ambiguous example exemplified in the conversation between two Midianite soldiers that Gideon overhears (Judges 7:13, 14). In the narrative, one soldier recounts a dream, and another soldier interprets the dream as foretelling what the divine intervention in the outcome of the battle will be. In the ancient world, dreams were understood to be means by which the gods would communicate with humans. In this instance, a Midianite ascribes the origin of his dream to an unspecified deity, and the dream is a source of assurance for Gideon (vs. 15). Whether or not the Midianite dream interpreter believes that the god who delivered the dream and the god who will bring Gideon victory was the God of the Israelites is unclear from the passage.
As Gideon engages in the battle with the Midianites, one of the Midianite kings whom Gideon and his men pursue is named Zalmunna, whose name has as a likely meaning “image” or “statue” associated with the god Salm or Salmu. Once Gideon defeats the Midianites, the Israelite soldiers acquire gold ornaments that appear to point to the worship of a moon god (Judges 8:21, 24–26). From the experiences of Gideon’s interactions with the Midianites, two indications hint at the incorporation of the worship of deities from the pantheon.
The last reference to the Midianites in the context of their faith appears in Isaiah 60:6. In this passage, Midian and Ephah—a name that appears as a descendant of Midian (Gen. 25:4)—are identified as coming to contribute gold and frankincense to God and proclaim praises to Him. This description of a future event, relative to Isaiah’s time, depicts these descendants of Abraham participating in the worship of the God of heaven. John Oswalt describes this event: “the prophet is explicit about why the nations bring their wealth to Jerusalem. It is not to gain favor with the Jews, or to repay them for their suffering. Neither is it because the Jews are recognized as a superior race. They bring their gifts for one purpose: the praises of the Lord they will proclaim.”1 Here the Midianites, and Ephahites, contribute to the adoration of God and participate in worshiping Him.
The religious practices of the Midianites vary across the scope of the Bible. The time period of Israel’s desert wanderings and the period of the judges contain references to polytheistic practices among the Midianites. Yet, in Isaiah, Midianites would participate someday in the worship of the God of Israel.
Jethro in Scripture
Jethro appears in the Book of Exodus as someone who provided assistance to Moses during his exile from Egypt. Moses, an adopted child into the Pharaoh’s household (Ex. 2:9, 10), intervened on behalf of a slave who was a fellow Hebrew, resulting in the death of the Egyptian slave driver (vss. 11, 12). In order to escape the threat of death leveled against him, Moses fled to Midian (vss. 14, 15). W. Gunther Plaut suggests that the reason Moses fled to Midian was precisely because Israel and Midian shared Abraham as a common ancestor.2 At a well, Moses encountered shepherdesses who were described as daughters of “the priest of Midian” (vs. 16). Moses would go on to live with that priest of Midian, Jethro, marry his daughter Zipporah, and tend his sheep (vs. 21; 3:1). Later, following the Exodus from Egypt, Jethro came to meet Moses and brought Zipporah with him along with Moses’ sons, Gershom and Eliezer (18:1–5). At the time that Israel left Mount Sinai, Jethro, or someone from his family, led the people on their continued journey into the wilderness (Num. 10:29–31). Jethro may have remained with Israel and settled in the land of Canaan with them (Judges 1:16; 4:11). By Zipporah’s marriage to Moses and the possible settlement in Canaan with the Israelites, Jethro’s descendants would have become part of the Israelite people through Gershom and Eliezer (Judges 18:30; 1 Chron. 23:15–17; 26:24). Jethro’s path thus becomes intertwined with that of the covenant people of Israel.
Jethro the Priest
In Exodus 2:16, the first way Jethro is identified is as kohen madyan (“the priest of Midian”). To be a priest in the Ancient Near East entailed a religious leadership component and service on behalf of a god involving sacrifices. Raymond Abba points out, “The use of כהן, however, is not limited to the priests of Yahweh. It is used also of Egyptian priests (Gen. 41:45, 50; 46:20; 47:26), Philistine priests (I Sam. 6:2), priests of Dagon (I Sam. 5:5), priests of Baal (II Kings 10:19), priests of Chemosh (Jer. 48:7), and priests of the Baalim and Asherim (II Chr. 34:5).”3 The term itself would not indicate something unique about priests of Yahweh, nor would Jethro’s identification by this term necessarily indicate anything about which deity he worshiped.
Modern critical scholars have hypothesized that the worship of Yahweh among the Israelites originated outside of Israel and that Jethro played a role in this adoption. Bruce Wells, referring to the land of Midian, states the following, “This region is referred to as the ‘Land of the Shasu’—shasu refers to Bedouin shepherds—in two Egyptian texts found in ancient Nubia (modern Sudan) from approximately 1400 B.C. These texts mention ‘Yhw (in) the land of the Shasu.’ This Yhw is most likely a form of Yahweh and represent a location possibly based on the Israelite name for God. This may support the conclusion that some people in that region may have been worshiping Yahweh at this time.”4
Pieces of evidence like this are part of what has contributed to the conclusion among some modern critical scholars that Moses was introduced to the worship of Yahweh during his sojourn in Midian. Bernard Robinson suggests that the placement of the story at its location in Exodus 18 is intended to show Moses’ dependence on Jethro for the introduction of the worship of Yahweh among the Israelites.
The Midianite-Kenite Hypothesis—the theory that Israelites adopted the worship of Yahweh from the Midianites, perhaps through Jethro—has some difficulties. William Ward argues that the term Shasu, used by the Egyptians, was a description of people of a particular lifestyle rather than a specific ethnic group. Michael Hasel maintains that the reference to Yhw in the land of Shasu is a toponym and the correlation with an origin of the worship of Yahweh in the region is inconclusive. Scholars have been hard pressed to establish how Israel would have settled on the beliefs that they adopted within the Ancient Near East cultural context, particularly a radical monotheism and rejection of a belief in divine coital activity and possible mortality of the deity. Even with regard to the reliability of the stories of the patriarchs as they appear in the Bible, there is evidence that the material reflects a knowledge of ancient customs that would not have been readily available for a later composition. This leads H. H. Rowley to state, “There is thus some reason to believe that the stories in which [the ancient customs] are embodied were also handed down, and that the substance of the stories was faithfully transmitted.”5 This raises the possibility that there may have been a common source for a monotheistic belief in Midian and Israel, and this belief would then likely trace back to Abraham.
When Jethro comes to meet Moses at the foot of Mount Sinai, Jethro pronounces a blessing in the name of Yahweh and participates with Moses in the cultic sacrificial worship (Ex. 18:10–12). The blessing Jethro pronounces begins with the formula in verse 10, “‘Blessed be the Lord,’” and later in verse 11 Jethro states, “‘Now I know that the Lord is greater than all gods.’”6 Following the Jewish captivity in Babylon, there were a number of converts to Judaism, and in Jethro’s announcement, the rabbis found a precedent for a Gentile to confess faith in the Hebrew God. The rabbis, however, expressed concern about the comparative nature of the second phrase of Jethro’s confession, leading them to infer that Jethro had previously been idolatrous. John Calvin later shared this view, namely that Jethro retained a polytheistic faith rather than a pure monotheism. Brevard Childs, however, argues that to take this view “is to misunderstand the Old Testament idiom by being too literal.”7 He points to Psalm 135:5 where the phrase appears, “For I know that the Lord is great, and that our Lord is above all gods” which would not be understood to retain vestiges of polytheism. Childs concludes by stating, “from the formula alone Jethro’s confession could indicate either that he was a previous worshipper of Yahweh, or that he was a new convert.”8 Childs misses the option that Jethro may be acknowledging that some held a belief in other gods without affirming that those other gods truly existed. Randall Bailey and Douglas Stuart understand the reference to the other gods to indicate God’s power and echo God’s promise to bring judgment on the gods of Egypt (Ex. 12:12).9 There seems to be sufficient evidence to indicate that Jethro’s affirmation of faith could very well be rooted in a monotheistic belief that he held prior to his encounter with Moses. Since Jethro came from an environment in which polytheism was practiced, he would have been familiar with the views of polytheism and would have had experience addressing them from his position as a monotheist.
Jethro’s participation in the sacrificial worship adds further credence to the possibility that Jethro had previously engaged in the worship of God. Victor Hamilton states, “Jethro seems to be the officiating priest.”10 In Exodus 18:12, Jethro is the active agent who brings burnt offerings and sacrifices before God. The passage uses two words to describe the ritual, ‘olah, a term used to describe burnt offerings, and zebach, a general term for offerings. Walter Kaiser argues that Jethro’s participation is in bringing the animals, not in performing the actual sacrifices. While some commentators assume that Jethro was a convert to Judaism, this would not seem to fit with Jethro’s active leadership in the worship of God. Aelred Cody asserts that this ceremony was part of a covenant that was formed between the Kenites and Israel.11 His argument, however, rests on the assumption that there is material missing immediately preceding Exodus 18:12 that ostensibly describes the covenant ceremony. Jethro’s leadership in worship indicates the possibility of his connection with the God of Abraham, and acceptance of participation by Moses and Aaron would indicate the likelihood of a shared monotheistic faith.
Jethro the Father-in-Law
Upon Moses’ flight from Egypt to Midian, the first group that Moses is said to have encountered were Jethro’s seven daughters (Ex. 2:16). As Moses moved in to live with Jethro, the evidence of his settlement into the land is his marriage to one of Jethro’s daughters, Zipporah (vs. 21). This action would indicate an assumption of closeness on the part of Jethro and Moses, a closeness that may indicate a deeper bond beyond the superficial.
With regard to choices of wives, the patriarchs had already established a tradition of marrying within the family clan and emphasizing fellow believers in the same God. Abraham had married his half-sister (Gen. 11:29; 20:12). Abraham sent his servant to find a wife for his son Isaac from amongst his family (24:2–4), a decision that appears to have been motivated by the presence of followers of the same God among his family. Isaac’s twins, Esau and Jacob, were encouraged to marry close relatives. Esau had married Hittite women, and his parents were not happy with the decision (26:34, 35). When Esau became aware of his father’s preference that Jacob not marry Canaanite women, he took the step of marrying his cousin, Ishmael’s daughter, Mahalath (28:9). Isaac had also directed Jacob to go to Laban, Jacob’s uncle, and find a cousin to marry (vss. 1, 2). This directive may also have carried religious connotations. The tradition of marrying someone who was within the same tribe was even practiced by Moses’ parents (Ex. 2:1; 6:20).
Moses’ flight to Midian appears to have been motivated by the closeness of family relation between the Israelites and the Midianites. Within this family relation would have been the shared ancestry that traced back to Abraham, which likely included a shared faith tradition. The law that was given later expressly prohibited marriage with those who did not share the same faith of the Israelites (Ex. 34:16; Deut. 7:3, 4). In the general marriage practices in the Ancient Near East, Plaut states, “The older system rested on the assumption that two persons will have a proper foundation for marriage if their backgrounds are generally compatible.”12
This brings up the issue of Moses’ dispute with Miriam with regard to his “Cushite wife” in Numbers 12:1. Dennis Cole suggests three possible explanations for the identity of Moses’ Cushite wife.13 The first possible explanation is that Cush would be a location associated with modern Sudan, and thus the woman would be someone besides Zipporah. The second possible explanation is that Habakkuk 3:7 relates a place called Cushan with the Midianites and thus a Cushite could also be a Midianite. The third possible explanation is that “Cushite” was intended to be an ethnic slur referring to the hue of Moses’ wife’s skin. Within the context of the three possible explanations, what is notably missing is that the religious practices of Moses’ wife are not the issue raised. Regardless of whether the Cushite wife was indeed Zipporah, or if she was not, the complaint Miriam raises is not that Moses’ wife is an idolater. The argument had not been raised previously either, since the time that Jethro had brought Zipporah with him to meet Moses (Ex. 18:2, 5). If the issue Miriam was specifically raising was spiritual authority (Num. 12:2, 6–8), then the point at which she would have attacked Moses would have been his disqualifying marriage to a woman who did not worship the same God as the Israelites. Additionally, the relation between the Midianites and the Israelites is one that would include idolatry and an illicit relationship between an Israelite man and a Midianite woman that is resolved by Phinehas’s execution of the couple (Num. 25:6–18). Several possible explanations are that Miriam and Aaron’s complaint involved unstated religious issues in addition to the stated ethnic issue, or that the religious issue was not a factor because Moses’ wife shared the same faith in God.
In the curious episode regarding circumcision, Zipporah is portrayed as obeying God’s implied command and saving Moses’ life (Ex. 4:24–26). Moses would have already been circumcised, as this was a practice in both Hebrew and Egyptian culture (Jer. 9:24, 25). Abraham had circumcised Ishmael and all the men in his household at the time that God had given him the command (Gen. 17:23–27) and later circumcised Isaac after he was born (21:4). The command had been to circumcise every male of Abraham’s descendants and those born in his household (17:10–14). One could reasonably conclude that this was performed on Abraham’s other sons born to Keturah, as the practice appears to have been widely practiced among the ancient West Semitic peoples (i.e., Israelites, Edomites, Ammonites).
The explanation regarding the nature of the circumcision incident is obscure and much debated. Zipporah may very well have been aware of the rite of circumcision but had been resistant toward carrying it out on her son. In order for Moses to be spiritually qualified to lead the people out of Egypt, his entire family, including his wife, would need to be participants in all the rites of the covenant, especially circumcision. To be circumcised would have been a matter of obedience to God and a recognition of His authority over His people. By God getting Zipporah’s attention, and prompting her to perform the rite, she then acknowledged God’s role in the marriage despite her possible reticence for the act of circumcision. Alice Bellis and Susan Ackerman portray Zipporah’s action of circumcising her son as a priestly function. Thomas Dozeman calls Zipporah a “ritual specialist.”14 Stuart points out that growing up as the daughter of the priest of Midian, she would have been familiar with the practice and its significance.15 Additionally, the presence of a flint knife indicates that this tool, which would have been falling into general disuse at the time of this occurrence, was available to perform the rite. This event takes place toward the close of the Bronze Age, yet “a flint flake was used to perform circumcision in Israel and Egypt even after metal tools and weapons were readily available. They were very sharp, easily accessible and the traditional instrument for age-old rituals.”16 God instructed Joshua to make flint knives to circumcise the men of Israel upon crossing the Jordan River into Canaan (Joshua 5:2). While flint was readily available in Canaan at the time, there appears to be some preparation involved in making the knives. The availability of the tool appears to indicate that the writer assumes the preparedness of Moses and Zipporah to engage in a circumcision.
Regardless of the responsibility of who had failed to circumcise the child and for what reason, the narrative indicates that Zipporah is the recipient of communication from God, she is aware of what action to take to defuse the situation, and effectively carries it out. James Bruckner goes as far as to say, “It is also certain that Zipporah understood the situation, acted to save her family, and satisfied the Lord’s concern. In doing so, this Midianite woman proved her commitment to the God of Abraham who commanded circumcision as an ‘everlasting covenant’ (Gen. 17:1–14). Her action resolved the ambiguity of Moses’ identity as a Hebrew who was raised in Pharaoh’s house and married to a Midianite woman.”17
As Bruckner points out, one would expect there to have been questions among the Israelites if Jethro and Zipporah were polytheistic idolators. Zipporah did indeed demonstrate a commitment to the rite of circumcision, which in both the Israelite and Midianite traditions could have been traced back to Abraham. This would indicate a connection with God and His directions to His people.
Zipporah then can be understood through various inferences to have been a follower of the same God as the Hebrews. This information regarding the God of the Hebrews would have likely come through her father. That Moses would live in the company of Jethro for 40 years (Acts 7:30) and that Jethro’s daughter would appear to have had a knowledge of the God of heaven would indicate that there was a religious affinity between Moses and Jethro. Under the circumstances of Moses’ marriage to Jethro’s daughter and the information made available about her, this information provides additional likely evidence that Jethro was a follower of the God of his ancestor Abraham just as was Moses.
Jethro the Advisor
The Book of Exodus also portrays Jethro in an advisory role to Moses. The encounter between Moses and Jethro as recorded in Exodus 18:13 to 27 provides a foundation and basis for the development of the governance structure of Israel during their desert wanderings and their subsequent conquest and settlement in the land of Canaan. After the record of the joint sacrifices and covenant meal between Moses and Jethro, Jethro observes Moses’ approach to governance of the people of Israel and suggests an alternate approach that involves training various qualified leaders among the people to whom he would delegate most of the responsibilities he was carrying (Ex. 18:21, 22). Moses accepts Jethro’s advice and implements it in the leadership of Israel (vss. 24–26).
A primitive role of ancient priests was that of providing oracular guidance to those who sought out their insights. Dommershausen states, “In the early period, the primary function of the priests was oracular. Whenever a difficult decision has to be made, the people (or individual Israelites) ask the priest as official mediator for a divine oracle.”18 In this particular narrative, Moses filled that role of providing divine guidance in his interactions with the people, but in the same passage, Jethro is identified as the priest of Midian (Ex. 18:1). Jethro’s offer of advice came with the added imprimatur that this counsel was accompanied by a divine blessing. Jethro stated in Exodus 18:19, “‘and God be with you!’” and he followed this in verse 23 with the protasis, “‘if you do this, and God will direct you.’” Jethro’s statement can be interpreted to mean that his instruction had its origin in God.
Jethro’s advice and assertions placed him in a position in which he was portrayed as having insight from God that Moses at this point in the narrative did not have. Roy Honeycutt comments, “The authority with which Jethro spoke for God . . . suggests that he occupied a special role in the Midianite-Israelite structure which gave to him the power to speak in this manner to Moses.”19 Jethro spoke authoritatively to Moses on God’s behalf. In relation to Jethro’s declaration of the divine origin of his advice, John Durham states, “This assertion shows Jethro to be far more than simply the respected patriarch he is ordinarily made out to be. He is functioning toward Moses much as he is telling Moses he should function toward the people of Israel.”20 Jethro is—in this instance, appearing in the narrative before Moses receives the law from God Himself—providing the voice of God to the one who will witness God firsthand.
Jethro emphasized that Moses should rely on direction and wisdom from God in his exercise of the leadership and administration of the people. This assumption is clear in Jethro’s statement in Exodus 18:19, where he states, “‘you shall represent the people before God, and bring their cases to God.’” Jethro did not qualify the statement by referring to the deity as “your god”; he instead referred to the deity using language that would be indicative of a fellow believer in the same God. This becomes another piece of evidence pointing to Jethro’s shared belief in the same God of Abraham.
The following chapter emphasizes the uniqueness of Israel among the nations of the earth (Ex. 19:5). The uniqueness that characterized Israel would be theirs as a result of obeying God’s instructions and thus increasing the differentiation between them and the surrounding nations. This uniqueness is emphasized by the use of the term cegullah, which may be translated “special treasure,” a term indicating priceless property God uses to characterize His special relationship with Israel. Nahum Sarna points to how notable the narrative of Jethro’s advice is when he states, “The narrative is remarkable in several ways, not least because so important an Israelite institution as the judiciary is ascribed to the initiative and advice of a Midianite priest.”21 If Jethro was in fact a pagan priest who worshiped other gods and had perhaps only moments before converted to the worship of the God of heaven, the uniqueness of Israel as a people who followed God’s instructions in a way that was not seen in the nations around—and who had special revelations from God about him—would be necessarily undermined by their reliance on Jethro’s advice for their governing structure.
The enigmatic character of Jethro provides a fascinating insight into the Pentateuch’s portrayal of the nature of ancient Israel’s relationship with fellow descendants of Abraham and fellow worshipers of the God of Abraham. Given that the Midianites were descendants of Abraham through Keturah, Abraham had likely instructed his sons in the worship of the God who had made a covenant with him. Among the descendants of Midian, though some adopted polytheistic practices, some memory of the ancestry of Abraham would have been retained. Then Jethro, as a descendant of that line, would have had the possibility of retaining the worship of his ancestor Abraham.
Jethro is portrayed in various roles in the Book of Exodus. He is portrayed as the priest of Midian, and though the term priest has wide application in Hebrew to sacerdotal duties relating to various deities, Jethro’s priestly portrayals are uniquely focused on the worship of the God of the Hebrews. Jethro confessed faith in the God of the Hebrews and led in offering sacrifices to Him in conjunction with Moses, Aaron, and the elders of Israel. Jethro is also portrayed as Moses’ father-in-law, and Moses’ marriage to a Midianite woman was not singled out as a cause for concern regarding his spiritual leadership of Israel. The identity of Moses’ Cushite wife in Numbers 12:1 and 2 is not clear, and the nature of Miriam’s challenge may have implied some religious elements, but religious concerns are not the primary issue Miriam raises. In the instances in which Zipporah is named, she acts in a way consistent with a believer in the same God as the Hebrews. She even receives communication from God and responds appropriately in performing the rite of the covenant sign on her son. The third role in which Jethro is portrayed is that of advisor to Moses. The great lawgiver of Israel is portrayed as receiving instruction from a non-Israelite with regard to how to organize the administration of the people of Israel. In the course of providing the advice, Jethro asserts a divine source of the advice and emphasizes Moses’ need to submit to the divine will.
When the various pieces of evidence are considered, Jethro appears to be portrayed in the Pentateuch as a monotheist who is a fellow worshiper of the God of the Hebrews. This suggests that the worship of the God of heaven was not limited to those inside the covenant community and that Israel did not have exclusive access to the God of heaven. Though the Pentateuch emphasizes God’s election of Israel as a people whom He had selected for His special purposes (Ex. 19:5, 6), this does not create an inimitability regarding the worship of the God of Abraham. In fact, God was willing for His people to receive instruction and counsel from those outside the covenant community, and even looked favorably on shared worship. The portrayal of Jethro would offer an appeal toward professed followers of God to recognize those of differing faith traditions who may very well worship the same God. This recognition can afford opportunities for dialogue, mutual edification, and growth. The story of Jethro gives just such a case.
Daniel Royo, MPhil, PhD, serves as a pastor in the Potomac Conference of Seventh-day Adventists.
NOTES AND REFERENCES