Jethro in rabbinic literature
Talmud Readers by Adolf Behrman
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Allusions in rabbinic literature to the Biblical character Jethro, the father-in-law of Moses, contain various expansions, elaborations and inferences beyond what is presented in the text of the Bible itself.
One puzzle for the Talmudists was the difference in names presented at Numbers 10:29 and Judges 4:11, compared to Exodus 4:18: some thought that his real name was "Hobab" and that Reuel was his father (see Hobab); others thought that his name was "Reuel", interpreting it "the friend of God" (see Jethro—Biblical Data, and comp. the view of some modern scholars, who hold that his name was "Reuel," and that "Jethro" was a title, "his Excellency").
According to Shimon bar Yochai, he had two names, "Hobab" and "Jethro" (Sifre, Num. 78). It became, however, generally accepted that he had seven names: "Reuel", "Jether", "Jethro", "Hobab", "Heber", "Keni" (comp. Judges i. 16, iv. 11), and "Putiel"; Eleazar's father-in-law (Ex. vi. 25) being identified with Jethro by interpreting his name either as "he who abandoned idolatry" or as "who fattened calves for the sake of sacrifices to the idol" (Ex. R. xxvii. 7; Mek., Yitro, 'Amaleḳ, 1; Tan., Shemot, 11; comp. Targ. pseudo-Jonathan to Ex. vi. 25 and Soṭah 44a).
According to the Talmud, Jethro together with Balaam and Job was consulted by Pharaoh as to the means for exterminating the children of Israel; and as he dissuaded Pharaoh from his design, he was recompensed in that his descendants, the Rechabites, sat with the Sanhedrin in the Temple (Talmud Sanhedrin. 106a; Ex. R. i. 12; comp. I Chron. ii. 55). In Exodus Rabba 27.5 it is said that Jethro and Amalek were consulted by Pharaoh, and that both advised him to throw the male children into the river; but, seeing that Amalek was excluded from both this and the future life (comp. Ex. xvii. 14), Jethro repented. Some commentators maintain that when Pharaoh asked his advisors about how to go about outsmarting/exterminating Israel, Jethro promptly fled the scene while Job remained silent and Balaam suggested to enslave them.
R. Joshua and R. Eleazar ha-Moda'i disagree as to Jethro's position in Midian: according to one, the words kohen Midyan mean that he was the "priest [of] Midian"; according to the other, "prince [of] Midian" (Mek. l.c.; Exodus Rabba 27.2). The opinion that Jethro was a priest is met with in Exodus Rabba 1.35 and in Tan., Yitro, 5.
It is further said (Exodus Rabba l.c.) that Jethro, having remarked that the worship of an idol was foolish, abandoned it. The Midianites therefore excommunicated him, and none would keep his flocks; so that his daughters were compelled to tend them and were ill-treated by the shepherds. This, however, is in conflict with another statement, to the effect that Jethro gave his daughter Zipporah to Moses on condition that their first son should be brought up in the worship of idols, and that Moses swore to respect this condition (Mek. l.c.; Yalk., Ex. 169).
Whether Jethro went to the wilderness before or after the Torah was given, and consequently what it was that induced him to go to the wilderness, are disputed points among the ancient rabbis (Zeb. 116a; Yer. Meg. i. 11; Mek. l.c.). According to some, it was the giving of the Torah; according to others, the crossing of the Red Sea dry-shod, or the falling of the manna.
Honored by Moses
The manner in which Jethro announced his arrival to Moses is also variously indicated. According to Rabbi Eliezer, Jethro sent a messenger; according to Rabbi Joshua, he wrote a letter and tied it to an arrow which he shot into the camp. Moses did not go out alone to meet his father-in-law; but was accompanied by Aaron, Nadab, Abihu, and the seventy elders of Israel to honor Jethro. Some say that even the Shekinah itself went out to meet him (Mek. l.c.; Tan., Yitro, 6).
The words wa-yihad Yitro (Exodus 18.9), generally translated "and Jethro rejoiced," are interpreted by the Talmudists as "he circumcised himself"; or "he felt a stinging in his flesh"; that is to say, he was sorry for the loss of the Egyptians, his former coreligionists. By an interchange of the ח with the ה, the phrase would read wa-yihad, meaning "he became a Jew" (Tan., Yitro, 5).
Jethro was the first to utter a benediction to God for the wonders performed by Him for the Israelites (comp. Exodus xviii. 10). Such a thing had not been done either by Moses or by any of the Israelites (Sanh. l.c.; Mek. l.c. 2). Jethro knew that God was greater than all the gods (comp. Ex. xviii. 11), because he had previously worshiped all the idols of the world (Mek. l.c.; Tan. l.c.); but at the same time he did not deny to idols all divine power (Yalk., Ex. 269). According to Rabbi Joshua, Moses purposely sent Jethro away so he wouldn't be present at the revelation of the Law (comp. Exodus 18.27, Hebr.).