Fox Tales: Parashat Yitro–A Nation of Laws

The key figure at the beginning of this week’s reading is Yitro (English Jethro), priest of Midian and Moshe’s father-in-law. He appears twice in the book: first, in chapter 2, he welcomes the fugitive from Egyptian justice and gives him his daughter Tzippora in marriage; the second meeting takes place in chapter 18 of Exodus. While Yitro is not one of the most important characters in the overall text, he has long aroused interest among interpreters. Scholars connect his tribe, the Kenites (the name means “metal workers” or “smiths”), to the southern border of Judah, and, on the basis of some tantalizing textual hints, some have even theorized that YHWH was worshiped by them, in a possible locus of origin for Israelite religion.

Be that as it may, in our chapter, Yitro’s task is to give sage advice to Moshe. After the Israelites have left Egypt and the Sea, he meets the great leader and is treated to a recounting of the miraculous events that have recently transpired. He marvels at the tale, offers sacrifices, and, with the addition of Aharon and the elders, sits down to a meal “in the presence of God.” The next day, Yitro witnesses how Moshe adjudicates disputes brought to him by the people. He immediately realizes that this puts too heavy a burden on his son-in-law, and wisely counsels him to set up a legal bureaucracy of sorts that will handle the easy cases, while reserving the difficult ones for Moshe himself, who presumably has divine help. The suggestion is eagerly accepted.

A close look at the wording of this chapter is telling. As is usual in biblical narrative, paying attention to repeating words can be helpful. Rather than merely using the name Yitro, the text emphasizes the important family relationship; “father-in-law” occurs thirteen times. The word davar, here meaning “matter” or “legal matter” instead of the usual “word” or “thing,” appears ten times, and points to the central issue: handling the many disputes that people will naturally bring to their leader. Translators often try and vary the English for stylistic reasons; even the vaunted King James Version uses “thing” several times, and “causes” in v. 26. But davar is a key word that ties the narrative together.

Further, and not surprisingly, “judge” or “adjudicate” appears four times. And even so pedestrian a word as “do” merits attention, first to note what God wrought on Israel’s behalf (vv. 1, 8, and 9), then to express Yitro’s disapproval of Moshe’s methods (“What…are you doing for the people?”, vv. 14, 17, and 18), and finally as part of his suggested remedy, which will lead to Moshe’s “making known to them…the deeds they should do” (v. 20).

Also notable is the description of ideal judges put forth by Yitro (v. 21): “men of caliber, holding God in awe, / men of truth, hating [unjust] gain”—that is, judges who are honorable, unflappable and incorruptible. While a secular society today might not invoke the divine, substituting instead “the law,” the basic qualifications still hold.

In the larger picture, interpreters have seen in this chapter a kind of preparatory exercise, a prelude to the Sinai law-giving that follows, even though the phrase in v. 16, “to make known God’s laws and his instructions,” will not fully apply until a bit later in the text. Even more significantly, our story serves as a bracket for the whole account of law-giving; it includes a meal with Aharon and the elders, a scene which will be echoed, with the addition of a mysterious vision of God, at the very end of the legal sections to follow (chapters 21-24). The former meal, suggesting a cementing of relations between Kenites and Israelites, foreshadows the later making of the covenant between God and Israel.

What this all means is that chapter 18 functions as the opening of a central section of Exodus which, coming shortly after the liberation of the people, makes it clear that they cannot become a nation without a detailed set of principles and laws. It is thus a crucial component of the Exodus story, much like an imagined version of America’s independent beginnings which might open with the Revolutionary War but would then include the process of creating the Constitution, along with the document itself.

Thinking about this section reminded me of a recreation of the Exodus story in which I had a role. Some twenty-five years ago, I was hired as a religious consultant on the animated DreamWorks film, The Prince of Egypt. My contributions to the project, which I joined midway in its development, were modest, but one of them, involving the film’s ending, was substantive, and links up with what I have written above.

After viewing a tentative version of the ending, I, and I suspect others, lobbied for a revision. In the original scene, set just after the Egyptians have drowned and Moshe bids a wistful farewell to his one-time brother, Pharaoh, he thanks Tzippora for all her support. The book of Exodus, of course, does not end that way, and I argued passionately for an addition. In its released version, the film now has Tzippora say, “Look at your people, Moses–they are free.” This echoes some lines I had written for an earlier scene, after the Burning Bush. But that is not all. More significantly, that last bit of dialogue is followed by a wordless visual of Moshe standing on Sinai, as the music swells, overlooking a vast gathering of the freed slaves, with the tablets of the covenant in his arms, emblematic of the newly given laws. The revised scene is more faithful to the spirit of Exodus, and sends a clear message not only to Bible readers but to all liberation movements: the physical gaining of freedom is only the first stage in the true life of a nation.

About the Author
I'm the Allen M. Glick Professor of Judaic and Biblical Studies at Clark University, Worcester, MA. I've published translations of The Five Books of Moses and The Early Prophets.
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