Jonathan Frankel

Was Yitro a great man or just the right man?

Jethro and Moses, watercolor by James Tissot, 1896 and 1900 (Wikipedia)

Why was the simple concept of delegating responsibility only conceived of by Yitro? Is it truly such novel advice that it deserves biblical accolades?

Yitro’s advice is not remarkable. The concept of delegating the responsibility of judgment upon subordinates is not a complex concept and should have been a natural conclusion for the problem facing Moshe (Shemot 18:13-16). This is particularly surprising given the fact that Moshe was raised in the palace of Pharoah and witnessed ministers and delegates every day traverse the palace. Furthermore, Moshe himself delegates his responsibility onto Aharon and Hur before he goes up to receive the Torah at Har Sinai (Shemot 24:14). Therefore, what was so remarkable about Yitro’s advice that made it necessary to get special mention?

Moshe was overloaded by the legal inquiries imposed on him by the people. One could rationalize that although delegating his authority was an obvious solution to the problem, Moshe would never have assumed it permissible without special instruction. After all, only Moshe had heard the law. He likely feared that anyone else could contaminate the law should it be represented by anyone but the source. These fears are true but the transition of Moshe’s authority onto at least one other person was inevitable as Moshe is mortal. If the legal and cultic practices of the religion were to persist they would need means for ongoing delegation into the future. Delegation was inevitable, further reiterating the perplexing narrative celebrating Yitro’s advice.

The answer is that the focus of the story is confused. What is being emphasized by the text is not the advice itself, rather who gave it. By the time the Torah was received Moshe was essentially a demigod. He is the intermediary of the divine. He commanded nature to afflict ten plagues, saved Israel from slavery, split the sea, rains magical bread from the sky, shatters rocks to bring forth water and ascends to heaven itself to receive the commandments of the Creator. Moshe’s demigod status in the eyes of the people is confirmed at the sin of the Golden Calf when the people demand a new intercessor and create an idol. The people could not replace Moshe with a mere mortal. 

Anyone who experienced these things could never conceive of contradicting Moshe. For this reason, why would anyone want to clarify their religious problems with anyone but the primary authority. Furthermore, if someone was content to accept another’s authority to arbitrate on the teachings of Moshe, who would be willing to pioneer usurping Moshe’s authority. If Moshe himself didn’t instruct the delegation of his authority then how could anyone else presume it. At the rebellion of Korach and Miriam’s gossip we see the harrowing results for those that presume equality with Moshe. Furthermore, who would have the gall to suggest to the man who orchestrated the deaths of tens of thousands of people that he should dilute his authority. In the absence of Moshe suggesting it himself, any member of Israel would have assumed the absence of delegation was a divine decree. This is why they were willing to endure excruciatingly long lines just to discuss their issues with Moshe. 

Yitro was the solution to this problem. He is the only person who knew Moshe as a normal person and never witnessed his prior miracles. Yitro arrives following all the events that made Moshe so awesome in the eyes of Israel. Yitro is reunited with his son in law, not the miraculous savior. In Yitro’s eyes, Moshe is just a fallible and exhausted man. Yitro knew Moshe as a humble exile and gave him everything. Yitro made Moshe. He made him a husband, father and shepherd to a flock. Yitro gave him permission to return to Egypt on his lofty mission to save his people. Moshe was commanded by God to go to Egypt but he did not depart until first acquiring consent from his father-in-law. When Yitro witnesses Moshe’s abnormal time management, he immediately steps into his role as father, advisor and superior. He points out the obvious vexing nature of Moshe’s grueling schedule and presents in detail the mechanics of a hierarchical legal system (18:17-23). 

Moshe immediately concedes without even posing the change to God (18:24). The concept of hierarchical delegation wasn’t novel, rather it simply needed to be justified to Moshe. God had never instructed him to assign delegates therefore Moshe would never contrive them himself. However, if his respected father-in-law rebukes him and instructs him, he will listen. 

About the Author
Jonathan is a physician with interests in science, philosophy and religion, with special focus on skeptical thinking and critical analysis.
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