Michael Carasik

Yitro: Making Room for Moses and Aaron

This year, the day after the Sabbath on which we read Yitro is Abraham Lincoln’s birthday – and I have another Torah puzzler for you. What’s the connection between Lincoln and Moses? The simplest answer to that question, of course, is that they both freed slaves. But there’s actually also a connection in this week’s reading.

When Lincoln became president, the White House was not merely a public building; it was still open to the public. Hundreds of people went there and just walked right into President Lincoln’s office and asked him for a government job. Lincoln spent most of his first few weeks dealing with these people, until some of his advisers figured out a way to get rid of the office seekers and let Lincoln do his more important work.

That is exactly what Jethro does for Moses in Exodus 18, a chapter that in fact is all about him. He shows up in v. 1 because he has heard what God did for Moses and for Israel. We might imagine that he was a little bit less concerned about Israel and a little bit more concerned about his son-in-law and the family he apparently abandoned, since vv. 2-3 tells us that Jethro brought Zipporah and “her” two sons along with him. V. 2 presents us with one of the unsolved puzzles of biblical studies, when Jethro brings his daughter אַחַ֖ר שִׁלּוּחֶֽיהָ aḥar shilluḥeha, “after she had been sent home” according to the new JPS translation, but we don’t really know exactly what that phrase means.

We’ll come back to it shortly, but for now let’s fast-forward to v. 7, when Moses brings his father-in-law into his tent and tells him the whole story of the exodus, and again to v. 12, when Jethro brings a burnt offering and other sacrifices for God, and Aaron comes with all the elders of Israel to eat a ritual meal “before God” with Moses’s father-in-law.

Jethro, you have to remember, was the priest of Midian (Exod 3:1). Midian is not the name of a god, but a geographical region, more or less northwestern Saudi Arabia of today. So when he’s called “the priest of Midian” we know where he is a priest, but we don’t know what god he is serving. Yet our chapter strongly suggests that he is serving the same God that Moses is serving — the same God who promised the land of Canaan to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. It would therefore seem reasonable to understand that he is a priest of the Israelite God, YHWH.

What else happens in our chapter? That Lincoln parallel. The next morning, Jethro discovers that Moses is dealing with quarrelsome Israelites from break of day late on into the night. Jethro explains to him: You need to delegate a hierarchy of subordinates to take care of the problems the Israelites bring. If there’s a problem that’s too difficult for them to solve, they can kick it further up the hierarchy, and if it has to it will come all the way up to you. But you need to be managing the overall situation, not dealing with quarrels between neighbors.

Moses does set up the system that Jethro suggests. Essentially, then, Jethro is the power behind the throne. He is the civil authority — at least, he’s telling Moses, the ostensible civil authority, what to do. Jethro is also — definitely, and not behind the throne — serving as the chief priest, a job that Moses’s brother Aaron is eventually going to get.

By the end of this chapter, the civil government at least is organized, and Moses bids his father-in-law farewell. What he is doing according to the Hebrew text is וַיְשַׁלַּ֥ח — not a Qal verb, וַיִּשְׁלַח “he sent him,” but a Piel verb from that same root. (For a more intensive discussion of how roots change their meaning in different verb binyanim, see Lesson 15 of my Hebrew course.)

That form of the verb is quite an interesting one. It can mean, as it does in the story of Abraham and the three men in Genesis 18, that you “see someone off”: you accompany them to the door or even a little way on their journey to get them started. In that usage, it’s a very friendly gesture. The OED Word of the Day recently offered a charming Nigerian expression for this; they call it “giving someone a send-forth.”

But the same verb can mean that you let someone go or release a slave. See Exod 21:26–27, which we will be reading next week, where a master who hits his slave and causes him to lose an eye or a tooth must set the slave free using שׁלח in the Piel. This, of course, is also the Hebrew verb used when Moses tells the Pharaoh, שַׁלַּח֙ אֶת־עַמִּ֔י shallaḥ et-ami ‘let my people go’ (Exod 5:1 and elsewhere).

The same verb can be used to discuss divorcing a woman; see Deut 24:1–4 — and, perhaps not coincidentally, v. 2 of our own chapter, where it is the Hebrew verb behind “after she had been sent home.” It is even used in Gen 3:23 to banish someone, as Adam and Eve are banished from the garden.

What Moses is doing in v. 27, then, is not bidding his father-in-law a fond farewell. He is getting rid of his father-in-law, perhaps in a polite way, but getting rid of him all the same. He is making sure that Jethro does not stay with the Israelites. If he did, it’s hard to see how Aaron could have become the chief priest with a much more experienced chief priest already at hand.

It’s even hard to see how Moses could have kept ruling the Israelites. Jethro in our chapter does not take over for Moses, but he is telling Moses what to do. Despite the best of intentions, it would be obvious to everyone that Jethro, not Moses, was the ultimate decider.

He is getting rid of Jethro so that he and his brother Aaron can fulfill their destinies as the civil and the religious leaders of the Israelites, and so that the Israelites themselves can fulfill their destiny. That destiny is going to be announced to them in the next chapter, Exod 19:6. They are to be an entire kingdom of priests, and a holy nation. Jethro would merely be in the way.

About the Author
Michael Carasik has a Ph.D. in Bible and the Ancient Near East from Brandeis University and taught for many years at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the creator of the Commentators’ Bible and has been a congregational Torah reader, blogger, and podcaster about the Bible. You can read a longer version of this essay at and follow Michael's close reading of Genesis at
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