Despite what you may have heard, there are three Jethros.
We all know Jethro Bodine, the lovable dolt from the Beverly Hillbillies.
Many of us know Jethro Tull, one of only two rock bands I can think of who ever incorporated a flute.
But both the beneficiaries of the bubbling crude and the flute rockers are indebted to Moses’s father-in-law, in Scripture, that is.
Jethro reappears on the scene in Exodus when Moses and the children of Israel arrive at Sinai. He comes with Moses’s wife and children in tow, presumably sent back to Jethro to be spared the wranglings of Pharaoh with God.
Jethro hails from Midian, and reading with our contemporary eyes, such information may not seem to be of much importance. The people of Midian descended from Abraham, they consisted of a sort of “cousin-people” to the people of Israel. Despite such relation, Moses’s sojourn in the land of Midian and the relationship between Moses and Jethro remain two of the only positive interactions between God’s people and Israel. Several times, the two peoples would do battle with one another, even in the course of Moses’s life. While the children of Israel would serve Abraham’s God, the people of Midian would not. Their worship gave homage to pagan gods.
Notice that 18:1 calls Jethro “the priest of Midian.” While we do not necessarily know, or need to know, exactly what such a thing entailed, Moses indicates Jethro’s faith in false gods through this detail. Even so, the short narrative of Jethro with Moses will give God glory in two ways.
First, the text tells the reader of Moses’s testimony to Jethro in verses 5-12. Word made its way around after God brought the plagues to Egypt, but now Jethro hears Moses’s first-hand account. Though the interaction exists between Moses and Jethro, God remains at the forefront. They converse about the acts of God. “God” or “the LORD” receives reference eight times in these verses.
What comes out of the testimony of Moses proves nothing short of remarkable. In verse 9, the man rejoices for God’s work on behalf of Israel in Egypt; he continues in verse 10, blessing God. Verse 11 contains his confession—he proclaims God above all other gods. Of course, the primary referent there would be the gods of Egypt, Osiris, Isis, Horus, Anubis, and so forth. However, his recognition of God’s true sovereign rule over earth rejects also the power of his own gods, whatever they were. He doesn’t recite the Athanasian Creed, to be sure. However, in his rejection, he makes a bold play in his verbal recognition of God above the so-called gods. We do not know about what happened in Jethro’s life after he departs from Moses, but if his conversion proved authentic (and I think it did for reasons I shall give below), he likely did not live a happy life upon his return to Midian. The recognition and acceptance of the truth of God's supremacy over the false gods of his fellow Midianites likely did not please them.
I suggest we understand Jethro’s confession to be one of legitimacy. The main reason exists in verse 12, but before getting to its contents, ask yourself this: what purpose does recording a minimalistic lip-service to God serve? When an example of this happens in Acts 8 in the narrative of Simon Magus, the reader sees an address of Simon’s faulty belief and the rebuke of it. Here, no such thing happens. Jethro’s confession certainly contains little in the way of technical expertise; however, his words bear depth in their simplicity. Jethro had seven daughters, at least one old enough to marry. He did not proclaim God’s glory in the throes of youth. Furthermore, verse 12 state he made a burnt offering to God and ate a meal with Moses, Aaron, and the elders of Israel before God. “Before God” indicates God’s presence. The narratives of the Old Testament never depict God rewarding presumption (see Leviticus 10). Had Jethro not become a true worshipper of God, we could rightly conclude God’s rejection of him at this time. The sharing of the meal with Moses and the others also indicates their recognition of Jethro’s true faith. The saving God saves the unsaveable. The Midianite pagan becomes numbered among the Old Testament saints.
The second half of the chapter provides an excellent example of leadership and delegation of authority. I’ll let the reader see the detail, but Jethro provides the wisdom Moses follows. Exodus 18:13-27 gives some of the most practical help for a leader in the entire Bible. Why include it in Scripture though? What would the text reveal about God here if Moses merely receives practical advise from his father-in-law?
Jethro recognizes and reminds Moses of his own inadequacy. The faith promoted in Scripture holds up no man (save Christ, the God-Man) as sufficient in himself. Paul would often boast in his own weakness, and Moses, a towering biblical figure has weaknesses of his own. Note Jethro’s conclusion regarding Moses’s leadership concerns the people of God as well as Moses himself. Verse 18 indicates Moses would exhaust the people as well as himself. The narrative of Exodus soon brings the Law into the camp for all the people to know. The Law will not only rule all God’s people, but it will be available to all of God’s people. Jethro’s advice and admonishment removes Moses from unintentionally becoming the focus. Instead, God remains the focus through the service of his people as leaders and ministers among the whole congregation of Israel.
God continues revealing himself in Exodus. What a joy to see him operating graciously among the pagans and the impudent that they would know him!