DIG: What kind of relationship did Moses enjoy with his father-in-law Jethro? Was it relaxed or casual? Trusting or suspicious? Affirming or critical? Why?
REFLECT: The burnt offering was atonement for sin. It was an acknowledgement of sin and a desire to be cleansed. How do we do this today? When you feel the weight of your sin and you want to get rid of it, where do you go? What happens if we claim to be without sin? Read First John 1:5-10.
The word of the LORD’s victory at the Sea of Reeds reached Jethro’s ears. So the timing of his arrival at the Israelite camp was no accident. Having heard of their victory over the Amalekites at Rephidim, he decided to go visit his son-in-law and celebrate with him. Now Jethro, the priest of Midian and father-in-law of Moses, heard of everything God had done for Moses and for his people Israel, and how ADONAI had brought Israel out of Egypt (18:1). The Midianites did not have a king like other nations; therefore, their highest office was that of the priest and Jethro was not his real name, but his official name, like Abimelech in Genesis or Pharaoh in Exodus.
Jethro also took along his two grandsons and his daughter Zipporah. After Moses had sent his wife Zipporah back to Midian, his father-in-law Jethro received her and her two sons (18:2-3a). In all likelihood, she was sent back to her homeland because of her negative attitude toward the Covenant of Circumcision (Genesis 17:9-14; Exodus 4:24-26). As a result, she and her two sons missed all the miracles that God performed in Egypt, the crossing of the Sea of Reeds, the cleansing of the bitter water at Marah, the provision of quail and manna in the Desert of Sin, the river of water miraculously gushing out from the rock at Meribah, and the wonderful victory over the Amalekites. It is interesting that Moses would later remarry (Numbers 12), and Zipporah’s name would never again appear in the Scriptures. Many commentators have assumed that she died before he married a second time. But it may be that she remained with her father after he returned to his own country. Regardless of where she ended up, the reason that she and her two sons are mentioned is to remind the readers of where Moses and the Israelites have been.
The name that Moses gave to his two sons reflected his spiritual experiences in Egypt. One son was named Gershom, which means an alien there or banishment, and refers to Moses’ realization that he and the Israelites had become like aliens in a foreign land (18:3). His son’s name was a constant reminder of their banishment. Gershom was circumcised on the eighth day as God had commanded (Genesis 17:1-27), but it was his circumcision that soured Zipporah on its practice.
And we learn for the first time that the other son was named Eliezer, which means God is help. This name indicated something of the gratitude that Moses had for God’s protection during his flight from Egypt. By naming his son Eliezer, Moses indicated that ADONAI was his helper. He remembered how God saved him from the sword of Pharaoh (18:4). Eliezer was not circumcised, which brought about the death threat against Moses (Genesis 17:14). Therefore, to save her husband’s life, Zipporah circumcised Eliezer even though she evidently detested the practice (4:24-26). But she still didn’t believe in circumcision.
Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, together with Moses’ sons and wife, came to him in the desert, where he was camped near the mountain of God (18:5). They camped at Rephidim, which was their last stop on their way to Mount Sinai. The slopes of Mount Sinai reached Rephidim, so they were near it, but they had not reached it yet. This points us forward in time because worshiping at Mount Sinai would be the sign and fulfillment of the promise the God had given to Moses at the burning bush (3:12).
Jethro had sent word to him saying: I, your father-in-law Jethro, am coming to you with your wife and her two sons. The greeting of Jethro had all the characteristics of an oriental meeting. The formal courtesies that Moses gave to Jethro emphasized the respect that he had for him, for he was one of great authority. Moses went out to meet his father-in-law and bowed down and kissed him because he respected the office of priest that he held. They greeted each other and after the formalities, they went into the tent (18:6-7). This meeting took priority over the return of Moses’ family because Jethro had the highest social position, even above Moses.
Moses told his father-in-law about everything ADONAI had done to Pharaoh and the Egyptians for Israel’s sake and about the hardships they had met along the way and how ADONAI had saved them (18:8). The prophet took no honor for himself and Jethro showed great interest in everything that Moses told him. Jethro was especially delighted to hear about all the good things ADONAI had done for Israel in rescuing them from the hand of the Egyptians (18:9).
The story of Jethro’s conversion is a beautiful one indeed.328 He said: Praise be to ADONAI, who rescued you from the hand of the Egyptians and of Pharaoh, and who rescued the people from the hand of the Egyptians (18:10). Although neither the Egyptians nor the Amalekites got it, Jethro, the Midianite, had learned the lesson of the exodus by saying: Now I know that ADONAI is greater than all other gods (see the similar confession of Naaman the Aramean in Second Kings 5:15)for he did this to those who had treated Israel arrogantly (18:11).329 Jethro must be considered unique, for it is clear from Scripture that the Midianites were generally idolaters who worshiped many gods (Numbers 25:17-18, 31:16).330
At that time Jethro gave a practical expression to his praise. Then Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, brought a burnt offering and other sacrifices to God, and Aaron came with all the elders of Israel to eat manna with Moses’ father-in-law in the presence of God (18:12). Moses was not mentioned because the gathering took place in his tent. The phrase, brought a burnt offering, is key to understanding this verse. It always means to provide an animal for sacrifice (Exodus 25:2; Leviticus 12:8); it never means to officiate at a sacrifice. And the fact that it was a burnt offering was very significant. A burnt offering was a voluntary act of worship on Jethro’s part. Its purpose was atonement for sin and an expression of complete surrender to God. The burnt offering was completely consumed by fire but the fellowship offerings (other sacrifices) were part of a communal meal that Jethro shared with Aaron and all the elders of Israel. This was evidence that Jethro had come to a saving knowledge of God (James 1:22-25).
What a wonderful family conversation we are witnessing. Moses and Jethro were not talking about the weather, sheepherding, or the latest caravan gossip. No, they were talking about the wondrous works of God. Moses was sharing his testimony, the good news, with his father-in-law. What a joy. Each one of us should consider the manner that we deal with our families. What do you talk about around the dinner table? In what do we rejoice when we hear of it? Not that we are perfect, but we need to think about these things.
Jethro’s response to the good news was also amazing. Whereas the Israelites grumbled against Moses and Aaron (16:2), here was a Midianite who rejoiced over God’s goodness to Isra'el! The faith of a Gentile put to shame the faith of the people of Isra'el. What Jesus said about the Roman centurion could also be said of him: I tell you the truth, I have not found anyone in Israel with such great faith (Matthew 8:10).331
The Teaching Ministry of Jay Mack 2006-2017