Jethro (Heb. יֶתֶר ,יִתְרוֹ) was a Midianite priest and father-in-law of Moses . Jethro had seven daughters who served as his shepherdesses. When Moses fled from Egypt he came to the well in Midian where he witnessed local shepherds mistreating the girls. He saved them and watered their flocks for them. In return, Jethro welcomed Moses into his home and gave him one of his daughters, Zipporah , as a wife. He also appointed Moses as shepherd of his flocks (Ex. 2:16–21; 3:1). Jethro is next mentioned after the incident of the burning bush when Moses, having decided to return to Egypt, asked and received his father-in-law’s permission to do so (4:18).
After the Exodus from Egypt, when the Israelites had arrived in the vicinity of Sinai, Jethro brought Zipporah, whom Moses had divorced, along with her two sons to Moses. Although no mention is made of Moses’ reconciliation with his wife, we learn that Jethro received a most honorable welcome. He expressed his delight at the deliverance of Israel, blessed YHWH and praised Him as “greater than all gods,” and brought sacrifices to Him, afterward partaking of a meal with Aaron and all the elders of Israel (18:1–12). The following day, Jethro advised Moses on the reorganization of the judicial system and returned to his own land (18:13–23, 27). The narratives about Jethro have raised many problems. He is given this name in Exodus 3:1; 4:18; 18:1–2, 5–6, 12. However, he is called Reuel in Exodus 2:18 and in Numbers 10:29 as well, while Judges 4:11 refers to Hobab as the father-in-law of Moses. In the former passage, Moses asked Hobab to act as a guide for the Israelites through the wilderness. His final reply is not given there, but from Judges 4:11 it would seem that he allowed himself to be persuaded. Another difficulty lies in the fact that the Pentateuch describes Moses’ father-in-law as a Midianite, whereas he is elsewhere termed a Kenite (Judg. 1:16; 4:11).
Varying solutions have been suggested to account for the conflicting data (for traditional account see below). Some modern scholars assign Hobab to the J source and Jethro to the E document. “Reuel their father” in Exodus 2:18 would then either be a misunderstanding of Numbers 10:29 or refer to the grandfather of the shepherdesses. Others take Jethro and Reuel to be one and the same person and regard Hobab as the son, a solution that requires the emendation of Judges 4:11. In the opinion of W.F. Albright, the Jethro-Reuel-Hobab traditions are quite homogeneous. The roles of Jethro and Hobab are so different as to preclude identity. The former is an old man who already had seven grown daughters when Moses arrived in Midian and who gave Moses in the wilderness the kind of advice that could only be the product of mature wisdom. Hobab is a young, vigorous man who could withstand the rigors of acting as a guide in the wilderness wanderings. He is, therefore, not the father-in-law, but the son-in-law of Moses, and ḥoten in Numbers 10:29 and Judges 4:11 should be read ḥatan. Reuel is the name of the clan to which both Jethro and Hobab belonged (cf. Gen. 36:10, 13; I Chron. 1:35, 37), and Exodus 2:18 should read, “they returned to Jethro, son of Reuel (i.e., the Reuelite), their father.” Finally, the epithet “Kenite” is not in contradiction to Midianite, since it is an occupational, not an ethnic, term meaning a “metalworker, smith,” as in Aramaic and Arabic (cf. Gen. 4:22). But the solution appears contrived, and it is probably wisest to assume a conflation of different traditions.
Beginning with the hint that Jethro was a priest, some scholars have credited the Midianites with introducing the god YHWH to the Hebrews, a theory known as the Midianite or Kenite hypothesis (see van der Toorn). These scholars note Jethro’s blessing of YHWH in Exodus 18:10 and his provision of sacrifices and his participation in the cultic meal “before God” (Ex. 18:12). While this is intriguing, the exact role of Jethro in the development of Israelite religion cannot be determined, in the absence of any data about the nature of the religion of Midian. The attribution of the organization of the judicial system in Israel to the advice of a Midianite priest is itself, however, eloquent testimony to the antiquity and reliability of the Exodus tradition. Significantly, the account in Deuteronomy 1:9–17 completely obscures the role of Jethro.
In like manner, 11:11–12, 16–18, 24–30 omits mention of Jethro in the judicial reform, attributing it to YHWH‘s response to a complaint by Moses. The name Jethro itself (shortened to Jether in Exodus 4:18) may be abbreviated from a theophoric form. The basic element, which probably means “excellence” or “abundance” (cf. Gen. 49:3), appears as a component of many west Semitic names. Cf. Akkadian Atra-ḥasīs, “Exceeding-Wise,” the name of an Old Babylonian flood hero of the Noah type.
Jethro was one of Pharaoh’s counselors. According to one account, he – together with Amalek – “gave the evil counsel” (to throw the male Israelite children into the river) to Pharaoh, but later repented (Ex. R. 27:6). According to another tradition, his fellow counselors were Balaam and Job. Balaam advocated the destruction of the children, Job remained silent, and Jethro fled to Midian (Sanh. 106a). He became a genuine convert to Judaism. His title as the “priest of Midian” (Ex. 18:1) means either that he was its pagan priest or its prince (Mekh., Yitro, 1). The sages had an ambivalent attitude toward Jethro. Some regarded him as an arch-idolator, and as such he was able to testify to the supremacy of God, nonetheless still holding that the idols possessed some divine powers (Yal., Ex. 269; cf. Ex. 18:11). Jethro early realized the worthlessness of idol worship and repented even before Moses fled to Midian. Jethro’s neighbors excommunicated him for renouncing their idolatrous beliefs, and it was because of this ban that his daughters had to tend the sheep (Ex. R. 1:32). A competing tradition claims that Jethro was still so steeped in idolatry at this time that he only permitted Zipporah to marry Moses on condition that their first son be raised to worship idols (Mekh., Yitro, 1).
Jethro’s reaction to the miracles performed by God for Israel is likewise interpreted in two contrasting fashions. “And Jethro rejoiced” (וַיִּחַדְּ יִתְרוֹ, va-yiḥadd Yitro; Ex. 18:9) either means that he now accepted monotheism (Yiḥed shemo shel ha-Kadosh Barukh Hu; Tanh;. B., Ex. 71) or that his skin developed gooseflesh (na’asah kol besaro ḥidudin ḥidudin) in sympathy for the tribulations of the Egyptians (Sanh. 94a). Jethro was the first to utter a benediction to God for the wonders performed for the Israelites. It was a reproach to Moses and the 600,000 Israelites that they did not bless the Lord until Jethro came and did so (ibid.). When Jethro arrived at the camp of Israel, he wrote a letter and with an arrow shot it into the camp (Tanḥ. B., Ex. 73). Moses immediately went out to meet his father-in-law, accompanied by Aaron, Nadab, Abihu, and the 70 elders of Israel. It is even stated that the Shekhinah also greeted Jethro (Mekh., Yitro, 1). Moses finally sent Jethro away (Ex. 18:27), since he did not want a stranger present at the revelation on Mount Sinai (Tanḥ. B., Ex. 75). According to another tradition, Jethro left to spread the knowledge of the true God among his brethren in Midian (Tanḥ. B., Ex. 73).
Jethro had seven different names which reflect his virtues. He was called Jether (Ex. 4:18) because he was responsible for the “addition” of a passage to the Pentateuch; Jethro (Ex. 3:1), because he “overflowed” with good deeds; Hobab (Num. 10:29), the “beloved” son of God; Reuel (Ex. 2:18), the “friend of God”; Heber (Judg. 4:11), the “associate” of God; Putiel (Ex. 6:25), because he had renounced idolatry (niftar; another interpretation, however, is that “he fattened calves” (pittem) for idolatrous sacrifice: BB 109b); and Keni (Judg. 1:16) in that he was “zealous” for God and “acquired” the Torah (Mekh. Yitro, 1).
The commentators of the Koran identify Shuʿayb with the father-in-law of Moses (Jethro), whom Muhammad mentions as living in Midian (Sura 28:21–27). In another sura (26:176–89) it is related that Shuʿayb was sent as a prophet and that he rebuked the inhabitants of al-Ayka (“the people of the thicket”), while in other suras he rebuked his fellow Midianites (7:83–91; 11:85–98). Their attitude toward him was a negative one, just as that of other tribes toward the prophets who were sent to them (Sura 11:93). The legends of the prophets relate many more details about the sojourn of Moses in the house of his father-in-law, his marriage with Zipporah, etc.
The Druze, the most extreme of the Ismāʿīliyya sects, hold Shuʿayb in the highest esteem. He is one of the early incarnations of the ḥudūd, the emanations from the light of the Creator (al-bāriʾ). These incarnations, the Imāms, were the leaders of their respective generations. Shuʿayb was considered one of these incarnations during the days of Moses. His traditional grave at Kefar Ḥittin (near Tiberias) is the site of the Druze pilgrimage (ziyāra) between April 23 and 25.