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JETHRO (Heb. יֶתֶר ,יִתְרוֹ), 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.


H. Gressmann, Mose und seine Zeit (1913), 161–80; M. Buber, Moses (1946), 94–100; H.H. Rowley, From Joseph to Joshua (1950), 19ff.; W.F. Albright, in: CBQ, 25 (1963), 3–9; idem, Yahweh and the Gods of Canaan (1968), 33–42. IN THE AGGADAH: Ginzberg, Legends, 2 (1910), 289–96, 327f., 3 (1911), 63–77, 380, 388f., 5 (1925), 410–2, 6 (1928), 26–29, 122, 134, 232. IN ISLAM: Thaʿlabī, Qiṣaṣ (1356 AH), 146–8; Kisā'ī, Qiṣaṣ, ed. by I. Eisenberg (1922), 190–4; H. Speyer, Biblische Erzaehlungen… (1961), 251–4; Ḥ.Z.(J.W.) Hirschberg, Religion in the Middle East, 2 (1969), 350 and passim. ADD. BIBLIOGRAPHY: K. van der Toorn, in: DDD, 910–19; W. Propp, Exodus 118 (AB; 1998), 630; A. Rippin, "Shuʿayb," in: EIS2, 9 (1997), 491 (incl. bibl.).

Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2007 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.