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Barnes' Notes on the Bible
The events recorded in this chapter could not have occupied many days - only 15 days elapsed between the arrival of the Israelites in the wilderness of Sin and their final arrival at Sinai, see Exodus 16:1; Exodus 19:1. This leaves, however, sufficient time for the interview and transactions between Moses and Jethro.
1When Jethro, the priest of Midian, Moses' father in law, heard of all that God had done for Moses, and for Israel his people, and that the LORD had brought Israel out of Egypt;
Jethro was, in all probability, the "brother-in-law" of Moses Exodus 3:1. On the parting from Zipporah, see Exodus 4:26.
2Then Jethro, Moses' father in law, took Zipporah, Moses' wife, after he had sent her back,
3And her two sons; of which the name of the one was Gershom; for he said, I have been an alien in a strange land:
4And the name of the other was Eliezer; for the God of my father, said he, was mine help, and delivered me from the sword of Pharaoh:
5And Jethro, Moses' father in law, came with his sons and his wife unto Moses into the wilderness, where he encamped at the mount of God:
The wilderness - i. e., according to the view which seems on the whole most probable, the plain near the northern summit of Horeb, the mountain of God. The valley which opens upon Er Rahah on the left of Horeh is called "Wady Shueib" by the Arabs, i. e. the vale of Hobab.
6And he said unto Moses, I thy father in law Jethro am come unto thee, and thy wife, and her two sons with her.
And he said ... - Or according to the Greek Version, "And it was told to Moses, saying, Lo, thy father in law Jether is come."
7And Moses went out to meet his father in law, and did obeisance, and kissed him; and they asked each other of their welfare; and they came into the tent.
Asked each other of their welfare - Addressed each other with the customary salutation, "Peace be unto you."
8And Moses told his father in law all that the LORD had done unto Pharaoh and to the Egyptians for Israel's sake, and all the travail that had come upon them by the way, and how the LORD delivered them.
9And Jethro rejoiced for all the goodness which the LORD had done to Israel, whom he had delivered out of the hand of the Egyptians.
10And Jethro said, Blessed be the LORD, who hath delivered you out of the hand of the Egyptians, and out of the hand of Pharaoh, who hath delivered the people from under the hand of the Egyptians.
11Now I know that the LORD is greater than all gods: for in the thing wherein they dealt proudly he was above them.
Greater than all gods - See Exodus 15:11. The words simply indicate a conviction of the incomparable might and majesty of Yahweh.
For in ... above them - i. e. the greatness of Yahweh was shown in those transactions wherein the Egyptians had thought to deal haughtily and cruelly against the Israelites. Jethro refers especially to the destruction of the Egyptian host in the Red Sea.
12And Jethro, Moses' father in law, took a burnt offering and sacrifices for God: and Aaron came, and all the elders of Israel, to eat bread with Moses' father in law before God.
A burnt offering and sacrifices - This verse clearly shows that Jethro was recognized as a priest of the true God, and is of great importance in its bearings upon the relation between the Israelites and their congeners, and upon the state of religion among the descendants of Abraham.
13And it came to pass on the morrow, that Moses sat to judge the people: and the people stood by Moses from the morning unto the evening.
From the morning unto the evening - It may be assumed as at least probable that numerous cases of difficulty arose out of the division of the spoil of the Amalekites Exodus 17:13, and causes would have accumulated during the journey from Elim.
14And when Moses' father in law saw all that he did to the people, he said, What is this thing that thou doest to the people? why sittest thou thyself alone, and all the people stand by thee from morning unto even?
15And Moses said unto his father in law, Because the people come unto me to inquire of God:
To enquire of God - The decisions of Moses were doubtless accepted by the people as oracles. The internal prompting of the Spirit was a sufficient guidance for him, and a sufficient authority for the people.
16When they have a matter, they come unto me; and I judge between one and another, and I do make them know the statutes of God, and his laws.
17And Moses' father in law said unto him, The thing that thou doest is not good.
18Thou wilt surely wear away, both thou, and this people that is with thee: for this thing is too heavy for thee; thou art not able to perform it thyself alone.
Thou wilt surely wear away - From decay and exhaustion.
19Hearken now unto my voice, I will give thee counsel, and God shall be with thee: Be thou for the people to God-ward, that thou mayest bring the causes unto God:
Counsel - Jethro draws the distinction between the functions of the legislator and the judge.
To God-ward - Literally, "before God," standing between them and God, both as His minister or representative and also as the representative of the people, their agent, so to speak, or deputy before God.
20And thou shalt teach them ordinances and laws, and shalt shew them the way wherein they must walk, and the work that they must do.
Teach them - The Hebrew word is emphatic, and signifies "enlightenment." The text gives four distinct points:
(a) the "ordinances," or specific enactments,
(b) "the laws," or general regulations,
(c) "the way," the general course of duty,
(d) "the works," each specific act.
21Moreover thou shalt provide out of all the people able men, such as fear God, men of truth, hating covetousness; and place such over them, to be rulers of thousands, and rulers of hundreds, rulers of fifties, and rulers of tens:
Able men - The qualifications are remarkably complete, ability, piety, truthfulness, and unselfishness. From Deuteronomy 1:13, it appears that Moses left the selection of the persons to the people, an example followed by the Apostles; see Acts 6:3.
Rulers of thousands ... - The numbers appear to be conventional, corresponding nearly, but not exactly, to the military, or civil divisions of the people: the largest division (1,000) is used as an equivalent of a gens under one head, Numbers 1:16; Numbers 10:4; Joshua 22:14.
The word "rulers," sometimes rendered "princes," is general, including all ranks of officials placed in command. The same word is used regularly on Egyptian monuments of the time of Moses.
22And let them judge the people at all seasons: and it shall be, that every great matter they shall bring unto thee, but every small matter they shall judge: so shall it be easier for thyself, and they shall bear the burden with thee.
23If thou shalt do this thing, and God command thee so, then thou shalt be able to endure, and all this people shall also go to their place in peace.
To their place - i. e. to Canaan, which is thus recognized by Jethro as the appointed and true home of Israel. Compare Numbers 10:29-30.
24So Moses hearkened to the voice of his father in law, and did all that he had said.
Hearkened - Nothing can be more characteristic of Moses, who combines on all occasions distrust of himself and singular openness to impressions, with the wisdom and sound judgment which chooses the best course when pointed out.
25And Moses chose able men out of all Israel, and made them heads over the people, rulers of thousands, rulers of hundreds, rulers of fifties, and rulers of tens.
26And they judged the people at all seasons: the hard causes they brought unto Moses, but every small matter they judged themselves.
27And Moses let his father in law depart; and he went his way into his own land.
Into his own land - Midian Exodus 2:15.