Margins of Miraculous – Jethro the Father-in-Law by Shawn Blythe

As the father of a married daughter, I understand the challenges of the father-in-law to son-in-law relationship. There is a constant fear of over-stepping boundaries, figuring out how to show support even when you disagree with a decision, and a myriad of other issues that arise as two men find themselves in completely new roles – both in connection to the woman they love (daughter/wife) and to each other. And this is where we meet Jethro the Midianite—my favorite father-in-law of the Bible.

Jethro first met his future son-in-law after Moses helped Jethro’s daughters water their flocks (Exodus 2). Moses, having fled from Egypt, was offered a home. He settled down, married Jethro’s daughter, Zipporah, raised children and overall spent forty years living with Jethro while laboring alongside the family in Midian. Think about that – forty years side by side, facing good times and bad as they celebrated and mourned, prospered and struggled, and made their way through life.

Then one day, after coming home from tending the flocks, Moses asked for permission to go back to Egypt to visit family and friends (Exodus 4). It is not difficult to imagine that after forty years of presumably contented existence, Jethro may have been shocked at this request. He must have pondered the risks of such a long journey for his daughter. He may even have questioned whether Moses was making wise decisions or considering the full range of implications. Moses’ appeal and Jethro’s response are included in the same verse in the Bible (Exodus 4:18) – but I often wonder how much time/thought/discussion may have elapsed during their exchange. In the end, if Jethro had any misgivings, he kept them to himself, wished Moses well, and subsequently watched as his daughter, grandsons, and son-in-law prepared for their trip to Egypt.

Of course, today we know what Jethro did not: something momentous had happened to Moses between the time he left to tend the flocks (Exodus 3:1) and when he returned to ask Jethro’s consent to leave (Exodus 4:18). Moses had been in the physical presence of almighty God, witnessed miracles, and was about to embark on a task that was impossible in human terms. He had been inexorably changed and was no longer the same person Jethro had come to know. There is no record to show that Jethro was aware of any of this. It is probable that Jethro spent the days of Moses’ absence uneventfully, under the assumption that things would continue as they had before. But Moses had begun operating under a very different paradigm. For him, nothing would ever be the same again. 

Imagine Jethro’s anxiety as his daughter and grandsons departed for Egypt on a donkey (Exodus 4:20). Lack of reliable communication meant that Jethro was unlikely to hear the outcome of their journey for many months – if at all. One envisions Jethro and, perhaps, his wife, expressing a fond farewell with no real expectation of being reunited. 

As a result, it must have been quite a surprise to Jethro when his daughter and grandsons reappeared – without Moses. It should be noted that we have no way of knowing exactly when this occurred; it could have been shortly after their departure (perhaps related to the encounter with God at a resting place along the way), before the plagues (upon recognizing the difficulties ahead), or even later, before the battle with the Amalekites. Biblical scholars argue for and against these options, with no definitive evidence to prove or disprove any of them.

As a matter of personal preference, I lean towards the theory of an early return. In that scenario, Jethro’s happiness and relief would surely have been counterbalanced by concern over the increasingly erratic behavior of a son-in-law who was now proceeding to Egypt to free the Israelites from bondage.   I can only imagine the double-take as Jethro hears the story and says, “Wait a minute – Moses said he’s doing WHAT??!!” Zipporah’s description of the encounter with God along the road (Exodus 4:24-26) would have done little to ease Jethro’s mind.

We do not know much about life in Jethro’s household over the following year. Chapters 5 through 17 of Exodus focus on activities in Egypt, rather than back at the homestead in Midian. But throughout this period, life went on for Jethro, Zipporah, and the family.  Meals were cooked, flocks tended, sons raised – all with the uncertainty of when, or if, Zipporah’s husband would return. Zipporah may have felt a spectrum of emotions during this time, from relief at being safely home, to fear for her husband’s wellbeing, to anger that Moses had left her and the children behind.

But it’s clear that Jethro did not bear any permanent grudge against Moses. When he learned what God had done for Moses in Egypt, Jethro sent word that he and Moses’ family were coming. When Jethro met with Moses, he rejoiced with him, offered burnt offerings to God, and broke bread with the elders. It was at this celebration that Scripture first mentions contact between Jethro and God – as Jethro, Moses, Aaron, and the elders of Israel ate bread in the presence of God (Exodus 18:12).

Note that, prior to this event, there was no record that Jethro had any revelation or guidance from God. He was referred to as a priest of Midian, but it is unknown whether his priesthood was related to the God of Abraham or some other local deity. Jethro, at least during this time period, was limited to seeing God work through someone else. Not only that, but God’s plan actually had an adverse effect on Jethro, as his daughter was abandoned—at least temporarily—when Moses went off to do God’s bidding.

Despite this, Jethro never closed his heart to the possibility that there was more to his son-in-law’s activities than might appear on the surface. There is no documentation of complaint, no sign of distrust, no evidence that Jethro tried to leverage circumstances to his own advantage, and certainly never any jealousy as to why God chose to work through Moses, and not Jethro. Instead, Jethro maintained a trust relationship with Moses to the point that, upon their reunion, his son-in-law implemented all of Jethro’s practical administrative suggestions. 

Jethro experienced the miracles of God secondhand – and not only believed but rejoiced in the work that God was doing through Moses. Jethro found himself in a situation that is familiar to many of us: he watched God perform miracles for somebody else. Jethro heard the stories of how God had delivered the Israelites from their oppressor, how God had afflicted the Egyptians and destroyed the pursuing army. He heard how God had provided drinking water by sweetening the waters at Marah and causing water to burst from a rock. He heard how God had provided food in the form of manna. Jethro heard these things and rejoiced.

When we watch God work for others, there can be a natural inclination to ask why God isn’t doing similar things for us. Someone else is healed and we are not. Someone else gets a job and we do not.  Somebody else’s problems are resolved and ours remain unaddressed. As a tribal leader, Jethro undoubtedly had a list of issues that would have benefited from God’s direct intervention. But Jethro did not go down that path. Jethro was “delighted to hear about all of the good things the Lord had done for Israel.” He praised God for rescuing not only Moses but the Israelites. He brought offerings. He rejoiced actively and enthusiastically in the work that God was doing through Moses. He acknowledged the sovereignty of God and celebrated – not because God had done great things for Jethro, but simply because God had done great things.

The Bible is full of people praising God for the great things He has done for them, and equally full of people praising God despite dire circumstances – albeit often in anticipation of the great things that God will do for them in future. But we have few examples of a person like Jethro, who praises God explicitly for what He has done for others.

In a world that certainly has its share of trouble and heartache, it seems like a missed opportunity not to occasionally brighten our days with the delight and rejoicing associated with celebrating the blessings of others. Jethro was able to set aside his day-to-day issues to praise God for the blessings that others had received. We would be well served to follow this example. Are our days so full that we would not benefit from a bit more joyful celebration?