When reading a Biblical unit, our natural inclination is to assume that it appears in its chronological place.1 This is especially true in chapters such as ours, which interrupt the story line of the surrounding chapters – see Context, and thus have no obvious reason for their placement other than to maintain chronological order. Indeed, there are some exegetes who do maintain that Chapter 18 is in its chronological place. However, this position encounters numerous challenges in understanding the Biblical text, causing most commentators to opt for alternative readings. Let us examine some of these issues.
Time Frame Issues
The last recorded date before our chapter is in 16:1 when the nation arrives in the wilderness of Sin on the 15th day of the second month. The next dated event is the arrival at Sinai in 19:1 "in the third month," which is commonly understood as the first day of that month – see Chronology of Shemot 19. This would leave a mere two weeks in which to fit all of the undated events of the intervening chapters. As the schedule for this brief period is already booked with the major stories of Chapters 16-17 (complaints about lack of food, the first week of the manna, observance of Shabbat, traveling to Rephidim, complaints about lack of water, providing water from the rock, and the attack by and subsequent battle with Amalek), it is a considerable challenge to also squeeze in all of the events of Chapter 18.
Chapter 18 recounts six different events, and it is likely that it took a substantial amount of time for all of them to be completed:
- Yitro's hearing about the Exodus in 18:1
- Yitro's arrival and reunion with Moshe in 18:2-11
- Yitro's sacrifices in 18:12
- Yitro's observation of Moshe judging the people and his advice in 18:13-23
- Moshe's implementation of Yitro's advice in 18:24-26
- Yitro's departure in 18:27
Complicating matters is that, in contrast to the surrounding chapters (see Context), Chapter 18 does not provide any absolute chronological dating for its events. Thus, in order to figure out whether the Torah is presenting Chapter 18 and its various events in their chronological place, the reader must piece together various clues and evaluate the body of evidence in its totality.
Geographical Location Issues
In addition to the time frame problems, there are also difficulties related to location. In 17:1, the Children of Israel arrived at Rephidim, and it was there that Amalek attacked (17:8). Only in Chapter 19 does the Torah record that the people journeyed from Rephidim and camped at Mount Sinai:
"And they departed from Rephidim, and they came to the Sinai wilderness, and they camped in the wilderness; and Israel camped there before the mountain."
However, from Shemot 18:5 it would appear that Moshe and the nation were already at Mount Sinai in Chapter 18 when Yitro came to visit:
"And Yitro, Moshe's father-in-law, came with his sons and his wife to Moshe into the wilderness where he was encamped at God's mountain." ("אֶל הַמִּדְבָּר אֲשֶׁר הוּא חֹנֶה שָׁם הַר הָאֱ-לֹהִים")
This is one of the issues which make exegetes wonder whether or not Chapter 18 is in chronological order, and whether the events of this chapter occurred before the revelation at Sinai or only afterwards.
Each one of the other sections of the chapter also contains verses which raise questions as to whether their events took place before or after the Decalogue, or perhaps even after the completion of the Tabernacle at the beginning of the second year:
- 18:1 appears to be a wordy way of saying that Yitro heard only about the Exodus. This prompts various exegetes to suggest that he also heard reports about other events such as the revelation at Mount Sinai.
- 18:12 states that Yitro offered sacrifices "before God" ("לִפְנֵי הָאֱ-לֹהִים"), a term which is often used in Tanakh to describe the ark or the Tabernacle. However, if our story is in its chronological place and the Tabernacle was not yet built, it is unclear to what the term would refer.
- In 18:16, Moshe tells Yitro that he teaches the people "the statutes of God and His laws" ("חֻקֵּי הָאֱ-לֹהִים וְאֶת תּוֹרֹתָיו"). But what laws were there for Moshe to teach before the Decalogue was received at Mount Sinai?
- 18:24-26 reports that Moshe implemented Yitro's suggestions. A parallel story is found in Devarim 1 using almost identical language, but there it appears in the midst of Moshe's account of the events of the second year in the wilderness. Are both stories speaking of the same event, and if so, when did it happen?
- At the end of our story (18:27) Yitro departs for his own land. However, in Bemidbar 10:29-32 we learn that Chovav (who is either identical with or related to Yitro) was still in the Israelite camp during the second year. Did Yitro come and go more than once?
The following table provides a synopsis of the various difficulties:
|18:1||Hearing the News||Yitro may have heard about more than just the Exodus.|
|18:2-11||Arrival and Reunion||From 18:5 it would appear that the nation is already at Mount Sinai.|
|18:12||Sacrifices||In 18:12 we see sacrifices being offered "before God."|
|18:13-23||Judging the People||18:16 implies that "God's laws" have already been received.|
|18:24-26||Appointing Judges||From Devarim 1 it seems that the judges were appointed in the second year.|
|18:27||Yitro's Departure||From Bemidbar 10 we might conclude that Yitro left only in the second year.|
Exploring the chronology of the events of Chapter 18 affects our understanding not only of the chapter itself but also of many related stories in the Torah. The various exegetical approaches have some surprising consequences for a wide range of topics including:2
- How do we understand Yitro's religious identity? What motivated him to come now (see Yitro's Purpose)? Did he ultimately become part of the Children of Israel? (see also Ramban, Shadal)
- Was Moshe really in need of Yitro's advice? (see Akeidat Yitzchak and Abarbanel)
- Did Yitro or Moshe's children participate in the revelation at Sinai? (see Pesikta DeRav Kahana, Tur)
- What commandments, if any, were given to the Children of Israel at Marah? (see Rashbam and Miracles and Mitzvot at Marah)
- What enabled Amalek to attack Israel prior to our story? (see Ibn Ezra)
- On what date did we receive the Decalogue? (see Josephus)
For a discussion of the general methodological issues involved in questions of chronology and achronology, as well as their application to our chapter, see the main Chronology page.
For each one of the six events in the chapter, we need to consider the question of during which of the following three periods did it occur:
- Before the Decalogue – during the beginning of the first year in the desert.
- After the revelation at Sinai, but before the building of the Tabernacle – during the continuation of the first year.
- Only after the dedication of the Tabernacle – during the second year in the desert.
As the answers may be different for the various events of the chapter, this exercise produces some fascinating permutations and combinations. Many of these will be analyzed in the subsequent sections of this unit.