Appointing Moshe's Assistants in Shemot 18, Bemidbar 11, and Devarim 1
In analyzing the relationship between the three accounts, the primary question is whether Shemot 18 and Bemidbar 11 speak of events which occurred at totally different times, or of simultaneous and perhaps even the same events. The secondary question is which of the two stories (or both) is retold in Devarim 1.
Two Unrelated Events
Shemot 18 and Bemidbar 11 tell of different events, and Devarim 1 recaps only one of them. Shemot 18 describes the creation of a judicial system to assist Moshe with his case load in the first year in the desert, while Bemidbar 11 speaks of the subsequent appointment of seventy elders in the second year to share and ease Moshe's administrative burden. This approach subdivides regarding which of these two distinct stories is being retold by Moshe in Devarim 1.
Devarim 1 = Shemot 18 (and not Bemidbar 11)
Both Shemot 18 and Devarim 1 recount events of the first year, while Bemidbar 11 speaks of the events of the second year.
Parallels between Shemot 18 and Devarim 1 – This approach accounts for their verbatim parallels (see Table) regarding the selection of the rulers of thousands, hundreds, fifties, and tens, and their judicial function, as well as their omission in Bemidbar 11.4
Differences between Shemot 18 and Devarim 1 – This position has difficulty explaining why in Shemot 18 the initiative is Yitro's and there is no hint of Moshe complaining,5 while in Devarim 1 the initiative comes from Moshe and Yitro is not even mentioned.6
Chronological setting of Shemot 18 – According to most of those who adopt this position, all of the events of Shemot 18 transpired in the first year of the desert before the Decalogue and are told in their chronological place.
Context of Devarim 1 – As Devarim 1 speaks of the events of the second year, it is unclear why it would digress to discuss an appointment of judges which took place in the first year.7
Devarim 1 = Bemidbar 11 (and not Shemot 18)
Both Bemidbar 11 and Devarim 1 recount events of the second year, while only Shemot 18 speaks of the events of the first year.
Parallels between Bemidbar 11 and Devarim 1 – This approach accounts for the similarity between Moshe's complaints in these chapters,9 and the mention of "officers" (שוטרים) in both (Bemidbar 11:16 and Devarim 1:15),10 elements not found in Shemot 18.11 See Table.
Differences between Bemidbar 11 and Devarim 1 – The major difficulty with this position is that Bemidbar 11 describes the appointment of seventy elders to share in the administrative burden, while Devarim 1 (and Shemot 18) speaks of the selection of rulers of thousands, hundreds, fifties, and tens to serve as judges. Additionally, in Bemidbar 11, Hashem commands Moshe to make the selections, while in Devarim 1 Moshe instructs the people to choose, and Hashem does not play a role.12
Chronological setting of Shemot 18 – According to this position also, all of the events of Shemot 18 transpired in the first year of the desert and are told in their chronological place.
Context of Devarim 1 – Devarim 1 retells the events of the second year, which is when the episode of Bemidbar 11 occurred.
Same or Simultaneous Events
Shemot 18 + Bemidbar 11 = Devarim 1. All or part of Shemot 18 occurred in the second year at the same time as Bemidbar 11, and Devarim 1 combines the accounts of these two chapters into one story. For each variation of this approach, one must examine whether the events described in Shemot and Bemidbar are identical or merely simultaneous.
All in 2nd Year
Both Yitro's advice and its implementation (all of Shemot 18) occurred in the second year, and Devarim 1 merges the entire Yitro story with the story of Moshe's own complaints (Bemidbar 11).
Shemot 18 and Bemidbar 11 – Same or Simultaneous – Ibn Ezra's approach needs to reconcile the selection of rulers of thousands, hundreds, fifties, and tens to serve as judges in Shemot 18 (and Devarim 1) with the appointment of seventy elders to share in the administrative burden in Bemidbar 11. Ibn Ezra could claim that the two stories describe the exact same event (albeit from different perspectives), and that a single set of appointees was given both judicial and administrative responsibilities.14 Alternatively, he might contend that Shemot 18 and Bemidbar 11 were two analogous but separate incidents which occurred within the span of a few days, and that Devarim 1 merges them into one story because of their proximity and similarity.15
Parallels between Shemot 18, Bemidbar 11, and Devarim 1 – The major advantage of this position is its ability to explain how Devarim 1 contains parallels to each of Shemot 18 and Bemidbar 11, and why some elements are found in all three stories. See Table.
Differences between Devarim 1 and the two earlier accounts – Ibn Ezra needs to explain why Devarim 1 mentions neither Yitro's initiative (Shemot 18) nor Hashem's role (Bemidbar 11).16
Chronology – Ibn Ezra claims that Shemot 18 is not in its chronological place and that the Torah presents this part of the story of the appointments already in Shemot in order to juxtapose Yitro with Amalek – see Chronology of Shemot 18 for elaboration.17
Context of Devarim 1 – Devarim 1 retells the events of the second year, which matches the time frame of the Shemot 18/Bemidbar 11 episode according to Ibn Ezra.
Part in 1st Year
Only the implementation of Yitro's advice (Shemot 18:24-26) took place in the second year, and Devarim 1 synthesizes the story of Moshe being unable to deal with the burden of the nation found only in Bemidbar 11 with the accounts of the appointments of assistants recorded in both Shemot and Bemidbar.
Delay in Implementation – According to this position, Yitro offered his advice already in the first year, but Moshe waited a year before acting on Yitro's advice, and did so only when he was overwhelmed by the burden of the nation at the beginning of the second year. The exegetes offer different possible explanations for this delay:
Judges could be appointed only after the laws were received – Akeidat Yitzchak, Abarbanel Shemot 18, Malbim.19 Abarbanel posits that Yitro had assumed incorrectly that the judges could issue verdicts based on their intuition alone, even without a law code.20 According to him, Moshe's implementation differed significantly from Yitro's proposal – see Implementation, and this is why Yitro's name is not even mentioned in Devarim 1.21
Leaders were necessary only in preparation for entrance to the land of Israel when an organized army would be required and the nation would settle throughout the country – Abarbanel Devarim 1.
Assistants were necessary only when the nation resumed their travels because that is when complaints spiked – Hoil Moshe,22 R. Medan.
Shemot 18 and Bemidbar 11 – Same or Simultaneous – Malbim and R. Medan state explicitly that Shemot 18 and Bemidbar 11 describe two separate sets of appointments. These are merged in the account of Devarim 1 because of their similarities and near simultaneity. This would seem to also be Abarbanel's position.23 Alternatively, this approach could maintain that the two stories describe the identical appointments from different perspectives, and that the appointees were given both judicial and administrative responsibilities.24
Parallels between Shemot 18, Bemidbar 11, and Devarim 1 – According to this approach, the account in Devarim 1 combines the background of Moshe feeling burdened from Bemidbar 11 with the implementation described already in Shemot 18. One can thus readily understand why the first part of Devarim 1 more closely parallels Bemidbar 11 (and not Shemot 18:13-23 which took place a year prior) and does not mention Yitro, while the implementation section of Devarim 1 parallels Shemot 18. See Table.
Differences between Devarim 1 and the two earlier accounts – This position needs to explain why Devarim 1 mentions neither Yitro's initiative (Shemot 18) nor Hashem's role (Bemidbar 11).25
Chronology of Shemot 18 – Most of Shemot 18 happened in the first year and is recorded in its chronological place. The last four verses of the Chapter 18, despite occurring in the second year, are combined with the earlier part of the chapter in order to provide closure for the Yitro pericope.
Context of Devarim 1 – Devarim 1 retells the events of the second year, which is when Shemot 18:24-26 and Bemidbar 11 occurred.