Literary Devices – Shemot 18/0

Jump to navigation Jump to search

Literary Devices – Shemot 18

Structure of Chapter 18

Chapter 18 splits into two main scenes – The Reunion (18:1-12) and Yitro's Advice (18:13-27). For more on the structural units of the chapter and their relationship, see Structure.

Parallels & Contrasts – 18:1-12

The Reunion Scene of Chapter 18 (18:1-12) divides into two subscenes – Yitro's arrival in 18:1-7 and his conversation with Moshe in 18:8-12.1 An examination of the parallels and contrasts between the two subscenes highlights several points:

Two Accounts

There are significant similarities between the report Yitro initially received (18:1) and the account he heard from Moshe (18:8), but also striking differences. Are these variations simply literary flourishes or is Moshe's recapitulation fundamentally different from the first version Yitro heard? See Two Accounts for a comparative analysis of the contents of the reports and the impact each had on Yitro, and for the possibility that the first report was limited to the Exodus while the second described the miracles at Yam Suf.2

Taking and Coming

Each of the accounts which Yitro hears prompts both a "taking" (וַיִּקַּח‎ – 18:2,12)3 and a "coming" (וַיָּבֹא‎ – 18:5,12). The initial news motivates Yitro to take Moshe's family and come with them to Moshe, whereas in verse 12, Moshe's account leads him to offer sacrifices to God and meet with Aharon and the elders of Israel.4 What does this tell us about the objective of Yitro's visit? Did he come simply to reunite the family, or with a religious or diplomatic agenda? Alternatively, perhaps he arrived with one purpose but in the course of his visit discovered another. See Purpose of Yitro's Visit, Yitro's Religious Identity, and Yitro's Sacrifices for elaboration.


In the first subscene, Yitro arrives at God's Mountain (הַר הָאֱ-לֹהִים) and then enters Moshe's tent (הָאֹהֱלָה‎),5 while in the second subscene he breaks bread with Aharon and the elders of Israel "before God" (לִפְנֵי הָאֱ-לֹהִים). What exactly does "before God" mean? Is it identical to one of the previously mentioned locations – either God's mountain or Moshe's tent? See Lifnei HaElohim and Chronology for more.6

Additionally, within the first subscene (18:1-7) there is a threefold repetition of Yitro's coming and taking of wife and children. See Who Accompanied Yitro for a comparison table of these verses and an analysis of their variations.

Parallels & Contrasts – 18:13-27

Problem and Solution (Subscenes A + B)


In offering his advice in Subscene B, Yitro relates to the various tasks mentioned by Moshe in Subscene A. Yitro reflects two of these responsibilities back to Moshe, using similar language with only slight modifications.7


The text uses contrasting language to emphasize the changes and improvements that will result from implementing Yitro's advice.

Solution and Implementation (Subscenes B + C)


The linguistic parallels between the wording of Yitro's advice and its implementation by Moshe illustrate how closely Moshe adhered to his in-law's suggestions.

  • The openings of the two sections echo each other. Yitro tells Moshe, "Listen now to my voice" (שְׁמַע בְּקֹלִי) and the narrator tells us, "Moshe listened to the voice of his father-in-law" (וַיִּשְׁמַע מֹשֶׁה לְקוֹל חֹתְנוֹ).
  • Similarly, verses 21-22 and 25-26, are almost identical. Moshe appoints "capable men" (אַנְשֵׁי חַיִל) to be "rulers of thousands, hundreds, fifties and tens," just as Yitro suggested. They judge the "small matters" (הַדָּבָר הַקָּטֹן) on a regular basis, bringing only the difficult ones to Moshe.

The near verbatim repetition highlights a significant omission in the account of Moshe's implementation.10



The word הציל (deliver/save) appears five times in various forms11 in the Reunion Scene (18:1-12). In 18:4 it describes the saving of Moshe on a personal level, while in 18:8-9 it is used to refer to the deliverance of the entire nation. As noted by RashbamShemot 18:1About Rashbam, Yitro's blessing in 18:10 then combines the two, reflecting his joy over the salvation of both Moshe and the nation – see Two Accounts.12


The verb שפט (judge) appears twice in each subscene of the second half of the chapter (18:13-27). In subscene A, Moshe is the subject of the verbs as he judges alone,13 while in subscenes B and C, the appointees are the subject of the verbs, highlighting the transfer of the judicial burden.

הַדָּבָר אֲשֶׁר אַתָּה עֹשֶׂה

Variations of the phrase הַדָּבָר אֲשֶׁר אַתָּה עֹשֶׂה (the thing that you are doing) repeat several times in verses 14, 17 and 23, revealing how Yitro's critique was carefully considered. He first observed a problem ("saw all that he did"), he continued by probing to get to the heart of the matter ("What is this thing that you are doing"), then he evaluated the situtation ("The thing that you are doing is not good"), and finally he offered a solution ("If you will do this thing…").

God's role

Yitro's advice (18:19-23) is framed by two parallel phrases "and may God be with you" (וִיהִי אֱ-לֹהִים עִמָּךְ) in 18:19 and "and God command you so" (וְצִוְּךָ אֱ-לֹהִים) in 18:23, creating an inclusio and indicating Yitro's sensitivity to the need for his advice to be sanctioned by God.14

Character Titles

Chapter 18 refers to each of God, Yitro, and the Children of Israel by various names. In some instances, these variations reflect a fundamental difference of meaning, while in others they serve a literary function. See here for a general discussion of Character Titles in Tanakh.


  • The names used – Chapter 18 uses two different names to refer to God, depending on the speaker and the role of God being described:
  • Accounting for the variations verse by verse:22
    • 18:1a-18:1b – In 18:1a, Elohim, the generic name for God is used since Yitro is hearing an account, presumably, from a Gentile.23 18:1b, however, adds that what prompted this report was Hashem's taking Israel out of Egypt.24 This parenthetical explanation is given using the Torah's own narrative voice, and thus 18:1b switches to use the proper name of Hashem.25
    • 18:8-11 – In contrast to the original report in 18:1a which spoke of the deeds of a generic God, in 18:8-11 Moshe and Yitro discuss the events which displayed Hashem's supremacy over all gods and His special relationship with the Children of Israel. Thus, in these verses, both Moshe and Yitro use the special Israelite name of Hashem.26
    • 18:12 – In 18:12, the topic is no longer Hashem's special bond with Israel, but rather Yitro's personal offering of sacrifices, and thus the name Elohim reappears. Also, see Yitro's Sacrifices for the approach that Yitro never converted or became fully monotheistic, despite his recognition of Hashem's preeminence.27 Also see there for R. D"Z Hoffmann's suggestion that the sacrifices were part of a diplomatic (and not a religious) ceremony.
    • 18:15-21 – These verses continue to use the generic name Elohim,28 as they do not discuss God's connection to the Children of Israel or actions on their behalf.29 U. CassutoShemot 18:13About Prof. U. Cassuto adds that the generic name of Elohim is the one generally used in conversations with Gentiles.


  • The names used – In Chapter 18, the Israelite nation is called by two different names:
  • Accounting for the variations verse by verse – This task is a considerable challenge, as any approach must be consistent with the use of these terms in the rest of the Torah as well. If you have a working hypothesis, please email us at: In the absence of a complete theory, here are some basic patterns which can be discerned:
    • 18:1 – This verse opens a new unit, and thus the proper noun Israel is used as it is more formal and clearer as to its designee.
    • 18:8-9 – Generally, when the narrator contrasts two nations, the name Israel is used to prevent ambiguity.
    • 18:10 – In our chapter, the formal name Israel is utilized only by the narrator, while the characters in direct dialogue use only "the people" and not the proper name.31 This is not surprising as Moshe and Yitro are standing in the midst of the nation, and are not viewing it as an external body. For this reason, throughout Torah, Moshe almost always refers to the nation as "the people" or "the congregation."32 Alternatively, according to Rashbam, "the people" may be in contrast to Moshe, as "the people" and Moshe together make up all of Israel.
    • 18:12 – The Torah almost always refers to the "Elders" by their formal name "Elders of Israel."33
    • 18:13-14a – Moshe is judging the masses of "the people."
    • 18:14b-23 – In direct dialogue "the people" is almost always used, as noted above.
    • 18:25a – The formal name Israel is used at the beginning of the narrator's description of the implementation of Yitro's advice.
    • 18:25b-26 – The rulers/judges are chosen to lead and judge the masses, and thus "the people" is used.


  • The names used – Chapter 18 refers to Yitro in four different ways.34 These reflect the various capacities in which he functions:35
  • Accounting for the variations verse by verse:
    • 18:1 – At the outset of the story, the Torah formally introduces Yitro with its fullest description. This is consistent with Tanakh's introduction of many other characters – see Character Titles.41
    • 18:2-6 – In this section, Yitro acts in his capacity as Moshe's father-in-law, but is relating to other members of his family and not engaging Moshe directly.42 They therefore refer to Yitro by both his name and his relationship to Moshe.
    • 18:7-8 – The title choteno suffices in these verses, as Moshe and Yitro are engaged in direct dialogue.43
    • 18:9-10 – Yitro and his recognition of Hashem's miracles on behalf of the nation is the exclusive focus of these verses, and neither Moshe nor his family members are mentioned.44 Thus, Yitro is referred to by name only, with no mention of his relationship to Moshe.45
    • 18:12a-b – Yitro offers sacrifices and dines with Moshe's brother, Aharon, and the elders of Israel. While Yitro interacts with them in the role of Moshe's father-in-law, Moshe is in the background and not mentioned explicitly in the verse – see Where Was Moshe. Thus, 18:12a calls Yitro by his proper name as well as referring to him as choten Moshe, while 18:12b uses just choten Moshe as it is an abridgement of the earlier mention in the verse.46
    • 18:14-27 – In the second half of the chapter, Moshe and Yitro are interacting face to face, and thus Yitro is referred to merely as Moshe's father-in-law. In 18:14 and 17, Yitro is the active participant mentioned first in the verse and thus choten Moshe is used. In contrast, in 18:15,24,27 Moshe is the active party mentioned prior to Yitro, and the shorter choteno suffices.