Gentiles in Tanakh
Most Gentiles in Tanakh are portrayed in a negative light either because of their idolatry or their treatment of the Children of Israel (and in many cases, both). Yitro, though, is a member of a select group of Biblical characters who are ostensibly Gentiles, but are nonetheless favorably disposed toward the Israelites. For a number of these individuals, including Yitro, their bonding with the Children of Israel is also accompanied by a profession of belief in the God of Israel.1 It is thus not surprising that some Midrashim go one step further in adopting them either as converts to Judaism,2 or in some cases even claiming that they were always Jewish or proto-Jewish.3 See Midrash for elaboration.
What is distinctive about Yitro, though, is that he is introduced in both Shemot 3:1 and 18:1 as a "kohen Midyan," seemingly indicating that he was a pagan priest – see kohen. This causes commentators to wrestle with how to reconcile Yitro's apparent vocation with his positive character and religious declaration of faith in Hashem.
The question of Yitro's religious beliefs is further complicated by the fact that he is also "choten Moshe" through Moshe's marriage to Zipporah.4 Of course, this is not the only Biblical case in which Israelite leaders apparently intermarry.5 However, in the case at hand, we are speaking not of any leader, but of Moshe, the giver of the Torah. Is it conceivable that Moshe, the "man of God," married into the family of an idolatrous priest?
Finally, the aftermath of the Yitro story and what ultimately happened to him and his descendants also impacts on our analysis. If Yitro were monotheistic or had converted to Judaism, it is likely that he and his descendants would have remained with the Children of Israel. However, the Biblical record is ambiguous regarding whether this occurred. In Shemot 18, Yitro departs for his own land, but it is unclear if he ever returned – see Who is Yitro and Chronology of Shemot 18. Yitro's descendants, the Keinites, are mentioned in Shofteim 1:16 and 4:11,17, as well as Shemuel I 15:6, however, their relationships with Israel and its enemies are somewhat complex. The Reikhavites, another possibly related group, make cameo appearances in Melakhim II 10 and Yirmeyahu 35, but their connection to Yitro is disputed.
All of these issues cause exegetes to debate whether Yitro believed in Hashem or in pagan gods or both, either simultaneously or at different stages of his life. Those who suggest that Yitro's religious beliefs may have changed over time also need to consider when and why did this happen? In the exegetical approaches section we will examine the various positions on these issues.