Chapters 17 and 18 recount the diametrically opposite reactions of people from neighboring nations to the Children of Israel's exodus from Egypt. Chapter 17 describes how Amalek came to wage war, while Chapter 18 tells how Yitro came to share peaceful wishes and advice. [See Yitro's Purpose for the possibility that Yitro is coming as a representative of his nation to make a treaty with the Children of Israel, and not just on a personal visit.]
The contrast between the behaviors of Amalek and Yitro is a theme found already in the Bible and developed by classical Midrashim as well as medieval and modern exegesis. It is highlighted for the first time in King Shaul's warning to the Keini (Yitro's descendants) in Shemuel I 15:6 when he goes to wage war against Amalek:
"Move away from among the Amalekites, so that I do not destroy you with them, for you showed kindness to all the Israelites when they came up from Egypt."1
See also Tanchuma and Shemot Rabbah 27:1 which present a more detailed comparison of Yitro with Amalek and his ancestor Esav.
A number of Rabbinic Midrashim take this one step further, suggesting that Yitro's visit was a direct consequence of the victory over Amalek, and they present a range of opinions to explain how these two events were connected:2
- Yitro came because he heard about the victory over Amalek – R. Yehoshua in Mekhilta DeRabbi Yishmael,3 Pesikta DeRav Kahana Zakhor 3 (perhaps a later addition), Tanchuma, Tanchuma Buber Yitro 2-4.
- Yitro and Amalek were partners with Paroh, and Yitro repented after seeing the destruction of Amalek – Shemot Rabbah.
- Yitro was part of Amalek's army, and he came to convert after Amalek was defeated – Midrash Shemuel.
- Both speak of Moshe choosing people (17:9 and 18:25). These are the only cases in the Torah where Moshe is described as selecting (ב.ח.ר.).
- Both describe Moshe sitting (י.ש.ב.) (see 17:12 and 18:13). There is only one other case in the Torah (Shemot 2:15) which portrays Moshe as sitting.
- Both tell of something which was too heavy (כבד) for Moshe (17:12 and 18:18). There is only one other similar example in the Torah (Bemidbar 11:14).
- Additional words that appear in both stories are: מחר / ממחרת ,נצב, and עד בא השמש / עד הערב.
On this backdrop, some commentators have proposed that the parallels and contrasts between the stories influenced the placement of the story of Yitro's arrival. According to Ibn Ezra, Tosafot Avodah Zarah 24b "Yitro",4 and U. Cassuto, Yitro came only in the second year in the desert, but the Torah placed Chapter 18 in achronological order in order to juxtapose Yitro's conduct with that of Amalek. See Chronology for a full discussion of the chronology of Chapter 18.