I wonder why we have the story of Jethro?
More than that, I wonder why he is so persistently referred to as Moses’ “father-in-law” (eleven times in twenty-seven verses seems awfully redundant)?
Commentators often point to Jethro’s “conversion” here with his confession: “Now I know that the Lord is greater than all other gods . . .”
But there is a problem with this view, and a lesson for us. Jethro undoubtedly was convinced of the superiority of the Lord. But that doesn’t mean Jethro himself became a Jew. To be truly “converted,” Jethro would need to be circumcised, adopt the religious ceremonies of the Jews (which, admittedly, had yet to be given) and become an heir of the land in Canaan – for this was the promise to God’s people. While he might do the first two, he could not do the last. Knowing there was nothing for him in Canaan, he took his leave of Moses at the end of the story and returned to his own land.
So what’s the point of the story?
First, the story illustrates surely that God’s people are often left on their own to figure out ways of doing the right thing. Neither the law then, nor the Bible now, covers every action. In reviewing alternative ways of doing things, even those “not of Israel” (like Jethro) may have wise ways of doing things. This, I believe, is a healthy message for the Church. Too often we have been stalled by God’s silence when in fact, God intended us to work it out on our own.
But second, I believe it illustrates the peculiar nature of God’s people. Jethro could not become a part of Israel even though he was Moses’ father-in-law. He had no share in the promises of God. What changed when Jesus came was that being one of God’s people, with all the attendant promises, was, with the death of Jesus, opened up for everyone no matter their heritage or ethnicity.
If Jethro did not get to become a part of Israel and had no access to their promises, why would he worship the Lord? Because, as Jethro recognized, he is the greatest of all the gods and therefore, really, the only God.