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Ruth’s leap, Jethro’s ambivalence

In the post-Shavuot spirit, in contrast to Ruth who was so singleminded in her famous testimony of devotion, Moses’ father-in-law Jethro stands as a contrasting Biblical convert.

From the outset, Jethro is complex and possibly even ambivalent. It is not immediately clear exactly what his role vis a vis the Jewish people is.

In fact, it is not exactly clear who he even is. The famous Rashi quotes Jethro as having seven names, again suggesting complexity and possibly ambiguity in his very identity.

In the Torah text himself Jethro is identified by three different names. Yitro, Reuel and Chovev.

Additionally, there is a well known exegetical controversy about the order of the stories in the Bible as “ein mukdam umeuchar ba-Torah — the stories in the Torah do not appear in the order of their actual occurrence” — regarding Jethro. The question is, did Jethro join the Jewish people before the giving of the Torah, making him a participant at Sinai. Or, was the sequence of events different, with Jethro arriving later, thereby excluding him from this crucial collective moment of Jewish history?

Opinions differ. Nachmanides and Abarbanel place Jethro before the giving of the Torah; Ibn Ezra, after.

Like his name and identity, Jethro’s role in the Jewish people’s acceptance of the Torah is not clear.

The rest of this article is available in the June 6, 2014 IJN print and digital edition only. Contact Carol to order your copy at or subscribe to our online e-Edition.

Tehilla R. Goldberg

IJN columnist | View from Central Park

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