Now Yitro, the priest of Midian, Moshe’s father-in-law, heard of all that God had done for Moshe, and for Israel His people, how that the Lord had brought Israel out of Egypt (Shemot 18:1).
What did he hear?
R. Yehoshua says he heard about the war with Amelek….
R. Elazar Hamodai says he heard about Matan Torah (Zevahim 116a).
Talmudic sages debate whether the Yitro episode in chapter 18 occurred prior to the revelation at Sinai or afterward and the identical debate played out in the Middle Ages between Ibn Ezra and Ramban. What motivates R. Elazar Hamodai and Ibn Ezra to argue that chapter 18 actually took place after the giving of the Torah in chapter 19?
Proofs For Both Opinions
Ibn Ezra outlines many reasons to adopt this suggestion. Shemot 18:5 relates that Yitro found Moshe at the “mountain of God where he was camped.” This phrase suggests that Moshe had already been camped at this location for some time. Secondly, Moshe explains to Yitro that the people are lining up to hear “the statutes of God and His laws” (18: 16). The need to ask Moshe halakhic questions indicates a post Matan Torah context. Finally, the battle with Amalek is fought in Refidim (17:8) and chapter 19 begins with Am Yisrael traveling from Refidim (19:2). This supports the notion that chapter 19 immediately follows chapter 17 chronologically.
Ramban counters that chapter 18 mentions Moshe relating to Yitro all about the exodus from Egypt (18:8-9) but says nothing about the revelation at Sinai. If the Yitro episode follows Sinai, surely Moshe would have talked about this history altering event. Furthermore, people could have asked legal questions to Moshe before Matan Torah since God already gave them some form of “statute and ordinance” at Marah (15:25). Thus, we could maintain the simple chronological sequence of Humash and situate chapter 18 as historically prior to chapter 19.
Ibn Ezra – The Passages Are Ordered Thematically
According to Ibn Ezra, why did the Torah present these events in an order that ignores historical sequence? Ibn Ezra contends that the Torah frequently chooses thematic organization as its guiding principle rather chronological organization. Chapter 17 concludes with Amalek’s surprise attack on the Jewish people and the Torah wants to juxtapose that with the kindness that Yitro showed towards Am Yisrael. At a later point in Jewish history, Yitro’s descendants lived near Amalek and we needed to be cautious about not including them in our vendetta against Amalek. The juxtaposition reminds us to distinguish between Amalek and the children of Yitro.
The Message For Us Today
Perhaps a broader point emerges from this semikhut. Our encounter with the broader world includes both Amalek and Yitro experiences. At times, we confront values we must reject or we face the evils of anti-Semitism. At other times, we encounter admirable ideals and the kindness of moral non-Jews. An authentic and realistic Jewish approach to the larger world includes an appreciation for the dialectical dualism of this confrontation.
Rabbi Yitzchak Blau teaches at Yeshivat Orayta and at Midreshet Lindenbaum. He is the author of Fresh Fruit and Vintage Wine: The Ethics and Wisdom of the Aggada. R. Blau lives in Alon Shevut with his wife and four children.
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