There are 3 passages in the Torah that are regularly cited which detail the origins of Israel’s judiciary, that is the establishment of judges to judge the people: Exodus 18:13-27, Numbers 11:14-16, and Deuteronomy 1:9-18. Each one of these traditions exhibit minor variations when compared with one another. Compare also contradiction #153.
The most noticeable of these variations, indeed contradictions, is to be found in the Deuteronomist’s rewriting of the earlier Elohist tradition of Exodus 18, where amongst other things Jethro is completely suppressed from Moses’ retelling of this event in Deuteronomy 1:9-18. That is “Moses” renarrates this event incorrectly, claiming to have said and done things that he never said and did according to the earlier tradition now preserved at Exodus 18:13-27. I have elected to look at the contradictions between the Deuteronomic and Elohist accounts at a later point in time, when we get to the book of Deuteronomy.
The contradiction addressed here is somewhat less impressive, but it should not go unmentioned. In the account given in Exodus 18:13-27, it is Jethro who proposes the idea that Moses should select elders among the tribes to judge the people, “because the thing [i.e., Moses as sole judge] is too heavy for you [Moses] alone” (Ex 18:18). In the account now preserved in Numbers 11, it is Yahweh however who proposes the idea to Moses to select 70 elders “because it’s too heavy for me [Moses]” (Num 11:14). And as we will see later on in Deuteronomy 1:9-18 is it Moses who proposes the idea himself!
Additionally, as one of my readers astutely noticed, the author of Exodus 24:14 mentions that while Moses is absent on the mount, Aaron and Hur are to act as judges for the people. This also contradicts the account given in Exodus 18. For whoever penned this verse undeniably did not know of the tradition now preserved at Exodus 18, where Moses, under Jethro’s advising, had already selected qualified judges. Additionally Exodus 24:14 still assumes that Moses is sole judge, since Aaron and Hur are rallied to the position in Moses’ absence!
It may have been the case that the Elohist account of the appointment of judges now at Exodus 18 originally stood after the Sinai event, and was placed, rather poorly it might be added, in its present location by a later editor who might have been attempting to preserve all the judiciary traditions. This can be supported by the fact that whoever pened Exodus 24:14 was unfamiliar with this “event” which just happened! Also, Exodus 18:13-27 twice mentions that the judges are to judge the people according to “the laws and the instructions”—which have not been given yet! In other words they assume the laws were already given and we are after Sinai in the narrative.
Another contradiction visible between not only the Elohist account in Exodus 18 and the one in Numbers 11, but also with the Priestly material of the opening chapters of the book of Numbers (see #217) pertains to when exactly were Israel’s elders/chieftains chosen? Again, Exodus 18 places this event before the revelation of Sinai: “And Moses chose worthy men out of all of Israel and made them heads over the people: chiefs of thousands, chiefs of hundreds, chiefs of fifties, and chiefs of tens” (Ex 18:25). But if this is the case, the Priestly account of Numbers 1 largely negates this. For it is not until Numbers 1 (2/1/2) that chieftains—a word unique to the Priestly source—are chosen: “heads of Israel’s thousands.” Note also the formulaic and strict stylistic presentation of this “event” by the Priestly writer in Numbers 1, compared to the earlier Elohist account.