#352. Who initiates the proposal to appoint judges over the Israelites: Moses OR Jethro? (Deut 1:9-13 vs Ex 18:17-23)
#353. When is this judiciary appointment made: before OR after Sinai? (Ex 18:13 vs Deut 1:19)
#354. Where is the judiciary formed: at Rephidim OR Horeb? (Ex 19:2 vs Deut 1:19)
#355. What are the criteria of selecting these judges: “men of truth, who fear god and hate gain” OR “men with wisdom, discernment, and knowledge”? (Ex 18:21 vs Deut 1:13)
#356. Did “Moses do everything that Jethro had instructed him to do” OR not? (Ex 18:24-25 vs Deut 1:9-18)


In my previous post, Moses Retells His Story (Part 1) we saw how a reader might react to the realization that Moses’ renarration of the appointment of the judiciary in Deuteronomy 1:9-18 differed significantly from its “original” narration in Exodus 18:13-26. In that post, I neither attempted to explain why, nor how, these differences existed. I simply presented our 1st person reader grappling with these textual inconsistencies and contradictions which he had discovered through his comparative reading of these two versions of this story.

Here, however, in my usual manner I have enumerated the contradictions between these two variant tellings of the same story which any reader can verify by simply reading through these two versions side-by-side (Ex 18:13-26 & Deut 1:9-18). Again, I caution that our goal is not to squeeze these texts into handed-down beliefs about the Bible, thus “interpreting away” these differences and their authors’ unique messages, but to acknowledge these differences, and acknowledge the fact that Israel’s scribes often told and retold their stories in variant and even contradictory ways. This is what I have been labeling as being honest to the biblical texts, their authors, and their unique beliefs and messages.

How these two versions of the appointment of the judiciary relate to one another will be addressed below. Did, for example, the later Deuteronomic author know of this “original” version now in Exodus 18 and willingly change it as he had the Moses of his composition retell the story? And if so, why would he do this? And what does this tell us about his beliefs about these ancient texts? Before entertaining these questions let us first note a few features of the Exodus 18 version.

According to Exodus 18:13-26—which is typically accredited to the Elohist tradition (see, for example, the mention of Moses’ father-in-law as Jethro, whereas the Yahwist uses “Reuel” (Contradiction #85))—the Midianite priest Jethro advises his son-in-law Moses to select chiefs to judge over the people. Moreover, Jethro is presented as Yahweh’s first officiating priest, that is he offers burnt-offerings up to Yahweh and even blesses him (Ex 18:10-12)—before Moses, and more so Aaron, ever do!

We might pause and note that this tradition does not look disapprovingly upon a Midianite priest performing sacrifices to Yahweh, nor upon an inferred Midianite connection to Yahweh’s cult and the establishment of Israel’s judiciary. That is, we detect no anti-Midianite polemic in the text; just the opposite, the Midianite Jethro is presented as the wiser superior to Moses, advising him on judicial matters and performing priestly functions: offering sacrifices to Yahweh, blessing Yahweh, and finally acknowledging the god as liberator and greater than all the gods.1

Another feature to note is that the Jethro tradition is inserted into Exodus at a rather odd place, since the giving of the laws, by which judgment is to be decided, has not yet occurred, and in fact immediately follows chapter 18. Against this version, we should recall that the Deuteronomic version not only eliminates any mention of Jethro but places the section of the judges after the giving of the Laws at Horeb. In actuality, however, there are no more laws given at Horeb (contra Exodus) according to the Deuteronomist’s Moses; but as for this altered retelling of the Sinai/Horeb tradition we will examine it in a later entry.

On a larger thematic level, we should observe that different Pentateuchal traditions were amicable toward the Midianites and the idea of a possible Midianite connection to Yahweh and/or his cult, such as our Elohist source here, while others were explicitly hostile toward the Midianites and any idea of a connection between Midian and Yahweh (for more detail see Contradiction #87). These shifting attitudes are again merely one feature that has enabled scholars to identify larger thematic and ideological agendas in the Pentateuch’s competing textual traditions. So, for example, scholars have generally noted that the Elohist tradition (E) is welcoming toward the Midianites and this comes through in specific Elohist versions of Israel’s stories.

  1. In E and only in E does Moses marry a Midianite. The Priestly source, in contrast, seems to go out of its way to not mention Moses’ wife. See especially P’s genealogy in Ex 6:14-25.
  2. In E the Midianite priest Jethro, Moses’s father-in-law, offers sacrifices to Yahweh—an act which would have been anathema to the Priestly writer! Only an Aaronid Levite could sacrifice to Yahweh. See Contradictions #152 & #299.
  3. In E and E only, Yahweh or Yahweh’s cult is presented as having roots in Midian. Again scholars have noted that in the original P narrative, Yahweh’s revelation to Moses would have occurred while Moses was still in Egypt! See Contradiction #87.

Other earlier traditions also seem to place the origin of Yahweh in the south (see Deut 33:2; Judg 5:4-5; Ps 68:8-9, 17-18).

At any rate, competing textual traditions in the Pentateuch were extremely hostile towards Midian and any implied Midianite connection to Yahweh and his cult. These traditions did not only compose narrative that presented the Midianites in a negative light, but they also consciously rewrote older traditions in order to eradicate the mention of Midianites from Israel’s past. The 6th century Priestly source is one such tradition. For fuller treatment see Contradictions #87, #93, #225, #297-298, #313.

Again, I’d like to draw to my reader’s attention that what we are doing here, what I am attempting, is not only to discuss textual contradictions—variant versions of the telling of Israel’s stories—but to understand why these stories were altered by later scribes in the first place. Here for example we note a changing attitude toward the Midianites and this changing hostile attitude forced later scribes and storytellers to modify the telling of Israel’s stories. So, for example, the later Priestly writer not only neglects to say anything about Moses’ Midianite wife, but interweaves into its telling of Israel’s past a noticeable anti-Midianite polemic that ultimately leads to the complete annihilation of the Midianites (Num 31). See Contradiction #87 for particulars.

When we turn to Moses’ renarration of this event/story in Deuteronomy, we are faced with two immediate choices. . . well three if we choose to follow the line of reasoning adopted by the surface reading of the text in my Moses Retells His Story—namely that Moses himself had consciously modified and contradicted this event in his altered retelling of it and thus “falsified history and perverted God’s word!”

But if we want to understand the text and its aims from the perspective of its 7th century author, we must ask whether the author of Deuteronomy had the Elohist version of the selection of judges before him and thus altered it through his Moses’ retelling of it, or whether this was merely a different telling of the traditional story void of any knowledge of the Jethro version. Even though there is lacking textual evidence, I am going to assume the former case, that the Deuteronomist consciously altered this older Elohist tradition. My reasoning for assuming this is because in other of Moses’ renarrations it is clear that the author of Deuteronomy was familiar with, and potentially even had the text of, this older tradition. So proceeding on these grounds the author of Deuteronomy alters this older tradition of Jethro selecting the judges by having his Moses:

  1. Eliminate any mention of Jethro
  2. Change the location
  3. Change the criteria from those of a religious nature to those of intellectual abilities

Moses is the Deuteronomist’s proper hero, understandably. But what I’ve noticed in comparing Moses’ renarrations in Deuteronomy 1-11 with their earlier accounts in Exodus and Numbers is that the author of Deuteronomy often replaces key figures with Moses himself. As a sort of preview of coming contradictions, here are some of those changes.

  1. The Deuteronomist replaces Jethro with Moses as the founder of Israel’s judiciary.
  2. The Deuteronomist inserts Moses into Caleb’s role as the one who encourages the spies to have faith.
  3. Moses blames the rebelling Isaelites for not being allowed to crossover into the promised land, instead of his own lack of faith per Numbers 20:6-13. See Contradiction #266.
  4. Moses replaces Yahweh’s laws given at Horeb (Ex 20-23) with those of his own (Deut 12-26), while nonetheless claiming that they were given to him at Horeb while Yahweh’s laws were not!
  5. Moses accredits himself with warding of Yahweh’s wrath toward Aaron for the Golden Calf incident when Yahweh rather selected Aaron as his sole priest. See Contradictions #160-161.
  6. Deuteronomy’s Moses replaces Bezalel and accredits himself with the construction of the Ark.

One notices that my choice of verb, “replace,” assumes that the later author of Deuteronomy knew of these earlier traditions and consciously altered them in composing Moses’ renarrations of them. Our other option would be to acknowledge two independent and variant traditions, each telling the story differently. However, when we get to looking at Moses’ renarrations of the Godlen Calf story, the giving of the Laws at Horeb, the confrontation with Edom, the Sihon and Bashan conquests, Yahweh’s festivals, etc. we will spot more explicit textual evidence for concluding that the 7th century Deuteronomist knew of this older tradition and sought to subvert and replace it through his new composition, which was authenticated by having the Moses of his composition seemingly renarrate the past. For more on this subversive reinterpretive process see my Introduction to the Contradictions of Deuteronomy and Contradictions #349 & #350.

Like the later Priestly tradition, then, that suppressed any implied connection between Yahweh and Midian, it would seem that the Deuteronomist, whose proper hero is Moses, was also uncomfortable with this tradition, and while nevertheless referring to it in Deut 1:9-18, suppresses any trace of the Midianite priest Jethro from the story and presents Moses as the initiator of the plan to establish judges. Per his compositional technique, the Deuteronomist presents Moses as recalling what had transpired in the past—“And I said to you at that time” (1:9); “And you answered me and said” (1:14); “And I took heads of your tribes. . . and I command your judges at that time” (1:15-16). But the events that the Deuteronomist’s Moses narrates never happened as recorded in the older Elohist tradition. What looks like an innocent re-telling of the past is in actually a powerful rhetorical device whose effect is to authorize what Moses is now claiming happened. In point of fact, however, the Deuteronomist’s Moses contradicts the Elohist’s Moses.

First, it is Moses himself who initiates the idea to appoint judges in Deuteronomy. Thus the Deuteronomist completely suppresses the references to Jethro in the Elohist source and has Moses, his hero, propose the selection of judges and the establishment of the judiciary. Furthermore this happens after the Israelites leave Sinai and not before as the Elohist source portrays—the second contradiction. And third, the criteria by which the judges are to be selected are different in each tradition. In the Elohist source the criteria are that the judges are “men of truth,” “men who fear God,” and “who hate bribery” (Ex 18:21). For the Deuteronomist the qualities are more of an intellectual rather than moral or religious nature: “choose wise, understanding, and knowledgeable men” (Deut 1:13). It is clear that the later Deuteronomist used the Elohist tradition as his source but modified it to conform with his own religious program and beliefs. For the Elohist, justice is defined in religious terms, which, as we have seen, is typical of this tradition in general; while for the Deuteronomist justice is seen as more a matter of proper discernment and intelligence.  The narrative is shaped by those personal qualities important to each author.


  1. Compare the Elohist version of the Plagues where Pharaoh eventually comes to the same acknowledgement (see Contradiction #106). These are not historical narratives but theological ones whose purpose was to reaffirm Yahweh’s greatness and omnipotence (i.e., complete control of historical events) to an Israelite audience of the 8th century perhaps who may have doubted Yahweh’s resolve and ability to liberate Israel in the face of an imminent and all-powerful Assyrian threat. In other words these stories are meant to reaffirm belief in Yahweh as God of gods especially in the context of warfare since it was commonly understood in the ancient Near Eastern world that a nation’s god(s) determined victory or defeat for that nation.

5 thoughts on “#352. Who initiates the proposal to appoint judges over the Israelites: Moses OR Jethro? (Deut 1:9-13 vs Ex 18:17-23)
#353. When is this judiciary appointment made: before OR after Sinai? (Ex 18:13 vs Deut 1:19)
#354. Where is the judiciary formed: at Rephidim OR Horeb? (Ex 19:2 vs Deut 1:19)
#355. What are the criteria of selecting these judges: “men of truth, who fear god and hate gain” OR “men with wisdom, discernment, and knowledge”? (Ex 18:21 vs Deut 1:13)
#356. Did “Moses do everything that Jethro had instructed him to do” OR not? (Ex 18:24-25 vs Deut 1:9-18)

  1. The Priestly genealogy also omits Miriam, who as I understand it is only mentioned by E.

    What about the accounts of Moses’s age? I recall there’s a passage saying Moses was 40 when he murdered the Egyptian, 80 when he was called by God, and 120 when he died. Is that the work of a redactor, or am I misremembering something?

  2. Robert M, I don’t have Friedman’s The Bible With Sources Revealed with me, but I believe he assigns Moses’ murder of the Egyptian to “J.” Rabbi Dr. David Frankel gives a nice summary of Moses’ background in P prior to Exodus 6:

    In P, everything about Moses before his appointment by God is erased. The only background P gives is the genealogy, according to which Moses is simply the son of Amram and his aunt/wife, Yocheved, and the younger brother of Aaron. Any hint of his Egyptian background is absent. Moreover, the P text makes no mention of Moses’ marriage, thus solving the Midianite wife / Midianite priest problem. The genealogy in Exodus 6 mentions the marriage of his parents (both Levites), and his brother, Aaron (to a Judahite woman), and his nephew Elazar, but not a word about Moses’ marriage or children (here or anywhere else in P)! In Non-P, Moses is a young Hebrew man, brought up in Pharaoh’s palace, who feels the plight of his people and tries to defend them, killing an Egyptian in the process. He is exiled by Pharaoh and spends his young adult years in Midian with his Midianite wife and his Midianite high-priest father-in-law. It is there, in exile, upon the birth of his first son, that God comes to him at the burning bush and tells him to return to Egypt and free his people.

    P’s story is quite different. Moses is not a murderer who flees Egypt and forgets the suffering of his people. He is not Egyptian in appearance and background. Most important, he doesn’t marry a non-Israelite woman and has no association with a Midianite Priest. All the stories that told such things are eliminated in P.

    P’s Moses is not a young and powerful man leading an uprising; he and his brothers are old men, who have lived in bondage in Egypt all their lives. Thus, the exodus owes nothing to Moses’ vigor, temper, or physical strength. Israel is freed only by divine strength, with God using as an agent an old man of whom we know nothing but his excellent, Levitical pedigree.

  3. I hope you can help me disentangle what’s going on in the different sources. To which source does the account of Moses murdering the Egyptian get assigned? As far as I can tell both Reuel and Jethro are described as Midianite priests, and the only explanation the text gives for Moses fleeing to Midian is the murder of the Egyptian.

    For that matter, what does the priestly text give as the background of Moses leading up to Exodus 6?

  4. Contradictions 228-229 are similar in that they show discrepancies between Numbers 11 and Exodus 18 regarding the appointment of the judiciary: http://contradictionsinthebible.com/formmation-of-judiciary-yahwehs-or-jethros

    1.In E and only in E does Moses marry a Midianite. The Priestly source, in contrast, seems to go out of its way to not mention Moses’ wife. See especially P’s genealogy in Ex 6:14-25.

    Since this is the case, I guess it’s understandable that P doesn’t mention Moses’ sons, either, a rather striking omission for an author fond of genealogies, especially since Moses is arguably the most important figure in the Hebrew Bible. Gershom is mentioned in Exodus 2:22 (J), 18:3 (E), 1 Chronicles 23:15, and possibly (probably?) Judges 18–see http://contradictionsinthebible.com/aaronid-priesthood-or-levites-or-zadok-or-melchizedek/#comment-5427

    Eliezer, Moses’ “other son”–see contradiction #101 at http://contradictionsinthebible.com/moses-takes-wife-or-not/– is mentioned in Exodus 18:4 (E) and 1 Chronicles 23:15. By contrast, Libni, the “famous” son of Gershon and thus Levi’s grandson, is mentioned four times: Exodus 6:17 (P), Nu. 3:18 (P) and twice in 1 Chronicles 6!

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