Jethro’s Deception

Exodus: Yitro

Jethro’s Deception

“That is almost 80,000 judges!” Moses stood up from his chair in his tent. “I think it would be preferable to continue to judge Israel myself than to start selecting so many judges.”

“Moses, my son,” Jethro put his hand on Moses’ shoulder and gently pushed him back down on his seat. “You must desist from thinking in a linear fashion. You must learn to delegate. You only need to identify other strong trustworthy judges and let them find the next level of judge and so on. Trust me. By such a method, you will find all your judges in just a matter of days as opposed to months or years.”

“I am not sure this is the way,” Moses looked at Jethro, “God has entrusted me with leadership of the children of Israel, and one thing that I know, that if I do not deal with the details myself, there is liable to be misinterpretations and confusion.”

“Listen to me, Moses,” Jethro pointed outside the tent. “Your people are not angels. They are human beings. They will make mistakes. I presume God allows for that.”

“Yes, He does, up to a point. And not without consequences,” Moses ran his hand over his long beard. “But to judge is a very serious matter. The repercussions of misjudgment can be disastrous.”

“Of course it is serious,” Jethro said. “That is why you need to choose people of the highest caliber possible, with the level of integrity and honesty that we discussed.”

“But how can we determine if a man is corrupt or not?” Moses asked. “Most of them have been slaves their entire life. They have rarely had responsibility beyond their immediate work, or any temptation for personal gain.”

“Ah,” Jethro smiled. “That is where I might be of use. We shall test them.”

“Test them how?”

“We shall tempt them.”

“Tempt them? Tempt them with what? Will you play some deception on them? I do not know if this is appropriate.”

“Why, your ancestors’ history is filled with deception,” Jethro responded. “Did not Jacob deceive his father for the blessings? Did not Joseph deceive his brothers in falsely incriminating Benjamin? One thing I know from those stories, is that when the need is pressing, they allowed themselves to deceive others for what they felt was a greater good. Do not fear, Moses. I shall try out the process for you and we shall see how it proceeds.”

* * *

“Next!” Jethro called out from within his tent. His assistant opened the tent flap and directed the next person in line to enter.

A short gray-haired man was ushered into the tent by the assistant to a seat in front of Jethro. A table stood between them. The man sat on the proffered chair keeping his back straight.

“Name?” Jethro asked without looking up from the papyrus on the table.

“Nethaniel son of Tzuar,” the gray-haired man responded.

“Tribe?” Jethro continued to ask, as he made notes on the papyrus with his quill.



“Seventy-three,” he said with a slight grin, showing strong white teeth.

Jethro’s right eyebrow shot up. “Are you certain, sir? You do not look older than fifty?”

“I am certain. My family has kept exact records.”

“And what was your occupation in Egypt?”

“I was chief assistant to Pharaoh’s architect in the Pitom project.”

“I see. And what where your duties?”

“I was responsible for calculation of all the pyramid measurements, as well as consignment of all materials, stone, mortar, tools and manpower. I was also ultimately responsible for all the Hebrew slaves on the project.”

“That is a big responsibility, Nethaniel,” Jethro approved.

“Do you know why you have been summoned here?” Jethro asked.

“Yes. You are seeking people interested and willing to be judges of Israel.”

“Correct. And do you know who I am?”

“You are Jethro, father-in-law of our teacher Moses, and High Priest of Midyan.”

“I am much more than that,” Jethro tugged on his garment lapels and raised his head higher. “I have been advisor to Pharaohs; I have been a kingmaker and have enabled noblemen to gain great wealth and power. Are you interested in wealth and power, Nethaniel?”

“No, my lord,” Nethaniel looked down with some embarrassment. “I was blessed with great wealth that was bestowed upon me by my former masters and I do not seek power over my brothers. I have had enough of that.”

“Yet you seek to judge them?” Jethro responded sharply. “You seek to be the sole determinant of who is wrong and who is right? You too will have the power to raise the rich and lower the poor. Or to reward a friend and punish an enemy.”

“That is not my intention,” Nethaniel replied, unruffled. “I sense the need and I believe I have the experience and skills to assist in this matter. I do not seek riches or glory.”

Jethro nodded imperceptibly in approval.

“Good. Now we want to test your judicial instincts. We have prepared a trial for you to judge. Call in the plaintiffs!” Jethro instructed his assistant.

Two younger men entered, looking tired and agitated.

“Gentlemen,” Jethro addressed them. “This is Nethaniel son of Tzuar. He shall judge your case. Please address your complaints to him. I am merely an observer.”

The taller man, a scraggly looking sunburned man addressed Nethaniel: “Your honor, my name is Perael son of Chamri from the tribe of Simeon. I was tending my small flock of eight sheep,” he explained looking at his dirt encrusted fingernails. “Then I noticed this ruffian approaching me with his larger flock. I warned him to keep his distance. But he approached. As he passed he made sure to take two of my precious sheep with him.”

“I protest!” the second short plump balding man declared. “I, your honor, am Teleus son of Nardi, of the tribe of Reuven. I am but a simple merchant and do not know what this poor shepherd is referring to.”

“All I know is,” Perael started yelling, “is that I used to have eight sheep and after you passed by my flock I was left with six.”

“Perhaps you need to work on your shepherding skills,” Teleus responded. “Your honor, may I speak with you privately for a moment,” Teleus approached the seated Nethaniel.

“This seems highly irregular, but if you must,” Nethaniel responded, looking at both plaintiffs through narrowed eyes.

“Your honor,” Teleus whispered, “the young man’s brain is obviously addled from the sun. I am a busy merchant and do not have the time and cannot afford the expense of such complications. I will gladly donate to you the value of half a sheep if you will kindly and quickly rule in my favor.”

“What?” Nethaniel stood up suddenly, knocking his chair backwards. “How dare you even suggest such a notion,” he looked at Teleus in disgust. “I cannot believe that you would so openly and brazenly attempt to bribe a judge? How dare you?”

Teleus took a step back trying to hide a smile.

“But wait, there is more to this than meets the eye,” Nethaniel accused Teleus. He then turned towards Perael. “You, Perael. You have never tended sheep in your life. Your mud-caked fingers do not have a thread of wool on them. This is all a ruse! You are nothing but actors!” He finally turned to face Jethro.

“Calm yourself, Nethaniel,” Jethro urged with a smile, putting his arm out. “Sit down and I will explain everything.”

Nethaniel did not move.

“Please sit down, Nethaniel,” Jethro repeated. “This was a necessary deception, which I will now explain.”

Nethaniel righted the chair and sat down, facing Jethro.

“Nethaniel,” Jethro started. “How does one select a judge? How does one test for corruption?”

Nethaniel features started to soften.

“You tempt them,” Nethaniel answered, nodding in comprehension.

“Exactly,” Jethro replied. “Our judges must not be easily corrupted. The temptations that come with the power will be strong. We need men that can resist the temptations, as you just have. And you too must test other judges that will serve under you and report to you.”

“But this is a terrible ruse,” Nethaniel said looking at Teleus and Perael.

“If you can suggest a better way, we will be happy to consider it,” Jethro answered. “But a reputation is not enough. The slaves of yesterday have entered the freedom of today. We have already seen how their behavior is changing. Not everyone has fully submitted themselves to the will of God and the leadership of Moses. I expect there will be many challenges and difficulties ahead for the children of Israel, and Moses will need a cadre of strong judges to help him. It is ironic that to find men of truth we must test them with a lie. Your forefather Jacob was also enmeshed in deception throughout his life, though he has ultimately come to signify God’s attribute of Truth.”

Nethaniel stood up, “I am sorry my lord, for my outburst.”

“Do not apologize, Nethaniel,” Jethro answered with a half-smile. “Your reaction was exactly correct. A true judge should be outraged by even a hint of bribery. I am more troubled by those that hesitated or even considered such a course. Though God’s seal is truth, He also commands us to use intelligence in cases. Picking a judge is an extreme and sensitive decision. We must use such an approach only in the most delicate cases.”

“I understand the necessity for the lie,” Nethaniel said, “but I do not like it. I shall try to find some alternative way to test our judges.”

“That would be a comfort for me,” Jethro answered. “I too question whether it is worth the price, but God has not revealed another way. I have come as a mortal guide and advisor, and so far I believe I have been correct. In the meantime, Nethaniel,” Jethro stood up and placed both hands on each of Nethaniel’s shoulders. “I hereby name thee, Nethaniel son of Tzuar, from the tribe of Yissachar, as a judge in Israel. Go to the tent of Moses and he shall confirm this nomination. You shall be a judge of a thousand. It is now your responsibility to appoint ten judges of one hundred each. They in turn will appoint judges of fifty, and they judges of ten. Any case that is too difficult shall be brought to the next highest judge. The most difficult cases shall be brought to Moses. Now go in peace, be successful and judge with justice.”

“Yes, Jethro,” Nethaniel bowed and stepped out of the tent.

Jethro sat back down. Perael and Teleus approached him.

“This is a painful process,” Teleus commented.

“Yes, but necessary,” Jethro responded. “This is not the first time Israel or its God have used deception with others. The whole claim to Pharaoh to worship in the desert was merely a pretense for your escape. And your borrowing the gold and silver from the Egyptians was not with any intention to return it.”

“True,” Teleus replied, “but those deceptions were performed with the direct command of God. Now I am less certain.”

“He is also letting you spread your wings some more and show more self-determination,” Jethro continued. “I do not believe his plan is to minutely manage Israel’s people or existence. Is that not why you have free will?”

“Perhaps,” Teleus answered pensively. “Perhaps.”

“Well, we do not have all day to philosophize,” Jethro concluded, “there is work to be done. Go wait outside the other door while I invite in the next candidate.” Teleus and Perael quietly stepped out the other side of the tent.

“Next!” Jethro called out.

* * * * * *

Biblical Sources:

Exodus Chapter 18:

1 Now Jethro, the priest of Midian, Moses’ father-in-law, heard of all that God had done for Moses, and for Israel His people, how that the Lord had brought Israel out of Egypt. 2 And Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, took Zipporah, Moses’ wife, after he had sent her away, 3 and her two sons;

13 And it came to pass on the morrow, that Moses sat to judge the people; and the people stood about Moses from the morning unto the evening. 14 And when Moses’ father-in-law saw all that he did to the people, he said: ‘What is this thing that thou doest to the people? why sittest thou thyself alone, and all the people stand about thee from morning unto even?’ 15 And Moses said unto his father-in-law: ‘Because the people come unto me to inquire of God; 16 when they have a matter, it cometh unto me; and I judge between a man and his neighbour, and I make them know the statutes of God, and His laws.’ 17 And Moses’ father-in-law said unto him: ‘The thing that thou doest is not good. 18 Thou wilt surely wear away, both thou, and this people that is with thee; for the thing is too heavy for thee; thou art not able to perform it thyself alone. 19 Hearken now unto my voice, I will give thee counsel, and God be with thee: be thou for the people before God, and bring thou the causes unto God. 20 And thou shalt teach them the statutes and the laws, and shalt show them the way wherein they must walk, and the work that they must do. 21 Moreover thou shalt provide out of all the people able men, such as fear God, men of truth, hating unjust gain; and place such over them, to be rulers of thousands, rulers of hundreds, rulers of fifties, and rulers of tens. 22 And let them judge the people at all seasons; and it shall be, that every great matter they shall bring unto thee, but every small matter they shall judge themselves; so shall they make it easier for thee and bear the burden with thee. 23 If thou shalt do this thing, and God command thee so, then thou shalt be able to endure, and all this people also shall go to their place in peace.’ 24 So Moses hearkened to the voice of his father-in-law, and did all that he had said. 25 And Moses chose able men out of all Israel, and made them heads over the people, rulers of thousands, rulers of hundreds, rulers of fifties, and rulers of tens. 26 And they judged the people at all seasons: the hard causes they brought unto Moses, but every small matter they judged themselves. 27 And Moses let his father-in-law depart; and he went his way into his own land.

Deuteronomy Chapter 1

9 And I spoke unto you at that time, saying: ‘I am not able to bear you myself alone; 10 the Lord your God hath multiplied you, and, behold, ye are this day as the stars of heaven for multitude.– 11 The Lord, the God of your fathers, make you a thousand times so many more as ye are, and bless you, as He hath promised you!– 12 How can I myself alone bear your cumbrance, and your burden, and your strife? 13 Get you, from each one of your tribes, wise men, and understanding, and full of knowledge, and I will make them heads over you.’ 14 And ye answered me, and said: ‘The thing which thou hast spoken is good for us to do.’ 15 So I took the heads of your tribes, wise men, and full of knowledge, and made them heads over you, captains of thousands, and captains of hundreds, and captains of fifties, and captains of tens, and officers, tribe by tribe. 16 And I charged your judges at that time, saying: ‘Hear the causes between your brethren, and judge righteously between a man and his brother, and the stranger that is with him. 17 Ye shall not respect persons in judgment; ye shall hear the small and the great alike; ye shall not be afraid of the face of any man; for the judgment is God’s; and the cause that is too hard for you ye shall bring unto me, and I will hear it.’


My friend and noted bible scholar, Rabbi Gad Dishi, often reviews my work and tries to keep me close to the straight biblical text. He points out that there is no textual or midrashic basis for Jethro, or anyone else for that matter, having used any ruse or deception to screen judges.

This is entirely from my imagination, though based on real-life experience. I had an employer that would test employees for honesty by placing money where they would find it and then waiting to see how they react. The thorny predicament of deception also allowed me to explore a few theological issues and questions.

Rabbi Dishi did point out however that by having Jethro more involved in the process, it solves an issue of a ‘dangling’ verse of why Moses had to ‘let’ Jethro depart. It implies that Jethro wanted to leave earlier, but Moses didn’t allow him – perhaps only after the judge selection process was successfully implemented.

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