Yitro – Torah for Today

Torah for Today – Yitro

Original Broadcast date: February 6, 2015

(Please note: The transcript is not identical with the broadcast. Grammar has been corrected to enhance readability.)

Tissot's Jethro and MosesBeerman:

The Torah portion that we would going to be exploring here has kind of a strange name: ‘Yitro.’ I am curious what that is about. It apparently goes from Exodus 18 through 20. So Sasha. Tell us what is that about? What do we find here?

Bolotnikov:

Well, Yitro shows us how the Torah portions begin, because the first words of the passage, give the portion its name. The Torah didn’t have chapters, divisions and verses.

Beerman:

It wasn’t in the original, was it?

Bolotnikov:

No, it wasn’t even if you look iat the Torah scroll. There is not even periods and commas. That is why they have to have a keyword in that, to make them… you know to…

Beerman:

To set it apart, to set it off a little bit…

Bolotnikov:

Yes, and it basically has a two distinct parts. The Torah portion—the first part which covers Exodus 18 is the visit of Yitro and Yitro in English is Jethro.

Beerman:

Okay, we know about Jethro, a little bit I think.

Bolotnikov:

Yes, this is Moses’s father-in-law, and he visits him when the Israelites arrive in the Sinai Desert, and he gives Moses some advice on governance, which happens to be helpful. Of course the main part of Yitro is the time it talks about how the Israelites ended at the foothills of Mount Sinai and they see Mount Sinai lightning with fire and thunders, God actually speaking with His own words, the “Ten Commandments.” These are the two parts of this Torah portion for this week.

Beerman:

It is an interesting portion. There is a lot here, so I’m looking forward to further discussion of this. The whole story, particularly with Jethro raises some questions. Where does Jethro come from? How did it come about that he is associated with Moses at all?

Bolotnikov:

Well, Jethro is not Jewish. He is not an Israelite. He is a Midianite. In fact, in further Torah studies we will discover that the Midianites did quite a bit of damage to the Israelites, but apparently Jethro was not like the rest of the Midianite. We do not know a lot about the Midianites unfortunately from history, but it appears that they lived in the Sinai Peninsula and the northern part of the Arabian Peninsula. Apparently they were pagan nomadic tribes. It is interesting that Jethro was apparently a believer in God. We do not exactly know if he actually accepted God from the testimony of Moses, or whether he was actually a believer in the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Not only Abraham knew about God.

Beerman:

Would we think of him as a God fearer?

Bolotnikov:

Oh yes, there were godly people around the Middle East. You can think of Job and even his friends. They were Arameans. They lived around, and they were contemporaries of Abraham, but the book of Job does not have any indication of any knowledge of Abraham by Job or his friends.

Beerman:

Now this connection that Moses had with Jethro and the family of course, his wife—her dark skin—later on this becomes an issue with the brother and sister of Moses. Apparently they were a little darker skinned then most of the Israelites.

Bolotnikov:

Yes, It is typical for the population of the Arabian Peninsula to be a little bit swarthy.

Beerman:

Swarthy… Yes.

Bolotnikov:

Yes, that is probably the indication, although you never know. They definitely show up in the story later on when Mariam criticizes Moses. She is trying to offend him. In today’s English, it could be very racial comments there, but we will look at this when we study the book of Numbers.

Beerman:

That is some commentary there. It is interesting, Moses apparently really had a lot of respect for his father-in-law. Exodus 18:24 of this chapter, “Moses hearkened to the voice of his father-in-law and did all he said.”

Bolotnikov:

Yes, apparently Mosses had respect, and it says there that Jethro was a priest, and we know the Levitical priesthood was actually appointed a little later. Initially, we know about Melchizedek. He was the priest, and here Jethro was the priest. So it’s definite the family of Jethro was a believing family.

Beerman:

I think the family of priest. You know that is kind of surprising in a sense. I passed over that. I missed that previously. So that is fascinating, not something known by many people I think.

Bolotnikov:

Yes, when we look at Moses (and by the way Moses is from the tribe of Levi) and of course Aaron, the brother of Moses, becomes the high priest and the descendants of Aaron become high priest. So Jethro precedes Aaron in priesthood.

Beerman:

Fascinating, new insight. I appreciate that very much. Let’s move here into Exodus 19. This chapter begins with them coming to Mount Sinai… it just says the 3rd month. What would the 3rd be? What is the significance of that they arrive there then?

Bolotnikov:

Well, we see the 3rd month after their departure from Egypt. If you look at the time of their departure, this is actually in Exodus 12. This was called the first month and the month is called Nissan, not the car.

Beerman:

Not the car. Let me make the distinction there. No connection.

Bolotnikov:

Yes, no connection with the car. Actually it is a common Middle Eastern name. You find similar names in Babylon and all kinds of Semitic languages. We actually do not really know where this name of the month comes from.

Beerman:

So we do not know if it is really a Babylonian title or not.

Bolotnikov:

This is general Semitic, because we have all kinds of languages—Hebrew language, Aramaic language, Midianite language, Acadian language spoken in Babylon, Phoenician language. These are all Middle Eastern languages. A group known as the Semitic group. So they share, like English shares some common words with German—that is called the Germanic group. So the Semitic languages share common words. So when God establishes the month of Nissan as equal to the first month (that is the month of the Exodus), that first month becomes the first month on the Biblical religious calendar.

Beerman:

So this is kind of a new year in a sense really.

Bolotnikov:

Yes, it is a new year, although in Jewish calendar the new is in the fall not in the spring.

Beerman:

So this would only be a new year in the religious sense or maybe not in a civil sense.

Bolotnikov:

Exactly, the seventh month, the first day of the seventh month, which is celebrated as Rosh Hashanah (in Hebrew meaning, “the head of the year”) Jewish New Year is actually the civil calendar. It came later with the emergence of the Israeli kings. That is when they appointed the king. So that is why in Exodus 12 Nissan is called the 1st month. The 3rd month, it will be Sivan, and if you count, it is going to be roughly fifty days from the Exodus.

Beerman:

Okay, this is parallel; this is Pentecost essentially isn’t it? It is the time we assign to Pentecost.

Bolotnikov: Yes, exactly because the English word Pentecost comes straight from Greek. Pen-te-con-te in Greek means “fifty.” So you make a calculation from the time when the Israelites exited Egypt. We know what happened; they did have a Passover in the literal sense. It was not the Passover, which is done today as a commemoration of this event. It was the literal passing by of the angel of death over the houses of those Israelites who had the blood of the lamb on their doorposts and Egyptians, too.

Beerman:

Yes, if they took advantage of the instruction, they were saved as well.

Bolotnikov:

Yes, it was for everybody. That is why it says in Exodus 13 about the great multitude of many other nations who left Egypt with the Israelites and joined Israel

Beerman:

Yes, God is not an exclusive God is He? I mean He does not show favoritism in that sense. He was trying to help everyone really that was involved and give them the same opportunities for salvation.

Bolotnikov:

Oh yes, all the plagues described in the book of Exodus—they were actually to impress upon the Egyptians to abandon the worship of their gods. It said clearly several times, “I will make judgment upon the Egyptian gods.” So those Egyptians who understood the powerful God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob left with the Israelites and eventually were integrated into Israel. So they all came, so fifty days after that passing over, after they had a special ceremonial eating of lamb, fifty days passed, and that is the Pentecost.

Beerman:

So they come here to Sinai in fifty days essentially the same time that Pentecost is celebrated. So it appears here that the celebration of Pentecost initially was done in the context of the giving of the law, which occurs in the next chapter

Bolotnikov:

Yes, that is what Jewish tradition is very clear about. The Shavuot/Pentecost. Shavuot and Hebrew is the celebration of the giving of the Torah. Giving to be more precise, giving of the Decalogue, because the Torah is the entire five books of the Moses. They were written in sequence, and Moses finished them way before his death. But from the Mount Sinai God had revealed the Torah, the Decalogue, which is the essential part of the Torah.

Beerman:

This is interesting, because for most Christians we associate Pentecost with of course the giving of the Holy Spirit. So how do we reconcile, as Christians, this celebration that was instituted and founded in the giving of the law with a period that we associate with the giving of the Spirit. Are those two in contradiction? How do we understand the law and the Spirit here?

Bolotnikov:

Well, first of all if we look in the Paul’s writing, we right away see in 2 Timothy 3:16 that, “All scripture is inspired by the Holy Spirit,” so we cannot separate scripture from the Holy Spirit because God through the Holy Spirit actually is the divine author of the entire scripture—Torah included. So it is very important, I believe, for Christians to understand the Jewish roots of Pentecost—that it is not some kind of detached new covenant event. In fact the description of Pentecost in Acts 2 is directly associated with the celebration of the giving of the Torah. So it is very significant that the outpouring of the Holy Spirit was on the day when the Torah was given. Actually, that gives continuity beside the giving the Decalogue. That is why it makes just so senseless when today many people neglect the Decalogue.

Beerman:

Yes, I think that is very relevant in this discussion here, in looking at this passage. There are some parallels here in all in this chapter with what we find in the New Testament in Acts 2 for instance.

Bolotnikov:

Yes, there are a lot of parallels here especially with the manifestations. There was a fire on the top of the Mount Sinai, and the Holy Spirit appeared visually as tongues of fire, and basically when we talk about the foundation here, this is the foundation of the covenant here. The next chapters in the book of Exodus are basically describing the process of God making covenant with His people. In Acts 2 that is what the new covenant is all about. If you look at Jeremiah 31, it says that God said, “I will make a new covenant with Israel.” So He refers to the Sinai covenant, and him making a new covenant. What the new covenant is all about is bringing the Torah into the hearts, bringing the law into the hearts, inscribing the law into the hearts of the people.

Beerman:

The interesting thing there is that the Holy Spirit that does that writing isn’t it?

Bolotnikov:

Exactly.

Beerman:

As we look there in Jeremiah.

Bolotnikov:

Yes, exactly we will see here as an important parallel. The Torah was inscribed here. First Moses will write it in special book. Then it will be inscribed by God’s own finger on two tablets of stone. So there is no change in the new covenant. It’s talking about the same Torah, the same law but instead of using the tablet of stone that are placed inside the Ark of the Covenant, which is inside the Most Holy of the Temple. It is now in the hearts of the people, and for that very reason, Paul is calling our bodies the temple of the Holy Spirit.

Beerman:

Powerful connection. There really is. You know in this context, here in this connection, we see God making a covenant with His people, but He calls them a kingdom of the priests and a Holy nation. What is it really about? What is the God purpose here? What is He trying to do in establishing the covenant with this group of people?

Bolotnikov:

First of all, we can see that it is important here to see the moment, the purpose of election. People often misunderstand the election. Election for what? Sometimes people take it that there is some kind of racial theory here, that God prefers one group of people over another group of people.

Beerman:

That is the common conception, yes.

Bolotnikov:

It is just absolutely wrong. Here it says that the election is for priesthood. What is the priesthood? As we learn later in the Torah, the main task of a priest was to bring the knowledge of God to everybody else. That is the main assignment that the election gives, so it is not a preferential treatment. This is actually a responsibility.

Beerman:

Of mediation essentially.

Bolotnikov:

Exactly, and we have other priests. That is Jethro, by the way. It is kind of very interesting correlation. So the coming of Jethro and the next thing God from the Mount Sinai announces that Israel is going to be a priest. So we have a transition here.

So it is not about some kind of a nation, which God loves above others. It is just about the way to salvation that God entrusts the Israelites to carry the knowledge about Him to all other nations. That is what priesthood is all about.

Beerman:

This is beautiful because it is not about exclusiveness this choosing of the chosen people. It is about a mission really isn’t it? A responsibility, a mediation on their behalf. We are going to have to wrap up here fairly quick, but just one quick question.

There is thunder. There is lightening. What is God trying to say here to His people as He prepares to give the law? What is the significance of all the noise?

Bolotnikov:

Well, this is just the demonstration of His divine glory. It is interesting how God is present, but the people cannot go up and see God. Moses and the elders are the only ones who actually somehow see God, and we do not exactly how. But there is a line drawn around the Mount Sinai, and everyone who crosses this line will die. That is a big dichotomy that is brought by the presence of sin in the world, because people cannot come direct contact with God, but they hear.

This is a very important moment here. God actually utters the Ten Commandments with His own voice. There are two occasions when God directly speaks into the ears of His people. The giving of the Ten Commandments is number 1, and the second one is described in the Bible during the baptism of Jesus. The voice from heaven—in Hebrew it’s “bat kol”—declares that Jesus is God’s beloved son. So this is an interesting parallel here.

Beerman:

It really is, and I think what impresses me as you have been sharing this is in both of these passages that we have explored today, in Exodus 18 and 19, is the inclusiveness of God, not His exclusiveness, His inclusiveness and trying to share with His people His purposes. Any closing comments?

Bolotnikov:

Yes, absolutely. God is here and loving and inclusive God, and He calls everybody to join His people of the covenant here.

Beerman:

Oh, thank you for sharing. This is a wonderful passage of scripture to look at, and I am so glad we had this time together.

Bolotnikov:

Yes, I hope we are able to gain some insights from this Torah portion for today.