Parasha Yitro (Jethro): A Treasured Possession and a Kingdom of Priests

Yitro (Jethro)  יִתְרו

Exodus 18:1–20:23; Isaiah 6:1–7:6; 9:5-6Matthew 5:8–20

Parashah Name  – 17 Yitro,יִתְרוֹ

Last week, Parasha Beshalach began with the splitting and crossing of the Red Sea and concluded with the unprovoked attack of the Amalekites on the children of Israel.  In both incidents, Moses raised the rod God had given him with hands of faith.

This week, in Parasha Yitro, the children of Israel are encamped at the foot of Mount Sinai, where they receive both a revelation of God and the Torah.

The Torah portion begins with Moses’ father-in-law, Jethro (Yitro), coming from Midian with Moses’ wife and two sons after hearing of the great miracles that God performed for His people.

When Moses found himself in the desert, fleeing for his life after killing an Egyptian slave driver, Jethro was the first one to offer him hospitality, safety, and friendship.  Moses eventually married Jethro’s daughter, Tzipora (Zipporah).

After Jethro, who was actually the priest of Midian, visits Moses, he sees the burden Moses carries in governing and administering justice to the people.

Jethro advises him to appoint a hierarchy of magistrates and judges to assist him.

“What you are doing is not good.  You and these people who come to you will only wear yourselves out.  The work is too heavy for you; you cannot handle it alone.  Listen now to me and I will give you some advice, and may God be with you.”  (Exodus 18:17–19)

Although Jethro was a heathen priest, he had good advice for Moses, which he did well to heed.

Trying to handle all the people’s complaints and issues was too much for Moses to manage by himself.  He needed to delegate—a skill that many of us also need to learn.

Moses respected his father-in-law’s counsel and found wisdom in it.

“The way of a fool is right in his own eyes, but he who heeds counsel is wise.”  (Proverbs 12:15)

Peter’s Vision

As a Midianite, Jethro was in alliance with Amalek, a sworn enemy of Israel.  So why would a Torah portion be named after this man?

Hayyim Ben Alter, an 18th century Jewish rabbi, offered an interesting answer: naming this Parasha after a Gentile high priest reveals that we need to consider the wisdom of other people in our lives, even when those people are very different from ourselves.

Although Moses’ father-in-law Jethro was a heathen high priest, his advice to his son-in-law was sound.  That doesn’t mean, however, that we should be listening to anyone who gives advice.  The Bible makes it clear that we should not listen to the counsel of those who are wicked or those who are scorners and mockers of the truth.  (Psalm 1:1)

Ever since God forbade intermarriage with the Gentile nations, Judaism has been somewhat of a closed community.

“Do not intermarry with them…. for they will turn your sons away from following me to serve other gods.”  (Deuteronomy 7:3–4)

Of course, God’s purpose in preventing intermarriage was clear: it was to keep His people from adopting pagan practices in their homes and lives.

That is why many centuries later, Peter, who understood the prohibition against mixing with the Gentiles, was shocked when the Ruach HaKodesh (Holy Spirit) instructed him to visit a God-fearing Gentile named Cornelius.

He said to Cornelius and his guests, “You are well aware that for a man who is a Jew to have close association with someone who belongs to another people, or to come and visit him, is something that just isn’t done, and yet God has shown me that I should not call any man unholy or unclean.”  (Acts 10:28)

The Holy Spirit spoke to Peter through a vision in which he was shown animals that were unclean for food.  (Acts 10:9–16)

Yet Peter understood that the vision was not about food, but about people becoming clean through Yeshua HaMashiach (Jesus the Messiah).

God had shown Peter something so radical that it would forever change the nature of the commonwealth of Israel—that is, Israel would now include the followers of the Jewish Messiah, Yeshua.

Peter said, “I most certainly understand now that God is not one to show partiality, but in every nation the man who fears Him and does what is right is welcome to Him.”  (Acts 10:34–35)

Yeshua also spoke of bringing others into the sheepfold:

“I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen.  I must bring them also.  They too will listen to My voice, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd.”  (John 10:16)

We are now a family—Jew and Gentile—one flock under One Shepherd—Yeshua HaMashiach (Jesus the Messiah).  (Ephesians 2:14–18)

A Treasured Possession and Kingdom of Priests

“Now if you obey Me fully and keep My covenant, then out of all nations you will be My treasured possession [segulah].”  (Exodus 19:5)

In this Parasha, God gives Israel a promise that if she keeps His covenant, she will be His own special treasure from among all the nations.

The Hebrew word used here is segulah (סגולה).  It indicates precious object, special possession or instrument chosen for a peculiar purpose.

This word is related to the Hebrew word for the color purple, sagol (סגול), which symbolizes royalty.

Israel is also given the calling to be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation:

“Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.”  (Exodus 19:5–6)

In 1 Peter 2, this promise of the royal priesthood was extended to everyone who follows the Jewish Messiah:

“But you are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation.  His own special people (segulah), that you may proclaim the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light.”  (1 Peter 2:9)

Each one of us is to function as a priest (cohen), whose purpose is to live in God’s service.  Aside from living a holy life in close relationship with God, our primary duty is to bring man closer to Him, showing those around us how to live a life of holiness.

A Holy Life

“On the morning of the third day there was thunder and lightning, with a thick cloud over the mountain, and a very loud trumpet blast.”  (Exodus 19:16)

God did not leave the Jewish People wondering how to satisfy His requirement to live a holy life.

They did not have to figure out what that entailed.  God outlined it plainly at Mount Sinai.

In this Parasha, only seven weeks after leaving Egypt, the Israelites stand trembling below a thick cloud at Sinai, ready to receive the Ten Commandments.

They trembled for good reason: amidst the loud sounds of thunder, lighting and the blasting of the shofar, God revealed Himself.  He showed them how to live a holy life through a covenant, the terms of which were written by the finger of God on tablets of stone (luchot ha’brit).

God’s giving of the covenant at Sinai can be compared to a Jewish wedding ceremony.

The cloud covering can be seen to represent the chuppah, the Jewish wedding canopy under which stands the bride and groom while their vows are being recited.

The terms of the covenant can be seen to represent the written marriage contract called a Ketubah, which outlines the rights and responsibilities of the bride and groom.

The final response to the terms of the covenant can be likened to the bride agreeing to marry the bridegroom with the hoped for “I do.”

And when the terms of the covenant were explained, Israel willingly entered into a covenant with the Almighty King of the Universe.

Israel, the Bride, said, “I do.”

“The people all responded together, ‘We will do everything the LORD has said.’”  (Exodus 19:8; see also Exodus 24:3)

In a marriage, after the exchange of vows, the bridegroom gives the bride a ring as a token.

Likewise, Israel was given a sign of their special Covenant relationship: the seventh day Sabbath:

“Say to the Israelites, ‘You must observe my Sabbaths.  This will be a sign between me and you for the generations to come, so you may know that I am the Lord, who makes you holy.’”  (Exodus 31:13)

And just as the bridegroom gives the bride a lovely gift in so many ceremonies, Adonai gave to His Bride the Land of Israel.

Woe to those who attempt to steal from Israel her wedding gift from the Almighty God!

The Ten Commandments

Although society is rapidly becoming more and more lawless, the Ten Commandments, which are given in this Parasha, continue to be relevant as the foundation of moral conduct and justice for all of humanity.

The first five commandments deal with our relationship with God.  The second set of five commandments deal with our relations with our neighbor.

When Yeshua was asked which of the commandments was the greatest, He summed up these two sets of five, indeed the entire law, into love God with all your heart and love your neighbor as yourself:

“‘The most important one,’ answered Yeshua, ‘is this:  Hear, O Israel:  The Lord our God, the Lord is one.  Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.  The second is this:  Love your neighbor as yourself.  There is no commandment greater than these.’”  (Mark 12:29–31)

These laws have never ceased being relevant to the Jewish People, who are commanded to teach them daily to their children and to write them on the doorposts of their homes.  (Deuteronomy 6:1–9)

As well, national judgment has fallen on the Jewish People when they have failed to keep their side of the covenant.

When it comes to our attitude toward His commandments, we should regard them with delight.  They provide a guide for a healthy, happy, productive, and harmonious life in relationship with God and with other people.

“For this is love for God, to keep His commandments.  And His commandments are not burdensome.”  (1 John 5:3)

Although our flesh resists these commandments, God promises to put them inside our mind and write them on our heart.  He gives us a new heart and a new spirit, so that we can love and obey Him.

“This is the covenant I will make with the people of Israel after that time,” declares the LORD.  “I will put my Torah in their minds and write it on their hearts.”  (Jeremiah 31:33)

Haftarah Yitro (Prophetic Portion)

Although in the Torah portion, God speaks to the Israelites on a grand scale, giving his law to the entire nation, in the Haftarah portion, he speaks only to Isaiah through a vision.

Isaiah sees God sitting on his throne with the train of His robe filling the Temple.

The angels call out one to another:  “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty; the whole earth is full of His glory.”  (Isaiah 6:3)

When Isaiah understands that God needs a messenger, he volunteers to bring a message of judgment to the people.

Isaiah is to tell them that they have strayed so far from God and from holiness that they are unable to hear from God any longer.  Because of this spiritual distance, they are unrepentant, and exile is certain, although a remnant will remain in the Land.

However, judgment for sin is not the end of the story, since the promised redemption for Israel came through the Messiah.

Some congregations this Shabbat will even read the Messianic Prophecy found in Isaiah 9:5–6 (6–7 in “non-Jewish” Bibles):

For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on His shoulders.

And He will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

Of the greatness of His government and peace there will be no end.  He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever.

Sadly, this Messianic prophecy will not be read and studied in every Jewish congregation: for instance, the ultra-Orthodox Chabad community will only read Isaiah 6:1–13.  (Chabad Haftarah Yitro)

In fact, the Messianic prophecies are often left unread.

Still, these are the very prophecies that unmistakably point to Yeshua, and every Jewish person needs to read them so they can come to a saving knowledge of the Messiah.

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