Why is this story here? “Well, it happened,” one retorts. Indeed, but the Biblical authors are selective. We’re never told everything, so why are we told of this event? Why is it given such attention? I believe this story primarily does three things. It compares, it contrasts, and it transitions.
It compares Moses and Israel, showing how they are similar.
It contrasts Amalek and Jethro, showing how they are different.
It transitions us to Sinai.
But to heighten and emphasize this, let me ask again, why is this story here? Often in the Scripture we find that events are arranged generally in a chronological way, but also, immediately in a theological way. As you read through the Gospels you will sometimes find a different order of events. The intent of the gospels isn’t to tell you the exact historical chronology, but to reveal the theological truth the episodes teach us about Christ. Generally, in the big scope, things are presented chronologically: Jesus’ birth, then His ministry, then His crucifixion, then His resurrection. But immediately, the arrangement is theological. This is often the case in all the Bible.
In Deuteronomy 1:8–19 there’s a very similar account to this one. Similar, I believe, because it recalls the same instance. There we have an account that complements this one, looking at it from a different perspective and tells us when exactly this takes place chronologically. When you read the context before and after, notably Deuteronomy 1:6, 19, it’s clear this happens as Israel readies to depart from Sinai. So, in Exodus, why here now? To compare Moses and Israel at this point, to contrast Amalek and Jethro, and to transition to Sinai.
Moses’ exile is a mini-exodus. Moses departs Exodus with Pharaoh wanting kill him. He was a sojourner in a foreign land, Egypt, but God brought him the place of his father’s wanderings to dwell among distant cousins. He comes to Horeb where he sins against God’s commands. Finally compliant to journey where God commands, he first returns to the mountain to be reunited with Aaron.
Now again, at Horeb, there is a reunion with family. Israel too has been delivered from the sword of Pharaoh. Having sojourned in Egypt, they’re traveling to the place promised to them, but first they come to Horeb, where they too will disobey the God who reveals Himself in fire.
Moses and Israel are compared. Amalek and Jethro are contrasted. The nations oppose Israel, but they also are grafted in. Amalek came and fought (17:8); Jethro came and inquired of Moses’ welfare (18:5–7). In 17:9 Joshua chooses men to fight, in 18:25, upon Jethro’s advice, men are chosen to judge. Previously Moses sat with the staff of God in his hand (17:12), now he sits in judgment (18:13). In both instances Moses does this all day and needs help. The parallels draw out the contrast. Amalek does not fear God (Deuteronomy 25:17). Jethro rejoices (18:9), blesses (18:10), and glorifies Yahweh (18:11). Then he offers sacrifices to God and has a covenant meal with Moses, Aaron, and the elders (18:12).
This compare and contrast sets up a a transition to Sinai. Jethro’s good advice helps Moses apply the law of God. But as this law is applied, don’t miss this, this mountain is surrounded by grace. We’re reminded of the grace shown to Moses, and to Israel, and we see a Gentile graciously grafted into the olive tree of Israel in the shadow of Sinai. Jethro’s wisdom helps the law be applied so that God’s people go to their place in peace (18:23). For the redeemed of God, His law is surrounded by grace.