Question: Were Jethro and Reuel the same person? And why did Moses seem so keen to listen to Jethro's advice?
Answer: Reuel and Jethro were Midianites who lived east of the Gulf of Aqaba.
The Midianites were descendants of Abraham and Keturah, so they would be acquainted with the stories of Abraham’s journey with the Lord, and one of the first people Moses meets in Midian is a priest named Reuel. Moses helped Reuel’s daughters by looking after the girls’ interests when some local shepherds, with little regard for the girls or their flock, were treating them shoddily.
Their father Reuel was surprised the girls were home so soon and so we see that the shepherds had been in the habit of making their work harder for some time.
Reuel and Moses both shared Abraham as a common ancestor. Reuel’s name has “el” for its last syllable, which indicates Reuel was familiar with the God of the Hebrews. He was also a priest, a respected man among the Midianites. Reuel gave his daughter Zipporah to Moses in marriage.
Zipporah was probably young, indicated by the fact that Reuel’s exasperation revealed itself when his daughters failed to offer Moses the common courtesy of the times after he had put himself at risk on the girls' behalf. Reuel probably said, “What are you girls playing at? Get back there and invite the man to have something to eat with us.”
Close to forty years past and Moses was settled in Midian with work to do. Around the year 1410 BC, Moses had been given the task of taking some animals to the area around Serabit el-Khadim, probably as part of a food distribution network.
During those forty years Reuel appears to retire or die. Moses lived long, but most men lived average lifespans.
We know that Reuel had seven daughters because Exodus 2:16 tells us so. Reuel's daughters were important for the book of Exodus to mention because of their work with the flock and Moses's intervention. But the Scripture does not say that Reuel had only daughters.
We know Reuel had Hobab as a son: "Hobab son of Reuel the Midianite" (Num 10:29).
Jethro takes over the family business and the priesthood, it seems most probably that Jethro was Reuel's eldest son, whose younger brother was Hobab, who had his own particular skillset.
Jethro is now the man in charge. English Bibles refer to Jethro as Moses’s father-in-law, but the Hebrew word used for father-in-law can be used of brother-in-law as well. The word has a wider application here, so Jethro was probably of a similar age to Moses and the two men were close confidants, relatives, and friends. That's why Moses was so ready to take Jethro's advice.
Government departments often work well when the minister in charge of that department is able to work under his own initiative. The ability to use your creativity and skills is helpful to the person that is ultimately leading the government.
A leader is pleased to let you work because they know that you have the same goals in mind and know the laws that are in place. If there’s something that’s particularly complicated then you have recourse to take the problem to the next level.
We see a similar ethic at work with Jethro’s advice to Moses who “chose capable men from all Israel and made them heads over the people as leaders of thousands, of hundreds, of fifties, and of tens. And they judged the people at all times; they would bring the difficult cases to Moses, but any minor issue they would judge themselves“ (Exod 18:25-26).
Jethro could see what was happening so he gave Moses some valuable advice. The work was too heavy for Moses alone, he needed to delegate.
Jethro told Moses to appoint trustworthy men as judges. Moses had more pressing matters to attend to—he was meeting with God and learning more of what God was doing with the Israelites, particularly as their plan was to head towards their promised land. Moses also had the job of writing that he needed to attend to.
Jethro pointed out something that the apostles in Acts 6:2 noted: “It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables.” Moses was in a similar position and Jethro pointed it out.
This is a clear lesson of how God gives us our own work to do. God could have told Moses himself, but the Lord delegated the work to Jethro.
He knew that Jethro, a priest in Midian, had the wisdom and experience to guide Moses in this matter, and that Moses would be ready to take the advice. God took a step back and allowed men to relay his will to each other. God doesn’t do everything for us: we have to rise to the challenge ourselves.
Adam was given the job of naming all the animals he saw, God could have done it but he wants us to add our own mark on his creation. A mother may teach her child how to paint a picture of a house, the parent could do the job herself, but that wouldn’t help society move forward.
God, in a similar way, wants us to use the creative abilities that he has placed in us. We are all a part of God’s creation and if we all played our part as he intended, our lives would be different and society would move forward.
Here, we see a Midian priest guiding the fledgling Israelite nation. Jethro’s advice to Moses may have had a long-term effect on the Israelite community—we can see the beginnings of the judges that would later rule in Israel.