Torah Portion Yitro

Exodus 18:1 - 20:26

Isaiah 6:1 - 7:6, 9:6-7

This year we will be going through the Torah portion cycle with a short teachings under 30 minutes each. Included in this post are the Haftarah portion and the Echoes Through Scriptures from previous years.

In Yitro, we will look at how the 10 Commandments are written in the form of a suzerain-vassal treaty. We will also investigate how each commandment is significant to Israel coming out of slavery in Egypt.

  • Torah
  • Haftarah
  • Echoes
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  • Ancient Near Eastern Text by Pritchard


  • The JPS Bible Commentary: Haftarot by Michael Fishbane]
  • The IVP Bible Background Commentary: Old Testament by John Walton
  • Honor, Patronage, Kinship and Purity by David DeSilva

In Yitro, we will discuss how Jethro is the first fruits from the nations who praises YHWH. We will also discuss how the commandments of God only have real power when we incorporate them as values into a society where keeping His commands is honorable and violating them is shameful.


Parashah Yitro
The Grace of Torah

Exodus 18:1 - 20:26

When people in today's culture talk about religious law, there is often an accompanying sense of apprehension. We've been freed from the Law right? How could ancient Israelite laws carry any significance for today's new and improved believer. We are no longer under the burden of the Law but under grace; law was the "Old Testament's means of salvation". Is this how ancient Israel understood the giving of the Torah? Is this how the Apostle Paul really portrayed the Torah? Or is it possible that we have misunderstood the function of the Torah because we have always read Paul's writings through the lenses of Church tradition? Instead of focusing on analyzing Paul's writings[1], why don't we approach this dilemma from the cultural perspective of the ancient Near East.

And YHWH spoke all these words saying: "I am YHWH your God who brought you out from the land of Egypt, from the house of slaves[2]." YHWH begins the very first law code section in the Torah with a very peculiar statement. The Israelites had just been freed from Egypt by YHWH, shouldn't this statement be redundant? The treaty between Mursilis, king of Hatti land, and Duppi-Tessub, begins in this manner:

These are the words of the Sun Mursilis, the great king, the king of the Hatti land, the valiant, the favorite of the Storm-god, the son of Suppiluliumas, the great king, the king of the Hatti land, the valiant. Aziraswas the grandfather of you, Duppi-Tessub. He rebelled against my father, but submitted again to my father. When the kings of Nuhasse land and the kings of Kinza rebelled against my father, Aziras did not rebel. As he was bound by treaty, he remained bound by treaty[3].

The key phrase "These are the words" is also found in many other treaties from the ancient Near Eastern world and is recognized now as the preamble of a what has been labeled a "Suzerainty treaty" or "vassal-treaty"[4]. It functions to proclaim the honor and power of the greater party who is initiating the treaty in order to give motivation for the other party to accept the treaty. Notice that Deuteronomy 1 begins with this key phrase "these are the words", although in reference to the words of Moses instead of YHWH. The next section to a Suzerainty-treaty is known as the historical prologue. In this section the greater party retells the historical relationship between the two parties, highlighting his gracious acts towards the vassal party in order to provide motivation for the vassal party to accept him as their suzerain and motivation to keep the commands which follow this section. In the Hittite treaty between Mursilis and Duppi-Tessub, it continues after the preamble by saying:

When your father died, in accordance with your father’s word I did not drop you. Since your father had mentioned to me your name with great praise, I sought after you. To be sure, you were sick and ailing, but although you were ailing, I, the Sun, put you in the place of your father and took your brothers (and) sisters and the Amurru land in oath for you[5].

Mursilis outlines the fact that he gracefully enthroned Duppi-Tessub when he was unable to do so himself due to his weakness. So too in the Decalogue, YHWH states the historical relationship and how He gracefully rescued Israel from the land of Egypt. This is a precursor to any commandment giving and serves as motivation for Israel to keep the laws of the covenant. Thus, it is clear to see that grace preceding law is both a cultural concept from the ancient Near East and a concept firmly rooted in the Torah. God's grace is the initial action and obedience to the Torah is to be the response of Israel out of gratitude for God's act(s) of grace. So too in the Apostolic Writings[6], God's salvation through the death and resurrection of Yeshua are understood as an initial act of grace, bringing salvation not only to Israel but to all of mankind as well, which serve to prompt the believers in Yeshua to have an even greater motivation for keeping the Torah! The issues that arise in the Apostolic Writings stem not from whether or not to keep the Torah, but how to properly keep the Torah; they are related to halakhah.

While there are clear parallels between the Decalogue and ancient Near Eastern Suzerainty-treaties, there are also a lot of unique features as well. It should not surprise us that we find the Decalogue written out in the format similar to a Suzerainty-treaty because as a prince of Egypt, Moses would have been trained in writing such documents. The Israelites too would have recognized such a treaty and understood the implications such a document brought. The fact that this treaty was between YHWH and the entire nation of Israel and not between YHWH and Moses would have been a huge shock to them. While we have found plenty of treaties between the king of one nation and the king of another nation, nowhere has there been found a treaty between a king and the citizens of his kingdom! In Exodus 19:5-6, YHWH told Israel that if they kept His covenant they would be a treasured possession above all the peoples...a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. By initiating this type of treaty with the people, YHWH is sending a message to them that is louder than words can describe. In God's eyes, each individual Israelite is as important to Him as a king! They were all to be considered royalty! This can also be verified by the usage of the Hebrew word segullah which has parallels in other ancient Near Eastern languages. In a royal seal from Alalakh, the king identifies himself as the "treasured possession" of the god Hadad and in an Ugaritic text, the king of Ugarit names his favorite vassal king as a "treasured possession" as well[7]. YHWH is letting this group of people who had lived their entire lives in the shameful state of slavery that they have been freed not to just become freemen, but they have had their status elevated to the highest level possible in His eyes. Thus the commands that follow should be understood as instructions given to a people of elevated social status as a means of ensuring their continued status as well as rescuing others and elevating their status as well.

The laws contained in the Decalogue, as well as the laws throughout the rest of the Torah must be studied in light of two conditions: 1) Grace precedes the law and serves as the motivating factor. This is why the phrase "I am YHWH", which recalls the historical prologue of the Decalogue, is repeated so often throughout the Torah. 2) The laws given are in response to the historical condition and culture from which Israel comes from and is going towards. This is explicitly stated in Leviticus 18 where YHWH begins the section of laws by stating you shall not do according to the deeds of the land of Egypt from where you came, nor are you to do according to the deeds of the land of Canaan where I am bringing you[8]. Israel lived in this culture and understood the contrast that was being made between the ways of YHWH and the ways of the pagan nations. Even the Decalogue, which has been accused of being "timeless principles" is set firmly in response to the Israelites past experience as slaves in Egypt. Let's investigate the parallels:

You shall not have other gods for yourself against My face. Israel is exiting a land where polytheism was the norm. Egyptians had gods for everything and even Pharaoh was considered a god. The people had lived in utter fear of Pharaoh and now YHWH is demanding that they no longer fear any of these supposed gods. They are not to mix the worship of YHWH with any other deity.

You shall not make a divine image of worship for yourself or any form that is in the heavens. Again, Israel is exiting a land where people formed graven representations of the gods used to represent those deities and to accept worship on their behalf. If Israel were to form an image of YHWH, they would be conforming Him to their imagination, rather than being conformed to His image.

You shall not lift up the name of YHWH for perjury. In the ancient Near East there were two types of oaths: promissory oaths and judicial oaths. Judicial oaths were used when a trial court was unable to reach a verdict due to lack of evidence. In these cases the defendant could swear an oath in the name of his god(s) in order to clear himself of wrongdoing[9]. In making such an oath, the defendant invited the god(s) whom he swore by to punish him if he were lying. Israel is commanded not to use the name of YHWH to lie in an oath as they had just experienced Pharaoh lying about releasing them.

Remember the Shabbat day to consecrate it. Six days you may labor and do all your occupational work, but on the seventh day is a Shabbat to honor YHWH your God. As slaves in Egypt, Israelites were not given a day off every week. They were required to work every single day. Now they are being commanded not only to take a day off themselves, but to give a day off to their children, their wives, their servants, and even their animals.

Honor your father and your mother in order that it may go well with you. In Egyptian slavery, when a person got old, they became useless as a laborer. Thus they were cast aside without support, left to die in their infirmity. This command is really being aimed at adult Israelites who are now being commanded to honor their parents by caring for them in their old age.

You shall not murder. Murder includes both premeditated killing as well as what we would label today as manslaughter, killing someone in a fit of rage. Studying the other law codes of the ancient Near East, it is clear to see that killing your slave was not considered to be murder by other cultures and was often considered to be the right of the slave master.

You shall not commit adultery. Slave women have no rights, thus if a master desires to have intercourse with his slave, he had the right to do so in these ancient cultures. YHWH is clearly ending this practice.

You shall not steal. As slaves, Israel had no right to property and anything that was theirs could be confiscated by their masters without any justification. YHWH is informing them not to act as their previous masters had acted.

You shall not testify against your neighbor as a false witness. Israelite baby boys had been thrown in the Nile river and killed with the false accusation that they would become too numerous and would rise up against the Egyptians if allowed to proliferate.

You shall not desire your neighbor’s house or field, you shall not desire your neighbor’s wife, or his servant, or his maidservant, or his ox, or his donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor. Slaves are often reduced to an animalistic mentality of only looking out for themselves. For example, in the prison camps in North Korea today, prisoners are encouraged to spy on one another and report anything wrong so that they can be rewarded at their neighbor's expense. Everything that Israel is to own is understood as a gift from YHWH. No longer are they to only be looking out for their own gain and this starts with no longer being driven with desire for something that belongs to their neighbor.

There were certainly other laws that Israel needed to follow, just like today there are many more laws that are needed to successfully run any nation. Yet these ten Words were the most important instructions that Israel could receive at that time to begin to break the mentality of slavery.

We should not come under the false assumption that all the other laws which follow the Decalogue were added on because of sin and are now abrogated through Christ, as some claim. The Torah was given as a gift to a newly liberated people as a means of ensuring their continued freedom as well as a guide for them to provide this same liberation to others. They were to be a nation of priests; in the same way that the sons of Aaron mediated between YHWH and the people and instructed the people in the Torah, so too Israel was intended to mediate between YHWH and the nations and to bring the Torah to the nations (Isaiah 2:1-4). Grace preceded Torah and served as a motivation for Israel to not only keep Torah, but to also extend the grace of Torah to the nations. As believers in Yeshua, we have even greater motivation to keep the Torah! However we must be careful to properly understand the cultural context of the commandments so that we may understand how these commands give life and not oppression so that we may live in accordance of the way of our King, YHWH.


[1] Paul's supposed issues with the "Law" are not actually about the written Torah, but about 1st century distortions related to Jewish identity markers which were preventing new believers from being accepted into the community of believers. For more information on this, please see my teaching Citizens of the Kingdom available online at or on DVD at

[2] Exodus 20:1-2

[3] Pritchard, ANET, 204.

[4] These terms will not appear in your English translation because these ancient documents have only recently been discovered and translated since around the 1950's and it takes a long time before terminology from such research makes it into popular Bible translations. The fact that this is a treaty or covenant was already spoken of in Exodus 19:5.

[5] Pritchard, ANET, 204.

[6] The "New Testament".

[7] Walton, Matthews, and Chavalas, The IVP Bible Background Commentary: Old Testament, Exod 19:5-6.

[8] Leviticus 18:3.

[9] Walton, et al., Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary, Exod 20:8.

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