Importance of Anchoring Expressions

This is a follow up to an older post where I made reference to something going on in Exodus 18. My topic today is the practice of orienting participants to a situation. For instance, I could be introduced or “anchored” as “the Logos scholar-in-residence,” “Mike’s friend,” or “the owner of the white GMC truck.” All of these relations are accurate, but not all are relevant for a given context. It might be relevant at a crash scene that I own a white truck (but it wasn’t my fault), but not at the beginning of a Logos Lecture series, right? We use the most relevant anchoring expression for the given context. Most of the time, it is so routine that we don’t give it a second thought when we read or hear one. But there are places where this general rule is broken, and paying attention to anchoring expressions can have a huge impact on your Bible study.

While reading Exodus 18, I noticed that Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law is called father-in-law a lot, like almost twice as many times as he is called Jethro in the context. This is the story where Jethro teaches Moses about delegation following the exodus from Egypt. Why is he called father-in-law so often? Why not priest of Midian, since most commentators seem to think this is the more relevant anchoring expression? After all, this is a story of one priest teaching another priest about administration, right? This is true, but there is a bit more going on under the hood.

In all but one instance where Jethro is introduced in Exodus, he is anchored as “priest of Midian” (here is a link to the search in Logos 4). After Moses marries Zipporah, Jethro’s daughter, he is also anchored as Moses’ father-in-law (here is another search on the Hebrew lemma for father-in-law in Exodus). This means we have competing options available. One of the primary principles in my approach to discourse is this: “Choice implies meaning.” If I chose option A instead of option B, then there is some meaning to be gleaned from the choice. What is the meaning here? Let’s take a look at the opening details of the story.

If a biblical writer includes a detail in a story—e.g. that Esau was hairy, or that Sarai was beautiful, or that David was ruddy and handsome while Goliath was tall, dark and ugly—then chances are you need to know the tidbit to get the point of the story. We have a few such details like this in Exodus 18, ones that are often overlooked.

The first important detail is the location. Moses has returned to the same place where the Lord had appeared to him in the burning bush, just as the Lord had announced in Exodus 3:12. This is the same place where Moses had been herding sheep for Jethro (his father-in-law, remember?), probably fairly near Jethro’s encampment. Detail One: after the exodus, Moses has returned to the very place he started, his old stomping grounds where he had herded for Jethro.

The second important detail is found in Exodus 18:2, where we learn that Jethro (Moses’ father-in-law, remember?) is coming to see Moses, and is bringing along Zipporah, Moses’ wife and their two boys After he had sent her away. Say what? When did Moses send Zipporah away? No matter how good the Logos 4 search engine is, you will not find reference to Moses sending Zipporah away in the OT, it ain’t there, this is the only mention of it. So why mention it here? Remember, if its there its important, right? We must need to know it to get the point of the story.

Let’s recap a bit so we can pull all these details together. The Lord has used Moses to deliver Israel from the Egyptians, and they have all returned to where Moses was first called by the Lord. Next, Moses has sent Zipporah and his sons away at some point before the trip. Even though Moses and Israel have been camping on Jethro’s back 40 acres, so to speak, Moses hasn’t taken the time to send for his wife and kids. Why not? What could be preventing him from doing so? Let’s keep reading.

After Jethro (Moses’ father-in-law, remember?) arrives with Moses’ wife and kids (whom he’d sent away, remember?), he takes the time to re-establish rapport with Moses. He listens to all that the Lord has done for Moses and Israel (see Exodus 18:8, even though v. 1 makes it clear that he had already heard these things through the grapevine. Have you ever (re)listened to old news from someone just because you knew it was important to them? This seems to be what Jethro was doing, as a good father-in-law. Then they enjoy fellowship together along with Aaron and the elders, sharing a sacrifice together.Finally, Jethro (Moses’ father-in-law, remember?) goes to work with Moses the next day, and oh what a sight it must have been. Verse 13 tells us that the people stood around from morning to evening waiting to have their disputes resolved. What does Jethro do (Moses’ father-in-law, remember?) He watches patiently. Then at some point he asks the same kind of “What are you doing?” question that my dad used to ask me when he saw me doing something the hard way. “What is this that you are doing for the people? Why do you sit alone, and all the people stand around you from morning till evening?” (Exo. 18:14, ESV). It is one of those questions that is not so much for Jethro’s benefit as for Moses’. It requires him to look at things from a different perspective. And like a good father-in-law, Jethro highlights key details: Moses is doing it alone, and the people are standing around from morning to evening.

So why is Jethro called Moses’ father-in-law so many times? Why is this anchoring expression more relevant priest of Midian, even though most commentators stress the priest role? It is to counter the very thing that the commentators focus on. Even though Jethro could have used his authority as priest to tell Moses to do things differently, he doesn’t. Instead, the writer anchors him as father-in-law.

Stated differently, Jethro brings his daughter and his two grandsons to his son-in-law. Why bring them? Apparently because even though Moses had been so near for months, he had not taken the time to send for them. Why? Perhaps it had something to do with his day job consuming too much of his time. So what’s needed? To get Moses to change how he does things so that doesn’t wear out himself or the people (18:17-18). How does Jethro bring about the change? By coming as a father-in-law (who may have wanted to box the ears of the guy who didn’t have time for his daughter!) who took the time to reestablish rapport (vv. 6-12), who hung out with Moses enough that the latter knew he understood the problem (vv. 13-16). Then instead of shoving the solution down his throat on the basis of his authority as priest or father-in-law, he offers it up for Moses’ consideration (v. 19-23).

Anchoring expressions can play a big role in exegesis, and are one of the many kinds of things that you’ll find annotated in the Lexham Discourse Hebrew BIble and Lexham High Definition Old Testament. If you found this commentary helpful, then you’ll find more like it in the High Definition Commentary, a new series from Logos that helps you identify exegetical keys in the discourse, and understand the role they play. The Philippians volume is under way, to be followed by Romans.

If you’d like to read an article I wrote on this same topic of redundant anchoring expressions applied to Genesis 32, it is posted at my blog site.

Written by
Steve Runge

Steve Runge has served as a Scholar-in-Residence at Faithlife since completing his Doctor of Literature degree in biblical languages at Stellenbosch University in South Africa in 2006. He specializes in developing original language resources for pastors and students to help them more confidently study and teach the Bible.

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  • That was a fascinating study Steve, thank you. I would likely have never seen this perspective on my own. Now for the big question. If I already had the the LHDOT, how would I have discovered this perspective by using it? This frequently is the missing link to whether I will want to invest $200 in some of these new tools. Will I be able to use it effectively without a lot more training and education?
    I am not educated in the either Greek or Hebrew except by using Logos. I teach Bible studies every week to adults in our church. I am getting better at using the Greek resources to add value to my study but rarely can I do it with Hebrew. I have attended Camp Logos at least 6 or 7 times but it wasn’t until I purchased the “Learn to use Biblical Greek with Logos” videos that I began to understand when to use some of the Logos tools.

  • Good question, Norm. The HDOT will have all the instances marked up where something is going on, like the unneeded references to Jethro as “father-in-law.” The introduction will provide an overview of what each of the devices does, along with some examples to illustrate. It stops short of offering the commentary you see in the blog post, it would be up to you to connect the dots.
    A lot of what I did in the blog post has more to do with reading and understanding how we are wired to process language, not specifically with Hebrew grammar, per se. I am beginning to sketch out an introductory book that would teach you to do this very kind of analysis, that would provide the principles you’d need, but that is a long way off at this point. Most every project I am working on (or have on the drawing board for the coming year or two) is focused on folks like you. I understand what you are asking, and am committed to developing the resources and training needed to help you better study the Bible. In fact, this is my mission in life.

  • Thank you for the response Steve. May God richly bless you in the pursuit of your life mission. It is so greatly needed. I can’t even imagine what it would be like to study God’s word without Logos. I am so blessed to have “found it” back before I became a serious student (1998)! On the other hand, it is often so frustrating to know that I am only utilizing about 10% of the power that is in Logos Bible Study Software (and I am an educated user) and I can’t figure out how to access SOME (I’m not greedy ;-) of the other 90%. The who, what, where, when information is so accessible, especially in 4.0. But it is the which, how and why that I struggle with now.
    You all are doing such wondrous things a Logos, keep up the good work. I am forever in your debt.

  • Hi Steve, thank you so much for your work! You have really given me an amazing tool with your NT discourse which I use regularly for sermon prep and seminary work. So thank you for your work in order for people like me to dive deeper into the Word. I was wondering if your approach to the OT is different from your work in the NT? Would like to see which approaches you are coming from. But your sample give great insight on a passage that is all too familiar. Thanks Steve, continue to bless us with your wisdom. May God bless you.

  • Hi Eric,
    You asked about how my approach to the OT differs from the NT. Generally speaking, I am working to develop a unified approach that will work for both. Yes, they are different languages and use different techniques to accomplish discourse tasks. Having said that, every language needs to accomplish the same basic set of tasks. By using a task-based approach, I can accurately talk about Greek and Hebrew devices while still respecting their differences. This is the beauty of linguistics, if implemented properly. All of my graduate research has been in the OT, so the NT is a “new” area for me. I scoped out an approach that would work in the OT before beginning the NT projects. This means I already have a unified approach that I know will work in both testaments, I just did the NT first. Hope that clarifies things for you. Thanks for the encouragement about the resources, it is a real blessing to hear that you are benefiting from them.

Written by Steve Runge