By Andrew Gabriel Roth
But what does it mean to have friends in really, really high places? What would it be like to be a friend of the Creator of the Universe, YHWH Himself? In order to find out, we need to look at some names and titles of great men in Tanakh.
In reading the Torah portion "Yitro" (Jethro) we learn that Moshe's father in law—or chothen in the text—has a number of titles. The precise meaning of "Jethro" is a matter of some debate among scholars—some of whom think the word might even be a scribal error—however, most seem to agree that a meaning of "excellence" or "excellency" is probable. In this case, even looking just at English will provide some great insight. To "excel" means "to go higher", if we trace it back to its Latin root for phrases like "excelsior Dei" (El in the highest), and so Jethro here is an "excellent" or an "ascended" one by virtue of his name.
This brings us then to Jethro's occupation, "a kohen (priest) of the MOST HIGH EL", so who better to serve a Most High El than a Most High guy?
But it is Jethro's other name—probably his personal name as opposed to a status title—that is most interesting: Reuel. When we break this word down into Hebrew it yields an interesting phrase:
Reu = friend
Hu = he is
El = El's
Or, in syntactical English, "El is his friend". What a nice position for Jethro to be in! And perhaps this explains why Jethro—and perhaps no one else—was in a position to correct Moshe and help him set up judges in Exodus 18. This critical act of counsel literally paved the way for the Ten Commandments to be given at Sinai. Without Jethro, there would have been no structure in place to pass these commands on to the nation. More than that, Moshe himself would not have been in a position to receive the Words either as he would have literally worked himself to near exhaustion by dealing with Israel's problems by himself.
That is why the rabbis named the portion Jethro and not, as one would have thought, something like "The Ten Words" or "The Covenant Given". They have, in a sense, taken the spotlight away from YHWH and put it on Jethro who makes YHWH's transmission of His Torah to men possible off of the mountain. So surely then it must be true: Jethro is His friend!
But this pattern of friendship and titles is hardly an isolated phenomenon. Now let's look at our first Hebrew patriarch, Abraham, the father of many nations. But before he earned that rank, he had another name didn't he? He was born and named "Ab-ram" because his father was the leader of his tribe and he passed a title on to his son "exalted father". So, right away Abraham, like Jethro, starts out with a title that means something along the lines of "excellent, ascended, on high".
But it is after YHWH calls Abram into service that his real honor comes....
8 "But you, Israel, My servant, Jacob whom I have chosen, Descendant of Abraham My friend, 9 You whom I have taken from the ends of the earth, And called from its remotest parts And said to you, 'You are My servant, I have chosen you and not rejected you. (Isa 41:8-9 NAU)
And the Scripture was fulfilled which says, "Awraham believed in Elohim and it was credited to him for righteousness" and he was called the Friend of Elohim. -Ya'akov (James) 2:23 (AENT)
So now we see that "friendship" with YHWH involves believing in Him, but more than that, in involves obedience:
3 "Sojourn in this land and I will be with you and bless you, for to you and to your descendants I will give all these lands, and I will establish the oath which I swore to your father Abraham. 4 "I will multiply your descendants as the stars of heaven, and will give your descendants all these lands; and by your descendants all the nations of the earth shall be blessed; 5 because Abraham obeyed Me and kept My charge, My commandments, My statutes and My laws." (Gen 26:3-5 NAU)
In both Hebrew and Aramaic, the roots for "friendship" not surprisingly come from the word for "love", and our Mashiyach defined this love through obedience saying, "If you love me, keep my commands." When Abraham does this for YHWH, he immediately becomes His friend. The same thing happens with Jethro, who had been serving the Most High El for decades before Moshe ever breathed near his tent!
But when we read this part of the Torah—namely Exodus or Shemot—the focus is more on Moshe than either of these other men. And yet, it can clearly be said that both Abraham and Jethro form key examples of virtuous behavior that Moshe himself will take to heart and perfect for himself. In fact, Moshe's titles actually follow this same pattern!
Now some of you out there will no doubt go, "Wait a minute Andrew! That can't be right! His name means "drawn from water" and has nothing do with the meanings for these other names!" True enough, but let's look beneath the surface of that water he was drawn out of for a moment and see something else shall we?
First of all, who drew Moshe out of the water? Was it not the daughter of Pharaoh? And what did she do with Moshe once he was saved from the water? She made him a prince of Egypt! Now guess what happens to babies when they become Egyptian royalty - they get all sorts of grand titles from the nation they serve! And what do these titles basically all mean? I think you know, "high, exalted, excellent one"!
Moshe had no name as an infant and so his first titles come from his status as an Egyptian prince. Like Jethro and Abraham, he comes into life as a high one, and at some point that "highness" gets re-directed from the secular to serving YHWH. Again, Abraham inherited leadership of his tribe and Jethro very likely inherited the priesthood and wealth/prestige from his family as well. But it was the choices these men made for YHWH that made them great, that made them His friends.
But some of you may say, "Andrew, there is no meaning of Moshe's name that means friend like with these others." Again, technically that's true, but we need to look beneath the surface yet again to see the full picture.
There are several words for "friend" in Hebrew and Aramaic. Jethro's "friend" name comes from reu which means "companion/close one".
In Hebrew, the word aheb is a very close cognate to Aramaic rakhem and speaks to a very close understanding, respect and intimacy between people. In its highest form, as with Y'shua and Keefa, it involves obeying the Master even unto death, "No greater love does a man have than this that he lays down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command" —Y'shua said in John 15:13-14.
But there is another word for "friend" that best expresses Moshe's relationship with YHWH:
In Psalm 55:14 the word for friend is derived yada, to know. This has led to the modern Hebrew phrase for friend used in Israel even now: yedid. Used in this context, YHWH over and over again shows His "friendship" for us by performing great wonders and saving us from our enemies. Psalm 98:2 is a great example of this idea when it says, YHWH has made known His salvation; He has revealed His righteousness in the sight of the nations, with the same exact root.
So the bottom line then is we have to know of YHWH's great power and love for us to understand He is our friend. Then we have to obey Him to show that we are His friend. When we do that, with Y'shua our Mashiyach as our guide, we are allowed to come into intimacy with the father as we are told finally that Moshe did as YHWH's friend here:
10 Since that time no prophet has risen in Israel like Moses, whom YHWH knew face to face, (Deu 34:10 NAU)
A friend in need is a friend indeed! May we all be as fortunate in our friends as these great leaders were!