Exodus 18: Jethro Models Faith, Worship and Leadership to Moses

Jethro and Moses by James Tissot (1896-1900)

Exodus 18:1-12 A Family Reunited

Jethro, the priest of Midian, Moses’ father-in-law, heard of all that God had done for Moses and for his people Israel, how the LORD had brought Israel out of Egypt. 2 After Moses had sent away his wife Zipporah, his father-in-law Jethro took her back, 3 along with her two sons. The name of the one was Gershom (for he said, “I have been an alien1 in a foreign land”), 4 and the name of the other, Eliezer1 (for he said, “The God of my father was my help, and delivered me from the sword of Pharaoh”). 5 Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, came into the wilderness where Moses was encamped at the mountain of God, bringing Moses’ sons and wife to him. 6 He sent word to Moses, “I, your father-in-law Jethro, am coming to you, with your wife and her two sons.” 7 Moses went out to meet his father-in-law; he bowed down and kissed him; each asked after the other’s welfare, and they went into the tent. 8 Then Moses told his father-in-law all that the LORD had done to Pharaoh and to the Egyptians for Israel’s sake, all the hardship that had beset them on the way, and how the LORD had delivered them. 9 Jethro rejoiced for all the good that the LORD had done to Israel, in delivering them from the Egyptians.

 10 Jethro said, “Blessed be the LORD, who has delivered you from the Egyptians and from Pharaoh. 11 Now I know that the LORD is greater than all gods, because he delivered the people from the Egyptians,1 when they dealt arrogantly with them.” 12 And Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, brought a burnt offering and sacrifices to God; and Aaron came with all the elders of Israel to eat bread with Moses’ father-in-law in the presence of God.

Jethro, called Reuel in chapter two, re-enters the story and brings with him Moses’ wife and two sons. While we aren’t told exactly when Zipporah returns to her father-in-law’s house with her children we last heard about her and Gershom (their first-born son) in chapter four on the journey back to Egypt. There could be any number of reasons for their separation including: to protect her and her two sons from being able to be used as captives by Pharaoh, to prevent Moses from being distracted from his task for the time, to allow Moses to establish his authority among the Hebrews without his foreign wife being present, or perhaps Zipporah was pregnant and it was easier for her to give birth away from the stresses of the exodus journey (based on Eliezar’s name) and we could imagine many other reasons but ultimately the text remains silent on this. We have a separation of an unknown period and what appears to be a joyous reunion.

The relationship of Moses to Jethro is one of respect and honor. Moses’ actions upon Jethro’s arrival convey respect and welcome. He is welcomed into their camp and into Moses’ tent with warmth. Moses tells the story of what the LORD has done and how they have journeyed to this point and Jethro offers his blessing.

One interesting thing to notice in this passage is the blessing that Jethro offers to the LORD in comparison to the first commandment. The first commandment begins with the statement of what the LORD has done in delivering the people from the land of Egypt and then states that the people are to have no other gods before the LORD. Jethro also begins with blessing the LORD who has delivered the people from the land of Egypt and then exclaims his new knowledge that the LORD is greater than all gods, because he delivered the people from the hands of Pharaoh. Here a foreigner demonstrates before the people what the faith of Israel will look like in the future. Like Melchizedek in the book of Genesis, he becomes one of the people of the nations that point to the LORD the God of Israel.

Secondly, Jethro becomes the first in the book of Exodus to offer a sacrifice to God after the departure from Egypt. This is increasingly surprising, as Carol Myers notices, since the justification give to Pharaoh multiple times in the beginning of Exodus is to let the people enter the wilderness to offer a sacrifice to the LORD their God. (Myers, 2005, p. 137) Yet, it is a priest of Midian who before Moses, Aaron and the elders models what this sacrifice to God might look like. As I mentioned when I was discussing Psalm 29 the Jewish people were not afraid to uses the praises uttered about other gods and modify them to talk about the LORD the God of Israel. Here is another time where a faithful outsider, Jethro, demonstrates to the people of God what a life of praise can look like.

Jan van Bronchorst, Jethro Advising Moses (1659)

Exodus 18: 13-27 Jethro’s Advice to Moses

 13 The next day Moses sat as judge for the people, while the people stood around him from morning until evening. 14 When Moses’ father-in-law saw all that he was doing for the people, he said, “What is this that you are doing for the people? Why do you sit alone, while all the people stand around you from morning until evening?” 15 Moses said to his father-in-law, “Because the people come to me to inquire of God. 16 When they have a dispute, they come to me and I decide between one person and another, and I make known to them the statutes and instructions of God.” 17 Moses’ father-in-law said to him, “What you are doing is not good. 18 You will surely wear yourself out, both you and these people with you. For the task is too heavy for you; you cannot do it alone. 19 Now listen to me. I will give you counsel, and God be with you! You should represent the people before God, and you should bring their cases before God; 20 teach them the statutes and instructions and make known to them the way they are to go and the things they are to do. 21 You should also look for able men among all the people, men who fear God, are trustworthy, and hate dishonest gain; set such men over them as officers over thousands, hundreds, fifties and tens. 22 Let them sit as judges for the people at all times; let them bring every important case to you, but decide every minor case themselves. So it will be easier for you, and they will bear the burden with you. 23 If you do this, and God so commands you, then you will be able to endure, and all these people will go to their home in peace.”

 24 So Moses listened to his father-in-law and did all that he had said. 25 Moses chose able men from all Israel and appointed them as heads over the people, as officers over thousands, hundreds, fifties, and tens. 26 And they judged the people at all times; hard cases they brought to Moses, but any minor case they decided themselves. 27 Then Moses let his father-in-law depart, and he went off to his own country.

Beyond modeling a first commandment faith and a sacrificial worship to God, Jethro brings to the people of Israel and to Moses, its leader, worldly wisdom. Moses has taken the central role in leading the people out of Egypt: he is the spiritual, military, political and legal authority and the one who stands between the people and God. He is the one who everyone comes to for support, legal ruling and whenever there has been a crisis. Already Moses has had to deal with two instances of water related strife, food related anxiety, as well as the people’s first military threat. Now the people are waiting for Moses to address their needs, their internal conflicts and to hear their cries. As Carol Myers states, “Jethro notices more than the supremacy of Israel’s god; he also notices that Israel’s leader is overburdened.” (Myers, 2005, p. 137)

Within this passage we have one of only two places in the first five books of the bible (or torah) where the phrase “not good” is used. Throughout the creation narrative in Genesis one we hear God say repeatedly that is was good, but the only other place where the phrase “not good” is used is Genesis 2: 18 where God says it is ‘not good’ for the man to be alone. (Sacks, 2010, p. 128) Here also it is ‘not good’ that Moses is alone, here he needs appropriate partners for his own good and for the people’s.

The critical task of finding officers, people who can be trusted to hear the people’s concerns and to respond fairly and who are not going to be vulnerable to bribes or coercion makes the life of the people of Israel possible. Here these officers are not given the title of judge, and there are probably several reasons for that. The office of judge in the people of Israel’s history gets developed in the times between Joshua and the time of the kings and the judges are people who lead the people for a time and have more of a Moses-like role than a purely judicial one. Also, throughout the book of Exodus, the people has been referred to in a military manner. Within many military units the commanding officer has legal responsibilities for those who serve under them, for example under the Uniform Code of Military Justice (or UCMJ) which provides the basis for the legal system used in the U.S. Military the commanding officer does hear cases and assign punishment. In disciplinary matter the commanding officers is judge and jury while still being the commander. These people who will mediate the commands and instructions of Moses to the people are foundational to the emerging structure of the people.

Moses role becomes one of intercession, instruction and of finding subordinate leaders. Moses will continue to stand between the people and the LORD their God and this will become an increasingly critical role as the people continue their journey. Moses will also become the teacher of the law that is about to be given as well as interpreting the law to the people. Moses will continue to have to teach the people how they are to live and what they are to do. But Moses cannot do it on his own, he will need multiple leaders to share the burdens and responsibility of leading the people of God. Sometimes this is the hardest task: both finding and trusting these new leaders. I, and many other leaders, struggle with this portion of leadership-with equipping others who will not have the same amount of training and experience that you do. Yet, this worldly advice was deemed important enough by the people of God that it was included within their scriptures.

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