The following episode is reported again by Moses in Deut. 1:9-18, a much shorter account that omits mention of the role played by Moses’ father-in-law, Jethro.
v.1 Jethro is the name of Moses’ father-in-law most often used in Exodus. He is, remember, also called Reuel in 2:18. In that time and place there was nothing particularly unusual in a man having more than one name.
v.2 There is no mention of Moses having sent Zipporah and his two sons back to Jethro, her father. This omission serves as a reminder that a great deal of what happened was not recorded, many details of this history have been omitted from the record, and, therefore, what did make it into Moses’ narrative was what he felt (and the Holy Spirit behind him) was necessary for the people of God to know and remember. His sending his family away was, of course, a sensible precaution, as Pharaoh might very well have sought to punish Moses by harming his family or attempted to pressure Moses to cease and desist by threatening his family. In our modern age of terrorism we know all about the pressure that can be brought on a man by threats made against his family. It was for precisely this reason that Rith Tombing has lived so many years in Bangalore, far from her husband Khen. In Manipur, their homeland, she would have proved a temptation to the insurgents who could have threatened or kidnapped her or Naim, their daughter, and by that means extorted money from Khen and his church and school organizations.
v.4 So far we have only heard of Gershom. The reference to Moses being saved from the “sword” of Pharaoh probably refers to his flight from Egypt after his killing of the Egyptian who was abusing an Israelite worker.
v.5 The “mountain of God” seems almost certainly to be a reference to Mt. Sinai (the other uses of this phrase in Exodus refer to Mt. Sinai) though it has not been specifically said in the narrative to this point that Israel had reached Mt. Sinai. It seems clear that the Jethro episode is placed here, not because it occurred before Israel reached Mt. Sinai, but because it regards a separate matter that would interrupt the flow of the narrative of Israel at Sinai if it were inserted later. One very reliable evangelical scholar puts it this way. “Deut. 1:9-18 strongly suggests that the incident of Moses choosing able men as leaders…should be placed shortly before Israel left Sinai…a common feature of Hebrew historical writing is that chronological order takes second place to the flow of the story. From Israel’s arrival at Mount Sinai until its departure is one compacted story, and the [narrator] did not want to interrupt it by bringing Jethro in at the correct chronological point. He had the choice of putting him at the beginning or end, and chose the former.” [Ellison, 96] So this episode happened after Israel reached Mt. Sinai but is reported here, out of chronological order, for the sake of not interrupting the flow of the account of Israel before God at Mt. Sinai. The Jewish sages took this view and followed the dictum of the rabbis that “there is neither early nor late in the Torah,” that is, chronology may be submitted to considerations of emphasis and narrative. [Alter, 417]
v.9 Jethro already knew the main outlines of the story, as we read in v. 1; but now rejoices all the more to have heard all these particulars from Moses.
v.11 The exodus and its aftermath had convinced Jethro, the Midianite priest (2:16), that Yahweh was unlike the gods of the other nations; was, in fact, the living and true God, greater than all other gods. Jethro seems to speak here as a henotheist, that is, someone who worships one God without denying the existence of other gods. His was a pagan background. But he knows that Yahweh was the true and living God, the Almighty, the God whom he must worship, and in his personal context that was enough. In any case, as often before in Exodus, the great works of the Lord were designed to demonstrate his supremacy over all imagined gods, and in Jethro’s case they had precisely that effect.
v.12 The sharing of this sacrificial meal is both an act of worship and of fellowship. The presence of Aaron and the elders serves to make it a very special occasion. The elders are the representatives of the people and so their presence amounts to the presence of the people of Israel as a whole. That point is stressed with the “all” in the phrase “all the elders of Israel.”
v.13 The people would come to him with a dispute and seek a judgment as to who was in the right or they would come to him with a question concerning what God requires of them in the covenant. This has been the role of elders ever since. God has chosen to mediate his rule over his people through the officers of his church.
v.15 Throughout this paragraph, to the end of the chapter, Elohim, God, is used instead of Yahweh. This is the usual procedure in conversations with non-Israelites, as Yahweh is the name of the Lord used especially in relation to his covenant people. [Cassuto, 218]
v.18 It isn’t only Moses who is wearing himself out; the people who must stand around all day to present their case are doing so as well.
The word “wear yourselves out” is literally “wither.” That is an appropriate idiom in an agricultural society for exhaustion from work, just as burnout is an appropriate term for the same thing in a modern technological society.
v.19 Jethro accepts that the need is, in fact, that the people be told God’s will. That is the need. The law, the requirements, the judgments are God’s. In certain difficult cases, Moses would have to inquire of the Lord as to the proper counsel or the just resolution of a dispute. Remember, there was no Bible in Moses’ day or, at best, not much of one.
v.20 We have here virtually the office of the minister/pastor or the preacher/teacher. He is to instruct the church in the Word of the Lord. They are to come to know it themselves because it has been taught to them.
v.21 If he delegates this responsibility of judgment for the people to men with this commitment and character the source of the counsel the people will receive will still be Yahweh and the authority behind that counsel will still be Yahweh’s. It is interesting that already here – as everywhere else in the Bible, OT and NT – the qualifications for such a position are not natural – the oldest man in the tribe or clan, for example (or in our day, the richest man, the most powerful man, the man whose family has been longest in the church) – but spiritual. Is he a man of God? Can we trust his character? Can he reason his way accurately from the law of God and from judgments previously given (legal precedents) to a judgment about one of the thousand and one situations God’s people face in life? Can we trust him not to have ulterior motives when he renders his judgment?
The division of the people into groups of various sizes was an inevitable necessity. Imagine that there was but one Christian church in Tacoma with all believers members of it. Somehow it would have to be organized to make ministry and oversight practicable. Cassuto, the Jewish commentator, thinks that what is meant is that if a dispute affects only a family, it should be brought before a ruler of ten; if it affects a wider circle, it should be tried by a ruler of fifty or a hundred; if still a larger group by a ruler of a thousand.
In any case, it is not hard to see the outline of a sophisticated legal system here, a system with layers of legal judgment, providing for appeals, and a method of legal judgment that involves the application of general principles to specific situations.
v.22 This same point is made in Deut. 17:8ff. Elders can make wise judgments themselves most of the time. But difficult cases require a deeper understanding of the Law of God, a more sophisticated acquaintance with its application to life questions. In such cases the priests – the teachers of the law – were to be brought in to make sure that the verdict was correct. In Presbyterian sessions from time immemorial elders and pastors, or elders and priests, have sat together. The teacher/preacher is not a judge per se, as the elder is – judging, ruling is not his office and not his first responsibility as it is for the elder; but he contributes to the judgment of the elders especially in difficult cases.
v.27 The final verse provides a neat ending to this episode, “sent away” here at the end forming an inclusion with “sent away” in v. 2.
The juxtaposition of this next episode with what has gone before is interesting. There is a clear thematic contrast. Two episodes in a row have Israel in contact with foreigners. After a fierce military struggle with a hostile nation, we have an encounter with the representative of another people, the Midianites, that is marked by harmony, understanding, sage counsel and mutual blessing. We have first war, then peace, as Israel encounters other peoples. [Cassuto; Alter] What is more, just before the narrative of God’s covenant making with Israel at Mt. Sinai, we have an objective gesture of respect and esteem for Yahweh and Israel by a leader of a neighboring people who can tell that Yahweh is the living God and Israel is his favored people.
Jethro came to visit his son-in-law in Sinai. He brought along Zipporah and Moses’ two sons, his grandsons. As a visitor he stayed in the family tent and couldn’t help but observe Moses’ round of daily activity. He very quickly discovered what perhaps others knew but were afraid to say, that Moses had fallen into the trap many charismatic leaders fall into. He had allowed himself to be regarded as omnicompetent. He let the people look to him for the solution of every problem, however trivial. This was unnecessary, as it almost always is. The reference in the chapter to the “elders of Israel” indicates that an other office of leadership already existed in Israel. But the people were sidestepping the tribal leadership to take their problems straight to the top. [Ellison, 97]
There were three negative consequences of Moses’ non-delegating leadership style. 1) Moses himself was overworked; 2) the people were denied swift justice; and 3) the elders of Israel were deprived of an opportunity to serve in the role to which they had been called. Moses’ leadership was necessary; Jethro saw that. It was necessary for particularly difficult cases that would require a thoroughgoing understanding of the law of God and, of course, Moses had certain responsibilities in representing Yahweh to the people and the people to God that were his alone.
In any case, Jethro was a wise man and, as Moses’ father-in-law, felt free to offer his counsel to his son-in-law. The result was a far better, more efficient, and more just solution to the problem of providing legal judgment for such a large community. A legal system was born!
Now it is surely a matter worth our consideration that the foundation of the Israelite legal system should have been laid as it was on the advice of a foreigner, a Midianite priest, a non-Israelite. Jethro had wisdom that Moses did not and as soon as Moses heard Jethro’s recommendations he realized that it would be foolish not to implement them. This is highly significant, not least because it concerns the foundation of Israel’s legal system, the method by which the law of God would be applied to the life of God’s covenant people.
One very important lesson of this text, and one that every Christian needs to be reminded of from time to time, is that wisdom does not begin and end with us. Jethro was a believer of a sort, though it is certainly not clear in this narrative that he had a full understanding of Israel’s faith or of Israel’s God. But it is clear enough in the Bible that Israel could learn important things even from unbelievers.
It is interesting, for example, that the requirements for the elder judges that we read here in v. 21 are found, in very similar language, in both Hittite and Egyptian legal documents from the late second millennium B.C.
An even better example comes from the Proverbs, a book that collects just that sort of wisdom for living that Jethro imparts to Moses here in Exodus 18.
There are some distinctive features of the biblical book of Proverbs, but much of that book contains the kind of lessons for life that can be found in other collections of ancient Near Eastern wisdom.
Let me give you some examples.
- In Prov. 23:4-5 we read: “Do not wear yourself out to get rich; have the wisdom to show restraint. Cast but a glance at riches, and they are gone, for they will surely sprout wings and fly off to the sky like an eagle.” In the Instruction (or Wisdom) of Amenemope, an Egyptian wisdom collection, we have this: “Cast not thy heart in pursuit of riches…they have made themselves wings like geese and are flown away to the heavens.” [The Ancient Near East: An Anthology of Texts and Pictures, vol. i, 239]
- In Prov. 15:16-17 we read: “Better a little with the fear of the Lord than great wealth with turmoil. Better a meal of vegetables where there is love than a fattened calf with hatred.” In the Egyptian anthology we read, “Better is poverty in the hand of the god than riches in a storehouse; better is bread, when the heart is happy, than riches with sorrow.” 
- In Prov. 23:10 we read: “Do not move an ancient boundary stone or encroach on the fields of the fatherless.” In the Egyptian work we read, “Do not carry off the landmark at the boundaries of the arable land…nor encroach upon the boundaries of a widow.” 
I could give you many more examples. And it isn’t just the individual proverbs themselves that can be found in other ancient Near Eastern collections. The form, the organization of the material in the canonical Proverbs is very similar to that of other ancient collections. The first nine chapters of Proverbs, that form an introduction to the collection of proverbial sayings that begins at 10:1, include many similarities in form and content with Egyptian wisdom literature.
Wisdom does not begin and end with us. We ought to be able to see it and acknowledge it elsewhere, even in other religions. Moses does here. He didn’t assume that because Jethro was a Midianite he had nothing to teach the leader of Israel. It is a beautiful humility that Moses displays here.
C.S. Lewis once made the observation:
“If you are a Christian you do not have to believe that all the other religions are simply wrong all through. If you are an atheist you do have to believe that the main point in all the religions of the whole world is simply one huge mistake. If you are a Christian, you are free to think that all these religions, even the queerest ones, contain at least some hint of the truth.” [Mere Christianity, 43]
In fact, however, even atheists can teach us Christians valuable lessons. A capital illustration of this is the American Civil Rights Movement which, to our shame, did not originate in the heart of the evangelical church. Indeed, evangelicals resisted rather than devoted themselves to those social and political changes. We admit now, of course, that we should have cared for civil rights. We have learned our lesson, but others taught us because we hadn’t learned what we should have learned from the Bible itself. We now think very differently about the proper way to regard and treat other human beings and honesty compels us to accept that non-Christians taught us much of this.
There are reasons for this. Indeed, given the teaching of the Word of God, we would not expect otherwise. All human beings have been made in the image of God. They cannot escape the moral character of their natures. God’s law has been impressed upon their hearts. There is implanted in their souls what Calvin calls the semen religionis, the seed of religion. They cannot escape either the God-relatedness of their lives or the moral nature of human life. C.S. Lewis, you remember, famously called this shared moral standard common to all human beings, this generally accepted ethical code the Tao. And we run into it every day, in every newspaper, on every television newscast.
Some you have watched the Senate confirmation hearings of Judge Roberts this past week. It was a contest of wills. Some senators wanted to know precisely what Judge Roberts thinks about abortion and he worked hard not to tell them. But no one in that room would be willing to say on national television that he thinks it is all right to kill babies if a pregnancy is inconvenient or unwanted. They must think of abortion in other terms than a procedure that kills a baby. It kills only a fetus (conveniently forgetting that the fetus is a baby to any mom and dad who want their child and to a doctor talking to a mom or dad who wants the child or to a surgeon preparing to operate on the child while still in its mother’s womb); or it is a matter of preserving personal liberty (“I am personally opposed to abortion, but I cannot impose my values on free citizens,” as so many politicians say nowadays; its not a case of being for abortion but for choice, for freedom). That is the Tao at work. Human beings live, in whatever measure of corruption, under a moral standard that virtually everyone accepts as valid and have to adjust one’s arguments accordingly. And that is why even a collection of modern wisdom would parallel the wisdom that we find in the biblical book of Proverbs (had Proverbs been written in the 19th century we might well have in it such proverbial advice as “A penny saved is a penny earned” or “Early to bed and early to rise make a man healthy, wealthy, and wise”) and this is also why a good management seminar might very well recommend almost precisely the sort of delegation that Jethro commended to Moses. And it might recommend it for the very same reasons: to prevent burnout, to maximize the gifts and abilities of others, and, most of all, to create the most efficient system for delivering whatever one is seeking to deliver, in this case sound legal judgments to as many people as possible.
Indeed, is there anyone who doesn’t think a modern Jethro might be a Godsend to us Americans were he to observe our modern legal system and its operation and tell us what he thought needed to be changed?
So there are some basic lessons for us here. First, there is nothing holy in going about the work of the kingdom of God in an ineffective, inefficient manner. We ought to care about doing things wisely and well. Poor administration usually eventually – and sooner rather than later – results in harm to people. This is a hard lesson that a great many churches and Christian ministries have had to learn the hard way and very often for the same reason as here. A leader, usually the founder, ran the church or the organization himself. Everything was funneled through him. The smallest details had to be approved by him. Missionary organizations made this mistake countless times in the 19th and 20th centuries. The missionaries ran everything and they produced churches that were entirely dependent upon the mission for their life and work. Gospel progress ground to a halt because the missionary had to decide everything for the churches already established. There was no time to plant new ones. John L. Nevius, the English Presbyterian, is given much of the credit for recognizing how debilitating this was to the new national churches as well as to the missionaries themselves. The Nevius method, used for the first time and to such amazing effect in Korea, required national churches to be organized as quickly as possible, required them to be self-governing and self-supporting as quickly as possible, and resulted in both quickly maturing national churches and freedom for the missionaries to move on to plant new churches elsewhere. The work was spread out over many more workers and, being made responsible, they owned the work for themselves.
And, second, we may have much to learn from folk who are not part of the church and who don’t share our faith in Jesus Christ. Perhaps it is to teach us humility that the Lord had given so much wisdom about so many matters to those who are not his children so that his children would have to learn that wisdom from them. We don’t hesitate to have unbelievers build our buildings or fix our cars or our computers or even manage our money. We should not be surprised if they have valuable things to say about how the church and Christian organizations do their work.
But, of course, the first lesson of our text here is not how the wisdom was obtained but what it was: that godly men should rule the church and that when they do it in accordance with God’s law; their rulings are God’s rulings. That is a teaching that will be found from this point to the end of the Bible. “Whatsoever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven.” [Matt. 16] “Obey your leaders and submit to those in authority over you. They keep watch over you as men who must give an account. Obey them so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no advantage to you.” [Heb. 13] “If any of you has a dispute with another, dare he take it before the ungodly for judgment instead of before the saints? Therefore, if you have disputes…appoint as judges even men of little account in the church. I say this to shame you. Is it possible that there is nobody among you wise enough to judge a dispute between believers?” [1 Cor. 16]
This is the origin of the spiritual function of the biblical eldership, a key part of the Lord’s plan for the government and leadership of his people. It is important for us to see how far back this goes and how practical was its origin. And it is equally important for us to hear again, here at the historical beginning of this office, that those who occupy it must be spiritually minded men, who fear God, revere his Word and Law, know God’s word very well, and are wise enough to be capable of applying it to the life situations that God’s people face. They must be men whose characters the church can trust so that they can trust their judgments and their leadership.
There is more here than that. There is at least the skeleton of a more developed church government, with ministers and with elders together, even with the courts of the church as Presbyterians understand church sessions, presbyteries, and general assemblies – the tens, fifties, hundreds, and thousands of v. 21. But more on that another time.