Exodus 18:1-18:27 A Man Named Jethro

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Questions: What does Jethro teach Moses about being a man? In relation to balancing family, ministry, and work — as well as having humility? “Read More” to look for answers.

Exodus 18:1-18:27

And Jethro, Moses’ father in law, came with his sons and his wife unto Moses into the wilderness, where he encamped at the mount of God:

Today is a story ’bout a man named Jethro, who has the dubious distinction of being in-law to an outlaw. I’ve jumped ahead to verse 5 to establish the context, but let’s go back to verse 1 for the back-story:

When Jethro, the priest of Midian, Moses’ father in law, heard of all that God had done for Moses, and for Israel his people, [and] that the LORD had brought Israel out of Egypt;

One wonders how exactly Jethro heard (shama`). My personal suspicion is that traders from Egypt were all abuzz with news of this “new” god (‘elohiym) Yahweh (Y@hovah) who had brought out (yatsa’) the Israelites and “taken out” the Egyptians. Jethro presumably remembered the promised sign and thus headed for the mountain.

Then Jethro, Moses’ father in law, took Zipporah, Moses’ wife, after he had sent her back,

Now, that’s a strange tidbit. We know Zipporah had originally left with Moses — since she saved his life! Perhaps he sent her back (shilluwach) right after that unnerving encounter, or maybe it was later during the plagues. We do know she now has two sons, where we only hear of one before:

And her two sons; of which the name of the one [was] Gershom ; for he said, I have been an alien in a strange land: And the name of the other [was] Eliezer; for the God of my father, [said he, was] mine help, and delivered me from the sword of Pharaoh:

That makes me suspect that Moses sent Zipporah away because she was pregnant with Eliezer (‘Eliy`ezer, God is help), whose name might thus both look back to God helping (`ezer) Moses escape individually as well as forward to his mutual deliverance (natsal) with all the Israelites.

End of flashback; moving forward again to verse 7:

And Moses went out to meet his father in law, and did obeisance, and kissed him; and they asked each other of [their] welfare; and they came into the tent.

Very touching; then Moses gives Jethro the inside scoop:

And Moses told his father in law all that the LORD had done unto Pharaoh and to the Egyptians for Israel’s sake, [and] all the travail that had come upon them by the way, and [how] the LORD delivered them.

Jethro is very glad (chadah) about what Yahweh did for Moses’ people:

And Jethro rejoiced for all the goodness which the LORD had done to Israel, whom he had delivered out of the hand of the Egyptians.

He honors (barak) Yahweh for that deliverance (natsal):

And Jethro said, Blessed [be] the LORD, who hath delivered you out of the hand of the Egyptians, and out of the hand of Pharaoh, who hath delivered the people from under the hand of the Egyptians.

Then makes an extraordinary statement:

Now I know that the LORD [is] greater than all gods: for in the thing wherein they dealt proudly [he was] above them.

Assuming the “now” is real (its hidden in the Hebrew, but appears in all the translations) it seems to imply Jethro did not know (yada’) — or at least wasn’t sure — that Yahweh really was the greatest (gadowl) god. Of course, it might be mere rhetorical flourish. Still, it is interesting how he’s always called a priest of Midian, rather than a priest of God most high. I wonder if priests back then saw their allegiance primarily to their tribe, and would offer sacrifices (zebach) to multiple gods in order to obtain a particular blessing.

If so, that makes the ensuing scene even more significant:

And Jethro, Moses’ father in law, took a burnt offering and sacrifices for God: and Aaron came, and all the elders of Israel, to eat bread with Moses’ father in law before God.

Regardless, on the morning after (mochorath) the focus shifts from theological to practical :

And it came to pass on the morrow, that Moses sat to judge the people: and the people stood by Moses from the morning unto the evening.

Jethro, perhaps due his own experience with large-scale governance (shaphat), is appalled at this inefficiency:

And when Moses’ father in law saw all that he did to the people, he said, What [is] this thing that thou doest to the people? why sittest thou thyself alone, and all the people stand by thee from morning unto even?

“What are you doing (`asah) to these people (`am)?” “Nothing. They came (bow’) to me.”

And Moses said unto his father in law, Because the people come unto me to enquire of God:

The classic excuse of the overworked. Note how Moses interprets their problem as needing to enquire (darash) of God — something only he can do. Jethro doesn’t buy that:

And Moses’ father in law said unto him, The thing that thou doest [is] not good.

However noble it might sound, doing God’s business in this way isn’t good (towb) for you or them:

Thou wilt surely wear away, both thou, and this people that [is] with thee: for this thing [is] too heavy for thee; thou art not able to perform it thyself alone.

Put another way, the current solution isn’t sustainable. That’s usually a good sign that we’re not solving the right problem. Jethro’s advice (ya`ats):

Hearken now unto my voice, I will give thee counsel, and God shall be with thee:

is to prioritize Moses’ various responsibilities:

1. Face (muwl) upward to God:

Be thou for the people to God-ward, that thou mayest bring the causes unto God:

2. Teach (zahar) widely about God and His ways (derek)

And thou shalt teach them ordinances and laws, and shalt shew them the way wherein they must walk, and the work that they must do.

3. Appoint (suwm) qualified leaders (sar) at various levels

Moreover thou shalt provide out of all the people able men, such as fear God, men of truth, hating covetousness; and place [such] over them, [to be] rulers of thousands, [and] rulers of hundreds, rulers of fifties, and rulers of tens:

A very nice example of distributed load-sharing (nasa’):

And let them judge the people at all seasons: and it shall be, [that] every great matter they shall bring unto thee, but every small matter they shall judge: so shall it be easier for thyself, and they shall bear [the burden] with thee.

Don’t sweat the small (qatan) stuff (dabar). Keep your eye on the big (gadowl) picture. Trust me, it’ll be easier (qalal) on everyone involved:

If thou shalt do this thing, and God command thee [so], then thou shalt be able to endure, and all this people shall also go to their place in peace.

Interesting caveat; Jethro recognizes that his advice only helps if it is consistent with God’s directives (tsavah) — and Moses receives (shama`) it as such! Which he does (`asah):

So Moses hearkened to the voice of his father in law, and did all that he had said.

And like a good Western hero, having done his work Jethro rides (yalak) off into the sunset:

And Moses let his father in law depart; and he went his way into his own land.

Prayer

God, I want to be a man like Jethro. Someone who’s considered a place of safety. A man who recognizes that You are the Greatest. Who is perceptive enough to recognize problematic situations, wise enough to devise appropriate solutions, gentle enough to be heard, and humble enough to submit it all to God. And let go when no longer needed. Grant me mentors like Jethro, and make me a mentor (and father, and even father-in-law) like him. Amen.

About the Title:

Today’s title is inspired by the Ballad of Jed Clampett, who was played by the recently deceased Buddy Ebsen.

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