If I were to ask you to think of the phrase “listen to my voice” or “obey my voice” (Hebrew: shema’ beqoli) in the Old Testament, especially in the Pentateuch, what would come to your mind?
Of course you would relate it to Yahweh’s instruction for his servants. e.g.
“…… and in your offspring shall all the nations of the earth be blessed, because you have obeyed my voice.” (Gen. 22:18 ESV)
“…… because Abraham obeyed my voice and kept my charge, my commandments, my statutes, and my laws.” (Gen. 26:5 ESV)
“Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine” (Ex. 19:5 ESV)
Beginning with Genesis, hearing the voice of God and not others is a major theme and important directive from God.
In contrast, not obeying God but others often leads to big mistakes. For example: Adam obeyed the voice of Eve instead of God (Gen 3:17). Abraham doubted God’s promise and obeyed Sarai’s suggestion and gave birth to Ishmael (Gen 16:2). Jacob obeyed his mother Rebekah’s deceitful plan to obtain the birthright of Esau (Gen 27:13). There are many more such examples in the Old Testament.
Problem with Jethro’s advice
Now under this context with the awareness of the phrase “obey my voice”, I find Exodus chapter 18 about Jethro’s advice to Moses very interesting yet very problematic at the same time. Although there is much debate about what kind of a priest Jethro is and how much does he already know about Yahweh, basing on Jethro’s exclamation that he finally knew the Lord is greater than all gods in Ex. 18:11, I would assume he wasn’t worshipping Yahweh beforehand. Numbers 25:17–18 and 31:16 also indicate that the Midianites were idolators. (Source: Anchor Bible Dictionary on Jethro)
So in Exodus 18, when Moses found himself overwhelmed by the workload of being a judge among thousands and thousands of people, Jethro came to him and suggested a way of creating hierarchy and delegation to ease the task:
“Moses’ father-in-law said to him, “What you are doing is not good. You and the people with you will certainly wear yourselves out, for the thing is too heavy for you. You are not able to do it alone. Now obey my voice; I will give you advice, and God be with you!”…… So Moses listened to the voice of his father-in-law and did all that he had said.” (Ex. 18:17–19a, 24 ESV)
I didn’t pick this up until I read Genesis and Exodus straight through and read it from the ESV translation, which preserved the sense of “obeying” the voice when it translated the Hebrew word “shema'”. NIV simply translated it as “listen to me”. (Note: In Hebrew, the word “shema'” can mean both listen and obey.)
What if Jethro’s advice isn’t God’s advice?
I just want to question if it is necessarily a good thing or not that Moses listened to Jethro’s advice. If listening to God’s specific instructions is such a major directive in the biblical narratives, and listening to others often led to disasters, what’s the point of this passage where Moses obediently followed Jethro’s advice? I don’t have any further insight or conclusions yet, but I find this observation pretty interesting. Maybe it’s just a useful and pragmatic suggestion that we should all embrace. But I suspect something more is going on behind the text.
Many people use this passage as a support for the cell group model or other hierarchical leadership structures. Yes, in human structures, hierarchy is useful and often necessary, but have we ever questioned if this is truly the way God wants to lead his people?
I welcome any input or interpretations. Please contribute your thoughts.
Update: Obey My Voice – Part Two