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Obey My Voice

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)

Girl with headphonesBeginning 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

Posted in Biblical, Posts in English, Theology.

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One Response

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  1. Wilson says

    I read your blog and wish to add something here :

    Chapter 18 talks of three things (As I understand) :

    1. Work-Life Balance
    2. Value of Decrees
    3. Advice received directed to God

    His words “Now I know that the LORD is greater than all other gods” does not mean that he was heathen or worshiping other God’s. Proably he affirms his faith strongly now. Remember Moses was sent to his place for 40 years in wilderness to be in Jethro’s house. Out of all people why Jethro’s house ? Why a priest instead of any other shepherd in that area ? Jethro was not as great as Moses was in his lifetime.

    Jethro does not say, “I have wisdom so follow it” instead he speaks :

    “Listen now to me and I will give you some advice, and may God be with you. You must be the people’s representative before God and bring their disputes to him.” (NIV Version)

    Agreed with your comment on “obey my voice” but we need to add verse 23 : “If God so commands you”. Surprisingly he did what his father-in-law said and in the later chapters of the bible we see 10 Commandments and other laws to deal in life. Proably I assume that he prayed to God after receiving this advice for Decree’s and statues to ensure good governance.

    According to me Jethro laid the way for Moses and made him ready to receive commandments from God in Chapter 20. It is very important chapter in bible which is often overlooked or looked critically based on the verse 11 “Listen to me now”

    This is my view and I am never studied religion but Love to in future.