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Obey My Voice – Part Two

In my previous post, I observed how strange it is that Jethro asked Moses to “obey his voice” in setting up a delegation system in his leadership, when biblical characters are usually expected to obey God’s voice only, and when they obey other voices, disasters normally follow. Therefore, I start to question if Jethro’s advice is genuinely from God or not.

After some serious studying of the Scriptures, I found two arguments that are helpful to bring clarity to this problem:

Hello, where’s God in the picture?

Most commentators agree that Exodus 15:22-18:27 is a clearly bounded literary unit describing five problems the Israelites faced during the journey from the Red Sea to Sinai. The following structure is taken from the ESV study bible:

  1. Water problem: Marah (15:22-27)
  2. Food problem: manna (16:1-36)
  3. Water problem: Massah and Meribah (17:1-7)
  4. Passage problem: Israel defeats Amalek (17:8-16)
  5. Judgment problem: Jethro advises Moses (18:1-27)

After I re-read these five sections once again, I noticed that whenever the people grumbled, either Moses faithfully turned to God begging for help (Ex. 15:25, 17:4), or God was actively present giving Moses instructions how to solve the problem (Ex. 15:25-26; 16:4-5, 11-12, 28-29; 17:1, 5-6, 14)…… all except the last one – the judgment problem. In the entire chapter 18, the Lord was silent and uninvolved. It was only a private conversation between Jethro and Moses.

More interestingly, there is no indication that Moses was complaining about his job as the judge of the people. He seemed fine with it. He just did what he had to do. It was only Jethro who saw the situation and thought it was no good (Ex. 18:17). It was an unsolicited advice.

Okay, even if Moses was truly burdened by the sheer amount of work, why didn’t he cry out to God and ask for help, as he always does? Strange, isn’t it? Why did Moses obediently accept an unsolicited advice from his father-in-law, who may not even be a legitimate channel of God’s voice? Who is Jethro that Moses should listen to anyways? (We can also explore the intricate dynamics of in-law relationships here…… but I won’t go there.)

God’s way of alleviating stress

pyramid_on_horseback_1910_postcard_rymanIf you go to Numbers 11, there is a parallel story of how Moses dealt with the grumblings of the people during the journey from the Red Sea to Sinai. Here Moses was so stressed out in dealing with the people’s complaints that he cried out to God saying: “I am not able to carry all this people alone; the burden is too heavy for me. If you will treat me like this, kill me at once, if I find favor in your sight, that I may not see my wretchedness.” (Num. 11:14-15)

So God said to Moses: “Gather for me seventy men of the elders of Israel, whom you know to be the elders of the people and officers over them, and bring them to the tent of meeting, and let them take their stand there with you. And I will come down and talk with you there. And I will take some of the Spirit that is on you and put it on them, and they shall bear the burden of the people with you, so that you may not bear it yourself alone.” (Num. 11:16-17)

What is the difference between God’s way of alleviating Moses’ stress and Jethro’s way?

Jethro’s way (Ex. 18:21-22):

  1. Look for able men, men who fear God, who are trustworthy and hate a bribe.
  2. Set them up as chiefs of thousands, of hundreds, of fifties, and of tens. (This is known as typical Ancient Near East military formation.)
  3. Only great matters they shall bring to Moses, but small matters they shall decide themselves. (First of all, how can they properly distinguish what matters are great and what matters are small? Also, is there a hint of increasing autonomy and independence?)

God’s way (Num. 11:16-17):

  1. Specifically instructed to select seventy elders of Israel.
  2. There was a personal encounter with God at the tent of meeting.
  3. God took some of His Spirit that was on Moses and distributed it to the other seventy elders.
  4. Even Eldad and Medad who were not obedient (for they were the extra two who did not go to the tent but stayed in the camp), but they also received the Spirit and prophesied, which led to Joshua’s jealousy (Num. 11:26-30). This only highlights the endowment of the Spirit as God’s pure grace, not contingent upon the piety of the elected.

It is very clear that one is based on human wisdom and the other is based on divine appointment and empowerment.


Remember when Jesus said “The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few”, he appointed seventy-two disciples to go ahead of him to towns and villages to preach the Kingdom of God (Luke 10:1-20)? I suspect the Gospel text is echoing the story we saw in Numbers.

In Luke, Jesus is the new Moses leading the new Exodus, appointing seventy-two disciples who are empowered by the Holy Spirit to share the load of His work. The seventy-two are not chosen based on their ability or piety, but by the Lord’s appointment. They go out in pairs and come back reporting to the Lord directly. They need not report to a hierarchy of chiefs above them. When they are legitimately commissioned by Jesus, they receive the full authority to judge the people who receives or rejects them. There is no need to separate matters into categories of “great” or “small”, treating them differently. Jesus affirmed their ability to judge authoritatively by saying to them: “Whoever listens to you listens to me; whoever rejects you rejects me; but whoever rejects me rejects him who sent me.” (Luke 10:16)

Now that’s God’s way of doing delegation.

So are you convinced that Jethro’s advice maybe problematic?

I hope my investigation can serve as a new perspective among all the other views that typically praise Jethro’s advice as wise and appropriate.

Any comment or feedback is welcomed.

Posted in Biblical, Mission & Evangelism, Pastoral, Posts in English, Theology.

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9 Responses

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  1. L says

    Wow… I must say that’s some detailed analysis.
    It’s very encouraging too… to know that my (in)ability to serve in my current position does not matter at all in His eyes, but I shall rather keep my focus on His authority to put me in the position I’m in now, and in remembering that, I shall always rely on Him alone for His work that He wants me to do.
    Thanks again for your insights.

    • Anson says

      Yeah, stay focused on God’s appointment and His empowerment through the Spirit, than you can do it! (or more accurately, you and God together can do it!)

  2. Timothy Chan says

    “Wow” is also my response… yes, it’s all God’s doing, by His appointment, by His empowerment, by His Spirit.

    Now my question is: what do you think about the validity of drawing “biblical arguments” for church hierarchy, small groups church structure, etc.?

    • Anson says

      Hi Tim, yeah, that’s an area I do not dare to stretch so far yet. My biblical investigation is only concerned with the immediate context of Jethro’s advice towards Moses, or at most how Jesus did it. I did not want to go as far as the post-pentecost church and an universal application.

      You know, its a tough one for me, cuz I’m an Anglican in a rather hierarchical structure =)

      Nevertheless, at least now we know that the Jethro passage may not be the best passage to use for the support of hierarchical systems. (Anyways, I don’t think we should ever use biblical passages to “support” any pre-existing systems or thoughts. Our systems and thoughts should rather arise from biblical teaching.)

      I still yet have to do more studying on the topic of hierarchy, structure, and delegation in view of the entire biblical canon’s teaching before I can make a universal application for God’s church.

      What I want to mention though, is that I have not consulted any serious commentaries yet. I still have yet to compare my findings with them. However, I hope this can be encouraging to others, i.e. lay people like me who only have a bible at hand, that all you need is a keen eye, a critical mind, and some dedication in studying the Scriptures, then it is very possible to find something insightful that even those so-called experts may not be able to give you. Most commentaries only do verse-by-verse analysis, and fail to spot bigger themes across biblical books that we can see if we know the Scriptures well enough. I think this way of studying the Scriptures is so much more fun and exciting =)

  3. Edmund says

    Wow such detailed analysis, Anson!

    I guess the question can be a bit more complicated still — in church and throughout church history, many are claiming to have Jethro’s advise WHICH originates from God. And many are so determined that their insights are biblical and everybody else is wrong.

    I don’t think it is wise to built church hierarchy based on the structure of a nation-in-formation (Israel). And I also don’t think even the NT is prescribing (only describing) any specific model either. As church, the most obvious analogy should be Family, thus brothers, sisters, elders, widows…. etc…

    I continue to think that God’s providence and guidance work as a “inspite of”, not “because of” throughout the complex history of humankind.

    • Anson says

      Hey Edmund, your comments are very helpful to the discussion. Yeah, we should keep reminding ourselves that Israel in the OT is a nation-in-formation. I was just talking to an Indian classmate today and he said there are a lot of villages in India that are 95% Christian, but they still wage wars against their neighbors and commit a lot of violence, because they base their ethics on the OT view of land ownership.

      And you are also right that the NT is ambiguous on the specifics of church hierarchy. Perhaps the term “hierarchy” is precisely antithetical to the life of the church guided by the Holy Spirit. I think the Spirit-appointment-empowerment model is the way to go. It is so easy to sideline the Holy Spirit when we talk about church organization. It seems more and more apparent to me, that if the Holy Spirit’s work is all-encompassing and reaching towards every single believer (Joel 2:28-29), there is little reason why hierarchical structures are necessary. Hmm…. am I subtly becoming a brethren?

      Anyway, I’m very excited because I just discussed this discovery with my Old Testament professor and he said it’s a very interesting observation. He suggested me writing up an essay and run it through him again. If it sounds convincing enough, he encourages me to submit it to Regent’s own quarterly academic journal Crux =) It’s a very exciting yet trembling thought, but if this can indeed contribute something to the wider Christian community, I hope I can do it. Perhaps I’ll make it my Christmas project after this semester is over. Please pray for me.

  4. Tim Striebeck says

    Anson, I agree completely with your analysis. I’ve believed the same for many years.

    We were discussing this story tonight in an Old Testament survey course. The teacher was explaining that this was an example for how to raise up leaders in the Church. I wrote these notes as he was speaking:

    1. In this story, the Bible does not say, “thus saith the Lord.”
    2. Jethro was not a believer in the one God Jehovah.
    3. Possibly Jethro worshiped more “gods.”
    4. The Bible does not say that God told Jethro to offer a sacrifice.
    5. The Bible does not say that God accepted Jethro’s sacrifice.
    6. The Bible does not record God giving instructions to Moses concerning sacrifices until after Jethro’s counsel and sacrifice.

    Well, anyway, to my request. Would you please give me permission to translate Part 1 and 2 of this blog post into Spanish? You see, I live in Costa Rica and have been working with a Baptist leader here, but he doesn’t speak English. He’s the one who teaches the Survey course I mentioned. We are trying to develop leaders in the local church here and I would like to share your post with him.

    Thanks and may God bless you!

    • Anson says

      Hi Tim,

      I’m glad that you find my analysis agreeable. I don’t presume myself to have any superb exegetical skills, but I was just trying to read the bible as a whole and as faithful as possible. I’m very excited to see this post I wrote a while ago igniting some interests in other parts of the world.

      Yes, you have my permission to translate my blog post and share it with others who are interested. I’m sure many others are able to dig much deeper than I did. May the Holy Spirit illuminate all of us to understand the Word of God in its fullness.

      With blessings in Christ,


  5. Wilson says

    Nice comparison with Book of Numbers. I agree with your superb thoughts.

    Why can’t we assume that Moses prayed to God after receiving the advice ?