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:
- Water problem: Marah (15:22-27)
- Food problem: manna (16:1-36)
- Water problem: Massah and Meribah (17:1-7)
- Passage problem: Israel defeats Amalek (17:8-16)
- 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
If 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):
- Look for able men, men who fear God, who are trustworthy and hate a bribe.
- Set them up as chiefs of thousands, of hundreds, of fifties, and of tens. (This is known as typical Ancient Near East military formation.)
- 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):
- Specifically instructed to select seventy elders of Israel.
- There was a personal encounter with God at the tent of meeting.
- God took some of His Spirit that was on Moses and distributed it to the other seventy elders.
- 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.