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Exodus 18 - Commentary by Rev. John Schultz
This chapter describes the visit of Jethro and his advice to Moses regarding Moses' workload. Several pieces of information turn up that had been withheld before. It had never been told that Zipporah and Moses' two sons had returned to Midian, nor when they returned. Also, the name of Moses' second son, Eliezer, had never been mentioned before. He was probably the one Zipporah circumcised in ch. 4:25, which would indicate that he was still a very young boy at that time.
In all translations Jethro is called the father-in-law of Moses. As we mentioned in chapter 2 the change of name from Reuel to Jethro does not necessarily mean that we are dealing with two different persons. But the word chothen, which is translated with father-in-law has a rather extended meaning. According to Adam Clarke it simply means a "relative by marriage."
Clarke says about this chapter: "There are several reasons to induce us to believe that the fact related here is out of its due chronological order, and that Jethro did not come to Moses till the beginning of the second year of the Exodus (see Num. x. 11), some time after the Tabernacle had been erected, and the Hebrew commonwealth established, both in things civil and ecclesiastical." Then he proceeds to given six reasons for this opinion, none of which are very convincing to me.
A more pertinent question would be why the visit of Jethro and his advice to Moses is recorded at all. One of the reasons may be to indicate that not all the Midianites were involved in the trap that the Balak, the king of Moab, and the elders of Midian tried to lay for Israel when they invited the prophet Balaam to come and curse the Israelites. This is recorded in Num. 22, and Israel's revenge upon Midian in Num. 31. At this stage there were people in Midian, such as Jethro, who knew God. Also, Moses' two sons where half Midianites, and they became fully integrated in the nation of Israel. In Chronicles, we read about the sons of Moses: "The sons of Moses: Gershom and Eliezer. The descendants of Gershom: Shubael was the first. The descendants of Eliezer: Rehabiah was the first. Eliezer had no other sons, but the sons of Rehabiah were very numerous."[ 1 ]
The second reason for this insert is, obviously, to show that Moses had trouble to delegate authority and to describe how the judicial system of Israel became organized. One of the dictums new missionaries are taught on the mission field is, "If you want something done and you want it done well, do it yourself!" Evidently this piece of advice dates from the time of Moses, or maybe it even pre-dates it. Delegating authority is a very difficult thing for some people in power. People who combine power with a deep personal fellowship with God find delegating power even harder. The devil will certainly manipulate this weakness. If we find ourselves unable to delegate authority, we show a lack of confidence in others and in the power of the Holy Spirit. Nobody was more able to perform His task on earth than our Lord Jesus Christ. Yet, we read in Matthew: "He called his twelve disciples to him and gave them authority to drive out evil spirits and to heal every disease and sickness."[ 2 ] We are called upon to function as members of one body. In the physical body the head delegates power to each of the members according to the functions assigned to it. Moses may not have had any equal as a servant in the house of the Lord, but he was not the head of the house. God says about him: "When a prophet of the LORD is among you, I reveal myself to him in visions, I speak to him in dreams. But this is not true of my servant Moses; he is faithful in all my house. With him I speak face to face, clearly and not in riddles; he sees the form of the LORD."[ 3 ]
The fact that this chapter is inserted in the record of Exodus could be seen as a confession of Moses. He recognized his weakness and humbly complied with Jethro's advice.
We read in vs. 1 that Jethro "heard of everything God had done for Moses and for his people Israel, and how the LORD had brought Israel out of Egypt." How this news reached him we do not know. Moses could have sent a message, but it is more likely that the word went around the surrounding nations. After all, the defeat of the whole Egyptian army must have been received with satisfaction by Egypt's neighbors. If it is true that the rumor was spread via the grapevine, Amalek's challenge to Israel's God was the more daring.
When Israel reached the area where Mount Sinai is located they were not far from the place where the Lord revealed Himself to Moses. In ch. 3:1 we read: "Now Moses was tending the flock of Jethro his father-in-law, the priest of Midian, and he led the flock to the far side of the desert and came to Horeb, the mountain of God." So Jethro did not have to travel too far to meet with his son-in-law. The respect Moses showed for Jethro would indicate that he was indeed his father-in-law rather than a brother-in-law. Anyhow, the reunion is warm. No word is said about Moses' greeting his wife and sons. In the culture of those days, the mention of such an intimate relationship would have been very embarrassing. The tribal people we worked with in Irian Jaya, Indonesia, would have understood this very well.
Moses reports to Jethro in detail what he must have heard already in outline of what the Lord had done: the defeat of Pharaoh and the Egyptians and the deliverances in the desert. Jethro must have known the desert and its hazards just as well as Moses. He realized that, humanly speaking, it was impossible for a people of more than two million to cross this desert and stay alive. There was no food and the water supply would have been barely enough for a small group of people. The fact that God provided for this nation in a supernatural way must have filled him with awe.
When Jethro exclaimed: "Now I know that the LORD is greater than all other gods, for he did this to those who had treated Israel arrogantly" (vs. 11). It does not necessarily mean that, previously, he had put God on the same level as the heathen idols. We should not take Jethro's words as an indication of his conversion. He knew God and he was called "the priest of Midian." Our faith deepens when we see the acts of God in the lives of others and in our own life. I prefer the KJV and RSV in their translation of vs. 9, "Jethro rejoiced..." instead of "Jethro was delighted."
He typifies the attitude of Pharaoh and of Pharaoh's master, the devil, very well with the word "arrogant." The KJV uses the word "pride." Isaiah describes the pride of Satan in his lament over the king of Babylon. In Isaiah we read what Satan must have said when he rebelled against God in heaven and fell: "You said in your heart, 'I will ascend to heaven; I will raise my throne above the stars of God; I will sit enthroned on the mount of assembly, on the utmost heights of the sacred mountain. I will ascend above the tops of the clouds; I will make myself like the Most High.' "[ 4 ] It was this same arrogance that was found in the heart of the master which prompted Pharaoh to shake his fist in God's face and refuse to let God's people go. We should never lose sight of the fact that when God saves us He pries us out of the hand of the Prince of darkness. He did this for Moses personally and He did it for Israel as a nation. Jethro makes a distinction between Moses' deliverance and that of the people. He said, "Praise be to the LORD, who rescued you from the hand of the Egyptians and of Pharaoh, and who rescued the people from the hand of the Egyptians" (vs. 10). He knew, of course, about Moses' experience when he first fled from Egypt and arrived in Midian. Then Jethro must have been apprehensive when Moses returned to Egypt forty years later to lead Israel out of Egypt. Now he recognizes the hand of God in a marvelous way in the redemption of Moses and the people.
Moses was uniquely qualified to lead Israel out of Egypt because he had experienced this kind of salvation in his own life. For this same reason, God uses people who have been saved from their sin to bring the Gospel of salvation to others. Angels who never sinned cannot effectively witness to lost people. But God uses sinners, saved by grace, to announce the Good News to other sinners.
Jethro's sacrifice is another unique feature in this chapter. Adam Clarke thinks that Jethro's visit took place after the Levitical priesthood had been ordained and the sacrifices had been prescribed, since it is said that Jethro brought a burnt offering. The fact, however, that a Midianite brought a burnt offering to the Lord would rather indicate that Aaron and his sons had not been appointed as priests yet. Jethro would not have been allowed to offer a sacrifice to the Lord in which some of the Israelites participated. The writer to the Hebrews elaborates the point that Christ became a High Priest in the order of Melchizedek, who was not connected to the Levitical priesthood. Here, the first sacrifice that is actually described in the book of Exodus (the word is used elsewhere and sacrifices were implied) is brought by one who stands outside the covenant God made with Israel. This does not only validates Jethro's priesthood, it also indicates that salvation through the blood of the sacrifice was not limited to Israel alone. God so loved the whole world that He gave His Son to die for the sins of the whole world. So Jethro becomes a type of all mankind.
The second part of this chapter deals with Jethro's practical advice to Moses regarding his workload. As we mentioned above, this pertains to the problem of delegating authority. We know very little about Moses as a man. In his spiritual life he rose above all the others in the Old Testament, and as a leader he must have been larger than life. But it could be that he was not very practical in the mundane things of every day. When Jethro saw him carrying out his task as a judge and then saw him come home at night exhausted, he arrived at the conclusion that what this man did was ridiculous.
We wonder why God had not told Moses that he was trying to do too much. Evidently, there are things in life that God wants us to find out for ourselves. Also, He wants us to learn from others. Finally, He wants us to take our physical limitations into account. Physically, Moses was an unusually robust man. The editor of the book of Deuteronomy testifies at Moses' death: "Moses was a hundred and twenty years old when he died, yet his eyes were not weak nor his strength gone."[ 5 ] Yet, Moses himself says in the Psalm that bears his name: "The length of our days is seventy years; or eighty, if we have the strength."[ 6 ] In spite of this unusual vigor, Moses' fatigue showed through at the end of a day of judging the people. So Jethro advised him to schedule his activities in such a way that he will not wear himself out.
It is not unspiritual, as some people think, to take our physical limitations into account. People who stay up late and rise early are not necessarily closer to God than those who need eight hours of sleep a night, or more. One wise man, I do not remember who it was, said: "God does not speak to over tired people."
Not only did Moses wear himself out, but he affected others. Jethro observes very correctly: "You and these people who come to you will only wear yourselves out" (vs. 18). Some people are so energetic that they make others tired. This can be damaging to our testimony.
When Moses was confronted with the stress of his situation, he argued that the people needed him to find out what the will of God was for the problems of their lives. Jethro's answer contains the suggestion that not all matters in life need a divine revelation. Every man may not be a prophet of God, but there are many things in life that can be decided on the basis of some common sense, with or without the advice of others. It is good to share our daily plans with God. Solomon tells us: "In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make your paths straight."[ 7 ] But this does not mean that we have to share all of our problems in minute details with others and ask for prayer. A.W. Tozer tells the story of a lady who asked for prayer during a prayer meeting because her eyelids were twitching. Tozer's comment was: "Rub it, sister, rub it!" We should not lose sight of the forest because of the trees. Moses was in danger of doing this in the way he went about his task.
Yet, Moses was right in that the Lord had given him His Holy Spirit which was not on the common people. He had access to God in a way others did not have. In the Psalms we read: "He made known his ways to Moses, his deeds to the people of Israel."[ 8 ] The people saw what God was doing, but Moses saw the "how" and "why" of God's deeds. Later there came a point in Moses' life when he exclaimed: "I wish that all the LORD's people were prophets and that the LORD would put his Spirit on them!"[ 9 ]
So Moses accepted his father-in-law's proposal. But Jethro wanted Moses to clear his suggestion by the Lord. In vs. 18 he says: "If you do this and God so commands, you will be able to stand the strain, and all these people will go home satisfied." This could also mean, however, that the cases that were brought to Moses would be taken to the Lord to receive His command.
We do not know how long the arrangement worked. In Numbers Moses is, obviously, at the point of collapse, when he says to the Lord: "I cannot carry all these people by myself; the burden is too heavy for me."[ 10 ] That is barely two years later. Of course, the issue there was a general uprising because the people were hungry for meat. That is the occasion where the Lord takes the Spirit that was on Moses and shared it with seventy other leaders in Israel. One of the problems may have been to find "capable men from all the people; men who fear God, trustworthy men who hate dishonest gain." On our mission field in Indonesia, dishonesty among church leaders was one of the greatest obstacles for spiritual growth. Many third world countries thrive on bribes. Also, the concept that there are funds that are consecrated to the Lord which cannot be used for individual needs is foreign to many cultures where personal possession are for the benefit of all. Yet, the fact that Jethro mentioned these qualifications for judges among the people indicates that the Israelites, as well as the Midianites, knew that the fear of God and dishonesty were incompatible. But, probably, the leaders lost sight of this truth when they started enjoying their position of leadership and were corrupted by the power they had over others.
Jethro's proposal is interesting from a mathematical viewpoint also. The divisions of one thousand, one hundred, fifty and ten indicates that the metric system was known at that time. The break-up into small groups of ten suggests family units with individual heads. If we stick to the number of six hundred thousand for the army, as given in Numbers,[ 11 ] there could be as many judges as seventy-eight thousand. Imagine that Moses had been trying to do the work of seventy eight thousand people!
Moses described his task as: "I ... inform them of God's decrees and laws" (vs. 16). And Jethro agreed with this description when he said in vs. 20, "Teach them the decrees and laws, and show them the way to live and the duties they are to perform." Evidently, many of the laws that are written down in the books of the Pentateuch had already been revealed to Moses previously. This means that God's revelation came to Moses in the setting of the practical problems of daily life. In many cases, when God spoke to Moses directly, He confirmed what Moses had already known and experienced. This fact in no way deducts from the supernatural character of God's revelations to Moses. It merely confirms that supernatural revelations and practical daily life are compatible.
Jethro mentioned three things in vs. 20: God's laws, the way to live, and the duties to perform. The teaching of the law was a transmission of knowledge. The people had to know the will of God. But Moses also had to show them the way to live, that is he had to be an example himself and help them apply the Word of God to their daily lives. The duties they had to perform made them into responsible human beings who fulfilled the role that God had given to them.
So Moses became the Supreme Court for the nation. Only the cases that had gone through the four previous levels came to him, and he sought the will of the Lord about the problem. Some examples are given later on where this was done.[ 12 ]
We do not know how long Jethro stayed with the Israelites. He probably left before the revelation of God on Mount Sinai. His coming meant a personal blessing to Moses, and he left behind a judicial system for the people that would become the backbone and infrastructure of the new nation. Evidently, he returned home alone, leaving Zipporah and Moses' sons behind with Moses. Zipporah was probably the "Cushite wife" mentioned in Numbers.[ 13 ] Jethro's visit was the last positive contact Israel had with the Midianites. After his departure Midian and Moab turned against Israel. It wasn't until the time of the Judges and the coming of Ruth that another blessing came Israel's way from this heathen confederacy.
With the departure of Jethro the first section of this book is completed. In the next chapter Israel arrives at Mount Sinai, the place where God has chosen to reveal Himself to His people the place of celebration that would become the place of apostasy.
[ 1 ]
I Chron. 23:15-17
[ 2 ]
[ 3 ]
[ 4 ]
[ 5 ]
[ 6 ]
[ 7 ]
[ 8 ]
[ 9 ]
[ 10 ]
[ 11 ]
See Num. 11:21
[ 12 ]
See Lev. 24:10-14, Num. 15:32-36 and 27:1-7
[ 13 ]
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