Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Sunday, August 18, 2019

Sunday Sermonette: Getting organized

We've had a bit of lawgiving so far -- the Passover commemoration and keeping the sabbath, in particular. The lawgiving is about to get going big time, but before God starts rolling out the edicts, we interrupt the story for a blast from the past, offering some avuncular advice. This story seems a bit of an awkward grafting, as did the previous episode featuring Zipporah, and one wonders if this might be imported from a separate story that was really about the Midianites. Anyway, it seems anodyne but it raises some interesting questions. Here goes.

Now Jethro, the priest of Midian and father-in-law of Moses, heard of everything God had done for Moses and for his people Israel, and how the Lord had brought Israel out of Egypt.
After Moses had sent away his wife Zipporah, his father-in-law Jethro received her and her two sons. One son was named Gershom,[a] for Moses said, “I have become a foreigner in a foreign land”; and the other was named Eliezer,[b] for he said, “My father’s God was my helper; he saved me from the sword of Pharaoh.”
Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, together with Moses’ sons and wife, came to him in the wilderness, where he was camped near the mountain of God. Jethro had sent word to him, “I, your father-in-law Jethro, am coming to you with your wife and her two sons.”
Now, we might well ask how Jethro knew where to find them in the wilderness. Maybe he called Mo on his satellite phone? Actually, we already know that the Midianites trade across the Sinai (remember Joseph?) so this does possibly make sense. Note, however, that Jethro did not have to cross the Red Sea or the Gulf of Suez to get here.
So Moses went out to meet his father-in-law and bowed down and kissed him. They greeted each other and then went into the tent. Moses told his father-in-law about everything the Lord had done to Pharaoh and the Egyptians for Israel’s sake and about all the hardships they had met along the way and how the Lord had saved them.
Jethro was delighted to hear about all the good things the Lord had done for Israel in rescuing them from the hand of the Egyptians. 10 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. 11 Now I know that the Lord is greater than all other gods, for he did this to those who had treated Israel arrogantly.” 12 Then Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, brought a burnt offering and other sacrifices to God, and Aaron came with all the elders of Israel to eat a meal with Moses’ father-in-law in the presence of God.
This is actually pretty interesting. Jethro is not an Israelite but he recognizes the greatness of YHWH. This is the first suggestion that YHWH might be a universal God, although he is not yet the One God, but merely greater than the others. However, even if the Midianites start worshipping him, I have to ask, what's in it for them? He chose  the Israelites and there's no indication that he's going to do bupkis for the Midianites, and they aren't getting his laws either. (The assertion that there is in fact only one God does not appear until Deuteronomy, in case you're waiting for it. Even then, it's inconsistent. You'll have to be patient!)

I will just also note that while Moses seems glad to see his father in law, there is no indication that he has the least interest in his wife and sons.
13 The next day Moses took his seat to serve as judge for the people, and they stood around him from morning till evening. 14 When his father-in-law saw all that Moses was doing for the people, he said, “What is this you are doing for the people? Why do you alone sit as judge, while all these people stand around you from morning till evening?”
15 Moses answered him, “Because the people come to me to seek God’s will. 16 Whenever they have a dispute, it is brought to me, and I decide between the parties and inform them of God’s decrees and instructions.”
17 Moses’ father-in-law replied, “What you are doing is not good. 18 You and these people who come to you will only wear yourselves out. The work is too heavy for you; you cannot handle it alone. 19 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. 20 Teach them his decrees and instructions, and show them the way they are to live and how they are to behave. 21 But select capable men from all the people—men who fear God, trustworthy men who hate dishonest gain—and appoint them as officials over thousands, hundreds, fifties and tens. 22 Have them serve as judges for the people at all times, but have them bring every difficult case to you; the simple cases they can decide themselves. That will make your load lighter, because they will share it with you. 23 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 seems to be sensible advice. Large societies do of course require delegation of power. The Israelites have been slaves so now they need to figure out how to govern themselves. However, only armies are organized according to such arithmetic rules -- corps, division, brigade, battalion, company . . .  Societal subunits are normally geographic or, in the case of a nomadic people such as the Israelites still are at this point, familial. We already know that the Israelites are composed of several tribes, and they have even been named in Genesis. We also know from historical and even extant Middle Eastern societies that the tribes in turn consist of clans and they have their own chiefs who gain authority by a combination of heredity and politicking. It is very unlikely that Israelite society was ever structured in this way, by top-down appointment of officials from among an undifferentiated mass. So I find the existence of this passage difficult to explain. 
24 Moses listened to his father-in-law and did everything he said. 25 He chose capable men from all Israel and made them leaders of the people, officials over thousands, hundreds, fifties and tens. 26 They served as judges for the people at all times. The difficult cases they brought to Moses, but the simple ones they decided themselves.
27 Then Moses sent his father-in-law on his way, and Jethro returned to his own country.


  1. Exodus 18:3 Gershom sounds like the Hebrew for a foreigner there.
  2. Exodus 18:4 Eliezer means my God is helper.

1 comment:

Don Quixote said...

The positive I take from this story is: sometimes fathers-in-law have good advice :-)