Sometimes, in-laws can be annoying, when they drop in offering unsolicited advice. But sometimes that advice is useful, as Moses learned when his father-in-law came to visit.
Like Melchizadek, Jethro is one of those mysterious, righteous men who just show up in scriptures without any explanation, who has no direct connection to the People of Israel, yet nevertheless is recognized as a servant of and a spokesman for the God of Abraham.
Jethro is described as a priest of Midian, a region on the eastern edge of the Gulf of Aqaba, part of modern-day Saudi Arabia. Some commentators have stretched Midian to include parts of the Sinai peninsula, on the other side of the Gulf, because Jethro seems to have lived in the vicinity of Mount Sinai; but since there is disagreement as to the exact location of that mountain, they could well be mistaken. Or perhaps Jethro did a lot of traveling.
The Midianites did have a connection to Abraham, though. They are said to have been the descendants of Abraham and Keturah, a woman he married after Sarah’s death. (Genesis 25:1-4) It’s possible that they carried on the monotheistic religion of Abraham. On the other hand, Rabbinic Tradition states that Jethro had previously worshipped all the idols of the world, before coming to reject them and worshipping the God of Israel.
My personal suspicion is that Moses, raised as he was at Pharaoh’s court, had only a cursory knowledge of the Hebrew religion as it was practiced at that time; and that what he learned from Jethro while living among the Midianites shaped what became known as the Law of Moses. But this is just a wacky guess.
When we first meet Jethro in Exodus chapter 2, the text calls him Reuel. His daughters are being harassed by some rowdy shepherds while getting water from a local well, and the then fugitive Moses shows up and chases the shepherds off. The girls bring Moses home, one thing leads to another, and before you know it, Moses is married to one of them, Zipporah. In later chapters, Reuel is called Jethro, which could be a title meaning “his Excellency.”
When Moses leads the Israelites out of Egypt, he headed toward the mountain where he had encountered the Lord, speaking through a burning bush. At some point in their journey, he sent his wife, Zipporah, accompanied by his two sons, Gershom and Eliezer, ahead to father-in-law. Jethro comes out to meet Moses, bringing the family with him. So they sit and schmooze for a while, and Moses tells him all about what’s been happening with him in the previous seventeen chapters of Exodus. Jethro is impressed.
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. 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. Now I know that they LORD is greater than all other gods, for he did this to those who had treated Israel arrogantly.” (Exodus 18:9-11 NIV)
Jethro brings a sacrifice to the LORD, Moses introduces him to his brother Aaron and to the tribal elders, and they have a nice dinner.
The next day, Jethro is still hanging around and he gets to see his son-in-law at work. Moses takes his seat and people come to him bringing complaints for judgment. He spends all day, from morning to evening, listening to cases and rendering verdicts. Finally Jethro takes him aside and asks him, what the heck he’s doing.
Moses answered him, “Because the people come to me to seek God’s will. Whenever they have a dispute, it is brought to me and I decide between the parties and inform them of God’s decrees and laws.” (Exodus 18:15-16)
This is not good. Jethro tells Moses that he’ll wear himself down to a frazzle if he keeps up like this. He can’t handle these kinds of administrative duties alone. He needs to start delegating things.
“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. Teach them the decrees ad laws, and show them the way to live and the duties they are to perform.” (vv. 19-20)
Well that’s what he’s doing. But Jethro continues:
“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. 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 for themselves. That will make your load lighter, because they will share it with you.” (vv. 21-22)
Yeah, that does sound reasonable. Moses does as his father-in-law suggests.
It seems to me that this might be the start of a systematic government among the Israelites. Rather than an informal system where people go to the tribal leader, Moses establishes a bureaucracy. Not only does this lighten his own workload and allow him to concentrate on the aspects of leadership that only he can do; it also creates a structure so that after he’s gone, the Israelites can continue to govern themselves without his leadership.
A parallel situation comes up in the New Testament. When the Christian community was starting out in Jerusalem and beginning to grow, it early on established a mission of distributing food to the widows and the needy among them. But some complaints arose that the Hebraic Jews, those born and raised in Judea, who spoke mostly Aramaic and/or Hebrew, were getting special treatment over the Grecian Jews, those originally from outside Palestine who spoke predominantly Greek. (Acts 6:1)
The Twelve, (the eleven disciples of Jesus plus Matthias who was chosen to replace Judas), called a meeting of the whole fellowship. “It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables,” they said. So they propose that the group select seven men who would have the special job of handling the day-to-day administration of the congregation. (Acts 6:2-6) Although the text does not explicitly say so, it seems likely to me that the Twelve were looking back to Jethro’s advice as precedent for handling their own problem.
After Jethro gives Moses his advice, he sees that his job there is done. He bids his son-in-law farewell and returns to his own country. We don’t hear from him again.
Sometimes we fell we need to do everything ourselves. But even Moses had to rely on others sometimes; and sometimes he needed the advice of a friend and counselor.