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Bible Commentaries

Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible
Exodus 18

 

 


Introduction

Jethro Visits and Advises Moses (Exodus 18:1-27).

There is little doubt that under God, Jethro’s visit saved Moses from being on the verge of nervous exhaustion. In return Moses will bring enlightenment to Jethro about the things of God. God often uses the most unexpected sources in order to help His servants. But there is an indication of how necessary Moses training and expertise was for Israel.


Verses 1-8

Jethro Visits and Advises Moses (Exodus 18:1-27).

There is little doubt that under God, Jethro’s visit saved Moses from being on the verge of nervous exhaustion. In return Moses will bring enlightenment to Jethro about the things of God. God often uses the most unexpected sources in order to help His servants. But there is an indication of how necessary Moses training and expertise was for Israel.

Jethro Arrives With Moses’ Wife and Children and Is Warmly Welcomed And Learns of All That Yahweh Has Done (Exodus 18:1-9).

As the children of Israel approached Sinai they would come within the vicinity of the Midianite group to which Moses belonged, who would soon learn of their approach. Indeed it must be seen as very probable that Moses sent them notification.

a Jethro hears of all that God has done for Moses and for Israel his people, how Yahweh has brought them out of the land of Egypt (Exodus 18:11).

b Jethro had taken Moses’ wife and his two sons after he sent her away of whom one was Gershom, meaning ‘a resident alien’ (compare Exodus 2:2) because Moses had been a resident alien in a foreign land, and the other Eliezer, God is my help’ because God had saved him from the hand of Pharaoh (Exodus 18:2-4).

c Jethro brings Moses’ wife and children to the camp of Israel at the mount of God (Exodus 18:15).

c He sends a message to tell Moses that his father-in-law Jethro, with Moses’ wife and children, has come to meet with him (Exodus 18:16).

b Moses goes out to his father-in-law and bowed and kissed him and they asked each other of their welfare and came into Moses’ tent (Exodus 18:17).

a Moses told his father-in-law all that Yahweh had done to Pharaoh and the Egyptians for Israel’s sake, and all the trials they had had on the way, and how Yahweh had delivered them from them (Exodus 18:18).

Note in the parallels how in ‘a’ Jethro had heard of all that God had done for Moses and for Israel his people, and how Yahweh had brought them out of the land of Egypt and in the parallel Moses tells Jethro of all that Yahweh had done for Israel’s sake. In ‘b’ we are told of Moses’ trials in his exile and how God had saved him from the hands of Pharaoh, and in the parallel we are told of what Yahweh had done to Pharaoh and how He had delivered Israel from all their trials. In ‘c’ Jethro bring Moses’ wife and children with him to the camp, and in the parallel Moses warmly welcomes Jethro (and all his party) and takes them to his tent. Central to the passage is that Moses’ tribal leader and father-in-law Jethro has come bringing Moses’ wife and children. This central position brings out that Moses did not overlook the coming of his wife, even though it was not important in the ensuing narrative.

Exodus 18:1

‘Now Jethro, the priest of Midian, Moses’ father-in-law, heard of all that God had done for Moses, and for Israel his people, how that Yahweh had brought Israel out of Egypt.’

The news about what God had done for Moses would have come from Moses himself, who would no doubt have sent a fast messenger with the news of the deliverance. It was incumbent on him to keep his tribal leader informed. Note the change to ‘God’ (Elohim) in the first phrase. It has been noteworthy that up to this point the use of the word Elohim (God) by itself has been notably lacking from the narrative since leaving Egypt. The emphasis has been on Yahweh. In fact Elohim (God) has only been used in the technical term ‘the staff of God’ (Exodus 17:9) and to define Yahweh as ‘your God’ (Exodus 15:26; Exodus 16:12). Thus this opening use of Elohim (God) is very much against the idea that Jethro worshipped Yahweh. Had he done so the sentence would surely have begun with ‘Yahweh’.

Note the use in this verse. Jethro hears of ‘all that God has done’. Thus he equates it with the activity of ‘God’ as he knows Him. But then when the deliverance from Egypt is mentioned it is referred to Yahweh. This distinction applies throughout the chapter demonstrating its unity.

This distinction is especially observed when we compare how the word Elohim (God) is also used when defining Jethro’s sacrifices (Exodus 18:12) and in general conversation with Jethro (Exodus 18:15), as well as when he gives his advice (Exodus 18:17-23). It is only when speaking of the deliverance from Egypt that the name of Yahweh comes into prominence (Exodus 18:1 b, Exodus 8-11). This also ties in with the fact that Moses’ second son’s name contains El and not Yah. In view of this it would seem clear that Jethro was not a dedicated worshipper of Yahweh, and certainly not a priest of Yahweh, while being willing to acknowledge that Yahweh was God and even greater than all the gods (Exodus 18:11), by which he mainly meant the gods of Egypt of whose defeat he had heard. He quite possibly identified his own god with Yahweh, for Moses had spent forty years with the tribe. But if so the association was secondary for he speaks of him as Elohim.

Exodus 18:2-4

‘And Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law took Zipporah, Moses’ wife, after he had sent her away, and her two sons, the name of one of whom was Gershom, for he said, “I have been a sojourner in a strange land”, and the name of the other was Eliezer, for he said, “The God of my father was my help and delivered me from the sword of Pharaoh”.’

This summary brings us up to date on Moses’ family position. Moses had clearly sent his wife back to the family tribe while he was having his contest with Pharaoh. This was probably in order to ensure her safety and the safety of her two sons and to prevent them from being used by Pharaoh as a bargaining tool. It has ever been the policy of tyrants to get back at or control their enemies by attacking their families. But it may partly have been because a Midianite wife and two foreign sons were causing dissension among certain of the children of Israel (although such racial discrimination was not usual. It was only marriage to Canaanites that was frowned on because of their perverted sexual rites. There is no direct suggestion here or anywhere that Moses’ marriage was frowned on). And Jethro had accepted her and her sons back under his care. He had ‘taken’ her.

The details of Moses’ two sons are also given. They were mentioned in Exodus 4:20, and the fact of Gershom’s birth and naming in Exodus 2:22. This is now mentioned again, along with the naming of his second son Eliezer, important here because of its meaning.

“Gershom.” ‘Ger’ means a foreigner, a sojourner, a stranger. Moses construed the name here as meaning ‘a stranger there’, the regular play on words common with both tribal and Egyptian names. Moses’ comment suggested how hardly he understandably had felt his exile.

“Eliezer.” ‘My God is help.’ Exodus 4:20 suggests that Eliezer was born in Midian before Moses left for Egypt. His name was basically a statement of faith, that God would be Moses’ helper. And Moses especially related this to his escape from execution when he fled from Egypt with God’s help. He now compares it in Exodus 18:8 (see analysis) with their recent deliverance. In fact both sons may well now be grown up.

Exodus 18:5

‘And Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, came to Moses with his sons and his wife, into the wilderness where he was encamped at the Mount of God.’

At this nearest point to the Midianite camp Jethro arrived bringing Moses’ wife and his two sons. Note the constant emphasis on his ‘father-in-law’ (Exodus 18:1-2; Exodus 18:5-8; Exodus 18:12; Exodus 18:14-15; Exodus 18:17; Exodus 18:24; Exodus 18:27). This was considered necessary in order to make what happened here acceptable. It was precisely because Jethro was in a position of primacy over Moses as his father-in-law, as one who had taken the place of a father to him (compare Jacob and Laban where Jacob acknowledged the authority of Laban), and as his patriarch, that he was called on to offer sacrifices (Exodus 18:12) and was in a position to give patriarchal advice to Moses. All would recognise his right to do so.

“Where he was encamped at the mount of God.” The movement of the whole tribe to Horeb, to the water gushing from the rock, has not been mentioned, but it is assumed (in Exodus 17:1-7 it is only the elders who have been to the rock). Why else was the rock in Horeb revealed? The writer was concerned more with the glory of Yahweh than with the minor details of the doings of the children of Israel. (We can compare, for example, how in Exodus 7:15-18; Exodus 8:1-4; Exodus 8:20-23; Exodus 9:1-5 Moses is told to go to Pharaoh but the going and its consequence is actually not mentioned but assumed. The narrative continues on the basis that it has been done).

This movement is hinted at in Exodus 19:2 where we read, ‘when they were departed from Rephidim and were come to the wilderness of Sinai, they pitched in the wilderness, and there Israel camped before the Mount of God.’ This latter is a dating summary, which see. So now they are in Horeb. They will need the plentiful supply of water for their comparatively long stay there.

“The mount of God.” This description was probably given to it after the events that follow. It may, however, have been earlier looked on as sacred by the Midianites due to its austere grandeur (compare Exodus 3:1)

Exodus 18:6-7

‘And he said to Moses, “I, your father-in-law Jethro, am come to you, and your wife and your two sons with her.” And Moses went out to meet his father-in-law , and bowed to him and kissed him, and they asked each other of their welfare, and they came into the tent.’

Jethro took Moses’ wife and sons to Moses, and they greeted each other warmly and came back to Moses’ tent.

“He said.” That is via a messenger. It explains the formality of the message. While friendly it is patriarchal. The leader of his clan is coming to meet him.

“Went out --- and bowed to him.” Moses pays him the honour due to him with full formality, and Jethro responds accordingly, but the detail suggests it is friendly.

Exodus 18:8

‘And Moses told his father-in-law all that Yahweh had done to Pharaoh and to the Egyptians for Israel’s sake, all the travail that had come on them by the way, and how Yahweh had delivered them.’

Moses had, of course, a responsibility to report events back to his tribal leader, from whom he had officially previously sought permission to go to Egypt (Exodus 4:18), but the communication goes beyond that. Moses is concerned that his father-in-law should now see that he is tied to the children of Israel by Yahweh’s activities and demands. Jethro’s rejoicing in the goodness of Yahweh demonstrates that he is gladly willing to accept the situation and to release Moses from his tribal loyalty.

He speaks of the wonders performed against Pharaoh and the Egyptians, as well as His powerful provision made in the later difficult period in the wilderness, in which Yahweh had again revealed His glory ‘for Israel’s sake’. These wonders and gracious acts bring glory to Yahweh.


Verses 9-12

Jethro Rejoices In Yahweh With The Leaders of Israel (Exodus 18:9-12).

a Jethro rejoiced for all the goodness which Yahweh had done to Israel in delivering them from the hands of the Egyptians (Exodus 18:9)

b Jethro says, ‘Blessed be Yahweh who has delivered you out of the hands of the Egyptians and out of the hand of Pharaoh, who has delivered the people from the hand of the Egyptians’ (Exodus 18:10).

c He declares his new vision of Yahweh. ‘Now I know that Yahweh is greater than all gods, yes, in the things in which they dealt proudly against them’ (Exodus 18:11).

b Jethro takes a whole burnt offering and sacrifices for God, thus offering blessing to God (Exodus 18:12 a).

a Aaron and all the elders of Israel come to eat food with Moses’ father-in-law before God (Exodus 18:12 b).

Note in ‘a’ how Jethro’s acknowledgement of the goodness of Yahweh and of His doings results in the parallel in Aaron and the elders of Israel coming to eat with him. While in ‘b’ He blesses Yahweh and His declaration of the supremacy of Yahweh results in his offering a whole burnt offering and sacrifices to God, and thus in his ‘blessing’ Him. In ‘c’ He has been caught up with Israel in Israel’s God and acknowledges His overall superiority.

Exodus 18:9

‘And Jethro rejoiced for all the goodness which Yahweh had done to Israel in that he had delivered them out of the hands of the Egyptians.’

Here it is the deliverance that Jethro concentrates on. He had not seen the wonders but he does understand fully the one outstanding fact of the wonderful deliverance out of Egyptian hands. What amazed him was that Yahweh had delivered Israel from the powerful Egyptians, and he could only rejoice in it.

Exodus 18:10-11

‘And Jethro said, “Blessed be Yahweh who has delivered you out of the hands of the Egyptians and out of the hand of Pharaoh, who has delivered his people from under the hand of the Egyptians. Now I know that Yahweh is greater than all the gods, yes in the thing wherein they dealt proudly against them.”

Jethro praises Yahweh for what He has done in delivering Israel. The repetition of ‘who has delivered’ emphasises his wonder at what has happened. With Exodus 18:9 the deliverance is emphasised three times. Egypt was notorious as the region’s super-power, ruled by a god and with powerful gods. But this has not prevented Yahweh from setting them at nought. Note the contrast with Exodus 18:8. Here it is ‘delivered --- Egyptians --- Pharaoh.’ There it is ‘Pharaoh --- Egyptians --- delivered.’ The unity of these verses is clear.

“Now I know that Yahweh is greater than all the gods.” Here he means the gods of Egypt, not his own god whom he possibly equates with Moses’ God, Yahweh (compare the situation with El Elyon - Genesis 14:18-22). We cannot, however, see him as directly a worshipper of Yahweh or Exodus 18:12 would say so. Here Jethro speaks of Yahweh and not Elohim (God) because he has been told what Yahweh had done.

“Yes in the thing wherein they dealt proudly against them.” Nehemiah 9:10 suggests that this means ‘in the things in which the Israelites, through their God Yahweh, dealt proudly (with superiority) against the Egyptians’, but in context here it must include the Egyptians and their gods as having acted proudly against Israel.

Exodus 18:12

‘And Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, took a burnt offering and sacrifices for God, and Aaron came, and all the elders of Israel, to eat food with Moses’ father-in-law before God.’

This is in Jethro’s territory and he is Moses’ clan leader and priest of the area, ‘the priest of Midian’ (Exodus 18:1). It was therefore natural that Jethro should offer the sacrifices, both of the whole burnt offering which was presumably (as later) wholly burnt up and of other sacrifices, thank offerings, of which the flesh was available to eat. Note that these are offered to ‘Elohim’ not Yahweh. The Midianites may well have worshipped El under some title, whom they could all equate with Yahweh, as Abraham equated El Elyon with Yahweh (Genesis 14:22).

“To eat food with --- before God”. This was an act of worship and acknowledgement of submission to ‘Elohim’ (God). There is no suggestion that Jethro taught them anything. When he did, as his clan leader, seek to guide Moses, we are specifically told so, but it had nothing to do with religion. It was the senior administrator passing on his advice to his son-in-law. Moses who had been with the tribe of Jethro for many years, and seemingly had worshipped with him, clearly saw the God whom Jethro worshipped as equatable with Yahweh.

We can compare how Melchizedek, who as king of Salem and its surrounding area would have rights over Abraham, who paid him tithes as a user of his lands, provided the food and wine for a feast on the return of Abraham, he did so as a priest of El Elyon, and Abraham received them in the name of ‘Yahweh, El Elyon’. (Genesis 14:18-24). The situation is somewhat similar.

Note how here the text has changed from using ‘Yahweh’ to using ‘God’. A ‘stranger’ is among them. To him Yahweh is not all. Thus while making quite clear to Jethro that it is Yahweh Who has delivered Israel, he condescends to his father-in-law by mainly speaking of ‘God’ throughout the passage.


Verses 13-26

Jethro Advises Moses On How To Judge The People And Moses Acts on His Advice (Exodus 18:13-26).

a On the next day Moses acts as judge for Israel and the people stand around him from morning until evening (Exodus 18:13).

b Jethro asks him why he does this to the people, and why he sits alone, and all the people stand around him from morning until evening (Exodus 18:14).

c Moses replies, ‘Because the people come to me to enquire of God’. When they come to him he judges between a man and his neighbour and makes known to them the statutes of God and His laws (Exodus 18:15-16).

b Jethro takes a whole burnt offering and sacrifices for God, thus offering blessing to God (Exodus 18:12 a).

a Aaron and all the elders of Israel come to eat food with Moses’ father-in-law before God (Exodus 18:12 b).

d Moses’ father-in-law tells him that it is not good, for he will wear himself away and also his people who have to wait around.

e He just cannot expect to bear this burden just by himself alone (Exodus 18:17-18). .

f ‘Listen to my voice.’ He will now give his counsel, and may God be with Moses. Moses should be for the people Godward, and bring their causes to God, and teach them the statutes and laws, and show them they way in which they should walk, and the work that they must do (Exodus 18:19-20).

e If he does this, and God commands him so, then he will be able to survive intact and all his people will go to their place in peace (Exodus 18:23).

d Moses listened to his father-in-law and did what he had said (Exodus 18:24).

c Moses chose out able men from all Israel and made them heads over the people, rulers of tribes, sub-tribes, clans and households (thousands, hundreds, fifties and tens). And they judged the people at all seasons (Exodus 18:25-26 a).

b The hard causes they brought to Moses, the easier cases they judged themselves (Exodus 18:26 b).

a And Moses let his father-in-law depart and he went to his own land (Exodus 18:27).

Note that in ‘a’ the situation is described concerning Moses’ judging of the people, and in the parallel having, sorted out the situation Jethro returns to his own land. In ‘b’ Jethro asks him why he does this to the people, and why he sits alone, and all the people stand around him from morning until evening, in the parallel the task is now shared. In ‘c’ Moses replies, ‘Because the people come to me to enquire of God’. When they come to him he judges between a man and his neighbour and makes known to them the statutes of God and His laws’ and in the parallel he chooses out able men to assist him in the task. In ‘d’ Moses’ father-in-law tells him that it is not good, for he will wear himself away and also his people who have to wait around and in the parallel Moses listens and does what he has suggested. In ‘e’ he is told he cannot expect to bear this burden just by himself alone, and in the parallel he is told that if he does what Jethro suggests, and God commands him so, then he will be able to survive intact and all his people will go to their place in peace. In ‘f’ he is advised that he should be for the people Godward, and bring their causes to God, and teach them the statutes and laws, and show them they way in which they should walk, and the work that they must do, and in the parallel it is explained that the new judges must judge the people at all seasons. Every great matter shall be brought to Moses but every smaller matter they will judge. Thus will it be easier for Moses and they will share his burden with him In ‘g’ the system is laid out. He must provide out of all the people able men of the type who fear God, men of truth hating unjust gain, and place them over the people to be rulers of sub-tribes (thousands), clans (hundreds), wider families (fifties) and households (tens).

We see also what we have noted before that in the second part of the chiasmus there is a repetition, ‘rulers of sub-tribes (thousands), clans (hundreds), wider families (fifties) and households (tens), they (let them) judge the people at all seasons’ (compare Exodus 18:21-22 a with Exodus 18:25-26 a).

For a similar patteern of a chiasmus containing a repetition in the second part see Numbers 18:4 with Exodus 18:7; Exodus 18:23 with Exodus 18:24; and Deuteronomy 2:21 with Exodus 18:22.

Exodus 18:13-14

‘And it happened on the morrow that Moses sat to judge the people, and the people stood before Moses from morning until evening. And when Moses’ father-in-law saw all that he did to the people, he said, “What is this thing that you do for the people? Why do you yourself sit alone, and all the people stand around you from morning until evening?”

Moses set aside days in which he would judge individual cases of complaint. It would seem that the people stood around while the cases came before him and then he would pass judgment on them. This amazed the experienced priest of Midian who recognised that it would finally prove too much for Moses. He asks why he does it. Is this the way he does things all the time?

Exodus 18:15-16

‘And Moses said to his father-in-law, “Because the people come to me to enquire of God. When they have a matter they come to me, and I judge between a man and his neighbour, and I make them know the statutes of God and his laws.”

Moses replies that it is to enable the people to settle disagreements in such a way that they are satisfied that they have obtained justice before God. (Moses courteously uses the term for God that Jethro will recognise and accept in his jurisdiction). And they gather round so that all may come to understand the requirements of God as Moses adds his comments to the decisions.

In Exodus 15:25 b Moses spent some time in making for the people ‘a statute and an ordinance.’ It is probable that those represented various laws, both legal and ritual, which were put down in writing and read out to the people. They were probably part of ‘the Testimony’ of Exodus 16:34. The people were then promised that obedience to them would prevent God’s judgment and ensure good health (Exodus 15:26 compare Exodus 16:28). And by these regular scenes of the dispensing of justice those laws were brought home to the people and expanded by the decisions made, possibly with amendment to the written record when necessary, when new decisions had been made about things that were not yet provided for. So was Moses preparing for his great work of writing the Torah (the foundation work of the Pentateuch).

Exodus 18:17-18

‘And Moses’ father-in-law said to him, “What you do is not good. You will surely wear away both you yourself and this people who are with you. For the thing is too much of a burden for you. You are not able to do it yourself alone.” ’

Once again we notice that Jethro uses Elohim (God) and not Yahweh. Jethro spots immediately the problem with Moses approach. Moses is dealing with even the smallest and simplest cases. This means that he is overloaded. It also means that the people are having to listen to cases from which they can learn nothing. Thus both he and the people will eventually be worn down, and unable, or unwilling, to cope.

Exodus 18:19-20

“Listen to what I say (to my voice), I will give you advice, and God be with you. You be for the people towards God, and you bring the causes to God. And you will teach them the statutes and the laws, and will show them the way in which they must walk and the work that they must do.”

So what he advises is that Moses only take on the more complicated cases, especially the cases where God’s guidance is needed. For these the people will gather to hear the cases and the judgments. He will also deal with God on behalf of the people, and will be responsible for teaching God’s laws and statutes. He will be responsible for guiding their behaviour. But the straightforward smaller cases will be dealt with by others using the guidelines laid down by Moses.

While later the sacred lot (the Urim and Thummim - see on Exodus 28:30) would be the basis of such judgments as Moses has to make, there is no suggestion of that here. As we discover later, Moses’ connection with God is unique, like that of a man talking with his friend (Exodus 33:11).

This guidance from Jethro, based on common sense and experience, is good advice but it is not a command that Moses must obey. Jethro is not exercising jurisdiction over Moses, he is simply trying to help him. While Moses may have been his clansman he knows that he himself has no authority over the children of Israel. To suggest otherwise is to avoid the clear meaning of the passage. But a deeper significance may lie behind it. This may well be the moment that Jethro finally recognises that he must let Moses go. He is now ruler over his own people.

“God be with you.” He recognises the guidance Moses needs from God. But continually the name of Yahweh is avoided. Jethro speaks as one who usually worships Elohim (God) not Yahweh.

“The statutes and laws”. These will mainly be based on the customs of Israel as passed on by the fathers, and the revelations given to them, but in the end divine assistance will be needed in detailing and finalising them. There can really be little doubt that the basis of these was already in writing (Exodus 15:25).

A number of law codes such as the codes of Lipit-Ishtar, the laws of Eshnunna, the laws of Hammurabi, Hittite laws and so on have been discovered. These contained details of many laws and customs. But they were probably simply a guide and not a statement of laws strictly to be used to dispense justice. They seem to often represent case law, examples of how cases have been decided. However, Moses was in a unique situation. He was trying to bind together a number of conglomerate peoples. In his case a written law would be invaluable so that the people could learn from them as they were read out to them, and so that they could be pointed to in case of dispute.

Exodus 18:21

“Moreover you shall provide out of the people able men such as fear God, men of truth, hating unjust gain, and place such over them to be rulers of thousands, rulers of hundreds, rulers of fifties and rulers of tens. And let them judge the people at all seasons, and it will be that every great matter they will bring to you, but every small matter they will judge themselves. So will it be easier for you and they will bear the burden with you.”

This suggestion must not be distorted. These are not civil judges as such, they are delegates of Moses. They are as much involved in religious judgment as Moses is but not to the same level. Moses will still be the chief judge and will deal with all major or complicated cases where God’s specific judgment is required. What will differ is that minor cases will not be brought to him. They can be decided on the basis of God’s revelation as revealed in the statutes already laid down by Moses. These are already God’s judgments and His guidance does not need to be sought again. It is laid down in the statutes. If they cannot be so decided they will be brought to him.

The point is that Moses has been dealing with every single dispute, however small. Now it is suggested that these could be dealt with by someone who knows the parties better because they have closer connections with them.

We must remember that Moses is to some extent learning as he goes. A system does not just fall down from heaven. He had had experience in Egyptian administration but that was very different from here. As a prince he would not have been involved in judging a people. At first he was not aware of the capabilities of the elders of Israel. He has, however, by now become aware of what capabilities the elders of Israel had, and the judges will be made up mainly of these. They will already have had some experience in judging. Thus he has up to this point been feeling his way.

But now he knows more about the capabilities of the elders, and more, from experience, of what matters could be dealt with by others. Thus this suggestion came at a very timely moment. Later an even more developed system will be set up where more ‘senior’ judges will be appointed who themselves are guided by the Spirit of God (Numbers 11:16-17; Numbers 11:23-29). But that is not yet.

“Able men who fear God, are men of truth and hate unjust gain.” Moses has to assess the possibilities and take character and ability into account. The three requirements are important. To fear the higher Judge of all, to be men of truth and not to be open to bribery. There could be no better recommendation.

“Rulers of thousands (or sub-clans), rulers of hundreds (or family units), rulers of fifties (smaller family units) and rulers of tens (individual families).” Depending on the importance of the case and the likelihood of appeal would be who was responsible for judging. The numbers are not to be taken literally. The point is that there are to be layers of ‘judges’ at different levels so that appeals can be taken to higher levels, and more serious cases can be dealt with at a higher level. It is not only the judgment that will matter but the willingness of those being judged to accept the authority of the judge. No doubt this was the system used among the Midianites. But the Midianites were more split up and widespread so for Israel the system would later require modification.

This system would, of course, take some time to set up, but it is only the basis of the idea that has to be decided on. Its full implementation could take time. But it would take a huge burden from Moses’ shoulders and lay it on others.

It is noteworthy that in Arabic ‘a ten’ can mean a family.

Exodus 18:23

“If you will do this thing, and God command you so, then you will be able to endure and all this people also will go to their place in peace.”

Jethro tactfully agreed that what Moses decided to do must be subject to the judgment and guidance of God. (Had he been the priest of Yahweh he himself could have given that guidance). This was important for the people must know that the arrangement had the sanction of Yahweh. But he pointed out the advantages. Moses would not be worn out as he was being now (it was probably obvious to an experienced leader how much Moses was suffering from his efforts). And the people also would not be overburdened with watching petty judgments (he had probably detected their boredom). It is the outsider who often sees most when it comes to such things.

“They shall go to their house in peace.” Because they have not been required to stand there for such a long, and often boring, time connected with cases easily decided and involving people unknown to them.

Exodus 18:24

‘So Moses listened to the voice of his father-in-law and did all that he had said. And Moses chose able men out of all Israel, and made them heads over the people, rulers of thousands, rulers of hundreds, rulers of fifties and rulers of tens. And they judged the people at all seasons. The hard cases they brought to Moses, but every small matter they judged themselves.”

This is basically telling us that Moses acted fully on the suggestions of his father-in-law. It did not, of course, mean that it was fully implemented next day. It would take time to set up. But the beginnings could be put in place immediately. In a patriarchal society there would already be authoritative people in charge at different levels of tribal life, men to whom the people looked up and whose authority they accepted. Some could be appointed immediately. Probably the most difficult were the middle levels, and the absorbing fully into the system of the mixed multitude. These undoubtedly would take more time. The methods he used are outlined in Deuteronomy 1:13-17. Wisely he left much of the choosing to the people. They would be more likely to honour men of their own choosing.

“Did all that he had said.” This would happen over time, but the basis would be established immediately.


Verse 27

‘And Moses let his father-in-law depart, and he went his way into his own land.’

Having brought Moses his family, and having shared worship and hospitality with the children of Israel, Jethro returned home amicably, recognising that Moses now has in front of him his own destiny. The Egyptian plucked from the desert and given a welcome has become the ruler and guide of Yahweh’s people.

It is probable that originally this was the end of a scroll or tablet. Exodus 19:1-2 bears all the marks of being an introduction to a new tablet, summarising the final part of this previous one.

Note for Christians.

The prime lesson from this passage is that of using wisdom in doing the work of God. We must be ready to learn wisdom from anyone, once we are satisfied that it really is wisdom. Moses might have bristled with pride against his father-in-law and pointed out that he was only the leader of a small wandering tribe, while he had this great mass of people to deal with. But the only loser would have been Moses. It is also an indication of the importance of putting in a word at the right time, and of doing it gently and tactfully.

 


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Bibliography Information
Pett, Peter. "Commentary on Exodus 18:4". "Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible ". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/pet/exodus-18.html. 2013.

Lectionary Calendar
Wednesday, December 2nd, 2020
the First Week of Advent
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