Exodus 18:13-27: A New Structure for Guidance
We continue in Exodus 18:13-27 with stories about Jethro, Moses' father-in-law. Jethro observed Moses at work for a day and offered him some godly counsel. From morning till evening he saw the people waiting in line to get an audience with Moses. They were bringing the issues of their lives to Moses in order to receive some divine direction on what they must do. Moses was meeting with person after person, considering their predicaments, inquiring of the Lord, and giving them an answer. The line was not getting any shorter. Jethro realized that at this rate both Moses and the people would be worn out with the whole matter. It was too enormous a load for Moses to carry by himself. It was too long a wait for the people to get their much needed direction.
Our English translations give the impression that Moses was only judging disputes between the people. I think this is a little narrow. We also tend to read this from the perspective of our modern judicial system and understanding of what a judge does. The word translated "disputes" can also be translated "matters." The people were bringing the matters of their lives to Moses. No doubt this included disputes, but likely it included matters requiring direction whether a dispute was involved or not. As judge Moses was not simply levying out sentences, but was giving counsel and guidance. The people were seeking direction from God, and who better to get God's direction from than Moses. While it may not have been a very good system, give the people this: they wanted God's direction in the matters of life.
Jethro bluntly told Moses that this system of making God's will known was not good, that Moses cannot continue to do this job alone. He offered a four point solution:
(1) Jethro affirmed Moses' position of leader. He must represent the people before God and bring their disputes/matters before God. The new solution does not mean that Moses loses his place. He would still carry the same authority and responsibility. He is the priest-prophet who carried the people to God and brought back a word from God for the people. What would change is how Moses carried out his leadership office.
(2) Moses is to "teach them the decrees and laws, and show them the way to live and the duties they are to perform." Rather than wait for the people to bring matters to Moses, Moses is to bring instruction for living to the people. He is to be proactive rather than merely reactive, teaching them a way of life that is God-centered at heart, rather than one that seeks "God solutions" after choices have already been made.
(3) Moses is to 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." Notice what makes someone capable for leadership among God's people. It's not wealth or degrees or employment status. Leadership ability is determined on the scale of God-fear. "The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom" (Prov. 1:7). Such fear means reverencing God and giving God God's due place - that is, living all of life in submission to God. Wisdom is skill at living, skill at making good choices in life, in fact, godly choices in life. The first skill, the foundational skill for all other choices, is to organize life under the dominion of God, to give God God's due place over our lives and at the center of our lives. If we do not get this decision correct, then all other decisions will be skewed. To lead God's people one must have reached a level of maturity in this ever-developing, foundational skill. One must fear/reverence God.
From this first skill comes trustworthiness and the hate of dishonest gain. Life lived out of the awe-full presence of God demands and issues integrity. Again, the skills required for leadership of God's people have little to do with technology or proficiency or charisma, but everything to do with character. Do you want to be a leader? Or do you find yourself already in a leadership office? Work on these skills: the fear of God, trustworthiness, and the hate of dishonest gain.
The decision to appoint officials was critical for Moses, for it involved divesting power. It meant giving up absolute control of the people. No longer would everyone be hanging on Moses' word for every matter that came up. There would be others to go to. It also meant giving up authority to those officials, for without authority their decisions/instructions would carry no weight. Moses would really have to trust his leaders. He would be giving them his weight.
Ultimately, however, Moses would have to trust God. Jethro was offering his advice as coming from God. The advice was to share the load with men who fear God. The challenge for Moses was to trust God enough to loosen the grip of his own control, to trust that God would lead others and that they would follow God, to trust that God is leading in this whole matter. The relinquishment would ultimately be a relinquishment to God, a granting of permission to God to redistribute power as God sees fit for the benefit of the community (and Moses).
(4) As noted, these fear-skilled leaders were to be given both responsibility and authority to "judge" the matters of the people. The simple cases they were to decide for themselves, the difficult cases they were to bring to Moses. I've separated this from #3, because the selection of leaders involved the divesting of authority and responsibility while here the issue is the proper use of that authority and responsibility. The leaders were to exercise discernment regarding what they could decide and what Moses should decide. They must not be out to make a name for themselves. Moses would be trusting their loyalty, that they will not usurp their authority and determine matters that are too heavy for them. This indeed would be "dishonest gain" whether a bribe was involved or not. To not defer what should be deferred amounts to a grab for power. The first skill, the fear of God, is crucial to the skill of discerning and deferring. Without it anarchy would "innocently" result as officials became puffed up with matters too great for them.
For example, suppose someone came to an official with a matter of which Moses should have been made aware. That official does not tell Moses on the grounds of "confidentiality." What would be the power dynamics now involved? That official, intentionally or innocently, would now be in a position of privilege over against Moses. If such activity recurred often enough, Moses would find that he has a rival rather than a colleague. Every office of leadership calls for times of deferment - Moses was even deferring to Jethro in following his advice. May God grant us grace to discern and defer, to avoid traps of being "imprivileged."
Moses implemented his father-in-law's plan and Israel had a new and improved system for determining the matters of life. I suppose that most of what has been gleaned from this passage could be attained at a management seminar, probably entitled "Leadership by Delegation." So my question is, what is the Gospel in all of this? It is this: we serve a god who seeks to instruct us regarding the matters of life. It is not God's intention to leave us in a quandary on the issues of life. God comes to us to reveal God’s self and to make His ways known. He desires for us to take on His character and to practice His habits of heart. God came to Abraham with a promise and a call to trust. God came to Moses at a burning bush and revealed His name, Yahweh. We are about to receive the Ten Words for Life on Mt. Sinai just a few chapters later in Exodus.
Even more, God came to us in Christ Jesus, "the Word became flesh and dwelt among us," that we might know God more fully. Jesus said, "I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me." Jesus is the way to relation with the Father. Jesus faithfully reveals the Father. Jesus offers life in and from the Father. God seeks to give us life, and instruction for life, in Jesus. His Spirit abides with us to bring us this life and form it within us.
Jesus also said, "Anyone who has faith in me will do what I have been doing. He will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father." Consider it: we, the church, doing what Jesus did, being the way, truth, and life. And doing what Jesus could never do in the confines of one body: being the way, truth, and life to people around the globe and across the centuries. Yes, being the way, truth, and life for people on the corner of 36th and National. As we love one another, people will know whose we are. They will know Jesus. They will know the Father.
God does not leave us stranded along the road of perplexity. He comes to us, maybe not with answers to all of our questions, but with Presence and Guidance through the matters of life, especially in terms of who we are called to become.