The Work of Justice among the People of Israel (Exodus 18:1-27)
While on the journey from Egypt to Sinai, Moses reconnected with his father-in-law Jethro. This former outsider to the Israelites offered much-needed counsel to Moses concerning justice in the community. God’s work of redemption for his people was expanded into the work of justice among his people. Israel had already experienced unjust treatment at the hand of the Egyptian taskmasters. Out on their own, they rightly sought for God’s answers to their own disputes. Walter Brueggemann has observed that biblical faith is not just about telling the story of what God has done. It is also “about the hard, sustained work of nurturing and practicing the daily passion of healing and restoring, and the daily rejection of dishonest gain.”
One of the first things we learned earlier about Moses was his desire to mediate between those embroiled in a dispute. Initially, when Moses tried to intervene, he was rebuked with the words, “Who made you a ruler and a judge over us?” (Exod. 2:14). In the current episode, we see just the opposite. Moses is in such demand as the ruler-judge that a multitude of people in need of his decisions gathered around him “from morning until evening” (Exod. 18:14; see also Deut. 1:9-18). Moses’ work apparently has two aspects. First, he rendered legal decisions for people in dispute. Second, he taught God’s statutes and instructions for those seeking moral and religious guidance. Jethro observed that Moses was the sole agent in this noble work, but deemed the entire process to be unsustainable. “What you are doing is not good” (Exod. 18:17). Furthermore, it was detrimental to Moses and unsatisfying for the people he was trying to help. Jethro’s solution was to let Moses continue doing what he was uniquely qualified to do as God’s representative: intercede with God for the people, instruct them, and decide the difficult cases. All of the other cases were to be delegated to subordinate judges who would serve in a four-tiered system of judicial administration.
The qualification of these judges is the key to the wisdom of the plan, for they were not selected according to the tribal divisions of the people or their religious maturity. They must meet four qualifications (Exod. 18:21). First, they must be capable. The Hebrew expression “men of hayil” connotes ability, leadership, management, resourcefulness, and due respect. Second, they must “fear God.” As with the midwives in chapter 2, this is probably not specifically a religious quality. It describes people who have a clear understanding of commonly recognized morality that stretches across cultural and religious boundaries. Third, they must be "trustworthy." Because truth is an abstract concept as well as a way of acting, these people must have a public track record of truthful character as well as conduct. Finally, they must be haters of unjust gain. They must know how and why corruption occurs, despise the practice of bribery and all kinds of subversion, and actively guard the judicial process from these infections.
Delegation is essential to the work of leadership. Though Moses was uniquely gifted as a prophet, statesman, and judge, he was not infinitely gifted. Anyone who imagines that only he or she is capable of doing God’s work well has forgotten what it means to be human. Therefore, the gift of leadership is ultimately the gift of giving away power appropriately. The leader, like Moses, must discern the qualities needed, train those who are to receive authority, and develop means to hold them accountable. The leader also needs to be held accountable. Jethro performed this task in Moses’ case, and the passage is remarkably frank in showing how even the greatest of all the Old Testament prophets had to be confronted by someone with the power to hold him accountable. Wise, decisive, compassionate leadership is a gift from God that every human community needs. Yet Exodus shows us that it is not so much a matter of a gifted leader assuming authority over people, as it is God’s process for a community to develop structures of leadership in which gifted people can succeed. Delegation is the only way to increase the capacity of an institution or community, as well as the way to develop future leaders.
The fact that Moses accepted this counsel so quickly and thoroughly may be evidence of how personally desperate he was. But on a wider scale, we also can see that Moses was completely open to God’s wisdom mediated to him from someone outside the people of Israel. This observation may encourage Christians to receive and respect input from a wide range of traditions and religions, notably in matters of work. Doing so is not necessarily a mark of disloyalty to Christ, nor does it expose a lack of confidence in our own faith. It is not an improper concession to religious pluralism. On the contrary, it may even be a poor witness to produce biblical quotes of wisdom too frequently, for in so doing, outsiders may perceive us as narrow and possibly insecure. Christians do well to be discerning about the specifics of the counsel we adopt, whether it comes from within or without. But in the final analysis, we are confident that “all truth is God’s truth.”
Walter Brueggemann, “The Book of Exodus,” in vol. 1, The New Interpreter’s Bible: Genesis to Leviticus (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1994), 829.
Umberto Moshe David Cassuto, A Commentary on the Book of Exodus (Skokie, IL: Varda Books, 2005), 219.
Arthur Holmes, All Truth is God’s Truth (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1983).