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Jethro's Wisdom

by Tim O'Hearn

We don’t know a lot about Moses’ father in law, Yisro (Jethro in English translations). We know he kept sheep. We know he was at one time a Midianite priest, but became a follower of the true God when he heard about what God had done in freeing Israel from Egyptian bondage. We know that when Moses went to Egypt he sent his wife and sons back to Yisro, and after the exodus he brought them back to Moses. And we know he was a wise man. It is that last quality that I want to examine.

The day after he brought Moses’ family back, he watched his son in law judge the people. Moses would spend all day judging individual cases. Moses told Yisro, “I judge between one and another, and I do make them know the statutes of God, and his laws.” (Ex 18: 16) His father in law saw that this was wearying to both Moses and the people, and suggested a system of lower courts, so Moses would only see the most difficult cases.

And thou shalt teach them ordinances and laws, and shalt show them the way wherein they must walk, and the work that they must do. Moreover thou shalt provide out of all the people able men, such as fear God, men of truth, hating covetousness; and place such over them, to be rulers of thousands, and rulers of hundreds, rulers of fifties, and rulers of tens: And let them judge the people. (Ex 18:20-22)

Some teachers have asked why Yisro tells Moses to teach first, and then set up the judges. Wouldn’t it make more sense to set the infrastructure in place, and then explain it to the people, along with the laws? Why not teach the judges the laws first, and then the people? Moses’ father in law was wise enough to see both the solution to the problem, and a root cause.

One view of the matter is that Yisro saw the need to reduce the number of cases. If Moses first taught the people how to live with each other, “the way wherein they must walk, and the work that they must do,” it would lessen the basic problem. If they were taught basic people skills and simple negotiation, they could work out many of their own problems. If he set up the courts first, then the structure might be more than would be necessary after the teaching.

I think Moses’ father in law saw another flaw in what Moses was doing. When each case came before him, he would then “make them know the statutes of God.” He had so many cases because nobody knew what God wanted them to do. It was as if somebody came to Moses and said, “I think he is driving too fast.” So Moses then tells them about the speed limit. If he set up the courts first, it wouldn’t help. The judges still couldn’t judge, because they wouldn’t know the standard until Moses heard the case. Yisro told Moses, you first have to lay down the law so the judges will know it. Then you can rely on them. Otherwise, you frustrate them and still overwork yourself.

Sometimes we follow Moses’ example. We expect people to do things, even obey God, without setting the standards. We change the rules in the middle of the game. Yisro was wise enough to see that the referees needed the rulebook before the game. When we deal with people, we need to set the expectations first. Maybe then we, like Moses, will “be able to endure, and all this people shall also go to their place in peace.” (Ex 18:23)