Moses received needed advice from a trusted source: His father-in-law.
As Israel moves deeper into the Sinai wilderness, we see Moses make a mistake common to inexperienced leaders: he tries to do it all (Exodus 18). He is leader of the march. He serves as Israel’s delegate in consultations with God. He sits as judge in resolving disputes among the people.
As Israel arrives at Mount Sinai, Moses receives a trusted visitor, his father-in-law, the Midianite priest and tribal leader, Jethro. Jethro has heard of Israel’s deliverance from Egypt and of the exploits of his son-in-law. He comes to hear about them in person. He brings with him Moses’s wife and two sons, so the family can be reunited.
Moses tells Jethro about all God has done in Egypt. Jethro breaks into a praise blessing of God. Now I know that the Lord is greater than all gods… he declares (Exodus 18:11).
A Perceptive Observer
Jethro also observes as Moses goes about his daily leadership duties. He notes that Moses is trying to do everything. Jethro recognizes that Moses’ routine is a formula for early burn-out. He decides a word of caution is needed.
He counsels his son-in-law to share his duties with other capable assistants, especially in the onerous work of judging disputes among the people. Moses has been trying to settle each case personally, spending precious energy on an endless task. People are waiting for long times to hear their cases brought before the judge. Impatience may cause them to lose confidence in Moses and his leadership. Also judging disputes is diverting Moses from other important duties.
Jethro advises that Moses select competent subordinates to handle many routine cases, reserving only major issues to come to Moses’ decision. Not only will this save Moses’ energy, but it will allow Moses to devote his attention to the indispensable job of consultation with God and instruction of the people. Moses sees the wisdom of Jethro’s advice and puts it into practice.
I find it interesting that the challenge Moses faces is the same challenge that the apostles face in the infant church, as described in Acts 6:1-6. There the apostles are spending precious energy ensuring that members of the small community are getting fed with daily meals. This waiting on tables diverts them from other important work.
So they propose that the community select seven men to oversee these acts of daily administration so the apostles can devote themselves to their important work of prayer and preaching/teaching. The church chose what we know as the first seven deacons.
Wisdom from the Outsider
Division of labor was a needed innovation in both infant communities.
But what I also find interesting in the Exodus account is that this innovation is not suggested to Moses by God, but by someone outside of the faith community of Israel. Jethro may recognize and praise God, but Jethro is a not a member of the community nor a beneficiary of the liberation from Egypt. He is a kind of semi-outsider. Yet Moses does not discount his advice for that reason.
There have been times in Christian history when some Christian groups have been dismissive of any wisdom or knowledge that cannot be sourced directly from the Bible or Christian tradition. One voice of that attitude was the early church father Tertullian, who asked the question “What does Jerusalem have to do with Athens?” It was his colorful way of dismissing any relevance of pagan learning or wisdom when it came to church matters or the Christian life.
But this is not the stance of the biblical canon. The Old Testament canon includes a number of books that scholars call wisdom texts. They include Job, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes and well as several psalms (e.g., Psalms 1, 32, 37, 49, 111, 112, 128).
A striking feature of this wisdom literature is the fact these texts show some derivation from sources outside Israel. For example, scholars have noted that Proverbs 22:17-24:22 (which the biblical author gives the subtitle The Words of the Wise) closely parallels much of what is said in an ancient Egyptian work of wisdom, The Instruction of Amenemope. And Proverbs 31 is said to be wisdom given by his mother to King Lemuel, a non-Israelite.
Israelite sages were not afraid to draw upon and learn from wisdom coming from sources outside their own tradition. It shows a remarkable openness to what the sages considered true knowledge regardless of its origin.
Wisdom literature as a whole rested its authority on the authority of experience. Biblical scholar Glenn Pemberton describes this authority in this way:
Unlike prophets and priests, sages derive their understanding of God and life with God from what they see or experience, as well as what others have seen and experienced. They accept these insights as normative or God-given, just as a prophet regards a vision or a priest regards Torah to be God’s message.*
In this canonical stance, life experience has an equal place at the table of discussion along with Scripture and inspired speech in determining how we as faithful people are to live and conduct our affairs. This is a needed caution for all those raised in a Protestant tradition as I was. We often place our sole attention for guidance in the life of faith on the Bible. But the wisdom literature of the Bible suggests that that is an unbalanced stance. Life experience has a valid voice, too, and we ignore it at our spiritual peril. **
In paying attention to the counsel he received from Jethro, Moses did not.
* Glenn Pembeton, A Life that Is Good: The Message of Proverbs in a World Wanting Wisdom. Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdman Publishing Company, 2018. Page 9.
** One Protestant tradition that has broadened the sources of authority for the development of doctrine and theology is the Methodist tradition. Following John Wesley, Methodists have grounded doctrine and theology in four sources of authority: Scripture, Christian tradition, reason, and Christian experience. These four sources are known as the Wesleyan Quadrilateral. True to Protestantism, however, the Quadrilateral regards tradition, reason, and experience as always subject to the primary authority of Scripture.