Scripture: Exodus 18:13-27
13 The next day Moses sat as judge for the people, while the people stood around him from morning until evening. 14 When Moses’s father-in-law saw all that he was doing for the people, he said, “What is this that you are doing for the people? Why do you sit alone, while all the people stand around you from morning until evening?” 15 Moses said to his father-in-law, “Because the people come to me to inquire of God. 16 When they have a dispute, they come to me, and I decide between one person and another, and I make known to them the statutes and instructions of God.” 17 Moses’s father-in-law said to him, “What you are doing is not good. 18 You will surely wear yourself out, both you and these people with you, for the task is too heavy for you; you cannot do it alone. 19 Now listen to me. I will give you counsel, and God be with you! You should represent the people before God and bring their cases to God. 20 Teach them the statutes and instructions and make known to them the way they are to go and the things they are to do. 21 You should also look for able men among all the people, men who fear God, are trustworthy, and hate dishonest gain; set them as officers over thousands, hundreds, fifties, and tens. 22 Let them sit as judges for the people at all times; let them bring every important case to you but decide every minor case themselves. So it will be easier for you, and they will bear the burden with you. 23 If you do this and God so commands you, then you will be able to endure, and all these people will go to their homes in peace.”
24 So Moses listened to his father-in-law and did all that he had said. 25 Moses chose able men from all Israel and appointed them as heads over the people, as officers over thousands, hundreds, fifties, and tens. 26 And they judged the people at all times; hard cases they brought to Moses, but any minor case they decided themselves. 27 Then Moses let his father-in-law depart, and he went off to his own country.
Theme- Israel develops a system to help build community
- Would Moses have really needed such practical advice from his father-in-law or does this interaction represent something deeper about the text?
- Israel would clearly not need leaders to oversee and judge groups of ten people or even ten families so why are such small units listed?
- It is easy to believe that the Israelites grumbled and complained so much that their griping overwhelmed Moses but might the delegation of authority be meant to teach us something about the ideal society rather than showing a breakdown in the historic Israelite community?
To us judge means to decide between but the Hebrew word is closer to “create justice for” implying the nature of the position created was to help create a just community.
Jethro’s visit is likely placed outside the chronological order since it presupposes laws and government established after Sinai in Ex. 20.
Jethro’s visit is meant as a thematic contrast to the Amalekites. Jethro represents a group distantly related to Israel who seeks to live at peace with Israel and provides wisdom, the Amalekites are a group distantly related to Israel who seek to bring war and conquest.
This passage is the first step in helping us to learn that deliverance is meant to lead to a just society.
Curt Thomas does a marvelous job highlighting the themes of this passage in his Trinity Forum interview here
For more background watch my video here
Moses needs help. He is already dealing with the responsibilities of leading thousands of Israelites through the wilderness and his father-in-law has showed up to drop off his family. If his civic duties were not enough to burn Moses out the added burden of his family seems to push him over the edge. During his stay, Jethro sees Moses’ dilemma and sits down with Moses to offer him help. From everything we are told in Exodus Jethro was a leader in Midian and a very wise man, so when he brings Moses advice, we are supposed to recognize God’s wisdom in it. Jethro’s advice is common sense, to delegate responsibility to people well suited to the role. The result is Moses creates a court system of sorts where arbitration can take place and more difficult cases get passed up the ladder similar to our own appellate system. Or at least that is how I have always pictured this passage.
What struck me as I read the passage this time is that individuals are set over units from thousands to tens. We are not told how these groups are constituted but no matter how it breaks down a group of “ten” is a very small group. Does really need a dedicated judge? Even if the group of ten is meant to represent ten families, do ten families have enough conflict that they need one person to judge them. And as we move up the ladder, we notice that each group is in multiples of ten indicating that even the person over the thousands is really only responsible for the judges who judge the hundreds. No person in this hierarchy is responsible for more than ten individuals. Because it shows that what Moses is creating is not simply a judicial hierarchy, he is creating a network within society. Moses is creating a community network not simply to adjudicate complains but to work together to build up those within the segment. When I think of the structure Moses is creating I think of the smallest unit in terms of a block within a residential neighborhood. I know HOA’s and neighborhood watch groups can have a bad reputation in modern America but imagine a representative for blocks committed not to preserving the resale value of the houses but to creating a robust and just community. What makes HOA’s etc. objects of scorn is that they simply become agencies for policing bad behavior instead of organizations which promote community growth and development.
Administrations like the one Moses creates have two paths open to them, they can either focus on being enforcers of rules, or they can be people who promote the development of society. I think what Jethro and Moses had in mind was the latter. A group of ten does not make sense in terms of policing rules but is the perfect size for working in a small group to promote a community. Groups of ten are ideal for promoting trust and engagement within the group and allows the opportunity for everyone to participate. The goal of this program was not to simply sit and hear complaints but to be active in the lives of those in the group of ten they were responsible for to promote moral and community development. Moses needed help to create a society that reflected the goal of justice God wanted from Israel, the help came in promoting small groups of people to engage with people at the most intimate level. Moses was not trying to police bad behavior but to us a system of administration to promote the kind of values God wanted from the people.
Today, we lament the breakdown of society and a lack of community; we are less connected to neighbors and communities and the result is people feel more threatened and vulnerable. Here is where the Bible just makes practical sense, working together in small groups to improve the small areas of shared space within that group. We lack groups where people can engage together on the difficult work of living in community together and it is showing in the way we see communities crumbling around us. We need groups formed around wise and mature people willing to engage in building societies, doing the hard work of bringing people together and engaging everyone’s voice. Until we are willing to commit to participating in this kind of intimate work with others our communities with suffer and falter.
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