Epiphany means manifestation. When God was born as a man, God was revealed to the world. The same Spirit who bore Jesus into the world and empowered His ministry, was poured out in the Church to continue that same revelation. Last week, we saw that God is revealed in our support for one another. The victory is given to Israel when Moses’ arms are supported, holding up the serpent-rod in his hands. God continues to train Israel to be His son in this chapter, and here, this training continues in the organization of Israel through the gift of teachers, rulers, and judges. As Israel is organized by judges and wisdom, they reveal their Father.
Moses’ father-in-law is the priest of Midian (18:1). In many ways, Jethro reminds us of Melchizedek (Gen. 14): Moses greets his father in-law with great respect (18:7ff), they share bread together (18:12), and both priests give blessings to God’s people (18:10). While many commentators puzzle over whether Jethro worshipped the God of Israel, it seems very plain that he did. First, the parallel with Melchizedek is striking. Second, Moses married his daughter. Thirdly, the Midianites were distant relatives, descended from Abraham from his second wife Keturah (Gen. 25:2). Fourth, if in the off chance, Jethro really was not yet a worshipper of the true God, after this story, he surely is (18:10-11).
We know that Moses had brought his family back to Egypt with him prior to the Exodus (4:20), but apparently he had sent them back to his father in-law at some point during the Exodus because they return to him now (18:2-5). Notice how Jethro is a striking contrast to Amalek (also a distant relative of Israel, a descendent of Esau) (cf. 15:14ff). Jethro offers offerings and sacrifices to God, and Aaron and the elders of Israel eat bread together before God and worship before (at the mountain) just as God had promised (18:12, 3:12).
Moses and the Judges
The next day Moses went about his daily task of sitting before Israel morning till evening to hear the disputes between the people (18:13-16). Notice that this overturns the reluctance of Israel to have Moses as their judge early on (2:14). We imagine petty lawsuits were not unusual for a people with such complaining as we have seen. Jethro says that this is not good, and it is too heavy for both Moses and the people (18:17-18). Instead of sitting before the people all day, Jethro says that Moses ought to stand before God for the people (18:19). Besides judging, Jethro says the new judges will need teaching so that they can teach the people (18:20). The designation of thousands, hundreds, fifties, and tens fits with the fact that Israel is an army (e.g. Num. 31:14ff, Dt. 20:9, 2 Sam. 18:1). There were already “elders” in Israel (18:12, cf. 3:16, 12:21, and 17:5-6), and later the “elders” and “judges” will be spoken of as coexisting (e.g. Dt. 21:2, Josh. 8:33, 23:2). Likewise, seventy of the elders will be appointed who will be given some of the Spirit that is upon Moses, and Moses will pray that God would make all of Israel prophets (Num. 11:16-30). Here, Moses appoints “rulers” who will “judge” (18:25-26). This is likely the office of “judge” found in the book of Judges (cf. Ruth 1:1). This judging continues the Exodus, extending the great deliverance of Yahweh (Ex. 6:6, 7:4, 12:12). God delivers His people to become deliverers. In the multitude of counselors there is safety (Pr. 11:14, 24:6).
In the New Covenant there three important parallels with what we find in Exodus 18. First, wisdom and leadership are always disciplines of imitation. Jethro teaches Moses to do what he does, so that Moses can teach other judges to do what he does. Paul tells the Corinthians to imitate him just as he imitates Christ (1 Cor. 11:1). Jesus is our Moses, who stands before the Father, ever interceding out behalf. Jesus is our High Priest, according to the order of Melchizedek. He is our hope, our guarantee, and He ever lives for us.
But Paul says that Christ has given gifts of leadership to the Church so that the saints may be equipped for the work of ministry (Eph. 4:11-12). When the Spirit of Christ was poured out at Pentecost on all flesh, Moses’ prayer that all of Israel would prophesy began to be fulfilled. And this means that God doesn’t just delegate authority. It’s not like Jesus actually gets tired of hearing from us; it isn’t too heavy for Him. But salvation is God’s sharing of His life and wisdom and authority with us. By the working of the Spirit, God is growing up a nation of prophets and judges in the Church. And the pattern is the same: just as Moses was teach Israel how to teach and judge, so the leaders of the church are to train the saints for the work of ministry: judging and teaching. And this is the pattern in the Church: Pastors, elders, deacons are called to give what they have been given away.
It’s worth remember that Jethro was a gentile who advised Moses, and it is the Spirit who knits the nations together and equips the body with gifts (1 Cor. 12). In addition to our sin and rebellion, we tend to despise people different from ourselves. Moses had all kinds of reasons for being prickly toward Jethro or doubting Jethro’s plan, and there are numerous ways it could have backfired. But leadership comes through serving. If you want to be great, you must become a slave. Moses gave authority away, and he actually gained more. If you want to find your life, you must lose it for the sake of Jesus. The Spirit teaches us to have hope, and to see the potential in people who seem like serious projects.
The Fifth Commandment
We practice this pattern in the family. We should not miss the fact that this organization of Israel comes from Moses’ father in-law. The honor of father and mother is a central type of honor and authority and organization in the world, which is why it has such enormous implications (Eph. 6:1-3). But the responsibility goes both ways, and fathers must not provoke their children but rather bring them up in the nurture of the Lord (Eph. 6:4) which means being judges who teach the way of freedom.