Book of Exodus Chapter Eighteen Commentary by
Pastor Ron Beckham
Share The Burden
The name "Moses" was becoming famous throughout the region, but he would be the first to acknowledge that he didn't part the Red Sea or work miracles...it was the Lord...though the tendency of many is to honor people instead of God. In Verse 1, "Now Jethro, the priest of Midian, Moses’ father-in-law, heard of all that God had done for Moses and for Israel His people, how the Lord had brought Israel out of Egypt." This was the same Jethro who gave his daughter, "Zipporah," in marriage to Moses, as seen near the end of Chapter 2. As Chapter 3 began, Moses was pasturing Jethro's flock when suddenly the Lord spoke to him through the bush that was full of fire, but not burned up. And in Exodus 4:18, we find Moses obtaining permission from Jethro to return to Egypt in response to the call of God.
Zipporah, Jethro's daughter, accompanied Moses on the trip to Egypt (Exodus 4:18), but their marriage was in trouble. They can be glimpsed in Exodus 4:24-26, as a reluctant, furious Zipporah, circumcised one of their sons and flung the foreskin at Moses, shouting, "You are a bridegroom of blood." Their marriage did not work out, as seen in Verse 2: "Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, took Moses’ wife Zipporah, after he had sent her away." That Moses "sent her away" suggests that Moses divorced her, perhaps on her insistance, and she went to her father in Midian, who took her back into his home...which was not mandatory in that day. Note that both Moses and the priest, Jethro, still considered themselves to be related through marriage, though the marriage was at an end. It is possible the couple was still married and Moses sent her away to protect her from the Egyptians.
The two sons of Moses and Zipporah are seen in Verses 3-4: "...her two sons, of whom one was named Gershom, for Moses said, 'I have been a sojourner in a foreign land.' 4 The other was named Eliezer, for he said, 'The God of my father was my help, and delivered me from the sword of Pharaoh.'" Both of the sons seem to have been born before Zipporah's return from Egypt, because both were given names from the perspective of Moses' life. "Gershom" meant "sojourner there" or "expelled one." "Eliezer" may have been named by Zipporah or Jethro, for his name can be translated, "God helps," but it's more likely the boy was named by his father, who was "delivered...from the sword of Pharaoh," as Verse 4 states.
Verse 5: "Then Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, came with his sons and his wife to Moses in the wilderness where he was camped, at the mount of God." The "wilderness" in this verse is a reference in the wide sense to the whole area between Egypt and what was later to be called Israel. "The mount of God" is likely Mount Sinai, though some have suggested other locations. As to how Jethro found Moses, it would not be hard for someone in that region to locate an encampment of two million people, especially a group as notorious as this one. It was not a prearranged meeting between the two men. In Verse 6, Jethro reached the guards located around the encampment and then waited after sending word through them that he wanted to meet with Moses: "He sent word to Moses, 'I, your father-in-law Jethro, am coming to you with your wife and her two sons with her.'" What constituted a legal divorce was not what it is today, and from Jethro's point of view, the two were still married. Moses may have felt that way, also.
Moses was pleased by the arrival of Jethro. He was the leader of this new nation and could have merely sent word to have them brought to him, but in Verse 7, "Then Moses went out to meet his father-in-law, and he bowed down and kissed him; and they asked each other of their welfare and went into the tent." He clearly loved and respected this priest of Midian who was his father-in-law, but as to his wife and sons, the relationship seems somewhat distant.
It can really feel good to finally share a difficult situation with someone you can trust, and in Verse 8, "Moses told his father-in-law all that the Lord had done to Pharaoh and to the Egyptians for Israel’s sake, all the hardship that had befallen them on the journey, and how the Lord had delivered them." The conversation must have taken quite some time, for a lot had happened, all of it was miraculous, and in Verse 9-10, "Jethro rejoiced over all the goodness which the Lord had done to Israel, in delivering them from the hand of the Egyptians. 10 So Jethro said, 'Blessed be the Lord who delivered you from the hand of the Egyptians and from the hand of Pharaoh, and who delivered the people from under the hand of the Egyptians.'"
Notice in Verse 11 something that should actually be reassurring to a lot of people. Jethro continued, "Now I know that the Lord is greater than all the gods; indeed, it was proven when they dealt proudly against the people.'" Jethro was a believer, he was a priest, and yet he was also an honest man who lived within a polygamous culture, harboring concerns about God: Is He simply God and there is no other? There are always a lot of influential people who speak, write and rule in ways that can be confusing. God is real, Jethro knew it, but now he heard eye-witness testimony that the Lord God is the only God, and in a universe of many seen and unseen beings, He is stronger than them all. In Verse 12, "Then Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, took a burnt offering and sacrifices for God, and Aaron came with all the elders of Israel to eat a meal with Moses’ father-in-law before God." Notice that Moses, Aaron and everybody else were content to let Jethro take the lead in spiritual matters.
As the leader of a nation, Moses set aside his time with Jethro and resumed his duties. But Jethro was watching all this with wide-eyed interest. In Verse 13, "It came about the next day that Moses sat to judge the people, and the people stood about Moses from the morning until the evening." And the very interested Jethro opened up a conversation with Moses about his duties in Verse 14: "Now when Moses’ father-in-law saw all that he was doing for the people, he said, 'What is this thing that you are doing for the people? Why do you alone sit as judge and all the people stand about you from morning until evening?'" Moses was likely pleased that he was doing so well and would have been surprised at Jethro's question.
Jethro had been the leader of his family and he was a religious leader among his people, the Midianites. His observations about the leadership style he was witnessing would be interesting to Moses, and in Verses 15-16, "Moses said to his father-in-law, 'Because the people come to me to inquire of God. 16 When they have a dispute, it comes to me, and I judge between a man and his neighbor and make known the statutes of God and His laws.'" Basically Moses replied to Jethro: "I do it because I have to do it because it is my job and nobody else knows how." How many difficult and often annoying things do we do because we feel we are the only one who can and will do it?
God made us human...He created us to need sleep, gave us a limited amount of strength, a somewhat functional intellect and a need for the advice of others, whether we want it or not. In Verses 17-18, "Moses’ father-in-law said to him, 'The thing that you are doing is not good. 18 You will surely wear out, both yourself and these people who are with you, for the task is too heavy for you; you cannot do it alone.'" Life contains a lot of hurt and some of it, perhaps a lot of it, we bring on ourselves because of a stubborn insistance that we must do it—"my way."
This godly man, Jethro, Moses' father-in-law, observed this do-it-alone tendency in Moses and had something to say about it, in the next few verses, starting in Verses 19-20: "Now listen to me: I will give you counsel, and God be with you. You be the people’s representative before God, and you bring the disputes to God, 20 then teach them the statutes and the laws, and make known to them the way in which they are to walk and the work they are to do.' Jethro pointed out to Moses that he was to do more than merely arbitrate between the people's "disputes," he was to "teach them," so they could do it themselves. And he continues in Verses 21-22: "Furthermore, you shall select out of all the people able men who fear God, men of truth, those who hate dishonest gain; and you shall place these over them as leaders of thousands, of hundreds, of fifties and of tens. 22 Let them judge the people at all times; and let it be that every major dispute they will bring to you, but every minor dispute they themselves will judge. So it will be easier for you, and they will bear the burden with you.'" Moses was to look around, outside of himself, and find others who would become judges themselves and "bear the burden with you." That was good advice, and we should be willing to listen to advice, teach others and share responsibility, as God leads.
And often, sharing what we know can benefit us personally. As Jethro continued in Verse 23, "If you do this thing and God so commands you, then you will be able to endure, and all these people also will go to their place in peace.'" It is hard to share authority. Often our livelihood, our income and our status in the community seems to depend on our knowing more than the people around us. After all, why would you hire an attorney or a doctor if you knew as much as they do? But if our decisions are not about money or prestige, will we do what Moses did in the next few verses?
Verse 24: "So Moses listened to his father-in-law and did all that he had said." He recognized good advice when he heard it, but much more, he knew this was from the Lord. Jethro was not perfect, we aren't, Moses wasn't, but there are those times when something we hear and understand comes from the Lord...we should act on what He reveals, even when given through an intermediary. And so, in Verses 25-26, he acted: "Moses chose able men out of all Israel and made them heads over the people, leaders of thousands, of hundreds, of fifties and of tens. 26 They judged the people at all times; the difficult dispute they would bring to Moses, but every minor dispute they themselves would judge." This was wisdom personified. The aging Moses was exhausted and now he had men to help him. If the decisions made by these men went wrong, it no longer was the fault of Moses, and appeals could be made to Moses in any case. Prestige was shared and people complained about him less. A great weight was lifted off this man. The burden would be eased and all would be blessed.
In Verse 27, "Then Moses bade his father-in-law farewell, and he went his way into his own land." Nothing is said of Moses' wife, Zipporah, or their two sons, and we are left to wonder if they remained with him or not.
Father, help us to understand that we are not alone. You are with us and You intend that we will work together for the good of all. Enable us to accept the help that is offered and help us to share what we are called to give. In Jesus Name. Amen.