by William Klock
Last Sunday we look at Exodus 17. The Amalekites, a powerful tribe of desert nomads, attacked the Israelites. They may have been afraid of the Israelites moving in on their territory and taking their scarce resources. Maybe they heard about the water God brought forth from the rock at Rephidim and decided they wanted it for themselves. Maybe they were just horrible and violent people. Scripture is silent on their motives. But they knew who the Israelites were and they couldn’t have missed what the Lord had done for them at the Red Sea. By this time, they’d probably even heard of what the Lord had done for them back in Egypt. They knew the might of the God of Israel. And they attacked his people anyway. They went toe to toe with the Lord in battle and they lost.
In Exodus 18 Israel meets up with another tribe of desert-dwellers: the Midianites. This isn’t the first time we’ve seen them. These are the people Moses lived with for forty years after fleeing Egypt. Like the Amalekites, they’ve also heard about what the Lord has done for his people. What’s their response? Look at Exodus 18:1-9.
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. Now Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, had taken Zipporah, Moses’ wife, after he had sent her home, along with her two sons. The name of the one was Gershom (for he said, “I have been a sojourner in a foreign land”), and the name of the other, Eliezer (for he said, “The God of my father was my help, and delivered me from the sword of Pharaoh”). Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, came with his sons and his wife to Moses in the wilderness where he was encamped at the mountain of God. And when he sent word to Moses, “I, your father-in-law Jethro, am coming to you with your wife and her two sons with her,” Moses went out to meet his father-in-law and bowed down and kissed him. And they asked each other of their welfare and went into the tent. Then 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 come upon them in the way, and how the Lord had delivered them. And Jethro rejoiced for all the good that the Lord had done to Israel, in that he had delivered them out of the hand of the Egyptians.
Okay, well, there’s actually a bit here before we get to the Midianite’s response. It’s not clear exactly how Moses’ wife and sons ended up back in Midian. They left with him for Egypt. You’ll remember that incident on the way there when the Lord became angry and Zipporah did what Moses had neglected to do and circumcised their son. But at some point Zipporah and the boys went back to Midian. Moses may have sent them back before all hell broke loose in Egypt, wanting to keep them safe. It might be that when the Israelites arrived in the wilderness, Zipporah made a beeline for home, going ahead of the rest. As we’ll see in the next chapter, it’s been three months since their flight from Egypt, so she would have had plenty of time. This may be how Jethro knows of all that’s happened.
Whatever the specifics, Jethro sets out to greet Moses. We get a sense of Moses’ excitement when he hears the news and he rushes to meet his father-in-law. They have a happy reunion and all that goes with that, but the focus here is on Moses telling Jethro the details of all that’s happened. More specifically, he tell Jethro of all that the Lord has done: the command to Pharaoh, the staves and snakes, the ten great signs, the death of the first born and the Passover that spared the Israelites, Pharaoh’s final decree sending them away, their despoiling of the Egyptians, Pharaoh’s change of heart and the amazing events at the Red Sea, the bitter water turned sweet, the manna and quails, the water from the rock, and finally the amazing defeat of the Amalekites. And Jethro responds with joy, we’re told, over all the good the Lord had done to Israel.
The Amalekites, that other desert-dwelling tribe, had heard of all the good the Lord had done to Israel and attacked. Jethro, the priest of Midian, hears of all the good the Lord has done to Israel and he rejoices. Look at verses 10-12:
Jethro said, “Blessed be the Lord, who has delivered you out of the hand of the Egyptians and out of the hand of Pharaoh and has delivered the people from under the hand of the Egyptians. Now I know that the Lord is greater than all gods, because in this affair they dealt arrogantly with the people.” And Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, brought a burnt offering and sacrifices to God; and Aaron came with all the elders of Israel to eat bread with Moses’ father-in-law before God.
Jethro goes beyond rejoicing with Moses over the mighty deeds and the goodness of the Lord. He blesses the Lord for what he has done. He blesses the Lord for his might, for his goodness, and for his faithfulness to his promises. Jethro hears of the might and the faithfulness of God and its’ as if he says, “I’ve heard of a lot of gods, but this is one who truly worthy of my worship like no other!”
Now, where Jethro was at in terms of faith is somewhat up in the air. The Midianites were cousins of the Jews. They were also descended from Abraham. It’s clear earlier in Exodus that when Moses found the Midianites—or least Jethro’s clan—he found fellow worshippers of the Lord. But it’s hard to know much more beyond that. Jethro’s family and the Israelites worshipped the God of Abraham. But these aren’t the only Midianites. Jethro and his people are friendly and welcoming to the Israelites, but that won’t be the case for the Midianites later in Israel’s history. Think forward to the story of Gideon in the book of Judges. The Midianites were the villains in that story and the Lord, through Gideon, dealt them a major defeat—they fade into history after that. And, don’t forget, it was Midianites who bought Joseph from his brothers and sold him as a slave in Egypt. We certainly get the sense later on that the Midianites were pagans. Jethro very well may have worshipped the Lord as a local or tribal god, while acknowledging others. But now, having heard of what the Lord has done—particularly what he has done to Egypt, triumphing over the most powerful king and the most powerful gods in the world—he praises the Lord: He is greater than all other gods! And he proceeds to offer to the Lord a burnt offering and sacrifices to celebrate his might, his goodness, and his faithfulness.
This little episode may seem unimportant. We’re in a rush to get to the grand events that take place at Mt. Sinai and seemingly insignificant events like this keep getting in the way of the story. But, Brothers and Sisters, there’s a good reason that they’re here. (The same goes for the next bit with Jethro.) This praise to the Lord offered by the Midianites links the Exodus with the Lord’s covenant with and his promises to Abraham. It shows his faithfulness. Jethro reminds us that the Lord’s interest goes far beyond Israel. The Lord’s plans involve more than simply rescuing his people from Egypt. His plans are bigger than a single people. It’s easy to think that in the Old Testament, God’s grace is exclusive, that it’s focused only on Israel, and to compare that to the New Testament, which seems so universal, with Jesus’ command to go out to all the nations, baptising them and making disciples. But we’re reminded here that the nations have been part of God’s plan all along. Think back to his promises to Abraham when the covenant was established, back in Genesis:
No longer shall your name be called Abram, but your name shall be Abraham,for I have made you the father of a multitude of nations. I will make you exceedingly fruitful, and I will make you into nations, and kings shall come from you. (Genesis 17:5-6)
We don’t see this promise come to full fruit until the book of Acts in the New Testament, but we the blossoms forming throughout the Old Testament. God elected Israel to be his people, but his plan is bigger than Israel. Israel is his means of reaching the nations. We saw a blossom forming when we read back in Chapter 12 that a mixed multitude of people departed Egypt with the Israelites. Already, God’s deliverance was bigger than a single people. Think of Ruth, the pagan Moabitess, who attached herself in faith to Israel and ended up the great-grandmother of King David. Think of Naaman the Syrian general. He had leprosy, but he’d heard of the power of Elisha, the Lord’s prophet. He was drawn to Israel because of what he’d heard her God was capable of. The Lord healed him and he praise the Lord with words very similar to Jethro’s: “Behold, I know that there is no God in all the earth but in Israel” (2 Kings 5:15).
Through Zechariah the Lord spoke of a day when Israel’s calling would be fulfilled:
Thus says the Lord of hosts: In those days ten men from the nations of every tongue shall take hold of the robe of a Jew, saying, ‘Let us go with you, for we have heard that God is with you.’” (Zechariah 8:23)
The blossoms we see forming in Jethro, in Naaman, in Ruth come to full fruit in Jesus. In him Israel’s mission has been fulfilled. In Jesus, Abraham truly does become the father of many nations. In him the nations have been grafted into Israel and a new people, a new Israel created. To him the nations come, taking hold of Jesus, Israel’s Messiah and Israel’s representative, and crying, “Let us go with you, for we have heard that God is with you.” In fact, Jesus is God with us. He is Emanuel. He is the one in whom heaven and earth meet. And yet, as Jesus is the fulfilment of the Lord’s covenant promises, so are we. The people of God, the new Israel, now go out into the world as royal heralds of the king, proclaiming the good news that he is Lord and that his kingdom is here. We go out proclaiming that Jesus has died and that has risen and in that, the God of Israel has proved his righteousness, his faithfulness. And the men and women of the world ought to grab hold of us as we proclaim the mighty deeds of the Lord, and cry out, “Take us with you, for we have heard that God is with you!”
Brothers and Sisters, are we living and proclaiming the gospel, are we living and proclaiming the mighty deeds of God in such way that the people of the world can see that God is with us? We ought to be! We ought to be telling the world of God’s faithfulness and the of the death and resurrection of Jesus that have bought our exodus from sin and death that a great mixed multitude will march with us into God’s new creation.
Now, that’s the first part of the Jethro story. You’re sort of going to get two sermons in one this morning. Look at the second part of the story, verses 13-27:
The next day Moses sat to judge the people, and the people stood around Moses from morning till evening. When Moses’ 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, and all the people stand around you from morning till evening?” And Moses said to his father-in-law, “Because the people come to me to inquire of God; when they have a dispute, they come to me and I decide between one person and another, and I make them know the statutes of God and his laws.” Moses’ father-in-law said to him, “What you are doing is not good. You and the people with you will certainly wear yourselves out, for the thing is too heavy for you. You are not able to do it alone. Now obey my voice; I will give you advice, and God be with you! You shall represent the people before God and bring their cases to God, and you shall warn them about the statutes and the laws, and make them know the way in which they must walk and what they must do. Moreover, look for able men from all the people, men who fear God, who are trustworthy and hate a bribe, and place such men over the people as chiefs of thousands, of hundreds, of fifties, and of tens. And let them judge the people at all times. Every great matter they shall bring to you, but any small matter they shall decide themselves. So it will be easier for you, and they will bear the burden with you. If you do this, God will direct you, you will be able to endure, and all this people also will go to their place in peace.”
So Moses listened to the voice of his father-in-law and did all that he had said. Moses chose able men out of all Israel and made them heads over the people, chiefs of thousands, of hundreds, of fifties, and of tens. And they judged the people at all times. Any hard case they brought to Moses, but any small matter they decided themselves. Then Moses let his father-in-law depart, and he went away to his own country.
Imagine three months of settling disputes from sun-up to sun-down! Sarah stole my cooking pot and broke it. Herschel got tired of eating manna and stole my goat. Rachel started a fire and let it get out of control and it burned down my tent. Joshua and I got angry, he hit me, and knocked my tooth out. Again, imagine that for three l-o-n-g months, all…day…long. Jethro saw Moses doing this and said, “Son, you can’t do this alone. You’re going to wear yourself out and that’s not good for you, your family, or your people. Delegate. Find some representatives, godly men known for being honourable, and put them in charge of thousands, hundreds, fifties, and tens. Let them bear the burden with you. Let them judge the small stuff and send the hard cases to you.
Now, again, why is this so important that the Spirit saw fit to preserve it for us here? Presbyterians like to see this as a biblical mandate for their form of church governance. And while we may certainly find some helpful advice here on that sort of thing, I think the Holy Spirit has preserved this episode of Israels history for a much more important reason.
No, I think the important thing here is the struggle of the people to walk in God’s statutes and laws and Moses as a sort of prophet and teacher of God’s wisdom. It’s not clear exactly what’s meant by statutes and laws here. The law won’t be given for a couple of chapters. It might be a literary anachronism. Or maybe there were bits and pieces of law that the Lord had already revealed to his people going back to Genesis. But I don’t think that’s necessary. The law was as much wisdom as it was legislation. Here’s what the law was about in a nutshell. God had called Israel to be his people. Because they were his people, they were holy. Holiness isn’t something you earn. It’s something that comes from belonging to God. It’s a status conferred by him. Israel was God’s people. He lived in their midst. They were the people through whom he was going to work out his plans for the nations and for creation itself. The law was meant to shape a community of people who would represent the Lord, who would be his image bearers in the world, but most important, they were the people in whose midst God dwelt. They were the nation in whom the other nations met the Lord. They were the place where heaven and earth met. They were, in a sense, the temple. And for God to live in their midst meant that they were to be holy. John Walton puts it this way, “The Torah is given to shape them as a community that serves as host to the presence of God. This is the sense in which they are a light and a blessing: God dwells among them. Through them there is access to the presence of God. Israel responds by living out its identity in the presence of a holy God.”
The primary way the law dealt with this is by creating order. The people were to display goodness: the Lord’s goodness the goodness of his creation, and in a sense to work for good in a fallen creation. In Ancient Near Eastern culture that equated primarily with order. We’ll get into this more as we get further into Exodus. The primary task of kings was to maintain order. We see it in the creation account of Genesis where the focus is on God giving order and purpose to the elements, making what was formless and void welcoming and habitable for human beings. And so even without the ten commandments or without the rest of the torah, Moses and these other wise and godly men were tasked with teaching this new community what godly order looked like and in doing that, they represented the Lord. The nations could look at them and say, “The Lord is with them. In them we see his goodness.”
And yet Israel struggled to live out this holy identity conferred by the Lord. The story isn’t just about Moses’ frailty. It’s about Israel’s frailty too. This little episode looks forward to the giving of the law on Mt. Sinai. With the law directly from the Lord, carved on tablets of stone, the elders and judges wouldn’t have to sort it out for themselves so much anymore. And yet, even still, Israel struggled. No sooner does Israel have the law engraved on stone than she prostitutes herself to a golden calf. What needs to happen is for the law to be written on the heart, because of course the real problem is a heart problem.
For forty years in the wilderness Israel failed despite having those stone tablets. As the next generation was poised to cross the Jordan in the promised land, Moses urged them saying,
These words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates. (Deuteronomy 6:6-9)
Write them on your hearts. Moses understood the problem. Until the law of the Lord is written on hearts, nothing will really change. The Psalmist repeated this refrain. He knew the struggle and he grasped the solution. In Psalm 37 he writes, “The law of God is in his heart, and his goings shall not slide.” And in Psalm 40, “In the volume of the book it is written of me, that I should fulfil thy will, O my God: I am content to it; yea, thy law is within my heart.” And looking back on Israel’s long history of failure, the Lord promised through Jeremiah:
Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel…not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the Lord. For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. (Jeremiah 31:31-33)
Brothers and Sisters, this new covenant is the covenant we’re called to live. Jesus died to bring forgiveness to his people, he rose to inaugurate God’s new creation, and in the giving of the Spirit he created a new people for himself, a people united with him and with their hearts finally set right, finally set on God by the indwelling Spirit. A people created for the purpose of making God and his kingdom known in the earth. This has always been God’s purpose for his people. To quote John Walton again, “We today are also being shaped to host the presence of God in terms of the Holy Spirit, who indwells us. We are redeemed, indeed by the blood of Christ, but our identity is not just as a redeemed community. We are the people of God who, as we coidentify with him, serve as his instruments for participating with him as he carries out his plans and purposes in the world. God’s mission goes beyond redemption; it is focused on dwelling amongst the people he has created. It is an Immanuel theology.”
It’s still a struggle to pursue holiness. If it weren’t, Paul and Peter and James wouldn’t have written to much about the struggle, but they consistently point us back to Jesus and the Spirit and the fulfilment of these events and promises back in Exodus. In us, the Lord has finally solved the problem. By the Spirit, the law is finally written on our hearts. But it’s something you and I still have to cultivate. This is why we live and worship in community as the Church. This is why we need to steep ourselves in God’s word. This is why, as God speaks to us through his word, we need to spend time talking back to him in prayer. This is why we need to avail ourselves of the sacraments, being reminded of the covenant God has established with us through Jesus. All of these things are means of grace and it is through grace that God strengthens faith, teaches us love, and reorders and realigns the desires and affections of our hearts. In Jesus the Lord has declared us a holy people, his stewards and representative on earth, the people in whose midst he dwells. But we must lay hold of his grace with both hands, with heart and with mind. It’s no easy thing, but we do it for the God who has given his own Son out of love for us, and the promise is that by his grace the one who is Immanuel, the one who is God with us, makes us an Immanuel people for the nations.
Let us pray: Gracious Father, as we think on the long history of your people, on their (and our) failures to be the holy people you have called us to be, we thank you for your patience and for your grace and for your mercy. Jethro praised you for your mighty deeds over the Egyptians. We praise you for your merciful patience—no less a mighty deed. And we praise you for your faithfulness in giving Jesus and the Spirit in fulfilment of your promises to make a new people in whom you have written your law. You dwell in our midst. In your church, heaven and earth meet for the sake of the world. Teach us to be faithful in living out the holy identity you have given us. Through Jesus we pray. Amen.