It is important to understand the implications of what is taking place here in the desert of Sinai, in the Moses/Jethro narrative. The excitement and solidarity that deliverance from Egypt created has worn off. The huge desert multitude now seems to be verging on anarchy, and Moses, the sole governing authority, is unable to stem the negative downward spiral. So a judicial system is now being established to bring order to the new society. Significantly, this system is being created before the giving of the Law and on the advice of a religious figure who is not an Israelite.
With the giving of the Law at Sinai later on, the new society will, in a sense, have its formal constitution. Meantime, here in the desert, the immediate need is to establish a system of social order. To move the mixed multitude in that direction, the principle of impartial justice is being instituted by Moses on the strength of Jethro’s detailed advice. But Jethro, Moses father-in-law, is not an Israelite.
What’s the deal with that? Why is Moses taking his cues, and such significant ones at that, from Jethro? Jethro is from the tribe of Midian, the fourth son of Abraham and his concubine Keturah. And like all of Abraham’s children by his concubines, Midian was sent by Abraham into the Arabian desert, where his family became ancestors of Arab tribes (Genesis 25:6). So the text confronts us with some interesting implications.
For the rest of this post and in the next one, I want us to get under the skin of this narrative to consider why Moses listened to Jethro and what Jethro’s ideas mean. Along the way we may discover some insight into the relationship of peace and justice to the role of wisdom. We will look briefly at four areas.
1) The new society is diverse, pluralist. This is not to say that it is an ancient variation of America’s melting-pot experiment. Not even close. But a typically, if not a conveniently, ignored fact is that the exodus community was a mixed multitude. Sure, the Israelites hugely outnumbered any other people group in this desert society – so much so that the wandering community became known regionally as “the Israelites.” But non-Israelites – usually referred to as aliens or foreigners in the larger biblical narrative – had joined the freedom march. Most likely, they included estranged and oppressed clans of various sizes who, having fled Egypt with the Israelites, were scattered here and there throughout the new desert society, and, like the Israelites, trying to get on with life as best they could.
2) Jethro’s wise judicial advice. We saw in the previous post that with the arrival of Jethro order begins to get restored to the new society. Here’s why.
Jethro advises Moses to establish a society-wide system of courts whereby disputants can appear before judges, appointed by Moses, and have their cases adjudicated fairly and impartially, and the most difficult cases will be brought to Moses. Importantly, Jethro explains that the rulings must be fair and impartial not only between Israelites but between an Israelite and a non-Israelite. This latter piece of wisdom was absolutely necessary amid the diversity if cooperative and peaceable relations were to prevail for the common good. Jethro further recommends the job qualifications of the judges: they must fear God and have a known history of refusing dishonest gain.
3) The role of wisdom in the judicial system. The role that wisdom played in principle of impartial justice and in the establishing of the system of courts is not obvious in the Exodus 18 narrative, but it is made obvious by Moses decades later. At the beginning of a long speech that opens the book of Deuteronomy, Moses reflects to the Israelites their history as they stand poised to finally enter the land of Canaan. Moses is reminding the mixed multitude that its judicial system, including its principle of impartial justice, has served them well, and in doing so he reveals the place of wisdom in its creation.
“At that time I said to you …. Choose some wise … men … and I will set them over you…. So I took the leading men of your tribes, wise and respected men, and appointed them to have authority over you.” These wise men, he continues, he commissioned as their “judges.” They would “hear the disputes … and judge fairly, whether the case is between brother Israelites or between one of them and an alien. Do not show partiality in judging …, for judgement belongs to God. Bring me any case that is too hard for you, and I will hear it” (Deuteronomy 1:9-17). (The “wise men” being mentioned by Moses are known as “hakamim” in the Hebrew. Elsewhere in the Bible they are sometimes just referred to as “the wise.” The word comes from hokma, the primary word for “wisdom” in the Hebrew Bible. For a brief introduction to who they are and to the essential governmental roles they played in Israel’s history, see this post and this one.)
Here, Moses, among other things, is identifying the agency of wisdom as instrumental in the impartial justice that was adjudicated by Israel’s judges not only in disputes between Israelites but between an Israelite and a non-Israelite.
Continued in the next post . . . . . .
©2014 by Charles Strohmer
Images by Mike.D.Green & byronV2, respectively (permission via Creative Commons)