THE WISDOM OF THE DESERT: PEACE AND JUSTICE part 3 of 3

Continued from the previous post.

blue water ccence4) Yahweh affirms Jethro’s judicial wisdom. Whatever his reason, Moses, in his long speech to the Israelites, does not attribute Jethro as a key source of wisdom for establishing the desert society’s judicial system. But Yahweh does. How so?

Let’s begin with this. Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, is is an outlier. He is not even part of the non-Israelites who joined with the Israelites on the march out of Egypt to escape pharaoh’s oppression. He is a Midianite priest who, having heard about the great exodus from Egypt, has traveled from Midian to see his son-in-law. Nevertheless, wisdom for the judicial body that Moses establishes comes from this Midianite priest. This is doubly noteworthy because Moses has been commissioned by Yahweh, whom we would think has a pretty clear gripe against “pagans” like the Midianites. After all, the Midianties were one of the peoples that were to be exterminated in the “Promised Land.”

Yahweh, however, makes not a peep of protest about the “pagan” source of wisdom that, as indicated in Exodus 18, inspires the judicial system for the desert society.

What are we to make of this? Partly, it seems to have something to do with the “internationality” of wisdom. This does not mean that there was one common wisdom tradition throughout the ancient empires. It means that, ultimately, there is one source for wisdom, God, and that it is a wisdom that is available for all humankind, available to anyone and everyone. Of course this does not mean that everyone will avail themselves of it; after all, the wisdom literature speaks very candidly about “fools.” Also, the biblical narrative from cover to cover, beginning with the Eden incident, indicates that God’s wisdom can be and often is distorted by people. Nevertheless, the book of Proverbs, the apostle James, and even Jesus himself, explains that God’s wisdom is available to all. (Three consecutive posts, beginning with this one, explore these biblical themes.)

With that as a biblical backdrop, I believe that, concerning the creation of the courts, Jethro the Midianite priest had God’s wisdom for Moses the Israelite leader. This conclusion seems to be pretty clearly supported by the ideas mentioned in the previous paragraph, and by the Exodus 18 narrative (the primary text we are focusing on in these three posts), and by other biblical passages.

We also have Jethro’s attitude. Unlike Balaam, who tries to get Israel cursed into oblivion, Jethro is not mischievously hoping to get his son-in-law in Dutch with Yahweh. Nor is Jethro haughty or dictatorial. He is a humble man who fears God.

Look, he says to Moses, don’t take my words for it; let’s submit my proposal for the judicial body to God to see if its any good. If God will bless it, make it happen. That will be good for you and for all these people. You will be under less of a strain and they will have their cases settled quickly. Instead of queuing up at your tent in the hot sun, they “will go home satisfied” (Exodus 18:23). Now the Hebrew word translated as “satisfied,” here in the NIV translation, is the word is shalom, whose core meanings are about the kind of peace that produces community-wide well-being, wholeness, and flourishing. (See this post and also this one for a discussion of the close relationship of wisdom and shalom.)

red leaves old doorConsider also the principle of impartial justice, which was a vital part of Jethro’s wisdom to Moses. It is being instituted at the heart of the new society of Israel, here in the desert, before the giving of the Law. Further, impartial justice was then, later, taken up, as it were, and made an imperative in the social legislation of the nation of Israel after the giving of the Ten Commandments. To cite just one example, the judicial nature of a law given in Leviticus 19:33-34 is stated in a way that makes it doubly-edged, in that it is both negative and positive: A foreigner must not be oppressed or disrespected; the person must be treated as an Israelite. “Love him as yourself, for you were aliens in Egypt. I am the Lord your God.” This law extends to non-Israelites the reach of a law stated in verse 18, which commands fellow Israelites to love one another.

We are also given to understand that the principle of impartial justice and its close relationship to wisdom makes its way solidly into Israel’s wisdom tradition. The prologue in the book of Proverbs includes the attainment of wisdom as a necessary attribute for judging “what is right and just and fair” (Proverbs 1:1-3). Further, wisdom sought in the context of “the fear of the Lord” is said to bring insight to “understand what is right and just and fair – every good path” (Proverb 2:1-9). Lady Wisdom also takes up the theme: “By me kings reign and rulers make laws that are just” (Proverbs 8:15). And near the end Proverbs, in a section introduced as “These also are the sayings of the wise,” the principle is briefly stated in the negative: “To show partiality in judging is not good” (Proverbs 24:23; see also 28:21).

And there is this. William McKane discovered that impartiality in justice was required in the political wisdom of Egyptian state officials, who were not to wield their considerable power nakedly or arbitrarily. McKane determined that in Egyptian wisdom instruction, power “was regulated by the religious concept of Maat,” which put clear ethical constraints on the officials. For instance, an Egyptian official “cannot exercise power in the context of the Egyptian state unless he respects at all times the demands of equity, and endeavors scrupulously to act fairly without respect of persons… [Thus] a passion for [impartial] justice was an important ingredient of power and … whoever did not have this capacity for probity and fair dealing in public affairs was disqualified from holding office by a self-regulating process of selection” (Prophets and Wise Men, p. 63).

Conclusion. Moses obtains Yahweh’s blessing to follow Jethro’s detailed counsel for instituting a system of courts for the new desert society. Perhaps this judicial system was not unlike today’s structure of family courts, civil courts, criminal courts, and appeals courts, with Moses as the supreme court. But whatever that court system was like, the principle of impartial justice for everyone was normative, and the agency of wisdom played a central role in that normativity. This was then taken up into Israel’s legislation as a nation and in its wisdom tradition as well. The principle of impartial justice existed in Egypt, and it must have been part of Jethro’s Midianite wisdom and society.

Human nature being what it is, however, this is not to suggest that every case on the docket was judged equitably in ancient Israel. I am merely calling attention to the norm of impartial justice and its close relation to wisdom, which, incidentally, Jesus took to soaring heights in his wisdom-based Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10).

(For modern day possibilities if this principle is applied in practice, see Symphonic Justice.)

©2014 by Charles Strohmer

Images by nateb2 & Big Grey Mare, respectively (permission via Creative Commons)

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