desert waterIt 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.

Moses bulrush3) 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)


ancient Egypt in Legos (Colin Keigher)The story of Joseph in Egypt is the first place in Scripture where the role of wisdom and foreign policy is clearly apparent in the politics of an old-world Middle East nation. Egypt is in fact a super power with an expanding empire. There, a young man named Joseph, an Israelite, serves as a high-level political and diplomatic official in pharaoh’s government. I don’t want to spend a lot of time on this multi-dimensional story, which, as someone has aptly said, reads like a coherent novella, with a subtle a well-crafted plot (Genesis chapters 37; 39-50). Instead, I want to draw attention briefly to the roles of Joseph and wisdom in the Egyptian royal court.

In the Joseph narrative we have a kind of precursor, or Egyptian equivalent, to the stories of Daniel in Babylon and Ezra in Persia. In the book of Daniel we see diplomatic wisdom in the skill whereby Daniel handles, with grace and aplomb, severe personal threats from political enemies. In the book of Ezra we see the role of wisdom in Ezra’s role as a shuttle diplomat implementing a foreign policy of King Artaxerxes of Persia. In the book of Genesis we see Joseph appointed by pharaoh to a very high political office among the hakamim of his royal court.

Now a little wordplay before we continue.

(1) “Hakamim” appears many times in the Hebrew Bible to denote a respected class of high-level officials and advisers to a king. These were usually government officials whom today we would call ambassadors, diplomats, foreign ministers, secretaries of state, international negotiators and mediators, and so forth.

(2) The word “hakam” appears frequently in the Hebrew Bible to denote a wise and very skilled individual, often a high-level official in a royal court.

(3) “Hokma” is the principal Hebrew word for “wisdom.”

Note that these three words derive from the Hebrew root word “hkm,” which has meanings such as: be wise, become wise, act wisely. Vowels are added to hkm to help with pronunciations and to add nuances of meaning. The suffix “īm” is added to hakam to indicate the plural, the class, the group, in contrast to the individual hakam.

The earliest biblical clues about the hakamim and the role of wisdom in ancient Egypt are found in Joseph’s ascension from prison to politics. As described in Genesis 41:8, an unnamed pharaoh summons the “wise men” (hakamim) of Egypt to interpret an ominous dream he has had. But, as with king Nebuchadnezzar in the book of Daniel, pharaoh’s elite court councilors cannot interpret the dream and pharaoh hears rumors of someone who may be able to. In a fit of desperation he summons this unlikely person, a Hebrew slave of his, who, having been framed for a crime he did not commit, is serving a lengthy prison term. Joseph is taken from prison, cleaned up, and brought before pharaoh, who is wasting no time over petty details. Joseph interprets the dream, and, like Daniel standing before Nebuchadnezzar, gives God the credit.

The dream forebodes a long and catastrophic economic period for Egypt that will have both domestic and international ramifications for the empire. In his back-and-forth with pharaoh about this, Joseph suggests that pharaoh find a discerning hakam (41:33) who can create and implement a policy that will preserve Egypt’s national interests during. Joseph even outlines a policy that pharaoh might want to follow.

Detail doorway to chapel of Amun - Temple of HatshepsutBoth pharaoh and his officials approve the policy, and pharaoh goes so far as to attribute the policy to the Spirit of God in Joseph – implying Joseph’s divine wisdom and insight – not unlike Nebuchadnezzar’s testimony about Daniel. Pharaoh then identifies Joseph as a gifted hakam, saying “Since God has made all this known to you, there is no one so discerning and wise [hkm] as you” (41:39). Pharaoh then caps it all off by appointing Joseph as second-in-command of the nation, giving Joseph carte blanche over the nation’s domestic and international economic policy.

The details of the policy, its implementation, and its domestic and international implications spanned more than a decade but do not concern us here. I only wanted to draw out the overlooked fact of Joseph’s role as a hakam among the hakamim of the Egyptian government. In that role Joseph was at times policy maker, diplomat, foreign minister, and negotiator. In other words, he was a high-level official in the diplomatic corps of the old-world Middle East. The policy was seen as a great success by many, including by Joseph, who implicates God in it and explains that its purpose was to save, or preserve, lives (Genesis 45:7). As we might say today, it was a policy for the common good, both domestically and internationally.

Aside: In the interest of full disclosure, I should say that not all theologians see the policy in a positive light. Walter Brueggmann, for one, is deeply critical of it. He considers pharaoh’s Egypt as “the paradigmatic enemy of the common good.” As such, he sees Joseph as administrating a policy designed to manipulate the Egyptian economy, increase its wealth, and thereby gain greater control over the Egyptians and further expand the tentacles of its empire. You will find this assessment in the early pages of Brueggemann’s Journey to the Common Good. The argument, however, is based on selected texts. Because of texts that he omits, such as Genesis 45:7, and because a negative view of wisdom in the story informs his comments, I cannot agree with him on this one.

In the next post I want us look briefly at two or three more Old Testament narratives about wisdom and diplomacy.

©2014 by Charles Strohmer