Jethro’s Wisdom – YITRO | WEEK 17
By Nic Lesmeister
Ex 18:1 – 20:23
About a year ago, I was deep in an intensive three-day organizational strategy session for the ministry I lead, the Messianic Jewish Bible Institute (MJBI). I’m one who loves to discuss, learn and apply strategy, but even I was tiring of all of the hypothetical changes our strategic consultant was proposing.
Perhaps to re-charge the motivation of everyone on my team, the consultant shared with us an unusual story. Years ago, a massive corporation was going through the same intensive strategic process that we were. In the room with the high-powered executive leaders of the company was a humble secretary. As the bigwigs labored over how to make the company’s products more successful, the secretary chimed in out of the blue with a bit of product advice. “What if the plastic bottle’s cap just twisted off and on?”
The executives were shocked. It seemed so simple, yet how could they have overlooked such an easy adjustment? Thus, the modern plastic beverage bottle was born.
In this week’s reading, we see something similar take place with the great hero of Israel, Moses. After leading the Israelites out of Egypt and into the wilderness, Moses is finally reunited with his family. Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law brings Mrs. Moses, Zipporah, and their two sons, Gershom and Eliezer, to Mount Sinai.
The Scriptures tell us that Jethro is a Midianite priest, which means he worships false gods. But Exodus 18:1 says that Jethro had “heard about everything God had done for Moses and for His people Israel, and how Adonai had brought Israel out of Egypt.” When Jethro arrives, Moses invites him into his tent, where he tells his father-in-law the whole story of how God has delivered Israel from Pharaoh, and “rescued them from all their troubles.” (Ex. 18:8b)
After hearing the testimony of what God has done for Israel, Jethro becomes jubilant, praises God, joins Moses and Aaron in offering a sacrifice to God, and forsakes his idol-worshiping to follow Adonai.
Exodus 18:9 says Jethro “rejoiced” over God’s goodness to Israel. That word in Hebrew is vayichad, which means “happy” or “joyous.” Interestingly, vayichad derives from a word for a feeling much related to getting goosebumps, or a chill. The Bible portrays Jethro’s reaction to hearing God’s mighty domination of Egypt as sending chills down his spine!
It as though we can feel the holy discomfort that Jethro feels in this moment. Though he joins himself to worshiping the God of Israel, he has spent 99.99% of his life as a pagan – like the Egyptians. The use of vayichad in verse 9 paints a picture of a mature man who understands both the triumph of the Israelites, but also the great sorrow and loss of the Egyptians.
With this in mind, Jethro then turns and offers Moses some of the most foundational wisdom in the history of Israel, and possibly mankind itself. In chapter 18:17-23, Jethro instructs Moses to appoint judges over the people to handle the social and legal issues that were overwhelming Moses, the sole judge over more than 600,000 people. Jethro essentially gives Moses the advice which lays the foundation for modern court systems in democratic societies thousands of years later. All of this from a man who, just moments earlier, was worshiping false gods!
As the reading progresses, God then delivers the Ten Commandments to the people of Israel from a cloud of smoke and fire on Mount Sinai (Ex. 19:18-20:17). And, just like that, the Israelites become God’s “own possession among all the peoples on earth” (Ex. 19:5) and a “kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” (19:6)
God thus establishes a specific, legal system to which Israel shall adhere, truly setting them apart from all other nations of people for the rest of time. And it was Jethro, who ever-so-briefly enters the Biblical narrative from the margins of history, that strategically prepares God’s people to live as a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.
We overlook the immense impact of Jethro’s wisdom if we only perceive it through our traditional understanding of helping Moses better lead and manage the Israelites. Almost all of the Christian sermons on Exodus 18 center on this understanding of the text. Yet it is the Jethro who has “goosebumps” when he hears of what happened to the Egyptians that is able to consider the perspective of the 557,765th Israelite who needs justice, but was on Moses’ long waiting list for a court date.
Jethro does not simply teach us all a lesson in delegated leadership, he teaches us that the liberating, protective, and beautiful law of God can be received, imparted and adhered to by even the most marginal people in society. Jethro decentralizes the power of law and justice from the few to the many.
Living in 2019, we likely take for granted just how revolutionary Jethro’s wisdom was. If any of us suffer injustice in America, we have speedy access to judges who will hear our case and levy equity for us and our victimizer. We know that the vulnerable of society – the poor, the undereducated, and the persecuted, can “have their day in court” when their need for justice arises.
And like the example of the humble secretary, Jethro reminds us all that often the perspective of an outsider is necessary for us to see the simple power of what is right in front of us. For we who follow Yeshua (Jesus), Parashat Yitro is a reminder that we should always be openminded to the perspective of a member of our faith community who may just seem to appear from the margins of our radars. You never know when their input may just change human history.
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About the Author
Nic Lesmeister is the President & CEO of the Messianic Jewish Bible Institute. Before MJBI, Nic was an entrepreneur who bought, developed and sold many companies in the finance sector. Nic is a board member for three global Jewish ministries, two other global ministries, and an overseeing elder of Soma Church in Tyler, TX. He has a Bachelor’s degree in Economics from the University of Texas at Arlington, and a Master’s degree in Non-profit Management and Leadership from The Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Nic and his wife, Tabatha, are members of Baruch HaShem Messianic Synagogue in Dallas, where they live with their three children – Naomi, Avi and Ruth Anne.
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