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By Stephen Green. (First published in Christian Voice: February 2004)
Exod 18:13 And it came to pass on the morrow, that Moses sat to judge the people: and the people stood by Moses from the morning unto the evening.
14 And when Moses' father in law saw all that he did to the people, he said, What is this thing that thou doest to the people? why sittest thou thyself alone, and all the people stand by thee from morning unto even?
15 And Moses said unto his father in law, Because the people come unto me to enquire of God: 16 When they have a matter, they come unto me; and I judge between one and another, and I do make them know the statutes of God, and his laws.
17 And Moses' father in law said unto him, The thing that thou doest is not good.
18 Thou wilt surely wear away, both thou, and this people that is with thee: for this thing is too heavy for thee; thou art not able to perform it thyself alone.
19 Hearken now unto my voice, I will give thee counsel, and God shall be with thee: Be thou for the people to God-ward, that thou mayest bring the causes unto God:
20 And thou shalt teach them ordinances and laws, and shalt shew them the way wherein they must walk, and the work that they must do.
21 Moreover thou shalt provide out of all the people able men, such as fear God, men of truth, hating covetousness; and place such over them, to be rulers of thousands, and rulers of hundreds, rulers of fifties, and rulers of tens:
22 And let them judge the people at all seasons: and it shall be, that every great matter they shall bring unto thee, but every small matter they shall judge: so shall it be easier for thyself, and they shall bear the burden with thee.
23 If thou shalt do this thing, and God command thee so, then thou shalt be able to endure, and all this people shall also go to their place in peace.
24 So Moses hearkened to the voice of his father in law, and did all that he had said.
25 And Moses chose able men out of all Israel, and made them heads over the people, rulers of thousands, rulers of hundreds, rulers of fifties, and rulers of tens.
26 And they judged the people at all seasons: the hard causes they brought unto Moses, but every small matter they judged themselves.
27 And Moses let his father in law depart; and he went his way into his own land.
It must have been a very good relationship between Moses and Jethro his father-in-law that led to the latter offering the former such penetrating advice. The priest of Midian had acknowledged the Lord as God and offered sacrifices to God, and God gave him an important prophetic word for his son-in-law. The respect which Moses shows to his father-in-law is an example to us all. Leaving all that aside, there are some other important lessons to learn from this passage of scripture.
JUDGES TO BE GOD-FEARING MEN
The first lesson, for me, is the wisdom of a graduated court structure. It is simply not practical for the highest judges to hear every case. Under the system which Moses established upon Jethro's advice, the lesser matters went to judges in a lower court, and as the case became harder, so the higher up the court structure was it referred. In the end a matter went to Moses himself. This is precisely the system we have in the United Kingdom, and it is good to remind ourselves that it derives from the time and ministry of Moses.
The second lesson is that judges are to be able, God-fearing men who love truth and hate covetousness. Judges are there to judge in righteousness (Lev 19:15, John 7:24) to justify the righteous in a cause and condemn the wicked (Deut 25:1, cf Rom 13:4). They are ministers of God, because God is judge Himself (Psalm 50:6) and judgment is from the Lord (Prov 29:26). In the Gospel of Luke we read of an unjust judge 'which feared not God, neither regarded man.' (Luke 18:2) The parable is about persistence in prayer, but the secondary point is that it is impossible for a judge who does not fear God to do justice.
Some of our judges today are living examples of this maxim. Dame Brenda Hale, recently appointed to be Britain's first law lord, is one such. Judge Elizabeth Butler-Schloss of the Family Division is another. Indeed, the passage in Exodus speaks of men being appointed as judges. It is men who should fulfil such positions of leadership, not women, according to the word of God. Things were so bad in the time of the book of Judges that it was left to a woman, Deborah, to judge Israel.
Deborah is not the world's first feminist, as her curse of Barak shows (Judg 4:8-9), and she appears to complain of having to do a job which no man would touch, as 'a mother in Israel.' (Judg 5:7) Her elevation to judge Israel was as much an indictment of the men of her time as that of Brenda Hale and Butler-Schloss is of the men of today, even though she judged in righteousness where they judge in partiality.
LAW KNOWN BEFORE MOUNT SINAI
The other lesson is rather strange. It should not be surprising that there is always something new for us in the Bible. Words leap out which we had not noticed before. Thus it was for me concerning Exodus 18:16. Moses says quite clearly, 'I do make them know the statutes of God and His laws.' The thing is, this is before the Covenant established on Mount Sinai, which most people associate with the first giving of the law.
Plainly, the law was in existence and perfectly well-known, to Moses at least, before Mount Sinai. Looking a couple of chapters back, in the matter of keeping the sabbath day free from food-gathering, the Lord says to Moses: 'How long refuse ye to keep my commandments and my laws?' (Exod 16:28) The people were aware of the law of the sabbath and all the laws of God before the formality of Sinai.
Indeed, the law was known to the Patriarchs. Judah found himself in trouble for ignoring the law which said a brother must marry his brother's widow (Gen 38:26 cf Deut 25:5) which became part of the 'Law of Moses'. After the flood in Genesis we see a respect for the law of God, with first Pharaoh (Ch 12), Abimelech (Ch 20) and Joseph (Ch 39) being well aware of the law against adultery. Even Job knows the law against defrauding labourers of their wages and says that if were to commit adultery he would be brought before the judges. (Job32:9-13). Sodom and Gomorrah at the time of Abraham were destroyed for their lawlessness which included idolatry and homosexuality.
The nations of Canaan were thrown out for their wickedness before the Lord (Deut 9:4) and judged by the eternal standard of His law. Idolatry was involved again, and child sacrifice, witchcraft and institutionalised homosexuality and prostitution, all things which are prohibited by the 'law of Moses'. And then Moses himself is teaching the law and the statutes of God before these are written down after the Covenant of Mount Sinai.
SINAI IS TO DO WITH THE COVENANT
Mount Sinai then becomes much more concerned with the Covenant between God and Israel than it is with the giving of a system of law. The Ten Commandments are widely respected as a summation of the law, and indeed we analysed the law-breaking of the United Kingdom in Britain in Sin against the framework of the Ten Commandments. A shorter summation is made up from Deut 6:5 and Lev 19:18, in 'Love the Lord thy God with all thy heart and with all thy soul and with all they strength and with all thy mind, and thy neighbour as thyself.' The lawyer quoted that to Jesus at Luke 10:26-28, and was commended for it. However, at Exod 34:28 the Ten Commandments are referred to specifically as the 'ten words' of the Covenant. So it could be argued that when people separate the Ten Commandments from the rest of the Law given to and annunciated by Moses , and say that the Ten Commandments are for us today, and the rest of the law was for Israel and past, that they have it exactly the wrong way round.
Firstly, it is abundantly clear that the whole of the judicial and moral law (we are careful to separate out the sacrificial and ceremonial which was fulfilled in Jesus) in its general equity as we can understand and apply it, is universal for all mankind. Isaiah speaks of the law going out from Israel (Isa 2:3), in chapter 56 urges all nations to 'keep ye judgment and do justice', and to keep the sabbath, and then says 'Blessed is the man that doeth this,' not 'Blessed is the man of Israel that doeth this.' But there is in fact nothing in the Ten Commandments which is not specifically or in its sense given elsewhere in the law of God given by Moses and there is nothing in the Ten Commandments which was not also destined for all mankind. Israel were the custodians of the law until Messiah came to 'bring forth judgment to the gentiles' (Isa 42:1 - one of the 'Servant Songs').
LAW UNIVERSAL AND INTENDED FOR ALL MANKIND
The law of God is so plainly universal and eternal, that it comes as a surprise to find Christians who seriously believe that Israel had no law before Mount Sinai, that the law in the Pentateuch is for Israel alone, and that it disappeared when Jesus Christ was crucified for us. If there is no law, under what rules should people live? Or to put it another way, if people today are not expected to follow the law which God revealed to Moses (excluding the ceremonial and sacrificial of course), whose law should they follow? We are fast finding out whose law fills the vacuum left by the law of God, and it is not a pleasant experience. Did we really expect finite, fallible men to be wiser at law-making than the eternal, infallible, Almighty Creator? When men presume to repeal God's laws, they don't pass neutral laws, they pass opposing laws, in other words, laws from hell itself.
We think we are all very clever today, but with a bit of humility, we might accept that Jethro and Moses were smarter than we are, and that might just be because they were closer and more obedient to God.