Wanted for murder in Egypt (Exodus 2:11-14), Moses fled to Midian, married the daughter of the local priest, Jethro (Exodus 2:15-22), and settled for forty years (Exodus 2:23; Acts 7:29-30). After Moses returned to Egypt and freed the Israelites from slavery (Exodus 3:1-14:31), Jethro visited Moses in the wilderness (Exodus 18:1-6). After catching up (Exodus 18:7-12), Jethro quickly realized that his son-in-law was the upstart nation’s sole arbiter and that no one ought carry that burden alone (Exodus 18:13-16). The Supreme Court simply cannot handle every case.
Moses needed to know his role and its limitations. Jethro warned Moses that if he did not reduce his workload that he would “wear out” (Exodus 18:18 NASB).
Moses’ father-in-law said to him, “The thing that you are doing is not good. You will surely wear out, both yourself and these people who are with you, for the task is too heavy for you; you cannot do it alone. (Exodus 18:17-18 NASB)Robert Alter (b. 1935) explains, “The literal meaning of the Hebrew verb is ‘to wither’—an appropriate idiom in an agricultural society for exhaustion from work as ‘burnout’ is in a modern technological society (Alter, The Five Books of Moses: A Translation with Commentary, 491).”
Jethro did not merely criticize his son-in-law but also offered a practical solution. Jethro’s two-fold strategy kept Moses as the people’s representative before God (Exodus 18:18-22) but delegated smaller matters to subordinates (Exodus 18:22). Moses would still handle the most difficult cases and the buck still stopped with him. As the well known management saying advises, “You can delegate authority, but you cannot delegate responsibility.”
Terence E. Fretheim (b. 1936) explains, “They are to organize themselves in a decentralized structure, having authority at various levels in the community, bringing only the most difficult cases to Moses for decision (see Deuteronomy 1:9-18). The responsibility for justice is thus dispersed throughout the community. (Fretheim, Exodus: Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching, 199).”
Jethro’s solution represented a win-win scenario as deputation not only benefitted Moses, but the Israelites as well (Exodus 18:23). Medical missionaries Tom Hale and Stephen Thorson analyze:
This would allow Moses to concentrate on matters only he could handle, and at the same time it would develop and encourage other leaders within the community of Israel. Too often leaders think they are indispensable, that only they are competent to carry out the duties of leadership; but such an attitude is plainly arrogant. For Moses, Jethro’s advice was wise; it is wise for us as well. A New Testament example of the wisdom of delegation is found in Acts 6:1-6. (Applied Old Testament Commentary: Applying God’s Word to Your Life, 236).Moses had the strength to let go and followed Jethro’s instructions (Exodus 18:23-27). The passage offers a rare glimpse behind the curtain into the molding of Israel as a nation. John I. Durham (b. 1933) refers to the incident as “the best picture we have in the Old Testament of how the system worked and a clear designation of God as the authority of both the law and its interpretation.” (Durham, Word Biblical Commentary, Vol. 3: Exodus , 253). The story also sets the stage for the giving of the law in the following chapters. Are you in danger of withering? What responsibilities do you need to delegate? What were the benefits of following Jethro’s strategy? Is micromanaging ever appropriate?
In alluding to this passage, some management experts refer to the “Jethro Principle” which in its simplest iteration states that leadership should be shared. Even Moses needed both divine and human helpers. Rabbi David Baron (b. 1950) writes:
The name of Moses usually evokes images of a lone figure towering over his flock, not quite a god but not merely a mortal, either. When we look at examples of how a single human being can be a force for change in the world, we think of him...But neither the image of Moses the towering law giver nor that of Moses the fully actualized man shows us the reality: he was part of a team. Not even Moses could do it alone. (Baron, Moses on Management: 50 Leadership Lessons from the Greatest Manager of All Time, 112-113)Not surprisingly, one of Moses’ helpers was his father-in-law. Scholars have long speculated as to just how much influence the Midianite priest had on the nascent Israelite nation. In her1939 novelization of the familiar Exodus story, Moses, Man of the Mountain, Zora Neale Hurston (1891-1960) gives many of God’s lines to Jethro, including being the impetus for Moses’s rescue mission in Egypt (Hurston, 120-121).
David Baron (b. 1950) speculates, “Jethro may have played an even more important role in Moses’ development: some scholars believe that he taught Moses monotheism. So great was the respect the ancient sages had for the Midianite priest Jethro that they named the portion of the Bible that contains the Ten Commandments ‘Yitro’ after him (Baron, Moses on Management: 50 Leadership Lessons from the Greatest Manager of All Time, 115).”
For his part, Jethro notes that his system is from God (Exodus 18:23). Brevard S. Childs (1923-2007) comments, “The remarkable thing is that the Old Testament itself does not seem to have any problem with the issue. The narrative moves back and forth with apparent ease between advice offered on the level of practical expediency (Exodus 18:17ff) and statements about God’s will which supports the plan (Exodus 18:19, 23). No tension appears between these two poles because both are seen to reflect the divine will to the same extent (Childs, The Book of Exodus: A Critical, Theological Commentary (The Old Testament Library), 332).”
How much of an influence do you think Jethro had on Moses? What is the best advice you ever received from your in-laws? Why does the Bible share Jethro’s contribution and the process instead of merely recording the results? When has God spoken to you through the practical voice of another human being?
“Surround yourself with the best people you can find, delegate authority, and don’t interfere as long as the policy you’ve decided upon is being carried out.” - Ronald Reagan (1911-2004), Fortune Magazine, September 15, 1986