Thursday, January 5, 2012

In-law Helping Outlaw (Exodus 18:19)

Moses sat to judge the people, and they came to him from morning to evening. Who counseled him not to do this? His father-in-law, Jethro (Exodus 18:19)

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

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

The House of Mirth (Ecclesiastes 7:4)

Complete: “The heart of the wise is the house of mourning, but _____________________________________________.” The heart of fools is in the house of mirth (Ecclesiastes 7:4)

Ecclesiastes is one of five Biblical books classified as wisdom literature. The book documents the sayings of “the Preacher” (Ecclesiastes 1:1 NASB), often left untranslated as Qohelet. Ecclesiastes 7 addresses a theme common to wisdom literature — the contrast of wisdom and folly. For Qohelet, one of the dividing lines between wisdom and folly is an awareness of one’s finitude.

The mind of the wise is in the house of mourning, While the mind of fools is in the house of pleasure. (Ecclesiastes 7:4 NASB)
Ecclesiastes 7:4 uses antithetical parallelism, a juxtaposition of opposites, to contrast the sage and the fool. Qohelet claims that the mind of the fools resides in the house of “mirth” (ASV, ESV, KJV, NKJV, NRSV, RSV) or “pleasure” (HCSB, NASB, NIV). The traditional translation, “the house of mirth”, was immortalized by Edith Wharton (1862-1937) in her 1905 novel of the same name. The book examines the fashionable New York elite, whose surface achievement and refinement in the house of mirth conceals a moral vacuum that contributes to the death of the book’s protagonist, Lily Bart.

Qohelet says that the wise are always aware of their pending date with death. Tremper Longman III (b. 1952) explains, “In keeping with the previous verses, he states his belief that those who are wise contemplate their ultimate death, while fools are those who blithely live as if there is no end in sight (Longman, The Book of Ecclesiastes (New International Commentary on the Old Testament), 184).”

William H. Bicksler (b. 1933) adds,“The wise are in the house of mourning, the place of death, much like tragedies are so much truer to life than comedies (Bicksler, Commentary on Ecclesiastes: The Believing Skeptic with a Message, 115).”

Craig G. Bartholomew (b. 1961) claims that Qohelet is actually advocating a preoccupation with death:

This does not just refer to healthy awareness of one’s finitude but to an obsession with death. The heart is the center of the person and for Qohelet the “wise” person’s center dwells in the house of mourning. Qohelet’s logic leads him to the view that the wise person is consumed with death and the fool with celebration and joy. (Bartholomew, Ecclesiastes (Baker Commentary on the Old Testament Wisdom and Psalms), 248)
Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) posited that a human could not fully process the concept of one’s own death. Freud writes, “It is indeed impossible to imagine our own death; and whenever we attempt to do so we can perceive that we are in fact still present as spectators. Hence the psychoanalytic school could venture on the assertion that at bottom no one believes in his own death, or to put the same thing in another way, in the unconscious every one of us is convinced of his own immortality (Freud, “Thoughts for Our Times on War and Death”, The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Volume 14, 289).” For Freud, on some level, all humans are fools dwelling in the house of mirth. How would you put this verse into modern terms? Does Qohelet suppose that wise people should never venture to the house of pleasure? What are the lessons of the funeral home? What benefit is there to contemplating one’s own death?

The realization of one’s death provides the opportunity for a new awareness of life. James L. Crenshaw (b. 1934) explains that “the thought flows logically from Ecclesiastes 7:1 to Ecclesiastes 7:4. In these ‘better’ sayings Qohelet seems captivated by death’s finality. Since everyone eventually dies, a realist prepares for that moment. In considering that unwelcome event one encounters an astonishing paradox: suffering can instruct, purge the spirit, and offer increased learning. An astute observer of life makes a path for the house of mourning, anticipating an encounter with the essence of human existence.” (Crenshaw, Ecclesiastes: A Commentary (Old Testament Library), 134-135).

Iain Provan (b. 1957) adds that there is a moral byproduct to this revelation:

Depth is, in fact, a characteristic of the person who lives in the light of reality, just as superficiality is the mark of the life in denial. The wise person knows the value of things. This is clear from Ecclesiastes 7:5-6, where words having moral content and directed at the important question of how we should live (the “rebuke”) are preferred to the inane, pointless (hebel, NIV “meaninglessness”) , sounds produced by fools, whether in song or in laughter. (Provan, The NIV Application Commentary: Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs)
Commentators have long been befuddled by the stark contrast between this passage and other sayings in Ecclesiastes, most notably the “carpe diem” (“seize the day”) passages (Ecclesiastes 2:24-26, 3:12-14, 22, 5:18-20, 8:15, 9:7-10).

Tremper Longman III (b. 1952) writes:

It is important to feel the tension between this verse and the carpe diem passages that appear throughout the book. In the latter, Qohelet asserts that there is ‘nothing better’ than the pleasures of eating, drinking, and working, while here he seems to say that such an attitude is the mark of the fool. These tensions lead to the conclusion...that Qohelet is a confused wise man who doubts the traditions of his people. (Longman, The Book of Ecclesiastes (New International Commentary on the Old Testament), 184).

Leonard S. Kravitz (b. 1928) and Kerry M. Olitzky (b. 1954) expound:

The verse seems to say that wherever they are, the wise think about mortality and the limitations of the human condition, while fools seek only personal enjoyment and pleasure. The Targum relates the verse to the destruction of the Temple: the wise mourn and reflection its destruction, while the fools are indifferent and engage in irresponsible behavior...Perhaps Kohelet is recommending that we focus on death in order to appreciate the days we are alive. Such a perspective would be consistent with Ecclesiastes 2:24, from which this teaching would have emerged naturally. Or perhaps, from the perspective of old age, Kohelet has simply changed his mind. If so, then Ecclesiastes 2:24 contradicts this verse, which may be why, in his comment on the previous verse, Ibn Ezra reminds the reader that the Rabbis sought to suppress this book because they felt that its verses (and therefore its teachings) included inherent contradictions. (Kravitz and Olitzky, Kohelet: A Modern Commentary on Ecclesiastes, 65)
Perhaps Qohelet was not confused, was not self contradictory and did not change his mind. Perhaps the proper perspective upon one’s own mortality lies somewhere between living moment to moment, seizing the present day and dwelling on the inevitably of death at an unknown future date.

What is the proper attitude toward one’s own death? Have you faced your own death? Do you dwell in the house or mourning or the house of mirth?

“To suspect your own mortality is to know the beginning of terror, to learn irrefutably that you are mortal is to know the end of terror.” - Frank Herbert (1920-1986), Children of Dune, p. 132

Monday, January 2, 2012

Esau a.k.a “Red” (Genesis 25:30)

What was Esau’s other name? Edom

Isaac’s son, Esau, was a hairy redhead. The Bible tells us that he was born that way (Genesis 25:25). As a fellow hairy redhead, I have always viewed him as the Bible’s most handsome character which is clearly evidenced in this quilt created by Marilyn Belford (b. 1935) entitled “For a Mess of Pottage”...

At birth, Esau was given his name. John C.L. Gibson (1930-2008) informs, “Its real meaning is unknown, though presumably the Hebrews were aware of it. (Gibson, Genesis (Daily Study Bible), 140).”

Now the first came forth red, all over like a hairy garment; and they named him Esau. (Genesis 25:25 NASB)
Based upon context clues, it can be inferred that Esau’s name was in some way associated with his physical appearance but its precise meaning is uncertain. Isaac’s son is the only Bible character with the name.

During the first story told of Esau, the character is endowed with another name when his younger twin, Jacob, convinces him to trade his birthright for a pot of “red stuff” (Genesis 25:27-34). With that Esau became synonymous with Edom, which means “red” (Genesis 25:30, 36:1, 8, 19, 43).

and Esau said to Jacob, “Please let me have a swallow of that red stuff there, for I am famished.” Therefore his name was called Edom. (Genesis 25:30 NASB)
This verse marks the first time the word “red” is used in the Bible but hardly the last. Edom will become the name of the nation of Esau’s descendants. Gerhard Von Rad (1901-1971) notes “that not all Jacob-Esau stories equate Esau with Edom, but that this identification is rooted in ch. 25.” (Von Rad, Genesis: A Commentary (Old Testament Library), 275).”

Though contextually the name does not relate only to his hair, in this story, Esau becomes the first in a long line of redheads who used “Red” as a proper name. Victor P. Hamilton (b. 1941) expounds:

Esau’s name was first explained in Genesis 25:30 — he was called “ruddy” (’admônî) all over, like a “hairy garment” they named him “Esau”...Genesis 25:30 expands that explanation...Running through these two verses is an emphasis on redness or some shade thereof...Esau is one of two individuals in the Old Testament whose natural appearance is described as red. Both he and David are called ’admônî (Genesis 25:20; I Samuel 16:12, 17:42) C.H. Gordon had provided evidence from Egypt, Crete, Ugarit, and Homer showing that men (but never women) are colored red or reddish brown when they assumed heroic or ceremonial purposes.” (Hamilton, The Book of Genesis: Chapters 18-50 (New International Commentary on the Old Testament Series), 183)
Being redheaded is distinctive. People with other hair colors are not known by their hair hue, only redheads. Anthropologist Grant McCracken (b. 1951) explains, “Of course, part of the ‘problem’ with redheads is that there aren’t enough of them. They make up just two percent of the population. So they’re pretty extraordinary. Redheads are too numerous to be ignored, too rare to be accepted (McCracken, Big Hair: A Journey Into the Transformation of Self, 102).”

Do you have more than one name? If you were a color, what color would you be? How many people named “Red” can you think of? What do you associate with the color red?

It is natural to compare Jacob and Esau. They were the Bible’s first twin brothers and are juxtaposed many times in Scripture (Genesis 25:27, 28, 27:22; Joshua 24:4; Obadiah 1:18; Malachi 1:2; Romans 9:13). The twins’ names also make for an interesting comparison. Both have two names (Jacob/Israel, Esau/Edom), the second of which was given later and the name the nations they spawned adopted (Genesis 25:26, 32:28, 35:10).

Jacob’s names relate to his character and his adopted name, Israel, refers to one of the most profound moments of his life (Genesis 32:24-32). In contrast, Esau’s names refer to his physical appearance and his adopted name refers to one of his greatest failures (Genesis 25:27-34).

Kenneth A. Mathews (b. 1950) writes:

The parenthetical aside that connects the name “Edom” (’ědôm) with the “red” (’ādōm) concoction reinforces the link between the progenitor and his offspring. The play on the name is not complimentary, since it brings to mind Esau’s ineptness in dealing with the artful Jacob. It also recalls the birth conflict where he was described there as “red” (Genesis 25:25). By the convergence of the wordplays, the author shows that these events by which Jacob gets the better of Esau proved the veracity of the oracle (Genesis 25:23). (Mathews, The New American Commentary: Genesis 11:27-50:26), 392)
Harvey J. Fields (b. 1935) adds, “Before and after the destruction of the Temple by the Romans in 70 C.E., the rabbis used the name ‘Edom’ as a code name for Rome. They believed that, one day, Esau-Edom-Rome, would be defeated and that Jacob-Israel would be victorious. They predicted that ‘God will throw Edom-Rome out of heaven...Edom-Rome will be slaughtered...Edom-Rome will be destroyed by fire.’ (Pesikta de-Rav Kahana 4:9) (Fields, A Torah Commentary for Our Times: Genesis, 62)”

Would you rather be named for a physical feature or a character trait? Is the text, written by Jacob’s descendants, fair to Esau? If you were named for your greatest triumph or most heart wrenching failure, what would your name be?

“When red headed people are above a certain social grade their hair is auburn.” - Mark Twain (1835-1910), A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, p. 152