Wednesday, 12 November 2008

Moses: "Lessons from my father-in-law"

Recently I have been on a preachers' conference where we all had to prepare a 'sermonette' on a given Bible passage for a seven-minute presentation and critique. Mine was on Exodus 18, a chapter which looks obvious, but which contains all sorts of other possibilities. On a 'waste not, want not' basis, I thought I might as well put online what I did. And here it is:

The Future People of God


"Nothing is impossible to the man who doesn’t do it himself. Any real success in business will be built on the endeavours of others, so surround yourself with good people and give them their head."

So wrote Tony Marchington, Manager of a firm providing IT services to the Pharmaceutical Industry, when advising people on the importance of delegation.

And that might appear to be the message of Exodus 18. Moses, the man of God, is attempting to do everything himself, until Jethro, the priest of Midian and father-in-law to Moses, turns up and shows him a better way to organize his workload.

And that is certainly what happens. But there is more — vastly more — than that to Exodus 18.

Zipporah’s action

Jethro’s visit reconnects Moses with his past — a past which Moses might have been trying to forget — for he comes to Moses bringing back his wife Zipporah whom, v 2 tells us, Moses had ‘sent away’.

Moreover, there is a definite formality to this visit. In v 6 we read Jethro had sent a message to Moses in advance: “I, your father-in-law Jethro, am coming to you, with your wife and her two sons.”

This is not just a hint to put the kettle on. Jethro is bringing Zipporah back, at a busy time for Moses himself. Notice, this was Jethro’s idea, not Moses’s. And if we think back to the last time we saw Zipporah, we might understand why.

Back in chapter 4, we read how, having met with God at the burning bush, Moses had made an excuse to Jethro to leave home with his daughter — an excuse which wasn’t quite true (4:18):

Please let me go back to my kindred in Egypt and see whether they are still living.

Notice, not, “I’m off to deliver Israel.” And then — to our complete astonishment — we read in 4:24 how, on the way, “the Lord met him [Moses] and sought to kill him” — the same thing Pharaoh had ‘sought’ to do when he found out Moses had killed an Egyptian.

And Moses’s life is only saved by the intervention of Zipporah. Seizing a flint knife, she cut off her son’s foreskin and touched it to Moses’s feet with the words, “Truly you are a bridegroom of blood to me!” And Moses was spared.


But why this action? Why was it necessary? Why was it effective? And how does it affect chapter 18?

What it tells us (obviously) is that Moses had not circumcised his son. But that tells us a lot about Moses, for Moses had called this son ‘Gershom’, meaning ‘The Alien Place’, because (Moses said at the time), “I have been an alien residing in a foreign land.”

And Moses, the alien, hadn’t bothered to do for his son — his own firstborn, notice — what God’s covenant required, namely to circumcise him. Moses, it seems, had lost heart and faith.

But God, we are told in 2:24, had remembered his covenant with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and called Moses and sent him to be the deliverer.

Who, though, was he going to deliver? Moses had fled Egypt because he had killed an Egyptian who was attacking a Hebrew, “one of his own people”, the text says. But Gershom was a half-cast — a painful reminder that Moses lived amongst non-Hebrews.

So what was the point of circumcising him? Zipporah’s act, therefore, is not just bold but brilliant, for she sees how the Lord himself required that Moses must own his alien family: the alien son must be circumcised, the Midianite wife must have her ‘bridegroom of blood’, the blood of the covenant..


Yet Moses sent her away — we don’t know when, but perhaps soon after, since she has not been mentioned since then.

Butnow in a second act of boldness and brilliance, Jethro brings her back. And when Moses has finished telling him the details of what God has done, it is Jethro, the priest of Midian, who gives the appropriate theological verdict (18:10):

Blessed be the Lord, who has delivered you from the Egyptians and from Pharaoh. 11 Now I know that the Lord is greater than all gods, because he delivered the people from the Egyptians, when they dealt arrogantly with them.

Jethro has had his conversion moment. And we may be sure that Zipporah’s report has had something to do with his understanding.

He knows that the Lord is Lord — greater than all gods. And the evidence of this is v 12: Jethro, the priest of Midian, offers sacrifice to the God of Israel, and then eats a fellowship meal — a covenant meal with Moses, Aaron and the elders of Israel “in the presence of God.”

The next time we see this happening will be up Mount Sinai, by God’s own invitation, in chapter 24.


So what about the delegation of work that he urges on Moses? This is also a godly insight from an alien to God’s people.

First, Jethro sees the wrongness of Moses’ approach to being the ‘deliverer’ of God’s people and the spokesman for God. Specifically, he sees it is not good for Moses to be alone — 18:14, 18. Moses, as the new leader of a new people, must learn the lesson Adam learned as the first leader of the human race.

Secondly, he sees how to overcome the problem: to educate the people in God’s ways, vv 19-20:

... teach them the statutes and instructions and make known to them the way they are to go and the things they are to do.

Thirdly, he sees the need to choose the right helpers in the work, v 21:

You should also look for able men among all the people, men who fear God, are trustworthy, and hate dishonest gain

And fourth, he sees the importance of this to God’s purposes, v 23:

If you do this, and God so commands you, then you will be able to endure, and all these people will go to their home in peace.

The word translated ‘home’ is literally ‘their place’. But where is this ‘place’ — is it each man’s tent, or is it the place referred to in Ex 23:20 (also Deut 1:31)?

I am going to send an angel in front of you, to guard you on the way and to bring you to the place that I have prepared.

Jethro sees a people worn out by standing around all day, who, if they follow his advice, will complete the Exodus and arrive at their destination in better shape!

And v 24 tells us, “Moses listened to [the voice of] his father-in-law” — a phrase which means he obeyed that word of advice.

Jethro had once given him a home, a job and a wife. That wife had once saved him from God’s own wrath. Now Jethro saves all Israel from an impossible system and encourages God’s word to be passed on to all.


What does it teach us? It teaches us what Genesis 12:3 teaches us: that the blessing of Israel is for the whole world. Exodus 18:10 says, literally, that Jethro blessed the Lord, and the Lord had blessed him.

And through the blessing brought to this Gentile by Moses, blessing had returned on Israel.

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  1. Thanks John, a very interesting exposition on Exodus 18, with plenty of insights to reflect upon.

    However, is this a sermon/sermonette? What makes the difference between teaching and preaching? You conclude with a lesson, a very important theological point, but I'm left wondering what this means for my discipleship and ministry. In other words, what is the application, what response are you praying for from your hearers?

    It may be that the excercise of preparing a sermonette at a preaching conference makes it difficult to apply the central point given the nature of the event. Or it may be that you see preaching primarily about imparting theological information.

    It is interesting to see that Israel's blessing is for the whole world but to put it crudely, so what? To quote Morrissey 'what difference does it make?'

    Please don't take this as a criticism of what you have written, as I said there is lots to think about. I'm just interested to know if you see a distinction between exposition and preaching.

  2. Hi Phil. The question about application was also raised in the seminar. My response then (and now) was (is) that when I preach I tend to make applications all the way through. I was rather embarrassed that with this one I had to tack it on the end.

    As to a distinction between exposition and preaching, I think this is an exposition, but not yet an expository sermon. Hence I called it a 'sermonette' - not because it is short, but because it is short on some things that ought to be in sermon!

    I thought the stuff on Zipporah was pretty good though.

  3. "Hence I called it a 'sermonette' - not because it is short, but because it is short on some things that ought to be in sermon!"

    Interesting John - what do you think it needs to class as a sermon?

  4. Shaun - I think it needs a clearer connection with the life-situation of the hearers. I was, however, on a 7 minute time limit, and felt it best to focus on clarifying the issues which would be necessary to make way for the application to follow.

  5. "it needs a clearer connection with the life-situation of the hearers"
    From my point of view it acheived that - it brought to mind examples of poor decision making processes choking the church's mission and I shall (like any good preacher) plagerise it ruthlessly!