Jethro’s profound, mundane message
Chapter 18 of the book of Exodus feels a little like an anti-climax. The previous chapters have been high drama: the ten plagues, departure from Egypt, splitting of the Red Sea, the miraculous descent of the manna; all powerful, stirring stuff. Then we get to chapter 18, Jethro arriving at the Israelite camp, seeing Moses trying to resolve the disputes that people are bringing to him, a growing crowd of litigants lining up, all awaiting their turn.
Jethro, quite wisely, informs him that the way he is going about this is unsustainable. ‘It is too much for you. You can’t do it alone.’ Jethro tells Moses he has to delegate, appoint judges, divide the tasks up.
Up to now, the only instructions that Moses has listened to have come from God. He has never sought, or heard, advice from anyone else. So why do we suddenly get this rather mundane section, in which Moses’ father in law gives him good, common sense advice; advice to do something he would probably have thought of himself, given long enough.
The answer probably lies in the fact that whatever God commands Moses is for a sacred or religiously essential purpose. But the need to establish a system to administer justice transcends religion. Law courts are necessary institutions, common sense tells us we need them. Without justice it is impossible to have a harmonious society. And if the administration of justice was to be seen merely as a religious command, it runs the risk of being ignored by anyone who does not buy into the faith. There are some rules in society that are more important than religion, that are underpinned by common sense, that cannot stand or fall depending on the spiritual inclination of a particular group of people, or a moment in time.
We have a name for these sorts of rule. We call them the Seven Noachide Laws, laws stretching back into antiquity, first transmitted to the ancestor of humankind, to Noah. There are different interpretations as to which laws comprise the seven, the question is discussed in the Talmud (San 56a-60a). But at very least they include the prohibition against bloodshed, against cruelty to animals, against incest, the requirement to have law courts and a belief system- or if you prefer a system of values. These are the basic fundamentals of any human society. They cannot be commanded by God as the religious obligation of one people alone. They have to derive from our common sense; we have to teach them to each other.
This is why time and again in the Bible we find the allusions to these laws in human speech, not divine command. Adam expresses the prohibition against incest: ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave to his wife, and they shall be one flesh.’ (Genesis 2,24). Reuben warns against bloodshed: ‘Do not shed blood’ (Genesis 37,22), Jethro instructs in the establishment of law courts, Jacob against idolatry: ‘Remove the strange gods which are in your midst’ (Gen 35,2).
Jethro’s counsel to Moses immediately precedes the giving of the Ten Commandments, half of which are social laws. A system of law and justice was essential before these commandments were given. And it had to be a system devised and instituted by humans. Earthly justice has to be implemented by people, not by God.
But there is a point where Jethro’s law courts and divine justice intersect. When we lower a coffin into its grave we quote Jethro’s words: ‘To their place they will come in peace’. Jethro was referring to the litigant who leaves the court peacefully, having seen justice done. But when we quote him at a funeral we are speaking of the heavenly court, before which the deceased is about to appear. We are expressing confidence in the justice of its final verdict.