Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Civil Government? Exodus 18

Chapter 18 is a bit of an odd chapter in the context of Exodus. Moses is encountering some problems, or at least some inconveniences, in governing the Israelites. He does not turn to God with these problems – indeed, perhaps he doesn’t realize until this chapter that there are problems. Instead, he turns to his father-in-law Jethro (formerly known as Reuel) of Midian. Jethro, you may recall, is a priest, although it’s still not clear a priest of whom.

Jethro finds the Israelites, bringing with him Moses’ wife and children to reunite that family. He praises God for the liberation of the Israelites: “praise be to the Lord… Now I know that the Lord is greater than all other gods, for he did this to those who had treated Israel arrogantly.” He is, however, more critical of Moses. The latter has taken to acting as “judge for the people” from morning to evening, and Jethro suggests that “what you are doing is not good”: Moses will exhaust himself. There is an element of self-interest here, it’s worth noting: if Moses doesn’t have any time apart from being a judge, then he certainly won’t have any time for his wife Zipporah (that is, Jethro’s daughter) and their sons.

Jethro’s chief contribution here is the proposal of what amounts to a primitive judicial hierarchy. Moses will handle only the most serious problems of the community: he is “the people’s representative before God.” In this function, it is his duty to “teach [the people] the decrees and laws, and show them the way to live and the duties they are to perform.” Under his authority will be “capable men… who fear God, trustworthy men who hate dishonest gain,” who control groups of thousands, hundreds, fifties, and tens. They will handle “simple” cases and bring only the difficult ones to Moses. Jethro concludes that “if you do this and God so commands, you will be able to stand the strain, and all these people will go home satisfied.” Moses implements the plan, and Jethro goes home to Midian.

The interesting thing about establishing this civil authority structure is that it does not come from God, but from a man, Jethro – a man who by all indications is not even an Israelite. As far as government goes, this isn’t a particularly bad scheme. If there are enough reliable Israelites to actually have judges for every ten citizens, clearly there are a fair number of reliable, “capable” men, despite the incessant grumbling in the previous chapters. On the other hand, we continue to reinforce the Old Testament vision that the people cannot handle their own affairs and require paternal supervision and leadership. Indeed, there are so many problems that Moses must appoint a judge for every ten citizens – the sort of ratio which would be surprising even in a police state. Moses’s job is to teach the people “the decrees and laws,” but either he’s not having much success or the judge system is a temporary stopgap measure. This new role – Moses the magistrate – doesn’t seem to come up ever again in the Bible.