Many books on Christian leadership look at Exodus 18 as an example of good leadership. Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, sees that Moses is working too hard and gives him some sound advice. However, there’s more going on in this story than we see at first glance. On closer examination, we learn that good leadership principles can become bad moves when we act apart from God’s leading.
[bctt tweet=”Good leadership principles can become bad moves when we act apart from God’s leading.”]
The Voice of God
Throughout the book of Exodus, Moses is listening to God. From his very first encounter at the burning bush where God says, “I will teach you what to do,” to the defeat of Amalek where Moses intercedes for Israel and God gives the victory. Through the whole book Moses is talking with God and listening to God – but not in Exodus 18. Here Moses never talks to God and God doesn’t speak to Moses. Moses’ attention is elsewhere.
Who Is Jethro?
This chapter begins with a curious introduction: “Jethro, the priest of Midian, Moses’ father-in-law heard of all that God had done for Moses.” Jethro was a priest of Midian. The Midianites were descendants of Midian, one of Abraham’s sons by Keturah, his wife after the death of Sarah. We do not know who Jethro worshiped, but the later Midianites did not worship the God of Israel. It’s interesting that Jethro is not introduced as a priest of God Most High like Melchizedek (Genesis 14:18). He most likely did not worship the same God as Moses. In Exodus 18:11 he says, “Now I know that the Lord is greater than all gods” in response to how God had delivered Israel from the Egyptians. His sacrificial offering in 18:12 seems to be a conversion ceremony. Either Jethro is turning to the God of Israel or he is adding Yahweh to his collection of gods. Whatever is going on, it is clear that Jethro does not speak for God.
The Voice of Jethro
Throughout this chapter the author repeats the lengthy title “Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law.” This awkward construction interrupts the flow of the narrative four of the five times it’s used. It’s as if the author wants us to pay special attention to who’s speaking because something’s not right.
Moses is overwhelmed with the amount of work he has as judge of the people. When Jethro sees this, he delivers the famous lines in Exodus 18:17-23, the advice so often used as a leadership lesson:
“What you are doing is not good. You and the people with you will certainly wear yourselves out, for the thing is too heavy for you. You are not able to do it alone. Now obey my voice; I will give you advice, and God be with you! You shall represent the people before God and bring their cases to God, and you shall warn them about the statutes and the laws, and make them know the way in which they must walk and what they must do. Moreover, look for able men from all the people, men who fear God, who are trustworthy and hate a bribe, and place such men over the people as chiefs of thousands, of hundreds, of fifties, and of tens. And let them judge the people at all times. Every great matter they shall bring to you, but any small matter they shall decide themselves. So it will be easier for you, and they will bear the burden with you. If you do this, God will direct you, you will be able to endure, and all this people also will go to their place in peace.”
Did you notice the change in the text? Instead of seeking the Lord’s will, Moses listens to his father-in-law when Jethro says, “ Now obey my voice; I will give you advice, and God be with you!” Jethro claims to speak for God! Some have taken this as evidence that Jethro is a priest for God. I see it as a break in the pattern. Moses has stopped listening to God and has allowed Jethro to take his place. I’ll admit, it’s hard to say no to your father-in-law, but this is what creates the problem.
Jethro’s advice is not bad. In fact, God gives Moses similar instruction later in the book of numbers. Moses does need to delegate some of his workload. This is a basic principle of leadership – we can’t do it all alone. The problem is not with the advice. The problem is that Moses has stopped listening to God. As leaders, when we stop listening to God, the best leadership principles can become destructive to the people we lead. Let’s consider what happens after “Moses listened to the voice of his father-in-law and did all that he had said” (Exodus 18:24).
The Voice of the People
At first things seem to go smoothly. Moses appointed chiefs over the people and they judged the people at all times. They were trustworthy, God-fearing men. So we should expect that things would go well. They had wisdom to handle what they could, but they brought the hard cases to Moses.
Then Moses went up on the mountain to speak with God.
As Moses is receiving the law of God, what happens in the camp? Over a period of forty days, the people turn from God and begin to worship a golden calf. Where were the chiefs whom Moses had appointed? Why aren’t they judging the people and keeping them focused on God? They were listening to the voice of the people. Even Aaron, Moses’ right-hand man and the one who had walked closest to Moses, was swayed by the people. When Moses confronted him about the golden calf, Aaron responded, “You know the people, that they are set on evil.” Aaron didn’t resist their evil but went along with them in it.
The Voice of God
Leadership isn’t just about delegating authority to others; we have to choose the right people. In Numbers 11, God recognizes that Moses needs help. So he makes a plan to set elders over the people. His plan is almost the same as Jethro’s, but there is a significant difference. See if you can pick up on the key difference in Numbers 11:16-17:
Then the Lord said to Moses, “Gather for me seventy men of the elders of Israel, whom you know to be the elders of the people and officers over them, and bring them to the tent of meeting, and let them take their stand there with you. And I will come down and talk with you there. And I will take some of the Spirit that is on you and put it on them, and they shall bear the burden of the people with you, so that you may not bear it yourself alone.
Did you catch it? God said, “I will take some of the Spirit that is on you and put it on them.” The key differences between these two texts is that now Moses listens to God and God empowers the elders with his Spirit. In this case, it’s not enough to delegate. Moses needed the men to be filled with the Spirit.
[bctt tweet=”Leadership isn’t just about delegating authority to others; we have to choose the right people.”]
God’s Choice Is Best
We see a similar event in the New Testament. In Acts 1, the Apostles decide they need to fill the void left by Judas. So they cast lots between Justus and Matthias. God didn’t tell them to do this. Both men had been with Jesus from the beginning, but Jesus didn’t choose them to be apostles. The church thought they were doing the right thing – they even had texts of scripture to prove it. So they cast lots and Matthias was chosen, and he is never mentioned again in the book of Acts.
Later in the book of Acts, Jesus chooses Saul to become his apostle to the Gentiles. Saul becomes Paul, and the second half of Acts chronicles the powerful ways that God uses him to spread the gospel. Were the Apostles acting foolishly to choose Matthias? No, they were using the best resources at their disposal and doing the best they knew to do. They just didn’t wait for God to reveal his choice.
Who Are We Listening To?
As leaders, we have to make decisions every day. We seek the best wisdom. We consult the Scriptures. We pray. When we have done all we can do, we make the best decision we can. Sometimes it works. I wonder if we make these decisions too soon sometimes. What if we were to stop long enough to search deeply and truly ask, “Who are we listening to?” I wonder what we would find.
I know sometimes I find I’m just listening to myself, or my board, or some leadership guru. I know that I sometimes have to confess I went ahead without confirming God’s clear direction. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.
Do you ever find yourself asking, “What went wrong?” You were confident you made the wise decision. It was in line with the Word. You even prayed over it and found a sense of peace. What is missing? The direction didn’t come from God.
Here are some thoughts on how we can be sure we are following God’s, lead not our own:
- Gather – Collect a group of godly people who are full of the Holy Spirit and who show the ability to discern God’s will in their personal lives.
- Pause – As a group, take time to be silent before God. Quiet your heart and surrender your will to him. Don’t move forward until you are willing to give up your plan in favor of God’s will.
- Pray – Ask God to show his will to the group. Continue in prayerful surrender, speaking only when you feel God has given you something to share. Confirm it by his Word.
- Share – Ask everyone to share how they believe God is leading. Is there agreement in the Holy Spirit? Does anyone feel troubled in spirit about this decision? Listen well to one another.
- Check – Make a decision when there is sufficient unity and clear testimony from the scriptures. Be sure to double check your decision against the Word of God. Give the decision a trial run for a few days before moving on it if you are unsure. After the trial, start the process again with prayerful surrender.
- Move – When you are confident that this is God’s leading, move forward with the decision. However, recognize that it is possible you got it wrong. Keep your eyes open; God may yet show a better way.
I’m with you, except I wouldn’t make the claim that jethros advice was good. If god wanted moses to handle the workload he had a perfect reason for it.
Cool. This article is getting some discussion.
Just a thought — but I think that Moses did not follow the advice given by Jethro –
“Moreover, look for able men from all the people, men who fear God, who are trustworthy and hate a bribe, and place such men over the people as chiefs”
As we see the failure and what happened in Deuteronomy 1. The men that were chosen in Deuteronomy 1 were not men who feared God,
They were – wise and discerning and experienced men — Who made this decision?
Deut. 1:13 ‘Choose wise and discerning and experienced men from your tribes, and I will appoint them as your heads.’
They were not trustworthy
Deut. 1:32 “But for all this, you did not trust the LORD your God,
and they did not hate bribes — i.e. they did what they wanted — when they wanted, just as long as it was good for them — they wanted their own WAY — even when God told them to turn back.
Deut. 1:42 “And the LORD said to me, ‘Say to them, “Do not go up nor fight, for I am not among you; otherwise you will be defeated before your enemies.”’
Deut. 1:43 “So I spoke to you, but you would not listen. Instead you rebelled against the command of the LORD, and acted presumptuously and went up into the hill country.
So just a thought — but Jethro’s wisdom was from God — Moses did not follow it — and this is reflected in Deuteronomy 1. Moses picked men who were thought to be wise and discerning by the tribes, they did not have faith in God, and they wanted anything that would fulfill their own desires at the time.
You make some good points. Thank you. You’ve given me some things to chew on.
I don’t see any evidence that Jethro was speaking for God. To me, the textual structure seems to indicate the opposite. Moses stopped listening to God and started listening to a priest of Midian (not Yahweh). I can’t find any evidence that the Midianites were followers of Yahweh. To me, the evidence seems to indicate they followed other Gods. If anything, Exodus 18:11 suggests that Jethro was a new convert to following Yahweh.
Thanks for adding to the discussion!
I liked Jethro’s advice. God did not condemn Moses for listening to it and neither should you.
I neither condemned Moses nor did I disagree with Jethro’s advice.
I have been studying the Hebrews at Rephidim, and reading about Jethro.
I was also questioning whether Jethro’s advice was from God or not – and thus found your article.
I would agree with you that although the advice from the world may seem “logical” and even “godly”, if we do not hear from God ourselves, and ask Him what He wants us to do in EACH situation, we would be going down the wrong path,
I have a sense that there are a lot of ministries out there doing the “logical” thing — or what “other churches” would do. However, is it what Jesus has told them to do for THEIR specific ministry?
and I think that this results in a lot of heartache, and soul searching when things don’t turn out the way they expected.
We have to keep listening to His voice in every situation that we are in. And confirm whether the advice from the world is true (ie. God does use people/ideas from the world) by asking Him Daily — is this what you want me to do?
Ultimately, in this fashion, no glory will come to us, or promotion of our own name and ministry.
Rather, the glory will only go to Jesus, to promote His name, His Life, and His Truth.
I loved your “Pausing and praying”. Wait, be silent, and ask Jesus what He wants. And He will answer.
Thank you for the article.
Thank you for reading the article. You are right about the need to listen to God in every situation. The other point I was trying to make is that we can’t just listen alone. When God modified Jethro’s advice, he gave Moses men who were filled with his Spirit. I think church leaders need to form a discerning community that listens to God together.
Thanks for interacting with my writing!
I really disagree with what your saying. Mainly because Jethro says if God commands so he said to ask God! We don’t know that he didn’t.
furthermore if we look in context the passage before is saying it was becoming to much for Moses. He needed people to help hold his hands up.
God sometimes spreaks through other people including unbelievers. Jethro was older and had leadership experience of his own. He was giving sound practical advice.
Just because someone is an unbeliever or they are a new believer doesn’t mean their experience or advice should be dismissed out of hand. Sometimes God brings them into your life to speak some truth.
Furthermore God clearly dealt with Moses when He went against Him. One could point out God Himself latter on endorses Jethros plan.
I frankly think this passage shows we should all have spent humbleness and be willing to learn from the experience of others.
Sometimes God directly tells us to do something. Sometimes He brings people that give us good sound advise and if we know their advice is good and God isn’t Saying no. We don’t know that God ever said Moses should work that hard.
Thanks for your comments, Becca. You certainly bring up some valid points and I admit that there are other ways of understanding this passage. I completely agree that Moses needed help and that we need to humbly listen to the experience of others. However, Jethro’s plan didn’t work. Later, God modified it to include leaders who would be given his Spirit – that’s what made the plan work. It was a good plan but God had a better one.
I love your last sentence, “We don’t know that God ever said that Moses should work that hard.” I believe that this is an essential lesson for all leaders. We need to recognize our limits and ask for help for others or delegate responsibility. I think both God and Jethro were telling Moses (and us) this lesson.
Thanks for taking the time to interact with my article.
It’s very important to note that the same occurrence happened in the New Testament. Peter James, and all the apostles and leaders and followers of the Lord were thinking that they were going to become a military having generals and captains and sergeants and peons. God’s kingdom is not ran in a military fashion in the new covenant, but after the order of my Melchesidec. GOD is King of kings, high priest, priests, Lord of lords. in the book of revelation God says he hates the spirit and practices of the Nicolatianes. In their name, it reveals the spirit they had. It was to conquer the laity. Meaning men who are over men that do not have the heart to serve, but to Lord over With titles. This battle has been going on all through the ages, and it is clear that this is the example God wanted to give us. Jethro was thinking in a natural term of how to delegate authority and notice that he wanted to put men over thousands and hundreds and tens. Jethro in his mind had no idea that God wanted to be God and every man giving him his law and giving him his Holy Spirit but having men who would lead by example and serve the people who were more wise and elders in all they do. We have the exact same problem today, we have leaders who think they are above the people and they do not teach people that they are equal to them, and that they are all brothers, helping one another come to the faith, which is to know the king of kings, and lord of lords, and the shepherd who lives inside of those who are born again, and we are to follow him. The antichrist in Greek means one who replaces or substitutes in the place of God, or his anointed meaning Jesus. It is clear in the example of fathers in the Catholic Church, pronouncing the Forgiveness of sin, is a clear violation, and thus in the antichrist order however there are a ton more examples and characteristics both found in the Catholic Church and the protestant church that make men fall into the attributes of being a antichrist. Replacing who Jesus is to every man. I hope this helps shed light.
Jeremy, I can’t say I agree about your views on the Church Fathers. It seems to me that Christ gave his apostles (and by extension their followers) the authority to forgive sins in his name (John 20:23). While I certainly don’t agree with all the theology of the Catholic or Eastern branches of the Christian Church, I do believe they are all focused on Jesus. They certainly aren’t against him. So, I disagree with your view that they are anti-christ.
Sean, I enjoyed reading your thoughtful remarks about leadership and making proper decisions with God’s blessings and input.
Thank you! I appreciate the feedback.