Jethro the Obscure

Throughout Exodus chapter 18 Jethro is named as Moses’ Father-in-Law. This happens time-after-time to a level that makes the phrase an appellation. Given the importance of Moses it is not surprising that Jethro is named in this way. And yet despite the stature of Moses, Jethro is important in his own right for several reasons. Obscure he might be—but we can learn something from him and his part in the big story that is Exodus.

The Book of Exodus explores, explains, and elaborates on nothing less than the creation of a nation. And no ordinary nation at that. The nation of Israel are God’s people in the First Testament. God’s plan for his people began with the call of Abraham to travel to the Promised Land. It was renewed from father-to-son; from Abraham to Isaac, and then from Isaac to Jacob. And it was Jacob who became known as Israel—one who struggles with God. It was Israel’s children who ended up in Egypt after a famine. Children who would each father a tribe of Israel.

In Exodus chapter 18 some four hundred years later this people have grown, as promised, and though captive in Egypt at the start of the story, they are now freed from slavery and on their way to a new life in Canaan. It is this dramatic move from captivity to freedom that Jethro has heard about. He has heard of plagues that showed the supremacy of Yahweh the God of Israel over the Egyptian gods. He has heard of parted sea and Egypt’s army washed away. It is God’s mighty acts that have stirred Jethro into action—more of this later.

In the midst of God establishing a people who will become a nation there are of course other nations. Egypt has been judged. And here we read of Jethro who is a priest among the Midianites who were probably a confederation of peoples. The Midianites were a people who owed their name to Midian, a son of Abraham according to Genesis 25:1–2. Israel will cause turmoil among the nations as they enter the Promised Land and yet they are also God’s plan to bless all nations.

And here is Jethro—a priest of Midian—in the midst of the most remarkable story of the First Testament; the defining narrative of the Old Testament. These events are of course fundamentally God’s doing—it is his mighty hand that has brought Israel out of Egypt, but a handful of people play important roles. Moses might be the central figure, but Jethro too has played his part. He had welcomed Moses into his family when Moses fled from Egypt after killing an Egyptian. Moses lived for 40 years in Midian until compelled by God to play an instrumental part in rescuing his people.

The story of Exodus 2 does not go into elaborate detail, but Jethro—who is known as Reuel there—was welcoming of someone of another nation. He is a Midianite who at first saw Moses as an Egyptian. The story seems to indicate that he was grateful and/or impressed by Moses’ actions to protect his daughters from harassment, or worse, at the hands of some troublesome shepherds.

This story is remarkable. A priest of Midian welcomes someone into his family by marriage, a man committed to a different God, a man who will be instrumental in establishing the priesthood of another nation. Perhaps Jethro could see from the outset that God was at work in Moses’ life. Perhaps, more likely, he just had some respect for him. Whatever the details, in Moses and Jethro we have the meeting of nations. A priest of Midian is Father-in-Law to the future leader of Israel.

And here in Chapter 18 Jethro appears and brings with him Moses’ family, his wife and two sons. We might first think that it’s the reuniting of a family that is Jethro’s concern. For as he brings Moses’ wife, Zipporah, and his two sons, Gershom and Eliezer, our modern sensibilities see a family reunited. We are relieved that Moses after his mission to Egypt is back with his family thanks to this Midianite priest. Now this is of course good news but its secondary to Jethro’s primary reason for pitching up. We might even see his family concerns as a pretext for the real reason.

The real reason—the primary reason—is that Jethro has heard of God at work. In a way he has heard good news; the good news that Israel has been rescued by God’s mighty hand and through Moses, a leader equipped by Yahweh. Jethro responds to the testimony of those who witnessed first-hand God’s saving grace and mercy. Jethro had no Bible text available, but he responds to what lies behind the whole of the Bible, the mighty hand of God. This is why he sought out Moses according to the passage (v.1). Exodus chapter 18 also tells us that Moses recounted the events all over again (v.8).

We now have the whole testimony. The First Testament bears witness to the creation of a nation and the God of Israel. The Second Testament bears witness to the redemption of all nations and the God of our Lord Jesus Christ. One God testified to in two covenants.

Jethro, a priest of Midian, has heard of the God of Israel, Yahweh. We don’t actually know which god, or gods, the Midianites worshipped and therefore for which God Jethro was priest. But this story reveals that not only did Jethro hear of Yahweh, but this causes him to worship Yahweh. Jethro testifies to what God has done:

‘Praise be to the Lord, who rescued you from the hand of the Egyptians and of Pharaoh, and who rescued the people from the hand of the Egyptians. Now I know that the Lord is greater than all other gods, for he did this to those who had treated Israel arrogantly.’          Exodus 18:10–11

He goes on to make a sacrifice to God, a burnt offering among other things. This is a significant event; we might even see it as a conversion event. The leaders of Israel see the significance as Jethro is joined for a meal by Moses, Aaron, and the Elders of Israel. This is one of a handful events in the First Testament that we might call mission. Sadly, in the future all does not go well with other Midianites as we read in Numbers and Judges.

But here Jethro bears testimony to the possibility of God’s grace being available to those outside Israel. The story of Jethro is something of an oasis of missional grace in the First Testament. The nation of Israel not only ‘contend with God’ as their name suggests, but they continually contend with the surrounding nations. The nation called by God to redeem all nations struggles to settle into their calling to be a blessing to all nations. There are rays of hope, little vignettes of hope. Picture that are promises and foretastes of what is to come.

In the events leading up to the Exodus, Joseph though despised and rejected by his own brothers is a blessing to Egypt. He enables the whole nation to survive famine because of his gifts of administration. He blesses another nation.

The events of the book of Ruth tell of how a Moabite woman, the eponymous Ruth, was both a blessing and blessed by being welcomed into Israel. Her descendants would include not only David but also one Jesus of Nazareth.

But the likes of Jospeh, Jethro, and Ruth were the exceptions. It is only in Christ that the fuller potential of God’s people for mission is unlocked. Through Jesus’ mighty acts, of miracle, death, and resurrection there is good news to share. Good news not about the deliverance of a single nation but the salvation of people from every tribe and every nation. Just as messengers brought good news to Jethro, we are to bring good news to others. We have the mightiest of all God’s acts to talk about—the rising to new life of the crucified Son of God.

Today’s story does not tell us how to evangelise. This is not template for mission. As individuals, and more importantly, as a church we are called to mission. Every church exists to gather and worship God. But every church also exists to be among the nations gathering others to discover and worship God. The Archbishop of Canterbury, William Temple famously said:

“The Church is the only institution that exists primarily for the benefit of those who are not its members.”

Too often we forget this self-evident truth. Just as we gather because of the Good News so too we must perpetuate that same Good News. How could it be right to do anything other than continue the reconciliation made possible at such a price?

This passage tells of the power of the Good News. It is so easy to become jaded given the decline of Christian faith in our nation. Some ways of mission and evangelism that worked thirty years ago simply don’t work today in our post-Christian society. Basic knowledge of the Christian faith is less in today’s culture than it has been for centuries. Programmes and missions might fall flat but we can note that Jethro heard and responded to the Good News in an organic way. As Moses’ Father-in-Law he was able to both hear and respond.

All of us here have friends, acquaintances, neighbours, and families. All of us can support and encourage one another in reaching them. Not with a tent mission but in the everyday organic events of everyday life and most importantly of all in prayer.

The Gospel, the Good News is alive and well. Its power is the same power that parted the Red Sea and raised Jesus from death to life. It is the same gospel that changed the course of Jethro’s life; it is the same power from on high that established the Church 2,000 years ago.

There is something surprising in the story that we have not yet noted. As a person new to the situation, Jethro was able to offer wisdom and insight. He saw that Moses’ way of leadership was unsustainable and that he needed to make better use of the gifts of others. Moses receives Jehro’s advice and fundamentally changes how the affairs of the people of God are managed.

New leadership often brings challenge and change, and this is inevitable. They key is to pray for wisdom that changes are wise ones and that the challenges are those that equip for the task head—to be a church that honours the God of Moses and the God of Jesus Christ weekly in gathering in his name, and to be a church that testifies to the Good News of the mighty acts of this same God.

Author: PsalterMark

Psalm addict, disciple, son, husband, father, academic, theologian, cacti grower, steam enthusiast and ale drinker

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