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Shemot/Exodus 4:18 And Moshe went and returned to Jethro his father-in-law
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The first thing to note in this text is the translation of as Jethro. Jethro's identity is quite clear, since he is also described as Moshe's father-in-law, but how did his name get changed? He is mentioned in Shemot 3:1 and 18:1, where his name takes the expected form: , but Rashi tells us that he has seven different names in the Hebrew tradition: these two and (Shemot 2:18), (Judges 1:16), (Judges 4:11), (this name is found in Judges 4:11 as one of the descendants of Jethro, and is assumed to be one of Jethro's names by tradition) and (deduced from Shemot 6:25).Rashi explains that he was originally called R'uel, but was given the name Jether - which means "extra" or "more" - because he caused an extra passage of Torah (Shemot 18:21-23, Jethro's advice as to how the judges should be chosen) to be written; he was called Jethro by the addition of the final letter when he kept the commandments and went back to his own people as an evangelist of the G-d of Israel.
The Sages debate why Moshe returned to Jethro, his father-in-law, to seek his permission before carrying outHaShem's instructions to go to Egypt. After all, if G-d had told him to go, what was it to do with Jethro? In a beautiful piece of rabbinic logic, the Sages connected Moshe's suitability to lead the people of Israel with the commitment Moshe had given Jethro upon his marriage to one of Jethro's daughters: "Moshe agreed to stay with the man, and he gave Moshe his daughter Zipporah in marriage" (Shemot 2:21, NRSV). Having given his word to Jethro, Moshe needed to be released before he could leave for Egypt and lead the people to Mt. Sinai because the Scripture asks: "Who may ascend into the hill of the L-RD? And who may stand in His holy place?" (Psalm 24:3, NASB). One of the criteria with which the Psalmist answers that question is: "He who has clean hands and a pure heart, who has not lifted up his soul to falsehood, and has not sworn deceitfully" (v. 4, NASB), so the Sages comment: "this is Moshe; for when he came to Jethro, he swore to him that he would not depart without his knowledge, and when he went on his divine mission, he went to ask Jethro to absolve him of his oath. Hence: AND HE RETURNED TO JETHRO HIS FATHER-IN-LAW" (Shemot Rabbah 4:1). This is why, writing in the 11th century, Rashi comments: "Moshe would not leave Midian except with Jethro's permission".
It is also constructive to compare the departure of Moshe from his father-in-law with that of Jacob from his. "When Laban had gone to shear his flock ... Jacob deceived Laban the Aramean, by not telling him that he was fleeing. So he fled with all that he had, and he arose and crossed the Euphrates River and set his face toward the hill country of Gilead" (B'resheet 31:19-21, NASB). There then followed a seven-day hot pursuit through the desert between Haran and Canaan and it required divine intervention by way of a dream in the night to prevent Laban and his kinsmen from having a serious and possibly armed altercation with Jacob. As the conversation in the following verses shows, there was significant disagreement, at least on Laban's part, over the ownership of most of Jacob's family and flocks; there was also the issue of Laban's idols, but Jacob was unaware of this at the time. Whether Laban would, in practice, have kept to his suggestion, "Why did you flee secretly and deceive me, and did not tell me, so that I might have sent you away with joy and with songs, with timbrel and with lyre?" (v. 27, NASB), is open to debate, but the basic assumption - both in that culture and in this - is that simply leaving or running away from a situation implies at best a broken relationship or at worst dishonesty or serious offence.
The words at the end of the verse relate that Jethro responded positively to Moshe's request; more, instead of simply releasing him, Jethro blessed him with peace in his mission. It is only after Moshe's conversation with Jethro that HaShem gives Moshe his specific marching orders: "Now the L-RD said to Moshe in Midian, 'Go back to Egypt, for all the men who were seeking your life are dead'" (Shemot 4:19, NASB). When the release is complete, Moshe can move forward, so then HaShem tells Moshe that the time has come to put the plan - outlined in the conversation at the Bush - into practice. There is a time and a place to do everything; Moshe simply had to clear the ground and wait for HaShem's instructions. Although not expressed in the text, we know that Jethro was a priest - in fact, the priest of Midian - and it is therefore more than possible that just as HaShem gave Laban a dream at night to prevent trouble with Jacob, Jethro also seems to recognise that G-d is at work; perhaps G-d had been speaking to him as well. As an older man, with experience in helping people make decisions and sense the will of G-d in their lives, Jethro had probably been expecting this move for some time and was prepared for Moshe's request so that it didn't come out of the blue. In spite of losing his daughter and grandsons as Moshe left, Jethro was able to bless them with peace because he recognised G-d's hand at work and may have even done so since Moshe first turned up in Midian after his flight from Egypt.
This brings us to some words in the closing chapter of Hebrews: "Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they keep watch over your lives, as people who will have to render an account. So make it a task of joy for them, not one of groaning; for that is of no advantage to you" (Hebrews 13:17, CJB). Whilst "heavy shepherding" - abuse of the flock by a domineering leadership who control and manipulate those under them - rightly has a bad reputation, this verse tells us something important about the relationship between individuals, their elders/leaders and G-d. Clearly individuals are expected to hear for themselves what G-d is saying to them, how they are expected to conduct their lives, the decisions they are to take, career paths to follow and so on. Each individual has to make those choices for themselves and the people for whom they are responsible. Since that responsibility rests with them, individuals can and should expect to hear from G-d themselves, in whatever way G-d speaks to them: through the Scriptures, through prophecy, through circumstances, through things that other people say to them - these are all valid and, provided that they don't contradict the overall balance of the Scriptures, should play a part in determining G-d's will. At the same time, the spiritual leaders of the congregation or church to which the individual belongs should also expect to hear from G-d so that they can correctly exercise the ministry of guidance that their job obviously includes. When the various leaders - be they a housegroup leader, minister/pastor, elder, counsellor - pray about the individual and listen to their plans, they should expect that G-d will provide them with some specific way to either encourage or correct the individual, to confirm or question the proposed course of action. Similarly, individuals should expect G-d to particularly speak to them through their leadership and be prepared to carefully weigh the input that they provide. Of course, each person has to obey their own conscience before G-d and may end up correctly disregarding an incorrect leadership opinion or suggestion if they are convinced that G-d has spoken differently to them. But they should not do this lightly or on a repetitive basis.
This framework particularly applies in the area of changing congregation or church membership. Except in the case of abuse, no covenantally committed individual should leave one part of the Body of Messiah without at least discussing the reasons why they want to go elsewhere with their leadership. In most cases, they should follow the advice that their leaders give them. No leadership should accept someone into membership until they have confirmed that a previous leadership have released them or that release is being unreasonably withheld. Those in leadership should listen carefully to their members' explanations and reasons for changing membership and pray with the members, relaying faithfully what they hear from the L-rd, not being afraid to admit that they haven't heard anything if that is the case, and being prepared to let people go as the L-rd calls them. Only in this way will proper relationship be maintained and will hurt and broken relationship patterns be prevented from spreading within the body of Messiah.
Further Study: 1 Timothy 6:1; 1 Thessalonians 5:12
Application: Are you considering a change of fellowship or are you discontent with your current leadership? Before you do anything, why not talk and pray through the issues with your house-group leader or another leader that you trust to get some more input or see if you can change your position or assignment within the fellowship.
© Jonathan Allen, 2009
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