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Shemot/Exodus 18:11 Now I know that the L-rd is greater than all the gods ...
These are the words of Yitro/Jethro, the priest of Midian, Moshe's father-in-law, who has brought Moshe's wife Zipporah and his two sons Gershom and Eliezer to him now that the danger of the Exodus from Egypt itself is over. Jethro had heard - the text doesn't tell us how but we assume the grapevine and the wilderness telegraph had been talking about nothing else for some time - the news of how HaShem had dealt with Pharaoh and brought Israel out of Egypt and, since Moshe was his son-in-law, wanted the inside scoop straight from the horse's mouth! You don't live within a few days travel of the greatest story the ancient world has ever seen, and with a personal family connection to one of the chief protagonists without calling in the favour! Sending Moshe a brief message to say that he was coming and leaving his other daughters to mind the sheep, perhaps even using Zipporah and her sons as an excuse, Jethro packs up and rushes across the desert to where Moshe and the people are "encamped at the mountain of G-d" (Shemot 18:5, NJPS).
After having arrived in the camp, having been greeted and honoured by Moshe and negotiated the social niceties of the little peace dance that we all do when meeting people - How are you? Oh, I'm fine, thank you; how about you? Yes, I'm well, thank you; we've been having a lot of weather recently. Mmm, yes, us too; every day - Jethro can't wait to cut to the chase, so he and Moshe go off into the tent where they can talk and Moshe obligingly gives him the whole nine yards. Poor old Zipporah and the children - if they are still children; the larger narrative suggests they are at least in their twenties if not older - are presumably left outside in the sun without even so much as a peck on the cheek or a "Nice to see you, dear"; there is no further mention of them in the story. The delights of a patriarchal society!
The parasha tells us that "Moshe then recounted to his father-in-law everything that the L-RD had done to Pharaoh and to the Egyptians for Israel's sake, all the hardships that had befallen them on the way, and how the L-RD had delivered them" (v. 8, NJPS). Jethro responded by rejoicing "over all the kindness that the L-RD had shown Israel when He delivered them from the Egyptians" (v. 9, NJPS), and then comes out with the words of our text above. TheMekhilta suggests that "no slave had ever been able to run away from Egypt. And at this time the Holy One, blessed he He, brought out six hundred thousand people from Egypt. Referring to this it is said: that the L-rd is great." Nahum Sarna comments that "the formula may either introduce something newly discovered or reaffirm what was hitherto accepted. For Jethro, the divine superiority of YHVH has been demonstrated by the disaster suffered by the Egyptians in return for their machinations against Israel." Based on the Mekhilta, which says that "up to now he had not admitted it", Rashi has Jethro say, "I recognised Him in the past, but now even more," implying that Jethro was already familiar with HaShem, but perhaps not exclusively or supremely. Rabbi Hirsch comments that "the plagues revealed G-d to [Jethro] not only as an All-Highest power, but as a G-d who sees the inner thoughts of men, nations and princes, and by His mode of government teaches and educates them."
Now, the Mekhilta seems to have a down on Jethro - at least at this point - comparing him unfavourably with other non-Israelite characters in the Bible. It starts by saying that Jethro was an idolater; so much so that "there was not an idol in the world which Jethro failed to seek out and worship." The ancient rabbis deduce this because Jethro uses that phrase "than all gods." Their first comparison is with Na'aman the Syrian. He, they say, "knew better than Jethro" and quote the verse, "Now I know that there is no G-d in the whole world except but in Israel" (2 Kings 5:15, NJPS). This is explained by the Mekhilta's translator, William Braude, to mean that Na'aman knew that there was no other god; Jethro, however, implied that there were other gods, but that the L-rd is greater than all of them. The Mekhilta's second comparison is with "Rahab, the harlot", whom they quote as saying, "for the L-RD your G-d is the only G-d in heaven above and on earth below" (Joshua 2:11, NJPS).
Jethro's words, "Now I know", are a fulfillment of one of the key word themes of the Exodus narrative. Before the plagues started,HaShem tells Moshe to tell the Israelites, "you shall know that I, the L-RD, am your G-d who freed you from the labors of the Egyptians" (Shemot 6:7, NJPS). Encouraging Moshe and Aharon before they go to see Pharaoh for the second time, HaShem tells them that, "the Egyptians shall know that I am the L-RD, when I stretch out My hand over Egypt and bring out the Israelites from their midst" (7:5, NJPS). When announcing the first plague, turning all the water into blood, to Pharaoh, Moshe says, "Thus says the L-RD, 'By this you shall know that I am the L-RD'" (7:17, NJPS). HaShem told Moshe that the Egyptians would pursue Israel out to the wilderness so that, "the Egyptians shall know that I am the L-RD" (14:4, NJPS). All this, of course, counters Pharaoh's rebellious and petulant, "Who is the L-RD that I should heed Him and let Israel go? I do not know the L-RD, nor will I let Israel go" (5:2, NJPS). It is noticeable that all these instances of knowing came from actual experience rather then simply reading or hearing about G-d in a book, in the media or by hearsay.
So what produced Jethro's confession of HaShem as the only G-d? What caused the turn around from idolatry - if the Mekhilta is right - to being a worshipper of G-d? He wasn't there and hadn't experienced any of the miracles in person. How did he know? How he know so definitely that he knew? The answer is: Moshe's detailed testimony. Before hearing from Moshe, Jethro wanted to know; he came rushing across the desert in order to know. Once he had heard Moshe's detailed and personal account, with its compelling first-person narrative - HaShem told me this ... and I saw that ... and Pharaoh said to me ... and HaShem told me - he was convinced. This was not something that someone he didn't know or hadn't actually ever met might have experienced (or hallucinated) somewhere far away and had been passed on for years (and many miles) by an anoymous word of mouth chain; this was his very own son-in-law, who had been there in the thick of it, who had actually seen everything that happened and was reporting it as a truthful record of his own direct experience.
This is of course, the apostolic testimony. John is theological about it, "And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth" (John 1:14, ESV) and then in more detail: "That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life -- the life was made manifest, and we have seen it, and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was made manifest to us" (1 John 1:1-2, ESV). Peter and John declared it to the crowds in the Temple after the lame man had been healed - "we are witnesses" (Acts 3:5, ESV) - and found themselves telling the chief priests and scribes all about it as well, ending, "Whether it is right in the sight of G-d to listen to you rather than to G-d, you must judge, for we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard" (4:19-20, ESV). That is what the apostles said, time and again as they shared the stories and teachings of Yeshua: our personal testimony is that we saw Yeshua do this and heard Him say that. Richard Bauckham makes the point that the whole of the early church ministry - the gospels in particular - is "closely based on the eyewitness of those who personally knew Jesus."1
That, then, leads us to what is perhaps almost the most important question: how do we know? We weren't in or around Egypt at the time of the Exodus, any more than Jethro was; we weren't in or around Israel during Yeshua's earthly ministry. How do we know? We rely on the witness of the Scriptures, the witness of the Holy Spirit and the witness of those around us who share their personal testimony of what G-d has done or is doing in their lives. Personal testimony is what counts and goes miles further than reading a book or a tract. If it matters to you, then it might just matter to me!
And there you have arguably the most important question of all: how is anyone else supposed to know or to come that place of knowing that they know? Rav Sha'ul asks, "How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent?" (Romans 10:14-15, ESV). But, you see, here's the thing: we are all sent - "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations" (Matthew 28:19, ESV) - personally and particularly by Yeshua. What convinced Jethro? The personal testimony of Moshe. What will convince others of what you say? Your personal testimony and witness of what G-d is saying and doing in your life. Go and share!
1. - Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony, Eerdmans, 2006.
Further Study: John 9:35-37; Acts 8:30-31
Application: Are you shy or reticent to share your story, perhaps thinking that no-one will be impressed? Change your perspective and look at it another way: your story is His story and His story will impress everyone. Get it out, brush it up and ask Yeshua to show you where He is in it and what he has been doing. Then share it with someone else and be ready to be amazed.
© Jonathan Allen, 2018
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