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The Jethro Model: Of God or Man?

January 26, 2019

What is the Jethro model? For readers who may not be very familiar with the Bible, we are not talking about television's Jethro Bodine of "The Beverly Hillbillies." We are talking about Jethro the priest of Midian, who was the father-in-law of Moses.

   After the Exodus from Egypt, Jethro came to Mount Sinai where Moses and the Hebrews were encamped. Moses told Jethro all about the recent Exodus from Egypt, and all that Yahweh had done for the Israelites. Jethro rejoiced, blessed Yahweh, and offered sacrifices to God. Then he sat down to eat with Moses, Aaron, and the elders of Israel.

   The next day, Jethro saw that Moses sat to judge the people all day long, from morning to evening. Jethro asked Moses why he did this. Moses explained that the people came to him to enquire of God, and to have Moses make judgments between them, and to explain God's laws to them.

   "The thing that thou doest is not good," Jethro said. "Thou wilt surely wear away, both thou and this people that is with thee: for this thing is too heavy for thee; thou art not able to perform it thyself alone" (Ex. 18:17f).

   Then Jethro gave Moses some fatherly advice. He suggested that Moses select other capable men and authorize them to judge the smaller, less important, matters, and to have only the more serious cases be brought to Moses. By delegating much of the work to others, Moses could avoid burn-out. Jethro told Moses to appoint the men as "rulers of thousands, rulers of hundreds, rulers of fifties, and rulers of tens."

   "If thou shalt do this thing," Jethro said, "and God command thee so, then thou shalt be able to endure, and all this people shall also go to their place in peace."

   "So Moses hearkened to the voice of his father-in-law, and did all that he had said," the Bible says. "And Moses chose able men out of all Israel, and made them heads over the people, rulers of thousands, rulers of hundreds, rulers of fifties, and rulers of tens. And they judged the people at all seasons: the hard cases they brought unto Moses, but every small matter they judged themselves" (Ex. 18:24-26).

   Thus, thanks to the Jethro model, Moses wasn't overburdened and didn't suffer burn-out, and they all lived happily ever after, right? Well, not quite. Later on we see Moses suffering extreme burn-out:

   "And Moses said unto Yahweh, Wherefore hast Thou afflicted Thy servant? And wherefore have I not found favor in Thy sight, that Thou layest the burden of all this people upon me? Have I conceived all this people? Have I begotten them, that Thou shouldest say unto me, Carry them in thy bosom, as a nursing father beareth the sucking child, unto the land which Thou swarest unto their fathers? Whence should I have flesh to give unto all this people? For they weep unto me, saying, Give us flesh, that we may eat. I am not able to bear all this people alone, because it is too heavy for me. And if Thou deal thus with me, kill me, I pray Thee, out of hand, if I have found favour in Thy sight: and let me not see my wretchedness" (Num. 11:11-15).

   Wow. Talk about burn-out. Moses felt so overburdened that he told God, "Do me a favor. Just kill me." This was approximately one year after the Jethro model had been inaugurated. (The dates of events mentioned in Exodus 16:1 and 19:1 tell you that Jethro gave his advice sometime between the first and second month after leaving Egypt. In Numbers 10:11 the Israelites assembled by tribes and left Mount Sinai on the 20th day of the second year, and went three days into the wilderness. Right after that, the people's complaining brought about Moses' burn-out.) Why did Moses feel like the burden of all the people was all on him alone? Where were the rulers of thousands, rulers of hundreds, rulers of fifties, and rulers of tens? What happened to the Jethro model? Why wasn't it working a year after it was adopted? Was there something wrong with the Jethro model?

   The Jethro model is almost always presented by Bible teachers as a good model, even as a God-inspired model, for leadership. Yet the Jethro model did not work for Moses, even though Moses "did all that he [Jethro] said." After about a year, the Jethro model was no longer working—if it ever worked very well at all, which is dubious. The rulers of thousands, hundreds, fifties, and tens are never mentioned again after Exodus 18.

   Don't misunderstand. The basic idea of delegating responsibility to others so that they can help a leader is certainly a good idea in a general sense. But when evaluating the specific details of the Jethro model, four things should be considered. First, we have to remember that at this time Jethro was what we might call a new believer or a novice. Even though he was "the priest of Midian," he was not a priest who had been ordained by Yahweh, as Aaron was. It was not until after he heard about the Exodus that he realized the supremacy of Yahweh over all other gods. "Now I know [after hearing about the Exodus] that Yahweh is greater than all gods," he said. Apparently he did not know this before.

   If extra-Biblical Jewish history is correct, Jethro was an idolater prior to this meeting with Moses. Even if he was not an idolater, he was at best a novice in the worship of Yahweh. Of course that does not necessarily mean his idea was wrong. Sometimes a new believer will notice a problem that is not noticed by others. And Jethro was an older man. Age often bestows a lot of natural human wisdom on a man. But right here—natural human wisdom—is the source of the inadequacy of the Jethro model. Natural human wisdom is fine for natural human problems. But spiritual problems require a spiritual solution. Jethro seems to have at least sensed a need for Divine sanction of his plan, because after giving Moses the details of his plan, he added, "If thou do this thing, and God command thee so..."

   This brings us to our second consideration. Did God command Moses to implement Jethro's plan? The Bible does not say. It says that "Moses hearkened to the voice of his father-in-law," but there is nothing to indicate that Moses hearkened to the voice of God in this matter. There is nothing that suggests Moses even asked God what He thought of Jethro's idea.

   A third thing to consider when evaluating the Jethro model is the fact that after a year it was not working, and perhaps never worked well at all.

   A fourth thing to consider is the plan that Yahweh gave Moses to lessen his burden and to relieve his burn-out. "And Yahweh said unto Moses, Gather unto Me seventy men of the elders of Israel, whom thou knowest to be the elders of the people, and officers over them; and bring them unto the tabernacle of the congregation, that they may stand there with thee. And I will come down and talk with thee there, and I will take of the spirit which is upon thee, and will put it upon them: and they shall bear the burden of the people with thee, that thou bear it not thyself alone" (Num. 11:16f).

   This was the Yahweh model. It was similar to the Jethro model insofar as it distributed the work load. But it was different from the Jethro model in two ways. First, it was different in terms of organization. Instead of rulers of thousands, hundreds, fifties, and tens, there was a group of seventy elders, with no hierarchical structure within this group. Secondly, it was different in terms of power. The Yahweh model provided Yahweh's anointing. The same spirit that was upon Moses was put upon Moses' helpers. The Jethro model provided no such anointing, because the Jethro model came from Jethro, not God.

   Jethro's diagnosis of the problem was correct. Moses was overworked and in danger of burnout. Jethro was correct in telling Moses that he needed to distribute the work load. These things were obvious. The deficiency of the Jethro model was in the specific details, i.e., in the organizational structure and in the power source.

   There is an important lesson here for us. Sometimes we see a problem and we have a general idea of what needs to be done to solve the problem. We then use our natural human reasoning and human wisdom to try to fix the problem. Now if we are dealing with a natural problem that has a natural cause, then a natural solution will fix it. If your sewer pipe breaks, you get a plumber to fix it; if rain is blowing in your window, you close the window; if you are out of bread, you buy or bake some more. These are natural problems that are easily remedied by natural solutions. But if we are dealing with a problem of a spiritual nature, a natural remedy will not solve the problem. It may bring some temporary relief, but it will not permanently solve the problem, because spiritual problems require spiritual solutions.

   In spiritual matters it is not enough to merely give a correct diagnosis of the problem. Jethro did that. We must not only correctly diagnose the problem, we must also pray and seek the Lord for the solution. Instead of using our natural human reasoning and worldly wisdom to try to solve the problem, we should pray and ask the Lord to reveal His solution. And most importantly, we must ask for His anointing and power to get the job done.

   The Yahweh model is greatly superior to the Jethro model, because the Yahweh model provides Yahweh's wisdom and Yahweh's power. The Jethro model provides only Jethro's human wisdom and natural power.

 

| DB

 

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Image (Top): Moses, by Daniel Botkin from his Portraits of Prophets Gallery on his art website: DanielBotkin.com

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