The Advice of Jethro

Acts 6:1-7 recounts an interesting story to us:

Now in those days, when the disciples were growing in number, a complaint arose on the part of the Greek-speaking Jews against the native Hebraic Jews, because their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food. So the twelve called the whole group of the disciples together and said, “It is not right for us to neglect the word of God to wait on tables. But carefully select from among you, brothers, seven men who are well-attested full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may put in charge of this necessary task. But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.” The proposal pleased the entire group, so they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, with Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolas, a Gentile convert to Judaism from Antioch. They stood these men before the apostles, who prayed and placed their hands on them. The word of God continued to spread, the number of disciples in Jerusalem increased greatly, and a large group of priests became obedient to the faith.

This comes in the midst of the church’s beginning, after Pentecost and before the stoning of Stephen (who shows up for the first time here), as the church deals with the struggles that come in the midst of the gathering of the people of God. Just previously Peter and John had been arrested, Ananias and Sephira lied and were killed, and the Apostles underwent further persecution from the Jews. In the midst of all of this a little problem comes up within the church, an internal struggle between the handing out of food to the Greek and Hebrew widows. Whenever I’ve read this I’ve seen “First Deacons Appointed” and moved on from there. I thought it was cool that the 12 didn’t abandon their teaching and studying of scripture to make sure it was happening but rightly saw that this should be delegated to another group of people; they understood that their role was to teach the Word of God. It wasn’t that the Apostles didn’t want to do it, but they saw that it was important for them as the Apostles not to neglect God’s word and that this matter required help from among their numbers.

In the modern period we would say that the Apostles’ idea was a great idea and allowed for management and the dispersion of responsibility, as if the Apostles were CEOs and the Deacons their regional managers. This is suitable, I guess, but I wonder if they simply thought of the idea just off the top of their heads; this could be equally true. I don’t want to pretend to get into the Apostles heads and tell everyone what they were thinking and that this is the only way to view this passage. But something interesting came up today as I was reading through Exodus 18:13-26 (please excuse the long quote (and while you’re at it please excuse my dear aunt Sally)):

On the next day Moses sat to judge the people, and the people stood around Moses from morning until evening. When Moses’ father-in-law saw all that he was doing for the people, he said, “What is this that you are doing for the people? Why are you sitting by yourself, and all the people stand around you from morning until evening?” Moses said to his father-in-law, “Because the people come to me to inquire of God. When they have a dispute, it comes to me and I decide between a man and his neighbor, and I make known the decrees of God and his laws.” Moses’ father-in-law said to him, “What you are doing is not good! You will surely wear out, both you and these people who are with you, for this is too heavy a burden for you; you are not able to do it by yourself. Now listen to me, I will give you advice, and may God be with you: You be a representative for the people to God, and you bring their disputes to God; warn them of the statutes and the laws, and make known to them the way in which they must walk and the work they must do. But you choose from the people capable men, God-fearing, men of truth, those who hate bribes, and put them over the people as rulers of thousands, rulers of hundreds, rulers of fifties, and rulers of tens. They will judge the people under normal circumstances, and every difficult case they will bring to you, but every small case they themselves will judge, so that you may make it easier for yourself, and they will bear the burden with you. If you do this thing, and God so commands you, then you will be able to endure, and all these people will be able to go home satisfied.” Moses listened to his father-in-law and did everything he had said. Moses chose capable men from all Israel, and he made them heads over the people, rulers of thousands, rulers of hundreds, rulers of fifties, and rulers of tens. They judged the people under normal circumstances; the difficult cases they would bring to Moses, but every small case they would judge themselves.

So here we have Moses out in the wilderness acting as the representative of God for the people, making judgments and the Word of the Lord known to the people. Moses knows the Word, studies the Word, and teaches it to the people, but at this moment he is spending all day just making judgments between a man and his neighbor. So Jethro advises him to make a change and to find men who are “capable”, “God-fearing”, “men of truth” to be taught the Word of God so that they might be able to make judgments in the small matters of the day. It almost seems that Moses is neglecting his role as the one who is supposed to study and know the law, and teach it to the people, much the like Apostles in Acts. This imagery is brought closer when the Apostles require that their helpers are also “well-attested” and “full of the Spirit and of wisdom.” In both cases there is a responsibility that is being neglected if the leader(s) attends to it; capable men are sought out; the burden is shared and the leader(s) can go back to studying the Word of God.

It makes me wonder if the Apostles, who had been studying the Word of God (which would include Exodus) found their advice in the council of Jethro and knew that it would be a good idea for them not to take the responsibility upon themselves. This emphasizes even more the idea of the New Testament church being a new Israel as we find a group of people in a “wilderness” and the leaders needing to find a suitable answer lest they neglect making known to the people the Word of God.

Something to think about.

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