The Shuvah Project #19 — The Space Between Us

New to The Shuvah Project? Find out what it is and why it’s necessary.

“What you’re doing is not good,” Moses’ father-in-law said to him… Now listen to me; I will give you some advice… you should select from all the people able men, God-fearing, trustworthy, and hating bribes. Place them over the people as commanders of thousands, hundreds, fifties, and tens.

-Exodus  18:17-21

Section One (Parsha Debrief):

This week’s parsha (Exodus 18:1-20:26) contained: a visit from Moses’ father-in-law, a celebratory feast hosted by Moses’ father-in-law, unsolicited advice from Moses’ father-in-law, happenings and instructions for Israel at Sinai, the Revelation at Sinai (including the Ten Commandments), what seems like post-Revelation trauma, and some additional laws about making idols and altars.

In the Midweek Reading Guide, we invited readers to focus on the Jethro story-line. We wanted y’all to pay special attention to the Textual evidence within Exodus 18:1-19:2. In doing so, we hoped you’d reach your own conclusions about whether the Jethro visit happened before Torah was given at Sinai (like the Text positions it) or after.

Rabbis debate the chronology of the visit, and how the order might impact the meaning we glean from the visit interlude.

Rashi, Rashbam (Rashi’s grandson), and Ramban (i.e. Nachmanides) all make the argument for Jethro’s visit being post-Revelation (i.e. post giving of Torah at Sinai). 

Before the giving of the Torah it was impossible to say (verse 16), “and I make known the statutes, etc.,” [since the statutes had not yet been given].

Rashi on Exodus 18:13

the opinion that [Jethro] arrived after the revelation at Mount Sinai is more plausible seeing that… Chapter 19 commences with the words: “In the third month after the Exodus on the first month the Israelites entered the desert of Sinai after having journeyed from Refidim.” It is clear from there that what happened at Refidim and the encampment at Mount Sinai occurred before what is discussed in our paragraph.

-Rashbam on Exodus 18:13

[the view of the visit being after the giving of Torah] is certainly supported by the verse that states, “And Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, and his sons and wife came to him in the wilderness, where he was encamped there at the mountain of God (Exodus 18:5).”

Ramban on Exodus 18:1

So, what do we gain from understanding that Jehtro actually visited post-Revelation?

We gain a new lens with which to view the advice he gave Moses.

At Sinai, God speaks directly to the people (Exodus 19:9; 20:22). But, the people aren’t exactly ready for this intimate of a relationship with the Creator God — they don’t want God to speak directly to them anymore (Exodus 20:19).

Enter Jethro and him witnessing Moses judge the people (Exodus 18:13).

Jethro’s take on the situation… “What is this thing you’re doing for the people? Why are you alone sitting as judge, while all the people stand around you from morning until evening (Exodus 18:14)?”

What’s Moses’ take on what’s going on? His response in Exodus 18:15 suggests he thinks Jethro is missing the point.

Maybe the dialogue looks a little more like this…

[in “which you are doing to the people (Exodus 18:14),”] Moses understood that [Jethro] implied that Moses forced the people to appear before him, that he was not willing to let other people function as Judges, and that as a result the people suffered inconvenience. Moses replied that the matter was not of his choosing, but that the people insisted on bringing their problems to him personally.

-Or HaChaim on Exodus 18:15

Was Moses being too high and mighty?

I don’t think so.

Remember, as Or HaChaim points out, post-Revelation the people wanted to deal only with Moses.

Moses responds to Jethro’s accusation by saying,

“the people come to me to inquire about God… I teach them God’s statutes and laws.”

-Exodus 18:15-16

Apparently, Jethro thinks, “[this] is not good (Exodus 18:17).”

Is it bad?

Jethro makes his entire case based on efficiency and the ability to sustain. People who study organizational structure might applaud Jethro for wanting to narrow the span control

But, is God most concerned with good management and administrative practices?

Weeks ago, in the Noah and Some post, we asked a similar question regarding who exactly God is — is God just a good manager?

In answering, we first need to take a better look at what Moses is actually doing. Better yet, what are the people actually doing?

The people are actively coming to Moses to seek out God. The people are reaching out to God, through Moses, to better understand His perspective. This isn’t about bickering or quarreling like we read about as Israel journeyed to Sinai. Here, the people are excited to be able to bring God into their lives.

What was Jethro’s seemingly well-intentioned advice?

Establish more intermediaries. Create more distance between God and His people.

Post-Revelation is a critical time for Moses to lead the people back into direct relationship with God, like God wanted. Jethro’s advice undercuts that.

Interestingly, much later in Torah, in his recount of this dialogue with Jethro, Moses says the intermediaries were his idea. Wait, what? Clearly that is not the way Exodus 18:19-23 depicts it. Here, the intermediaries are 100% Jethro’s idea.

Is Moses being arrogant in his recount? 

Moses’ recount is actually tied to what he believes to be the reason he is not allowed into the promised land. Whoops. Forgot the spoiler alert. I doubt Moses would falsely take credit for an idea that bars him from entering the promised land.

Instead, it sounds more like a confession and recognition. He’s not stealing credit — he’s taking full responsibility for the action.

Which makes me wonder whether the whole intermediary idea is actually a good thing.

Section Two (Connection to NT + haftarah):

God’s people distanced themselves from God after Torah was given at Sinai. Jethro’s advice created even more space between God and His people. 

Intermediaries create relational collapse. Yet, burnout creates emotional collapse. Neither are the narrative God wants to tell the world. Both are already the narratives being displayed by every other nation.

Maybe the author of Luke invites a third way, God’s way.

The connected Luke Text (Luke 5:12-16) tells us about a marginalized man asking if he can directly engage Jesus (i.e. God). Jesus is willing to directly engage. The man is then restored back to community, but still told to go before the priests and offer what Moses ordered. 

After which, the author makes sure we know:

news about Him spread even more, and large crowds would come together to hear Him and to be healed of their sicknesses.

-Luke 5:15

Which has echoes of what Moses was doing and Jethro’s interpretation, doesn’t it?

In fact, based on Rabbinic commentary, Moses’ actions are akin to what Jesus is described as doing in the Luke Text.

[the people] inquire concerning so many things. Some of them ask me (Moses) to pray on behalf of their sick family members.

Rabbeinu Behaye on Exodus 18:15

In our Luke Text, Jesus does not put intermediaries between Him and the large crowds. Nor does Jesus engage from morning until evening.

What does Jesus do?

He hypochōreō. He goes back… to the beginning. He leaves space, makes room, gives place, yields. He honors rest! 

Jesus, God in flesh — and for Christians, the epitome of how to live our lives — trusts the story enough to rest!

A weekly rest!

Interestingly enough, a rest that God reminds us of, here and now, in the 4th Commandment (Exodus 20:8-11).

God’s narrative isn’t about convenience or burnout. We can sustain, if we live set apart by truly setting apart the sabbath.

Section Three (missing the mark):

A kingdom of priests. That’s all of us, but pastors this is your vocation.

Are you running church like a business? For convenience sake, are you putting more barriers between people and God? Between you and your congregation?

After all, you signed up to be like Moses and Aaron… to teach about God, to help people navigate atonement, to practice visitation.

Are you?

Section Four (real-world applications):

But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for His possession, so that you may proclaim the praises of the One who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light.

-1 Peter 2:9

Remember, it’s in our Torah portion that God says,

…although the whole earth is Mine, you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.

-Exodus 19:5-6

The transliterated Hebrew for holy is qadowsh. This is the first time it shows up in the Text. However, we’ve seen it’s root, qadash, much earlier in God’s narrative. The first time qadash shows up is back in Genesis 2:3, when God sets apart the 7th day because it was a day He rested from all His work.

God asks His people to be set apart, different from other nations.

Be holy. Model rest for the world.

Next Week’s Readings: Exodus 21:1-24:18; Luke 5:17-26

3 thoughts on “The Shuvah Project #19 — The Space Between Us

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