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Jethro, the priest of Midian, Moses’ father-in-law, heard of all that God had done for Moses and for his people Israel, how the Lord had brought Israel out of Egypt. 2After Moses had sent away his wife Zipporah, his father-in-law Jethro took her back, 3along with her two sons. The name of the one was Gershom (for he said, “I have been an alien in a foreign land”), 4and the name of the other, Eliezer (for he said, “The God of my father was my help, and delivered me from the sword of Pharaoh”). 5Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, came into the wilderness where Moses was encamped at the mountain of God, bringing Moses’ sons and wife to him. 6He sent word to Moses, “I, your father-in-law Jethro, am coming to you, with your wife and her two sons.” 7Moses went out to meet his father-in-law; he bowed down and kissed him; each asked after the other’s welfare, and they went into the tent. 8Then Moses told his father-in-law all that the Lord had done to Pharaoh and to the Egyptians for Israel’s sake, all the hardship that had beset them on the way, and how the Lord had delivered them. 9Jethro rejoiced for all the good that the Lord had done to Israel, in delivering them from the Egyptians.
10 Jethro said, “Blessed be the Lord, who has delivered you from the Egyptians and from Pharaoh. 11Now I know that the Lord is greater than all gods, because he delivered the people from the Egyptians, when they dealt arrogantly with them.” 12And Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, brought a burnt offering and sacrifices to God; and Aaron came with all the elders of Israel to eat bread with Moses’ father-in-law in the presence of God.
13 The next day Moses sat as judge for the people, while the people stood around him from morning until evening. 14When 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 do you sit alone, while all the people stand around you from morning until evening?” 15Moses said to his father-in-law, “Because the people come to me to inquire of God. 16When they have a dispute, they come to me and I decide between one person and another, and I make known to them the statutes and instructions of God.” 17Moses’ father-in-law said to him, “What you are doing is not good. 18You will surely wear yourself out, both you and these people with you. For the task is too heavy for you; you cannot do it alone. 19Now listen to me. I will give you counsel, and God be with you! You should represent the people before God, and you should bring their cases before God; 20teach them the statutes and instructions and make known to them the way they are to go and the things they are to do. 21You should also look for able men among all the people, men who fear God, are trustworthy, and hate dishonest gain; set such men over them as officers over thousands, hundreds, fifties, and tens. 22Let them sit as judges for the people at all times; let them bring every important case to you, but decide every minor case themselves. So it will be easier for you, and they will bear the burden with you. 23If you do this, and God so commands you, then you will be able to endure, and all these people will go to their home in peace.”
24 So Moses listened to his father-in-law and did all that he had said. 25Moses chose able men from all Israel and appointed them as heads over the people, as officers over thousands, hundreds, fifties, and tens. 26And they judged the people at all times; hard cases they brought to Moses, but any minor case they decided themselves. 27Then Moses let his father-in-law depart, and he went off to his own country.
1. When Jethro, the priest of Midian. This chapter consists of two parts. First of all, the arrival of Jethro in the camp is related, and his congratulation of Moses on account of the prosperity of his enterprise, together with the praise and sacrifice rendered to God. Secondly, his proposed form of government for the people is set forth, in consequence of which judges and rulers were chosen, lest Moses should sink under his heavy task. The greater number of commentators think that Zipporah, having been enraged on account of her son’s circumcision, had turned back on their journey, and gone to live with her father; but to me this does not seem probable. For Moses would never have allowed his sons to be deprived of the redemption of which he was the minister; nor would it have been consistent that they should afterwards be appointed priests, of whom God was not the Redeemer. Besides, if he had deposited his wife and children in safety, and had advanced alone to the contest, he would have been deservedly suspected of deceit, or of excessive cowardice. Wherefore I have no doubt but that he underwent, together with his family, that miserable yoke of bondage by which they were long oppressed, and by this proof evidenced his faithfulness, so that greater authority might attend his vocation. The statement, then, in the second verse, “after he had sent her back,” I apply to Moses, because he had sent back his wife from the wilderness to visit her father, either having yielded to the desire which was natural to her as a woman, or, induced by his own feelings of piety, he had wished to show respect in this way to an old man nearly connected with him. There is something forced and cold in the words, which some would supply, “after he had sent back gifts.” The text runs very well thus, After Moses had sent back his wife, she was brought again by his father-in-law, thus returning and repaying his kindness.
3. And her two sons. It was remarked in its proper place, how distinguished a proof not only of faith, but of magnanimity and firmness Moses had manifested in giving these names to his sons. For we cannot doubt, but that he brought on himself the ill-will of his connections, as if he despised the country of his wife, by calling the one (Gershom) “a strange land;” and the name of his son continually cried out, that though he inhabited Midian, yet was he an alien in his heart, and though sojourning for a time, would afterwards seek another habitation. Whence also we may conjecture that he took them with him into Egypt, rather than banish from him these two pledges of his piety on account of the sudden anger and reproaches of his wife; since by their names he was daily reminded that God’s covenant was to be, preferred to all earthly advantages.
5. And Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law. It was not so much love for Moses as the fame of the miracles which drew this old man,195195 “Ce bon veillard;” this good old man. — Fr. bowed down with age, from his home into the wilderness; for it will hereafter appear from the context, that he was not induced by ambition; because, after he had offered sacrifice to God, and, in solemn thanksgiving, had testified that he ascribed all the glory to God alone, he returned home again with the same simplicity in which he had come. Moses, too, at the beginning of the chapter, has stated the cause of his coming, for he does not say that he had heard of the arrival of his son-in-law, but how wonderful had been God’s goodness and power in delivering Moses and the people. He desired, therefore, to be in some measure a spectator of the things whereof he had heard, and not to neglect, by remaining at home, such illustrious instances of God’s bounty. I have already explained why Mount Horeb is distinguished by the name of “the Mount of God.” The vision, indeed, which had been already vouchsafed to Moses there, rendered it worthy of this honorable title; but here, as before, there is reference made rather to the promulgation of the Law, whereby God consecrated the mountain to Himself.
7. And Moses went out. In the foregoing verse he had related what happened last, viz., that Jethro said, I am come, and have brought to thee thy wife and children; but this transposition is common in Hebrew. Now, then, he adds, that Moses went to meet him, and to pay him honor; and that they met each other with mutual kindness, and respectively performed the duties of affection. “To ask each other of their peace,”196196 So in margin A. V. is tantamount to inquiring whether things were well and prospering. But the main point is, that Moses told him how gracious God had been to His people; for this was the drift of the whole of his address, that, when he had left his father-in-law, he had not yielded to the impulse of lightness, but had obeyed the call of God, as had afterwards been proved by His extraordinary aids and by heavenly prodigies.
10. And Jethro said, Blessed. Hence it appears that although the worship of God was then everywhere profaned by strange additions, yet Jethro was not so devoted to superstition as not to acknowledge and honor the true God. Nevertheless, the comparison which he subjoins, that “Jehovah is greater than all gods,” implies that he was not pure and free from all error. For, although the Prophets often so speak, it is with a different import; for sometimes God is exalted above the angels, that His sole eminence may appear, every heavenly dignity being reduced to its due order; sometimes, too, He is improperly called “Greater,” not as if the false gods had any rank, but that the greatness which is falsely and foolishly attributed to them in the world may be brought to naught. But Jethro here imagines, in accordance with the common notion, that a multitude of inferior gods are in subordination to the Most High. Thus, where the pure truth of God does not shine, religion is never uncorrupt and clear, but always has some dregs mixed with it. At the same time, Jethro seems to have made some advance; for in affirming that he now knows the power of God, he implies that he was more rightly informed than before; unless, perhaps, it might be preferred to understand this of the experimental knowledge, which confirms even believers, so that they more willingly submit themselves to God, whom they already knew before. Meanwhile, there is no doubt that by the name of Jehovah he designates the God of Israel; for, although they boasted everywhere that they worshipped the eternal God, yet by asserting the true Deity of the One God, he puts all others beneath Him. At any rate he confesses that, by the history of their deliverance, he was assured of the immense power of God, who had manifested himself in Israel; so as to despise, in comparison with Him, whatever gods were honored elsewhere in the world. The latter clause197197 S. M. has rendered this clause, In re qua insolenter egerunt contra illos [perierunt]; and in his note he says, “Hoc est, remensus est illis ea mensura qua ipsi mensi fuerunt Israelitis.” They drowned the little ones of Israel in the water, and they also perished in the waters. Thus Abraham Sepharadi expounds this passage: — “Alii sic exponunt; Propterea quod superbe egerunt contra eos, voluit quoque Deus se magnificum ostendere contra AEgyptios.” — W. of verse (11) is unfinished; for it stands thus, “According to the word (or reason) wherein they dealt proudly against them;” thus the principal verb is wanting to express that God repaid the Egyptians the just wages of their cruelty; just as He denounces “judgment without mercy,” upon all who proudly and unmercifully mistreat their neighbors, (James 2:13,) according to the declaration of our Lord Jesus Christ, “With what measure ye mete,” etc. (Matthew 7:2.) The exposition which some give seems too limited, viz., that the Egyptians, who had drowned the infants in the river, were themselves drowned in the Red Sea. I prefer, then, to extend it to every instance of punishment which they received.
12. And Jethro. Although I do not think that Jethro had previously sacrificed to idols, yet, because he worshipped an unknown God, with but a confused and clouded faith, it appears that this was his first sincere and legitimate sacrifice since the God of Israel had been more clearly known to him. We may gather from hence that it was duly offered, because Moses, and Aaron, and the elders openly professed them. selves his companions, and partook with him; for it is not merely said that they came to eat bread with him, but “before God;” which expression describes a sacred and solemn feast, a part and adjunct of the offering and divine worship. But they never would have willingly polluted themselves with the defilement’s of the Gentiles for the sake of gratifying an unholy man. It follows, then, that this was a token of his piety, since they did not hesitate to become partakers with him. We ought, indeed, to have God before our eyes, as often as we partake of his bounty; but we shall hereafter see, that this expression is peculiarly applied to sacrifices, wherein the faithful put themselves in the presence of God. Yet. do I not admit that Jethro slew the victims in right of the priesthood which he exercised in the land of Midian; but because there was more liberty, as will be explained in its place, before the Law was prescribed by God. It is my decided opinion that by the word “bread,” the manna is incontestably meant.
13. And it came to pass. A memorable circumstance, and one well worth knowing, is here introduced. In that form of government over which God presided, and which He honored with extraordinary manifestations of His glory, there was something deserving of reprehension, which Jethro corrected; and again, Moses himself, the mighty Prophet, and with whom alone God was thus familiar, was deservedly reproved for inconsiderately wearing away both himself and the people by excessive labor. It was a proof of his illustrious virtue and mental heroism to undergo so many troubles, to endure so much fatigue, and not to be subdued by weariness from daily exposing himself to new toils. It betrayed also a magnanimity never sufficiently to be praised, that he should occupy himself gratuitously for this perverse and wicked people, and never desist from his purpose, although he experienced an unworthy return for his kind efforts. For we have seen him to have been often assailed by reproaches and contumelies, and assaulted by chidings and threats; so that it is more than marvelous that his patience, so constantly abused, was not altogether worn out. In this, assuredly, many virtues will be discovered worthy of the highest praise; yet Jethro in these very praises finds occasion of fault. Whence we are warned that in all the most excellent acts of men some defect is ever lurking, and that scarcely any exists so perfect in every respect as to be free from any stain. Let all those, then, who are called on to be rulers of mankind know, that however diligently they may exercise their office, something still may be wanting, if the best plan that they adopt be brought to examination. Therefore let all, whether kings or magistrates, or pastors of the Church, know, that whilst they strain every nerve to fulfill their duties, something will always remain which may admit of correction and improvement. Here, too, it is worth while to remark, that no single mortal can be sufficient to do everything, however many and various may be the endowments wherein he excels. For who shall equal Moses, whom we have still seen to be unequal to the burden, when he undertook the whole care of governing the people? Let, then, God’s servants learn to measure carefully their powers, lest they should wear out, by ambitiously embracing too many occupations. For this propensity to engage in too many things (πολυπραγμοσύνη) is a very common malady, and numbers are so carried away by it as not to be easily restrained. In order, therefore, that every one should confine himself within his own bounds, let us learn that in the human race God has so arranged our condition, that individuals are only endued with a certain measure of gifts, on which the distribution of offices depends. For as one ray of the sun does not illuminate the world, but all combine their operations as it were in one; so God, that He may retain men by a sacred and indissoluble bond in mutual society and good-will, unites one to another by variously dispensing His gifts, and not raising up any out of measure by his entire perfection. Therefore Augustine198198 “Videndum etiam, ne forte ibi voluerit Deus ab alienigena admoneri Moysen, ubi et ipsum posset tentare superbia,” etc. — Augustin. Quaest. in Ex., vol. 3, pt. 1, p. 442. A. truly says that, God humbled His servant by this act; just as Paul reports, that buffetings were inflicted on him by the messenger of Satan, lest the grandeur of his revelations should exalt him too highly. (2 Corinthians 12:7.)
15. And Moses said unto his father-in-law. Moses replies ingenuously, as if on a very praiseworthy matter, like one unconscious of any fault; for he declared himself to be the minister of God, and the organ of His Spirit. Nor, indeed, could his faithfulness and integrity be called in question. He only erred in overwhelming himself with too much labor, and not considering himself privately, nor all the rest publicly. Yet a useful lesson may be gathered from his words. He says that disputants come “to inquire of God,” and that he makes them to know the statutes of God and His laws. Hence it follows that this is the object of political government, that God’s tribunal should be erected on earth, wherein He may exercise the judge’s office, to the end that judges and magistrates should not arrogate to themselves a power uncontrolled by any laws, nor allow themselves to decide anything arbitrarily or wantonly, nor, in a word, assume to themselves what belongs to God. Then, and then only, will magistrates acquit themselves properly:. when they remember that they are the representatives (vicarios) of God. An obligation is here also imposed upon all private individuals, that they should not rashly appeal to the authority or assistance of judges, but should approach them with pure hearts, as if inquiring of God; for whosoever desires anything else except to learn from the mouth of the magistrate what is right and just, boldly and sacrilegiously violates the place which is dedicated to God.
17. And Moses’ father-in-law said. He does not absolutely condemn the whole system which Moses had before adopted, after the manner of morose, or froward, or ambitious men who, by carping at some trifle, obscure the noble deeds of others; but by seeking only to correct a part of it, he detracts not from the just praise of Moses, and leaves the power which God had conferred upon him untouched. Herein his moderation is worth observing, for he does not abuse this pretext of a particular error, so as to upset the due order of things; but only advises Moses how he may usefully execute the office which God had conferred upon him.
19. I will give thee counsel. Jethro dares, indeed, to promise success, if Moses will obey his counsel; yet does he not proudly boast that this will be the fruit of his own prudence, but ascribes it to God’s blessing and grace, if he prospers even when nothing is established but on the best system. For this is the import of the expression, that a counsel occurs to him, which if Moses follows, God shall bless him. Nor yet does he reprove Moses, as if God had not been thus far with his pious zeal and industry, but rather hints that God is the author of this counsel, which He will follow up with His grace. In sum, he does not state it to be his Object to diminish in the smallest degree the grace which Moses had already experienced; but to point out a plan, of which God will, by its result, show His approbation. Then follows the other point to which I have alluded, viz., that he does not rob Moses of his authority, so as to overturn his call from God, but rather by exhorting him to proceed, desires that what God has once ordained should be firm and inviolable. It is well also for us diligently to consider that counsel be taken according to circumstances and expediency, so that there be no departure from the ordinance of God; because it is sinful to entertain the question whether we should obey God or not. Accursed, then, are the deliberations wherein it is proposed to alter anything in God’s Word, or to withdraw ourselves from the bounds of our calling. We have said that the burden whereby Moses was weighed down was not of God’s imposing; but only had he been set over the people as their leader, as far as his ability permitted. Jethro leaves this unaffected, and thus confirms by subscribing, as it were, to the decree of heaven. Because he was chosen to be as an interpreter, and God familiarly admitted him as the mediator between Him and His people, Jethro enjoins him to continue in the discharge of these duties. But because the possession of the supreme government did not interfere with the duty of a Prophet, he desired also the greater matters to be referred to him; for I so interpret the expressions, that Moses was to be “to God-ward,” for the delivery of the rule of piety, and for the performance of the prophetical office, whilst the weightier causes were to be referred by the rulers to him, that every one might have justice done him.
21. Moreover, thou shalt199199 Thou shalt choose. — Lat. provide out of all the people Literally so, “thou shalt provide;” meaning, thou shalt choose out, and take the most worthy, so that such an office be not entrusted rashly to any one that offers. But this was most reasonable, among a free people, that the judges should not be chosen for their wealth or rank, but for their superiority in virtue. Yet although it be right that regard should be chiefly had to virtue, so that if any one of the lower orders be found more suitable than others, he should be preferred to the noble or the rich; still should any one choose to, lay this down as a perpetual and necessary rule, he will be justly accounted contentious. Jethro enumerates four qualifications which must be principally regarded in the appointment of judges, viz., ability in business, the fear of God, integrity, and the contempt, of riches, not to exclude others whereof, as we shall soon see, mention is made in the first chapter of Deuteronomy, but to signify that all are not qualified, nay, that extraordinary virtues are required which, by synecdoche, he embraces in these four. The words which we translate “brave men,”200200 אנשי חיל, Men of might. It is S. M. who thinks the words to mean “Strong and hardy men, capable of bearing fatigue.” ́̓Αιδρας δυνατοὺς LXX. — W. (viros fortes,) are, in the Hebrew, “men of bravery,” (viros fortitudinis;) by which title some think that strong and laborious men are described. But in my opinion, Moses rather designates strenuous and courageous persons, whom he opposes not only to the inactive, but to the timid and cowardly also. But because vigor of mind as well as of body is but frail without the fear of God, he adds piety in the second place, in that they should exercise their office as having an account to render to God. “Truth” is opposed not only to deception and gross falsehoods, but to popularity-hunting, flattering promises, and other crooked arts, which tend to corrupt justice. Lastly, hatred of covetousness is demanded; because nothing is more antagonistic to justice than eagerness for gain; and since snares are so constantly set for judges by the offers of pecuniary advantage, they would not be duly fortified against this mode of corruption, unless they earnestly detested avarice.
23. If thou shalt do this thing. What immediately follows, “and God command thee so,” may be taken in connection with the beginning of the verse, as if, in self-correction, Jethro made the limitation, that he did not wish his counsel to be obeyed, unless God should approve of it. Others extend it more widely, that if Moses followed God’s commands in all things, this moderation of his duties would be useful. However you take it, Jethro declares that he would have nothing conceded to him, which should derogate from God’s supreme authority; but that there was nothing to prevent Moses from following, as he had done, God as his leader, and still adopting the proposed plan. Yet he signifies that this was to be but temporary, when he adds, that the people should go in peace or prosperously into the land of Canaan. Jethro, then, had no wish to establish a law for posterity; but points out a remedy for present inconveniences, and a provisional arrangement,201201 There is an obscurity here in the Latin, which I have not been able to remove. The words are, “atque (ut vulgo loquitur) modum promissionis ostendit.” The common language to which C. alludes may probably be that of the ancient grammarians. The Fr. is “par maniere de provision, (comme on dit.)” until the people should obtain a peaceful resting-place.
24. So Moses hearkened. Here is a. remarkable instance of modesty, that Moses is not indisposed to submit himself to the counsel of his father-in-law. For although Jethro was his superior in age and in degree of affinity, in other respects he was far inferior to him. This yielding, then, of Moses to his authority, lays down a rule for all the greatest and most excellent Doctors, that they should not refuse lo receive the admonitions of those whom they admit to teach rightly, although they are not of such high dignity. For Cyprian202202 “Et ideo vir sanctus Cyprianus, (Ep. 74:12, ad Pompeium,) non solum doctus, sed etiam docibilis, quod in laude episcopi quem designat Apostolus sic intellexit ipse ut diceret: ‘etiam hoc in episcopo diligendum, ut non solum scienter doceat, sed etiam patienter discat.’” — Aug. contra Donat, lib. 4:7, vol. 9:125. truly declares that none is a good doctor who is not also docile. It is probable that the old man immediately returned home, not in contempt, or from his dislike to labor or fatigue, but203203 “Mais il est vray-semblable, que Moyse l’a volontiers excuse pour sa vieillesse;” but it is probable that Moses voluntarily excused him on account of his old age. — Fr. on account of his age; but we shall hereafter see in its proper place that his son remained in the camp.