xodus 18 is a well-known passage in which Moses receives advice from his father-in-law, Jethro, to help alleviate the workload of judging the Hebrew people during their four-decade journey through the wilderness. Jethro lays out a plan to head off burnout. The text reveals to us the cause of the budding problem, the effect it was beginning to have, and the solution offered and implemented.
Very early in the journey from Egypt to Canaan—well before the building of the Tabernacle, and just before he receives the Law on Sinai—Moses is judging the people “from morning until evening” (v. 14 NKJV). Jethro advises Moses this is not a good system, and that both Moses and the people will soon be worn out (v. 18). Long lines could lead to chaos and people taking matters into their own hands. It would eventually become an impossible physical and emotional burden on Moses. This is a little over two months after the Red Sea crossing, and it’s astounding that Moses has lasted this long without burning out.
The solution offered by Jethro is twofold. The first phase is often overlooked: “You shall warn them about the statutes and the laws, and make them know the way in which they must walk and what they must do” (v. 20 ESV). First, set down laws and expectations. In the next chapter we find Moses receiving the Law on Mount Sinai, and the following chapters give a report of that encounter.
The second phase is to “look for able men” (18:21 ESV). Employ help. With a set of policies and a vision in hand, teach capable leaders to implement it and rule according to it. A detailed structure is offered by Jethro, and final authority in difficult matters still lies with Moses, who will seek God directly in those cases. Only do what only you can do, Moses.
“So Moses listened to the voice of his father-in-law and did all that he had said” (v. 24 ESV). Being teachable and willing to receive correction is necessary in leadership. Don’t carry it all. Get godly advice. Prevent burnout.
Receiving the Law took a great investment of time, and surely the work of judging piled up as Moses received it. It must have been hard for him not to go back down the mountain to “catch up on the judging.”
The vetting of judges took time as well. In the end, however, a system of law and governance made life easier for everyone.
If Moses had continued to use his best judgment and depended on his ability to lead (after all, God had appointed him the leader, so he had to get in there with the people and lead!), what would have happened? Instead of being Moses, the great Law giver, he might have become Moses, the guy who tried to do it all himself and died before his time.