13 The next day Moses sat to judge the people, and the people stood around Moses from morning till evening. 14 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 do you sit alone, and all the people stand around you from morning till evening?” 15 And Moses said to his father-in-law, “Because the people come to me to inquire of God; 16 when they have a dispute, they come to me and I decide between one person and another, and I make them know the statutes of God and his laws.” 17 Moses’ father-in-law said to him, “What you are doing is not good. 18 You and the people with you will certainly wear yourselves out, for the thing is too heavy for you. You are not able to do it alone. 19 Now obey my voice; I will give you advice, and God be with you! You shall represent the people before God and bring their cases to God, 20 and 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. 21 Moreover, look for able men from all the people, men who fear God, who are trustworthy and hate a bribe, and place such men over the people as chiefs of thousands, of hundreds, of fifties, and of tens. 22 And let them judge the people at all times. Every great matter they shall bring to you, but any small matter they shall decide themselves. So it will be easier for you, and they will bear the burden with you. 23 If you do this, God will direct you, you will be able to endure, and all this people also will go to their place in peace.”
24 So Moses listened to the voice of his father-in-law and did all that he had said. 25 Moses chose able men out of all Israel and made them heads over the people, chiefs of thousands, of hundreds, of fifties, and of tens. 26 And they judged the people at all times. Any hard case they brought to Moses, but any small matter they decided themselves. 27 Then Moses let his father-in-law depart, and he went away to his own country. – Exodus 18:13-27 ESV
Like any father-in-law, Jethro wanted to see how his daughter’s husband performed “on the job.” So, the next morning, he followed Moses as he headed into the “office” – where Moses began a dawn-to-dusk session of judging the affairs and disputes of the people.
Moses took his seat to hear the people’s disputes against each other. They waited before him from morning till evening. – Exodus 18:13 NLT
This scene must have come as a shock to Jethro, because the last time he had seen Moses, his son-in-law had been herding sheep in Midian. Now, he was managing the affairs of what was essentially a small nation. Every day, countless people made their way to Moses, where they lined up and waited for their turn to present their cases to the one and only judge qualified to settle their disputes.
Moses was a prophet who had been given the authority to speak on behalf of God Himself. It’s important to remember that at this time in their journey, the people of Israel had no written code of conduct or official compendium of laws to govern life and settle disputes. So, Moses was the only individual within the whole Israelite community who could adjudicate any disagreements and provide godly insights or a possible solution to the interpersonal conflicts taking place. Moses put his role this way:
“…the people come to me to get a ruling from God. When a dispute arises, they come to me, and I am the one who settles the case between the quarreling parties. I inform the people of God’s decrees and give them his instructions.” – Exodus 18:15-16 NLT
Moses wasn’t just dispensing sage wisdom and helpful advice; he was delivering personalized judgments from the throne of God in heaven. Part of what made the length of Moses’ days so long was the sheer number of cases that needed to be heard, assessed, and litigated. And it must have taken time to hear the oral arguments of each party in the dispute. It could also be that Moses was required to take each matter to the Lord and then wait for a specific answer to be returned. This would have been a time-consuming and highly exhausting process.
So, when Jethro observed how Moses spent his days, he was more than a bit surprised. His initial thought was that this entire scenario was absurd. How could one man possibly hope to handle such a demanding volume of cases? He saw that Moses was headed for a mental or physical meltdown if something didn’t change, and quickly. So, like a good father-in-law, he pulled Moses aside and tried to set him straight.
“What are you really accomplishing here? Why are you trying to do all this alone while everyone stands around you from morning till evening?” – Exodus 18:14 NLT
None of this made any sense to Jethro. As a priest, he fully understood the concept of one man serving the needs of others, but this was lunacy. The volume of cases Moses was trying to handle on his own was beyond the scope of one man – even with God’s divine assistance. That led Jethro to deliver a no-holds-barred assessment of Moses’ leadership strategy, and it was anything but flattering.
“This is not good!” Moses’ father-in-law exclaimed. “You’re going to wear yourself out—and the people, too. This job is too heavy a burden for you to handle all by yourself.” – Exodus 18:17-18 NLT
In essence, Jethro told Moses, “You’re a train wreck waiting to happen. And it’s not a matter of if, but when.” From Jethro’s perspective, his overly-eager son-in-law was headed for an emotional, mental, or physical breakdown. This led him to give Moses some unsolicited free advice; counsel was likely motivated more by his concern for his daughter and grandsons than for Moses himself. Jethro had just reunited Zipporah with her husband and he was not anxious to see her become a young widow because of Moses’ refusal to delegate responsibilities to qualified men.
So, he advised Moses to share the load – for his own good.
“You should continue to be the people’s representative before God, bringing their disputes to him. Teach them God’s decrees, and give them his instructions. Show them how to conduct their lives.” – Exodus 18:19-20 NLT
Jethro wasn’t trying to change Moses’ job description, but he simply suggested a reprioritization of his roles. It’s unlikely that every case Moses heard required God’s input. There were probably some that Moses could settle on his own through the use of common sense. So, Jethro suggested that Moses recruit qualified men who could hear and settle the simpler cases while forwarding the more complicated disputes to Moses.
“…select from all the people some capable, honest men who fear God and hate bribes. Appoint them as leaders over groups of one thousand, one hundred, fifty, and ten. They should always be available to solve the people’s common disputes, but have them bring the major cases to you.” – Exodus 18:21-22 NLT
Jethro was recommending the time-tested strategy of delegation. As the sole mediator between God and the Israelite community, Moses was too vital to spend his time trying to settle every petty dispute that came up among the people. He needed to focus on the bigger issues and allow others to lighten his load by filtering out the more run-of-the-mill problems that didn’t require divine intervention.
Jethro outlined a detailed conflict resolution strategy involving a tiered network of judges and counselors who serve on behalf of Moses. The whole idea was for Moses to “the leaders decide the smaller matters themselves” (Exodus 18:22 NLT). This wasn’t rocket science. Jethro was recommending a simple organizational restructuring plan that would spread the load and spare Moses from burnout. And Jethro assured Moses that Yahweh would give this new approach His Good Housekeeping seal of approval
“If you do this, God will direct you, you will be able to endure, and all this people also will go to their place in peace.” – Exodus 18:23 ESV
Moses wisely heeded his father-in-law’s advice and implemented this new conflict resolution strategy, and according to the text, it all worked like a charm. The newly appointed leaders did their jobs and, as a result, Moses got a new lease on life. The valuable bandwidth he had lost was restored and, in the end, ikt proved to be a win-win situation for all involved.
English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001
New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.