Trouble with an in-law? (Or maybe you were that in-law?)
Perhaps you’ve tried to advise someone – but it went badly? Maybe you were even accused of meddling?
Exodus 18 records the time Moses was visited by his “in-law”, Jethro. They were very different people: different nationalities and different religious backgrounds… they could have had some serious issues! But Jethro proved to be a model in-law! He gave Moses some advice that helped him enormously – and he did it really well!
We can learn a great deal from Jethro: about relationships in general – how to be a good friend, neighbour or relative.
Here’s the whole account (Exodus 18 from “The Message” paraphrase of the Bible):
Jethro, priest of Midian and father-in-law to Moses, heard the report of all that God had done for Moses and Israel his people, the news that God had delivered Israel from Egypt. Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, had taken in Zipporah, Moses’ wife who had been sent back home, and her two sons. The name of the one was Gershom (Sojourner) for he had said, “I’m a sojourner in a foreign land”; the name of the other was Eliezer (God’s-Help) because “The God of my father is my help and saved me from death by Pharaoh.” Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, brought Moses his sons and his wife there in the wilderness where he was camped at the mountain of God.
He had sent a message ahead to Moses: “I, your father-in-law, am coming to you with your wife and two sons.” Moses went out to welcome his father-in-law. He bowed to him and kissed him. Each asked the other how things had been with him. Then they went into the tent.
Moses told his father-in-law the story of all that GOD had done to Pharaoh and Egypt in helping Israel, all the trouble they had experienced on the journey, and how GOD had delivered them. Jethro was delighted in all the good that GOD had done for Israel in delivering them from Egyptian oppression. Jethro said, “Blessed be GOD who has delivered you from the power of Egypt and Pharaoh, who has delivered his people from the oppression of Egypt. Now I know that GOD is greater than all gods because he’s done this to all those who treated Israel arrogantly.” Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, brought a Whole-Burnt-Offering and sacrifices to God. And Aaron, along with all the elders of Israel, came and ate the meal with Moses’ father-in-law in the presence of God.
The next day Moses took his place to judge the people. People were standing before him all day long, from morning to night. When Moses’ father-in-law saw all that he was doing for the people, he said, “What’s going on here? Why are you doing all this, and all by yourself, letting everybody line up before you from morning to night?”
Moses said to his father-in-law, “Because the people come to me with questions about God. When something comes up, they come to me. I judge between a man and his neighbour and teach them God’s laws and instructions.”
Moses’ father-in-law said, “This is no way to go about it. You’ll burn out, and the people right along with you. This is way too much for you – you can’t do this alone. Now listen to me. Let me tell you how to do this so that God will be in this with you. Be there for the people before God, but let the matters of concern be presented to God. Your job is to teach them the rules and instructions, to show them how to live, what to do. And then you need to keep a sharp eye out for competent men – men who fear God, men of integrity, men who are incorruptible – and appoint them as leaders over groups organized by the thousand, by the hundred, by fifty, and by ten. They’ll be responsible for the everyday work of judging among the people. They’ll bring the hard cases to you, but in the routine cases they’ll be the judges. They will share your load and that will make it easier for you. If you handle the work this way, you’ll have the strength to carry out whatever God commands you, and the people in their settings will flourish also.”
Moses listened to the counsel of his father-in-law and did everything he said. Moses picked competent men from all Israel and set them as leaders over the people who were organized by the thousand, by the hundred, by fifty, and by ten. They took over the everyday work of judging among the people. They brought the hard cases to Moses, but in the routine cases they were the judges.
Then Moses said good-bye to his father-in-law who went home to his own country.
Jethro is a wonderful example of “constructive interference”. He “interfered” in Moses’ affairs, but in a truly graceful and constructive manner. We can learn many lessons from him – not just to be good in-laws, but good friends and good neighbours!
Lesson 1: CALL AHEAD, DON’T JUST SHOW UP!
V6 “He had sent a message ahead to Moses…”
Some people live busy lives. Others like to live private lives (to a very busy or a very private person, an unannounced visit can feel like a “home-invasion”!). It’s a simple courtesy to call ahead: “I’d love to come and visit – would that be OK? When is a good time?” If you can’t call ahead, your first question should be “is this a good time?”
This simple courtesy starts your visit – or even a phone call – on a good footing. It shows that you respect the person’s time and their privacy.
Lesson 2: RESPECT THEIR FAMILY
V5 “Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, brought Moses his sons and his wife there…”
Jethro probably loved having his daughter and grandchildren with him while Moses was away in Egypt. But Moses was now back; it was time for them to be reunited with Moses in their own household.
Family is very important to many people. Respect their family time and don’t intrude on it unless you are invited. Show interest in their family matters and be careful not to disrespect or criticise the other members.
Respecting a person’s family shows respect to them. Respect is vital if we are to speak into their lives in any way.
Lesson 3: RESPECT THEIR FAITH
V12 “Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, brought a Whole-Burnt-Offering and sacrifices to God. And Aaron, along with all the elders of Israel, came and ate the meal with Moses’ father-in-law in the presence of God.”
Jethro was not a Jew (he was a priest of another religion), but he respected Moses’ faith – in fact, Moses’ testimony brought him to the point of whole-hearted worship!
V11 “Now I know that GOD is greater than all gods because he’s done this to all those who treated Israel arrogantly.”
Now please hear me – I’m NOT suggesting that we must embrace other faiths! What I AM saying is that we need to show respect for the faith that others hold dear. One way we can open the door to people asking about our faith is by asking them questions about what they believe. If we disrespect their faith, we are likely to slam the door on any possibility of an open conversation!
Lesson 4: OBSERVE AND ASK QUESTIONS BEFORE YOU SPEAK
V13-14 “The next day Moses took his place to judge the people. People were standing before him all day long, from morning to night. When Moses’ father-in-law saw all that he was doing for the people, he said, “What’s going on here? Why are you doing all this, and all by yourself, letting everybody line up before you from morning to night?””
Jethro spent time with Moses. He watched and listened. He noticed something that concerned him – the way Moses worked. He then ASKED Moses why he worked the way he did.
Jethro may have looked at Moses and known immediately what was wrong and how to fix it. But he did not just “jump in there” with advice. He observed carefully first, and then asked questions. Only then did he offer his counsel.
There are times when we see a problem and think we have a solution – but we don’t fully understand the situation, so our idea is “misinformed”. It can be very annoying when well-meaning people offer solutions before we’ve even talked through the problem fully. It shows disrespect, lack of care, even arrogance. Let’s make sure we’ve observed thoroughly and asked lots of questions before we venture to advise!
Lesson 5: IF YOU CHALLENGE A PERSON, MAKE SURE THEY KNOW THAT YOU HAVE THEIR WELL-BEING AT HEART FIRST.
V17-18 “Moses’ father-in-law said, “This is no way to go about it. You’ll burn out, and the people right along with you. This is way too much for you – you can’t do this alone.”
Jethro’s concern was for Moses’ well-being – these long hours were going to burn him out. This was more than one person’s job! Having made his motive clear, Jethro then proposed a better way for Moses to lead his people.
When people know that you care, they care about what you know!
Lesson 6: DON’T OVERSTAY YOUR WELCOME – OR TRY TO LIVE ANOTHER PERSON’S LIFE FOR THEM
V27 “Then Moses said good-bye to his father-in-law who went home to his own country.”
We need to know when it’s time to leave! If we overstay our welcome we will be less welcome next time!
We also need to know our boundaries – it is not our job to manage other people’s lives; they must live their lives! If we are able to offer wise counsel, fantastic – but them we must step back and leave it to them to live their lives. (It’s enough to live our own lives without trying to manage others!)
Jethro was a great in-law to Moses and a fine example to us! Let’s remember these lessons and also be great friends and relatives!
Let me end with a quick summary:
1. Call ahead, don’t just show up!
2. Respect their family.
3. Respect their faith.
4. Observe and ask questions before you speak.
5. If you challenge a person, make sure they understand you have their well-being at heart first.
6. Don’t overstay your welcome – or try to live another person’s life for them.