A Caution for Visionaries

This will never do.

Or such was likely the first thought of an old desert tribesman on seeing the line of petitioners winding through the encampment.  The line ended at the tent of his son-in-law.

The younger man had done well for himself.  When they parted he was an exile.  He returned now as the leader of a people.  And the older man had heard stories about how this came to be.  But the younger man had little sense of his surroundings and the limits they imposed.  He grew up as the adopted grandson of a king, and accustomed to having slaves hanging about out of sight, anticipating and delivering needs and desires.  The upbringing also steeped him in stories that somehow elevated a mortal human king above the forces of earth and sky.  He consequently seemed to have a rather blurry sense of personal limits.

Bedouin Tent, Syrian Desert
photo by Kok Leng Yeo, Wikimedia Commons

The older man was Jethro, priest of Midian.  He was grounded in a way that his son-in-law was not.  On the one hand his position as a holy man brought prestige.  On the other there was the poverty of his situation.  When they first met Jethro lacked adult sons and his flocks were not large enough to support hirelings to tend them.  They were also too small to attract the interest of suitable matches for his daughters.  Jethro cultivated his prestige and was very careful how he used it.  His status protected his daughters from physical harm when they tended his flocks.  But it did not prevent intimidation when they brought the stock to water.  Water in the desert was life, which meant it was often wielded as a cudgel by the strong.  So Jethro lived in a balancing act between his position as priest and the limits of his actual power as the leader of his family.

But then a headstrong young fugitive waded into the midst of his daughters’ tormentors and beat them black and blue.  Jethro was quick to recognize the potential. The fugitive became a relative and grandsons were added to Jethro’s little family.

There was some understandable consternation a few years later when the son-in-law proclaimed an encounter with the I AM.  The encounter was followed shortly by a return to Egypt.  Jethro knew whispers of the I AM from his service to the gods.  But the vision of Moses dictated a confrontation with Pharaoh and survival seemed unlikely.  Fortunately Moses left his family behind in the relative safety provided by the Midianite tribes.  The children were the future.

And against all hope Moses returned.  Jethro found himself learning something new of the I AM.  But he also could see that the favor of the I AM did not apparently not bestow the good sense that comes with successfully navigating treacherous limits.  So, Jethro stepped into the problem to bring a bit of that good sense.  Again he was carefully trading on his status, this time as the family patriarch.

Why do you sit alone, and all the people stand around you from morning to evening?

Jethro could see that this was not going to end well.

The thing that you do is not good.  You will surely wear away, both you, and this people that is with you; for the thing is too heavy for you. You are not able to perform it yourself alone.

Moses did not yet grasp the significance of divisions between what he must do, what the I AM must do, and what others must do.  Jethro brought his experience to bear on the divisions.

You represent the people before God, and bring the causes to God.  You shall teach them the statutes and the laws, and shall show them the way in which they must walk, and the work that they must do.  Moreover you shall provide out of all the people able men which fear God: men of truth, hating unjust gain; and place such over them, to be rulers of thousands, rulers of hundreds, rulers of fifties, and rulers of tens.  Let them judge the people at all times. It shall be that every great matter they shall bring to you, but every small matter they shall judge themselves. So shall it be easier for you, and they shall share the load with you.

Fortunately, Moses listened.  Not every visionary leader does.


Quotations are from Exodus 18 in the public domain World English Bible.