Let’s hear it for the Jethros!

I think I have discovered a new biblical hero. His name is Jethro, and he was Moses’ father in law.

Exodus 18 recounts a well known incident involving him.

The occasion was a family visit to see Moses. It was a good catchup and the text says that Jethro was pleased to hear about the good things the Lord had done for Israel by rescuing them from Egypt: how affirming must it have been for Moses to have his father-in-law listen with such genuine interest to the story of God’s work in his new leadership task. Whether or not we would classify it as a full conversion, Jethro comes to a new realisation about the Lord. ‘Now I know,’ he confesses, ‘that the Lord is greater than all other gods’.

While it may be a bit of an overstatement to describe Jethro as what happens when he sees Moses at work is worth some reflection.

For one thing, while it may be a bit of an anachronism to describe Jethro as the first management consultant, what happens demonstrates the value of an outsider view of a situation: Jethro saw something that Moses and the people had simply accepted as the way things were.

But there is more to be said about him.

In his excellent book, A Work of Heart, Reggie McNeal describes Jethro as ‘the key male figure in Moses’ midlife’. It’s an astute observation. Maybe this is overly speculative, but was Jethro in fact the father that Moses never really had? We know he was nursed by his mother, but his natural father disappears from the early narrative, and Pharaoh, his adoptive father is unlikely to have been particularly close. As McNeal reflects on the role Jethro played, he makes this wider observation:

The recounting of leaders’ life journeys usually turns up a Jethro or two. These individuals are God’s gifts to the leader to provide extraordinary affirmation, encouragement, and guidance. They frequently, but not always, arise from outside the family system. They typically surface during times of the leader’s self-doubt and at points when the leader’s life mission is crystallizing. These God-sent Jethros offer almost unconditional acceptance of the leader, yet they maintain an accountability of presence that implicates itself into the leader’s choices.

For all their obscurity and undoubted challenges, the middle years of Moses’ life – exile in Midian – throw up unexpected and unlikely allies. The question this phase of Moses’ life raises for those of us who are leaders is whether we notice, or make room for the Jethros in our own own leadership journeys.

More than that: for some of us who are older, the challenge is is to be that kind of spiritual father-figure.

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