January 09, 2007

Exodus 16-18: No way to rule a country

Today's reading is Exodus 16-18 (read it in the KJV or NIV)

Today's passage covers the introduction of manna; another "water from a stone" incident; the battle against Amalek in which Moses keeps his hands raised to ensure victory; and a visit from Moses' father-in-law, Jethro, in which he establishes the system of judges.

In Ex. 18, Moses' father-in-law, Jethro, leaves Midian to pay a visit to the encamped Hebrews. With him, he brings the rest of Moses' family. The text has not mentioned Moses' wife Zipporah or his sons after the incident in Ex. 4:24-26, in which God nearly kills Moses before Zipporah circumcises their son. However, it is clear that at some point, Moses must have sent her back to her father, because now she and her two sons accompany Jethro to visit Moses. (Ex. 18:2-5)

Jethro's connection to Moses allows him the royal treatment in the Israelite camp. Moses greets him and gives Jethro a complete account of everything that has happened since he left Midian. (Ex. 18:7) Jethro is glad for the accomplishments of both Moses and his God. He sacrifices to God in the company of Aaron and the other elders of Israel, and dines with them. (Ex. 18:10-13) Obviously, this sort of reception is reserved for the most distinguished visitors. Not everyone who comes stumbling into the Israelite camp would be allowed to counsel its leader and eat with its chiefs. But Jethro is allowed to do so.

Furthermore, Jethro watches his son-in-law at work, judging the people. Jethro himself is a priest and presumably and leader of the community in Midian. (Ex. 3:1) Thus, he likely had some experience dealing with the sorts of things Moses was dealing with, albeit on a smaller scale.

The first thing Jethro realizes, when he sees Moses at work, is that his son-in-law will quickly burn out. (Ex. 18:18) Moses works all day, judging every case that the people bring before him. Remember that there are six hundred thousand men in the Israelite camp. Imagine attempting to single-handedly handle every dispute in the city of Boston, and you have some idea of the workload Moses was facing.

When Jethro asks Moses why he alone handles all this work, Moses replies, "Because the people come unto me to enquire of God: when they have a matter, they come unto me; and I judge between one and another, and I do make them know the statues of God, and his laws." (Ex. 18:15-16) In other words, Moses knows God's laws, and so he is the only man qualified to settle these disputes.

Jethro, hearing this answer, gives some very practical advice. He tells Moses to teach the people God's commands and then to appoint capable men to act as judges. The judges will preside over the small matters, and Moses will deal with the difficult ones. (Ex. 18:19-23)

Jethro advises Moses to set up these judges, or rulers, in levels: "rulers of thousands, and rulers of hundreds, rulers of fifties, and rulers of tens." (Ex. 18:21, KJV; "officials over..." in NIV) There are, therefore, several levels of administrative hierarchy, each dealing with more men and more complex cases. This is essentially the judicial system we have now in practically all western industrialized countries in the world. There are several levels of judges, each of whom deal with progressively more difficult cases, until the highest court which deals with the most controversial and most difficult ones. The system seems to work well for us, and it seems to have worked well for the ancient Israelites.

Let us examine for a moment what type of men Jethro recommends to be judges. Jethro says they must be "able men, such as fear God, men of truth, hating covetousness." (Ex. 18:21, KJV; "capable men... who fear God, trustworthy men who hate dishonest gain" in NIV) We have here four qualities that Jethro, and presumably Moses, consider essential in rulers of men. First, they must be capable or able. This seems to be self-evident: if the rulers were incompetent, they would never succeed at their tasks. Furthermore, the people would likely not trust them to handle important decisions for them, and the system would fall apart.

The third quality, trustworthiness or truthfulness, is also important. If you are establishing men to rule the people, they should be men the people trust and have reason to trust. Similarly with the fourth quality: you want your judges to be incorruptible. If people believed they could bribe the rulers to judge in their favour, then money, not truth or justice, would become the law of the land. Whether the judges actually were bribed or not is less important than whether they could be bribed under the right circumstances. Corruptible judges would undermine the entire system.

I have saved speaking about the second quality, fearing God, for last. The other three qualities should be self-evidently desirable to anyone reading the text. Obviously we want our judges to be truthful, honest, and capable. But God-fearing? In context, this characteristic makes a great deal of sense: God was a real, present force for the ancient Israelites. He brought down plagues on the Egyptians, parted the Red Sea, and rained manna from the sky. God was the ultimate judge, and any subservient judges would need to acknowledge this fact. Given the context, it is perfectly reasonable that judges be God-fearing.

But what about today? Should today's judges be God-fearing? I would argue that judges should follow some sort of moral guideline, whether this is the Judeo-Christian writings or the Kantian categorical imperative. A judge who has no outside moral compass is liable to be corrupted by the power he (or she) wields, undermining the system. We no longer live in a theocratic society, and there is no reason our judges need to follow the laws of a particular religion. They should, on the other hand, be moral, upright men who believe in something, whether this "something" is supernatural or mundane.

In the end, though, we need judges. A single ruler over a whole population is not only a potential dictator, but probably headed for burn-out.

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