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Lectio divina on the book of Exodus

by Fr Piergiorgio M. Di Domenico OSM

Lectio 2 – 2016/17
Exodus 18

“I cannot carry all these people on my own,
the weight is too much for me”
(Nb 11; Dt 1:9-18)


1 Jethro, priest of Midian, Moses’ father-in-law, had heard all about what God had done for Moses and for Israel His people: how Moses had brought Israel out of Egypt. 2 Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, then took back Zipporah, Moses’ wife, whom Moses had sent home, 3 with her two sons; one of them was called Gershon because, he had said, ‘I am an alien in a foreign land’, 4 and the other called Eliezer because ‘My father’s God is my help and has delivered me from Pharaoh’s sword’.

5 Then Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, with Moses’ sons and wife, came to Moses in the desert where he was encamped, at the mountain of God. 6 ‘Here is your father-in-law Jethro approaching’, Moses was told, ‘with your wife and her two sons.’ 7 So Moses went out to greet his father-in-law, bowed low to him and kissed him; and when each had asked how the other was they went into the tent. 8 Moses then told his father-in-law all about what the Lord had done to Pharaoh and the Egyptians for Israel’s sake, and about all the hardships that they had encountered on the way, and how the Lord had rescued them. 9 And Jethro was delighted at all the Lord’s goodness to Israel in having rescued them from the clutches of the Egyptians. 10 ‘Blessed be the Lord’, Jethro exclaimed, ‘for having rescued you from the clutches of the Egyptians and the clutches of Pharaoh, for having rescued the people from the grasp of the Egyptians! 11 Now I know that the Lord is greater than all other gods…’

12 Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, then offered a burnt offering and other sacrifices to God; and Aaron and all the elders of Israel came and ate with Moses’ father-in-law in the presence of God.

13 On the following day, Moses took his seat to administer justice for the people, and the people were standing round him from morning till evening. 14 Seeing all he did for the people, Moses’ father-in-law said to him, ‘Why do you do this for the people, why sit here alone with the people standing round you from morning till evening?’ 15 Moses replied to his father-in-law, ‘Because the people come to me to consult God. 16 When they have a problem they come to me, and I give a ruling between the one and the other and make God’s statutes and laws known to them.’ 17 Moses’ father-in-law then said to him, What you are doing is not right. 18 You will only tire yourself out, and the people with you too, for the work is too heavy for you. You cannot do it all yourself. 19 Now listen to the advice I am going to give you, and God be with you! Your task is to represent the people to God, to lay their cases before God, 20 and to teach them the statutes and laws, and show them the way they ought to follow and how they ought to behave. 21 At the same time, from the people at large choose capable and God-fearing men, men who are trustworthy and incorruptible, and put them in charge of them as heads of thousands, hundreds, fifties and tens, 22 and make them the people’s permanent judges. They will refer all important matters to you, but all minor matters they will decide themselves, so making things easier for you by sharing the burden with you. 23 If you do this – and may God so command you – you will be able to stand the strain, and all these people will go home satisfied.’

24 Moses took his father-in-law’s advice and did just as he said. 25 Moses chose capable men from all Israel and put them in charge of the people as heads of thousands, hundreds, fifties and tens. 26 These acted as the people’s permanent judges. They referred hard cases to Moses but decided minor matters themselves.

27 Moses then set his father-in-law on his way, and he travelled back to his own country.


Chapter 18 of Exodus is a connecting passage between what has already happened and what is about to happen. In the first part (lines 1-12), the main events of the exodus from Egypt and of the desert journey are summarized. In the second part (lines 13-27), Moses takes his father-in-law’s advice and modifies his leadership of the people.


Jethro, the priest of Midian who in Exodus 2:18 and Numbers 10:29 is called ‘Reuel’, gave shelter to Moses when he was escaping from Egypt, and gave him his daughter Zipporah in marriage. Having heard about Israel’s liberation from Egyptian slavery, he came to Moses who was encamped at Rephidim, the last stop before entering Sinai. He brought with him Zipporah, whom “Moses had sent home” (Ex 18:2). This implies that Zipporah had been repudiated, even though Ex 4:20 states that she had followed Moses in his journey back to Egypt. That journey had been extremely dangerous, given that God “encountered him and tried to kill him”. Zipporah managed to appease God’s anger by circumcising her son (cf Ex 4:24-26). This gesture has a mysterious meaning: Moses is a ‘Blood-Bridegroom’ who can overcome the dangerous encounter with God by welcoming divine grace (a very expensive grace indeed).

Zipporah is accompanied by her two sons: Gershom, which means ‘I am an alien in a foreign land’; and Eliezer, ‘God is my help’.

Moses greets his father-in-law in a very deferent manner: “he bowed low to him” (18:7). As a rule, the verb is used to denote God’s worship. There is only another occurrence of this verb in the Bible as applied to a person, Gn 43:26-28: “When Joseph arrived at the house they offered him the gift they had with them, bowing low before him. He greeted them pleasantly, asking, ‘Is your father well, the old man you told me of? Is he still alive?’ ‘You servant our father is well’, they replied, ‘he is still alive’, and they bowed respectfully.”

It is as if they could recognize the divine greatness hidden in the human being. We can also refer to 1 Co 3:16-17: “Do you not realize that you are a temple of God with the Spirit of God living in you? If anybody should destroy the temple of God, God will destroy that person, because God’s temple is holy; and you are that temple.” Here it is not the single person, but the whole community, to be considered as a holy place; but in the same letter St Paul uses the same image when dealing with the body: “Do you not realize that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you and whom you received from God? You are not your own property, then; you have been bought at a price. So use your body for the glory of God.” (1 Co 6:19-20) The community is sacred because it is made up of people freed from their selves and belonging solely to God. The greatness of this vocation is incommensurate.

It is strange that the text does not mention Moses’ greeting to his wife and sons, not even when Moses sends his father-in-law away (cf Ex 18:27). However, it highlights their presence many times: “Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, then took back Zipporah… with her two sons” (Ex 18:2-3); “Then Jethro… with Moses’ sons and wife, came to Moses in the desert” (Ex 18:5); “‘Here is your father-in-law Jethro approaching’, Moses was told, ‘with your wife and her two sons’” (Ex 18:6).

This insistence seems to bring back to mind the memories of these three characters. Zipporah, Gershon and Eliezer are to Moses the memorial of the divine grace that wants him all for herself, of his condition of being an alien on earth, of the divine help which is never lacking. This memorial is then celebrated by Jethro in a liturgy which resembles the Eucharist.

At first Moses relates all that the Lord did for Israel, all the set-backs he had to face during the journey and from which he was freed by the Lord (cf Ex 18:8): it is the anamnesis, the memory in the Eucharist that helps us become aware of all that the Lord did in the past and is doing everyday for us. Full of joy, Jethro blesses and thanks the Lord: “‘Blessed be the Lord’, Jethro exclaimed, ‘for having rescued you from the clutches of the Egyptians… Now I know that the Lord is greater than all other gods…’” (Ex 18:10-11) “The Lord is greater”, He is the only one true God, the only one to whom we can entrust our lives and not be disappointed, as Psalm 89 says: “I shall sing the faithful love of the Lord for ever, / … / Who in the skies can compare with the Lord? / Who among the sons of god can rival with Him?” (Ps 89:1, 7)

Then Jethro offers a sacrifice to the Lord and the rite is concluded by a communion meal “before God”.

Before God

On the following day, Moses is busy as a leader and judge for the people: he is busy with this ministry “from morning till evening” (Ex 18:13); He is the only one to administer justice (cf Ex 18:14, 18). Jethro disagrees with this: “What you are doing is not right. You will only tire yourself out, and the people with you too, for the work is too heavy for you. You cannot do it all yourself.” (Ex 18:17-18)

He then advises Moses to choose, “from the people at large, capable and God-fearing men, men who are trustworthy and incorruptible, and put them in charge of them as heads of thousands, hundreds, fifties and tens, and make them the people’s permanent judges. They will refer all important matters to you, but all minor matters they will decide themselves, so making things easier for you by sharing the burden with you” (Ex 18:21-22)

“Moses took his father-in-law’s advice and did just as he said” (Ex 18:24). Jethro is the symbol of a different people, a people closely related to the Jews, offering their own lifestyle and experience to Moses and Israel. This is relevant to us, given that we live in an age of encounters (and struggles) with different civilizations and cultures. We should try to help everybody understand that diversity is not always a danger. In fact, it may be a richness, making of us people free from attachment to their own views, open to dialogue and to a peaceful exchange of views.

Acts 6:1-6 can be related to the Exodus story: the apostles are unable to be in charge of all the tasks of the community, so they decide to hand over the charitable duties to seven men “of good reputation, filled with the Spirit and with wisdom”, while they would devote themselves “to prayer and to the service of the word”. In the community, in the Church, tasks are to be shared between members, not only because otherwise the responsibility would be disproportionate and the burden unbearable; but also because this service would no longer build the fraternity; on the contrary, it would suffocate it by its intrusiveness.

Moses’ task is not to concentrate power in his hands, but the following one: “Your task is to represent the people to God, to lay their cases before God” (Ex 18:19).

In Chapter 17 we have already seen that Moses was presented as performing his true (the only one?) leadership duty: to stay before God, with his raised hands and an unshakable trust, and to present to the Lord the needs of the brothers and sisters that have been entrusted to him. In this “staying before God”, I see the meaning of consecrated life, even of a consecrated life in the world. To be part of the life of the world, with the relevant commitments, is meaningful provided that one stays before God: this is a “priority” or “radical duty” which is the very basis of the secular vocation (cf Rule of Life, 28, 59). The Rule is right in stressing the importance of that, because we live in the world as people radically belonging to God.


The parallel passage of Number 11 is important because it adds further food for thought. If in Exodus it was God who suggested Jethro to speak like that (“may God so command you”, 18:23), now it is not Jethro advising Moses, but God Himself directly.

Israel has just left Sinai and is entering the desert. In one of the stops – in a place which will be called ‘Taberah’ – from the root meaning ‘to burn’ – “the people began to complain, which was offensive to the Lord’s ears. When the Lord heard, His anger was aroused and the fire of the Lord broke out among them; it devoured one end of the camp. The people appealed to Moses who interceded with the Lord and the fire died down.” (Nb 11:1-2)

This was a sorrowful trial, but it did not prompt the Jews to convert themselves to the Lord. Now Israel’s lamentation is about “rabble” (Nb 11:3), that “mixed crowd of people” that went with them (Ex 12:38) in which rabbinical exegesis saw the whole of humanity: God freed from slavery not only Israel, but the whole of humanity. Israel is different from all the other peoples: it has a special vocation which – however – does not separate it from the rest of humanity. It is like a fruitful seed thrown into the ground of humanity, a seed from which a new plant is to be born. At times Israel loses its awareness of this and conforms itself to worldly mentality. It is then drawn to feel the same “pangs of hunger” (Nb 11:4) or “greed” (Nb 11:34) which displeases God so much.

The people already has manna, given as a gift by God to prevent hunger. But they are not happy with it, and they long for meat, fish and all the products they were eating in Egypt. Moses listens to the cry of the people, of all the families, and he agrees with them, as he does not understand God’s reaction: “The Lord’s anger was greatly aroused; Moses too found it disgraceful”. (Nb 11:10) He complains to God in his turn: “Why do You treat Your servant so badly? In what respect have I failed to win Your favour, for You to lay the burden of all these people on me? Was it I who conceived all these people? … I cannot carry all these people on my own; the weight is too much for me. If this is how you mean to treat me, please kill me outright! If only I could win Your favour and be spared the sight of my misery!” (Nb 11:11-12, 14-15)

To lead and educate disheartened people, to infuse in them the wish for renewal, to overcome that everlasting discontent which makes one see just the negative sides of situations and stifles those joy and enthusiasm which should help one to overcome difficulties, is indeed a terrible burden.

“If only all the Lord’s people were prophets…”

God meets Moses’ wishes advising him to choose seventy of the elders and scribes of Israel and to take them to the Tent of the Meeting: “I shall come down and talk to you there and shall take some of the spirit which is on you and put it on them. Then they will bear the burden of the people with you, and you will no longer have to bear it on your own.” (Nb 11:17)

The text does not explain how the seventy elders will share the burden of the people with Moses. However, we can guess that they will have to deal with minor matters, as the Book of Exodus states, such as gathering and storing food.

The liturgy of consecration of the seventy elders takes place in the Tent of the Meeting. “”When the spirit came on them they prophesied, but only once” (Nb 11:25). The “spirit”, which is on Moses and which is subordinately shared by the elders, is God’s more or less permanent action, turning the chosen people into prophets, people who speak and act in God’s name.

The seventy elders’ investiture is temporary: God gave them the spirit in order to confirm them in the eyes of the people; and also because they may be aware of the exact meaning of the task they have received. With the same awareness we must welcome God’s presence in our daily lives, where we can make present His very promptness and love.

“Two men had stayed back in the camp; one was called Eldad and the other Medad. The spirit came down on them; though they had not gone to the Tent, their names were enrolled among the rest. These began to prophesy in the camp.” (Nb 11:26) Their names contain the root of the verb ‘to love’. The first one means “God (El) loves”; the second one, “God’s Beloved”.

A young man (a “boy” according to the Vulgate) ran to tell Moses this (cf Nb 11:27): he does not seem to be familiar with God’s way of acting.

The piece of news aroused Joshua’s reaction. Joshua had “served Moses since he was a boy” (Nb 11:28). This seems to be the jealous reaction of a group which does not want to share its prerogatives.

Moses answers: “If only all the Lord’s people were prophets, and the Lord had given them the spirit!” (Nb 11:29) Thus Moses, while shattering to pieces the caste’s exclusiveness, foreshadows the future People of God in the messianic times, when God’s gifts will be given to all without distinctions: “After this, I shall pour out my spirit on all humanity. / Your sons and daughters shall prophesy, / your old people shall dream dreams, / and your young people see visions. / Even on the slaves, men and women, / shall I pour out my spirit in those days.” (Jl 3:1-2; cf also Is 32:15; Ezk 39:29)

Jesus will try to impress this truth on the hearts of His disciples too.

One day “John said to Him, ‘Master, we saw someone who is not one of us driving out devils in Your name, and because he was not one of us we tried to stop him.’ But Jesus said, ‘You must not stop him; no one who works a miracle in my name could soon afterwards speak evil of me. Anyone who is not against us is for us.’” (Mk 9:38-40)

Jesus is also opening our very eyes, so that we can see all the goodness that there is in the world even nowadays.

If in Exodus and Numbers the seventy elders were chosen in order to lighten the burden of a difficult and dissatisfied people, in the parallel passage of Dt 1:9-18 Israel is a divine blessing: it has multiplied “as the stars of heaven” (Dt 1:10) and therefore it cannot be guided by one man only. This is the first of the long speeches that Moses makes “in the fortieth year, on the first day of the eleventh month” since the Exodus from Egypt, (Dt 1:3) the last one of his life. (cf Dt 32:48-52; 34:1, 5) The “servant of the Lord” (Dt 34:5) is pacified with his people: yes, Israel has been at times an unbearable burden, but it is loved and blessed by God. If we want to bear each other’s burdens, we must become part of God’s movement of love.