יתרו (Exodus 18:1–20:26)
Last week, in our Parasha, we looked at the climactic event when Israel was finally set free from Egypt; at that point, Israel’s prayers for redemption were answered, and they were on their way to enter into a unique covenant with God.
However, as we saw, answered prayer does not mean the end of trials and difficulties in life. As Israel set out on their wilderness journeys, they ran into more trials, including an attack by Pharaoh, lack of food, and lack of water. This showed us that trails and difficulties in life are unavoidable; they are a part of life. So, the question should not be “how do I avoid trials?” but “how do I grow through them?” And the answer provided was that, in the midst of trials, we do not doubt “Is the Lord among us, or not?” (as the nation did), but rather, “What is God teaching me in this process?” since trials are an opportunity for God to show His power, and to further shape us in this life.
This morning, we are going to continue our journey with Israel in the wilderness through Parasha Yitro, meaning Jethro. This parasha is named after Moses’ father-in-law, Jethro, and while it is only about three chapters (Exod 18 to 20), there are many life-altering events that take place here, including the establishment of Israel’s social structure, and the giving of the 10 commandments. But one of the amazing themes we see in this section is how, as the people of Israel are getting closer to Mt. Sinai to receive the Torah, God was actively preparing the nation, both physically and spiritually, to receive His instructions and live in obedience to Him.
You see, God did not redeem Israel out of Egypt just so that they could live a simple, carefree life (“have fun in the wilderness!”). Rather, He brought them out of slavery so that they could enter into a unique covenant with God, to love God, and be a light to the nations. And in a similar way, just as God redeemed Israel from slavery, Paul speaks about how the Lord has “rescued us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of His beloved Son,” (Col 1:10). But for what reason? So that we could have a carefree life? Like Israel, God is in the business of preparing you and forming you for your important task of living in obedience to Him. The question is: What does that look like? Let’s look into Parasha Yitro.
Our Parasha opens up in Exodus 18, where Israel has been in the wilderness for a couple of months. At this point, Moses reunites with his father-in- law, Jethro. Now, we first met Jethro in Exodus 2, when Moses fled from Egypt, and Jethro took him in — Jethro was called “a priest in Midian” (although, a priest for a foreign god, presumably).
And this is why I love this scene, since it shows the importance of sharing with people God’s work in your life! When Jethro went out to meet Moses, it says “Moses told his father-in-law all that the Lord had done to Pharaoh… for Israel’s sake, all the hardship that had befallen them on the journey, and how the Lord had delivered them” (Exod 18:8). This is great because, first, Moses does not shy away from the difficult or embarrassing information: Moses did not pretend that everything was perfect on their journey; he shared the good and the bad, because all of it pointed to the power and involvement of God.
We see this especially on social media, where we try to pretend that everything is perfect. But real growth comes from transparency, and we see this here. But second, we see the importance of sharing God’s work in our lives, because when Jethro hears these stories, he turns around and proclaims, “Now I know that the Lord is greater than all the gods” — we don’t know who he was a priest for beforehand, but now he acknowledges the supremacy of the God of Israel. (Exod 18:10).
We already see how Israel was being used as a light to the nations, to draw people to the God of Israel. But Israel is not yet prepared to receive the Torah. Instead, God begins to prepare them socially (as a community) and spiritually (individually). First, we see in Exodus 18 how God prepares them socially. At this time, Moses would sit in the seat of judgment day and night and judge disputes between people. Can you imagine how draining this would be? No matter the decision you made, somebody will be angry with you.
But God gave Jethro wisdom, and he advised Moses to create a new social structure, where Moses would choose “able men who fear God, men of truth, those who hate dishonest gain” and he placed them as leaders of 1000s, 100s, 50s, and 10s. And this way they would judge the smaller disputes, where Moses would judge the major disputes (Exod 18:19–21). This perfectly paved the way for instituting the laws of the Torah that they will receive in just a few chapters. Now Israel was prepared physically.
In the next chapter, in Exodus 19, God prepared the community spiritually. Three months after they left Egypt, Israel arrives at Mt. Sinai, and God commanded Moses to consecrate the people for three days, meaning “to set them apart” before God would come down on the mountain. This implies that they would not go about their regular lives, but they were called to pause, focus, and dwell on the Lord. They were to be spiritually and physically prepared for His Torah.
Finally, once Israel is prepared socially (they know how to incorporate the law) and spiritually (they live a life of holiness), God revealed to them the decalogue, the 10 commandments in Exodus 20. Now, many people wonder: Why do we highlight these 10 commandments, when there are 613 laws in the Torah? While the 10 commandments are unique since God gave them to the whole of Israel (after this, the rest of the laws were mediated through Moses), the 10 commandments are important because they are a type of summary of the law; the rest of the laws grow out of them.
And what you will notice is that the first four laws are dedicated to honoring God, and the next six are dedicated to honoring your neighbour. And this is why, when Yeshua was asked: “What is the greatest commandment,” he gives a summary of the 10 commandments: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and love your neighbour as yourself” (Matt 22:37-39). This is the main calling of God’s commands.
Now, what we see God doing nationally with Israel in Parasha Yitro, He also does individually in our lives. Just as God freed Israel, prepared their community and prepared their hearts to live out His commands, so God has freed us from the dominion of darkness, He has prepared us by placing us in a community here at Beth Ariel, and He continues His work in us through His Word. The question is: do we walk in obedience, loving God, and love our neighbour? The reason Yeshua’s answer about the greatest law is so important is because it closely links love with God to love for our fellow person. This is why, in 1 John, we are warned: “If someone says, “I love God,” and yet he hates his brother [think: lies about them, gossips about them; speaks badly to them], he is a liar…the one who loves God must also love his brother” (1 Jn 4:20-21).
So, as we prepare our hearts for worship, there are at least two things from Parasha Yitro that require some reflection.
- First, how is God preparing us today? What has He been teaching us this week? If you say, “I don’t know,” that’s fine, but then I think we’re called to more carefully “consecrate ourselves,” to spend time in prayer, reading, and listening to see how the Spirit convicts.
- Second, are we living out our calling to love God and love people? Based on the model of Yeshua, one of the greatest ways to love our neighbour is to serve them. Are we serving our community, are we involved? Are we using our gifts at Beth Ariel to push and encourage one another? If not, that’s ok! But today is a new day to get involved.
This Parasha reminds us that God not only gives us commandments, but also prepares us to live them out; so as a community, let us encourage one another to love God, and to serve one another in the model of Yeshua.