So here’s Moses, of whom Deuteronomy says “Never since has there arisen a prophet in Israel like Moses, whom the LORD knew face to face” (34:10), taking advice from a pagan priest. A little odd?
Propp (The Anchor Yale Bible) puts the scene in context, which augments the oddity: “As Jethro observes, Moses and Yahweh are dispensing judgement piecemeal, and Torah is ad hoc. A just and efficient administration requires a legitimate judiciary and a comprehensive law code. The former is established in Exodus 18; the code will occupy most of the remainder of the Pentateuch.” The story might make us wonder if both Moses and YHWH listen to Jethro!
Be that as it may, the story recognizes in a quite matter-of-fact way that human wisdom is important for the people of God. Childs (Old Testament Library): “the basic problem of relating the divine law as given in the Pentateuch with the knowledge of God as found in wisdom has already been posed within Ex. 18.”
Anglicanism has classically spoken of Scripture, reason, and tradition. Here’s Richard Hooker, writing at the end of the 16th Century: “What Scripture doth plainly deliver, to that the first place both of credit and obedience are due; the next whereunto, is what any man can necessarily conclude by force of Reason; after this, the voice of the church succeedeth. That which the Church by her ecclesiastical authority shall probably think and define to be true or good, must in congruity of reason overrule all other inferior judgements whatsoever” (Lawes of Ecclesiastical Politie V,8,2).
Sorting out how Scripture, reason, and tradition guide us can be challenging; acknowledging the role of all three is no small gift. And with Jethro’s witness to reason there is—witnessing to the challenge—Thomas More’s, as interpreted in Bolt’s A Man for all Seasons: “God made the angels to show him splendor—as he made animals for innocence and plants for their simplicity. But Man he made to serve him wittily, in the tangle of his mind.”
Who are the contemporary Jethros to whom we should be listening?
Apropos of none of the readings, today we remember Christina Rossetti (1830-1894). Facing afresh our own mortality, here’s her “Easter Monday:”
Out in the rain a world is growing green,
On half the trees quick buds are seen
Where glued-up buds have been.
Out in the rain God’s Acre stretches green,
Its harvest quick tho’ still unseen:
For there the Life hath been.
If Christ hath died His brethren well may die,
Sing in the gate of death, lay by
This life without a sigh:
For Christ hath died and good it is to die;
To sleep when so He lays us by,
Then wake without a sigh.
Yea, Christ hath died, yea, Christ is risen again:
Wherefore both life and death grow plain
To us who wax and wane;
For Christ Who rose shall die no more again:
Amen: till He makes all things plain
Let us wax on and wane.