We are all born into tribes. We are born into families, into countries, into ethnic groups, into religions (or non-religions), and into allegiances. Some of these tribes we pick up as we go, some were passed on by our parents. Some of these tribes are light-hearted and fun, like sports tribes or gadget tribes (Android vs. Iphone, Mac vs. PC).
Many of our tribes are social constructs, even the ones we don’t see as such. There is really no such thing as “red and yellow, black and white” even though the song was right that “all are precious in His sight”. The truth people don’t really come in these colors, these are tags that have developed in history and have governed the lives of billions of people through time.
Many Americans know little of the history behind race based slavery in America. The process was gradual where laws began to separate treatment of “white” indentured servants from “black” indentured servants. Skin color began to determine the future status not only of the individual but of their descendants. The first colony to legally recognize slavery was… Massachusetts, 1641. Americans (and others) have been trying to unravel “white” and “black” ever since.
Tribes are about who’s “in” and who’s “out” in all sorts of ways, good and bad. Tribes are about identity and belonging. Belonging is very important. We all want to “belong” in a good and healthy way.
There’s a lot of tribal stuff in the Bible. In the Old Testament the children of Israel were divided by family tribes that didn’t always get along and sometimes fought with each other.
The Old Testament also has a lot of stories about tribes and marriage. One of the most famous stories is found in Numbers 25 where the men of Israel were “indulging in sexual immorality with Moabite women who invited them to the sacrifices to their gods.” As a result of this “the LORD’s anger burned against them” which seemed to manifest in a plague of sorts. The leaders of the men who were sleeping with Moabite women were to be killed and their bodies exposed (left to rot in the open as an example to others) to appease the LORD. These judges were to put to death any in their tribes “who have yoked themselves to the Baal of Peor.”
Numbers 25:6–9 (NET)
6 Just then one of the Israelites came and brought to his brothers a Midianite woman in the plain view of Moses and of the whole community of the Israelites, while they were weeping at the entrance of the tent of meeting. 7 When Phinehas son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron the priest, saw it, he got up from among the assembly, took a javelin in his hand, 8 and went after the Israelite man into the tent and thrust through the Israelite man and into the woman’s abdomen. So the plague was stopped from the Israelites.9 Those that died in the plague were 24,000.
Stories like this reveal deep and complex interplays between ethnicity, gender and religion. The NIV paragraph heading is “Moab Seduces Israel” which seems to place the blame on Moabite women. The text clearly holds the men and the leaders responsible.
Not What You Might Think
Now for many this story will trigger a culture-religious-tribal bias with a comment “you see, this is what I hate about the Bible. It’s rife with tribalism!”
If you know a bit more about the Bible, however, the picture gets more complex. While Numbers 25 has “Moabite women” leading the men of Israel astray (at least seen by the NIV editors who wrote that chapter heading which, BTW isn’t really a part of the text) the passage is in fact in conversation with a number of other passages. Don’t forget that “Moab” was the grandson of Lot, a relative of Israel. The story of Moab’s conception is famously dark.
That story is also in conversation with the Book of Ruth where sons of Israel (Elimelech of the tribe of Judah) emigrate to Moab and marry daughters of Moab, one of which is Ruth. Ruth, the Moabite (which the book constantly reminds us of) then marries a faithful son of Israel Boaz, saving her Israelite family from extinction and making the way for the savior of the nation, King David.
The famous story of the zeal of Phinehas skewering the Israelite man and the Midianite woman caught in the act has behind it the fact that Moses is also married to a Midianite woman. The story engages tribalism, but the currents are far more complex, subtle and the conversation more involved than simple tribalism.
Israel, as Nation, involved with other Tribes
The book of Exodus begins with the conflict between Israel and Egypt. Yhwh rescues Israel and she escapes out into the desert to worship him. After the Red Sea crossing there are three stories about complaints over food and water which focus on the relationship between Yhwh and Israel. These three stories are followed by two stories about Moses, leadership and Israel encountering its neighbors. The first neighbor is the hostile Amalelites and the second the Midianites. It is clear that the stories are placed here for thematic reasons because the geography/chronology seems misplaced.
Robert Alter makes this comment
As Umberto Cassuto and others have noticed, this episode stands in neat thematic antithesis to the preceding one. After a fierce armed struggle with a hostile nation that Israel is enjoined to destroy, we have an encounter with a representative of another people, Midian, that is marked by harmonious understanding, mutual respect, and the giving of sage counsel. Cassuto points out that this antithesis is underscored through thematic keywords: the Amalek episode begins and ends with a repetition of “battle” (or “war”). The Jethro episode begins with inquiries of “well-being” or “peace” (shalom) and near the end, “this people will come to its place in peace.” Moses “chooses” men for war in the first episode and men for justice in the second. He sits on a stone at the battle and then sits in judgment . His hands are “heavy” in the battle scene and the judicial burden is “heavy” in the judgment scene. As for Midian, the later biblical record shows them acting as marauders crossing the Jordan to attack Israelite farms, but Jethro belongs to the Kenite clan of Midianites that had a particular relationship of loyal alliance with Israel.
Alter, Robert (2008-10-17). The Five Books of Moses: A Translation with Commentary (Kindle Locations 9071-9079). W. W. Norton & Company. Kindle Edition.
Israel is now an actor with Moses its leader. Moses will need to delegate men for war, and men for judgment.
Jethro, Father-in-Law, Priest of Midian
In Exodus 18 Jethro comes to see Moses and with him are Moses’ wife and sons who apparently weathered much of the drama of Israel with her family.
The Midianites in the table of the nations are also descendants of Abraham, from Midian, his son by the concubine Keturah. Abraham hand sent away his sons from his later concubines into the Transjordan by Edom and Moab. If you’re up on your Bible trivia you’ll notice all of the family relations here. Edom is of Esau, Jacob’s brother. Moab is a son of Lot, and the Midianites are also from Abraham. These are relatives and depending how you cut up “tribe” are friends, family and enemies all at different times.
This isn’t just a family visit. Terence Fretheim notes the intentional progression of the story.
- Jethro hears what God has done for Israel
- Jethro then visits Moses and the new delivered community, a new people. There is a public welcoming. They exchange expression of welfare (in contrast to Amelekites)
- They then go into the tent. Some say this is Moses’ tent. Others say it might be the tent of meeting/tabernacle which would not be in chronology, but the tent entering surely is supposed to communicate importance and God’s presence to the conversation.
- Moses declares the good news of their deliverance as well as the hardships they have suffered.
- Jethro rejoices over the good God has done.
- Jethro gives a public blessing “Blessed be the LORD”, something you’d commonly find in the psalms. He’s a priest, remember.
- Jethro publicly confesses that Yhwh is greater than all other gods (he’s not saying the other gods don’t exist).
- Jethro offers sacrifices to God (lends credibility to this being the tent of meeting)
Clearly this passage is designed to make a statement about the impact of the Exodus on the other nations. This was part of the design of the plagues and the confrontation between God and Pharaoh all along. The nations were to see the Yhwh is Lord over heaven and earth, and greater than all Gods.
The Faith of Jethro
How are we to categorize the faith of Jethro? What we know of the groups in the transjordan like Moab and Edom is that they worshiped many gods, many of whom were not so nice. They offered child sacrifices to their gods. Shrine prostitution would have been common. Would Jethro being a priest from there have involved him in such things? It would be reasonable to think so.
The corruption of Israel with that threat in Numbers 25 provoked an episode in which according to the text 24,000 lost their lives by plague and how many by the sword of the purge? Why is it so dangerous in Numbers 25 but here Jethro is welcomed into the tent?
Jethro here confesses a belief in the power of Yhwh over the other gods and he offers sacrifices. This doesn’t make him a monotheist, it makes him a henotheist at best. He isn’t necessarily abandoning other gods as much as perhaps prioritizing Yhwh over them.
The story in fact gets more complex.
Advice on Administration
After their praise and worship moment Jethro begins to get a glimpse into how Moses is running the judicial side of Israel’s new-found nationhood and he is not impressed. Moses is wearing himself out trying to mediate and judge between all of the disputes that are arising among the people. In the ancient world they didn’t have a separation of powers like we have in the US system. Moses (and kings after him) were all three branches of government in one.
Jethro is a priest and someone who would be accustomed to national or tribal leadership and administration and for him the answer to Moses’ dilemma is clear, learn to delegate. Appoint leaders down the line to handle the small cases and only deal with the larger, broader, more significant ones.
To us this might seem obvious and simple, but take note here. Moses is taking advice from a pagan priest on how to run Israel. Shouldn’t he be running Israel “God’s way”? Why learn from the Midianites?
Now you might imagine that God just does the big stuff or the spiritual stuff and leaves Moses to do the detail work. This is an idea that reveals some of our own filters and assumptions but it won’t necessarily hold true.
Most people who read the book of Exodus enjoy it for the first 20 chapters or so and then lose interest. Why? After chapter 20 the book becomes heavy not just with laws but also with God’s detailed commands about how to construct the tabernacle and what to fill it with, this same tent that Moses may have welcomed Jethro into. Couldn’t God have given Moses advice as to how to do judicial administration “God’s way” rather than leaving it to this father-in-law pagan priest?
Why This Story is Important
I’ve seen this story employed by various church advice books usually from the church growth movement. The pagan priesthood of Jethro is passed over in silence and people quickly jump to the good advice he gave Moses. Now that it’s in the Bible its washed clean of its pagan stench I suppose and can be freely distributed to churches as “God’s way”. To this I say “not so fast”. There are a lot of layers to this story that inform our lives on many different levels and on many different question that plague us.
I suspect this story is more about the process that God is using to reveal himself to a pagan world and the complex, tribal, assimilation process that happens along the way.
Tribal Relationships in Real Lives and Families Are Complex
Consider Moses. He’s married to a daughter of a pagan priest. He’s going to be the “law giver” to Israel and here he’s taking advice from that pagan priest about administration. Does that mean all the law he’ll be giving is compromised? No. It does mean, however, that it isn’t in isolation. Many commentators have noted in fact that the advice Jethro gives Moses on how to set up the Israelite judiciary is very similar to other codes from the nations in the region at the time. Israel is NOT simply in tribal isolation from her neighbors. In fact, as we’ve seen, she’s got long and complex relationships with neighbors such as Egypt, Moab, Edom and the Midianites.
This story is told in conversation with other stories where failure to properly negotiate tribal boundaries will cause serious trouble. Healthy boundaries are for our good, but boundaries, even tribal ones, should offer healthy exchanges that allow good things to pass and keep bad things out.
Skin is a a great example of this. Skin is a boundary that is semi-permeable. If you were to cover your sin in plastic your skin would be in trouble. Skin lets good things into your body, lets you feel, and yet protects you from bad things that would destroy your body. Skin, however, is enormously complex. We do skin “grafts” because skin is alive. We can’t manufacture it. It’s a part of you with your genetics and contributes to your social and biological identity.
All of us are involved in a matrix of sometimes conflicting tribal identities, relationships and commitments. God is involved in all of these layers and so working our way through them in relationship is no small or simple thing.
Israel is Saved for Something
This story also illustrates that Israel is more than just its religious aspect. They were rescued out of Egypt to worship Yhwh in the wilderness, but what Yhwh is doing is constructing a missional tribal identity for them for the good of all of the tribes of the world. God is rescuing Israel to be a witness, but embody in real time and space, within the complex matrix of tribal identities and commitments, what life with God can and should be.
Life has always been broader than what we easily identify as “religion”. Another way to say this is that all of life is “religious” but not necessarily religion.
God made the world broad and good and seeded within it good potentialities that even rebellious cultures develop and produce. Israel will need to learn culture from its pagan neighbors, but figuring out what is good and what isn’t will not always be a simple or easy thing. Israel will have to learn to adopt the good, and resist the evil, or adopt the healthy, and resist the harmful. This will be a process for Israel that will continue throughout her story, and it is a process that the church has, and will continue to pursue.
Camels from Midian
Isaiah 60 is a “go to” passage in terms of understanding the breadth and scope of God’s mission. I borrow my interpretation from Richard Mouw and his little book on that chapter “When the Kings Come Marching In”. It sees Isaiah 60 as a vision of God’s claim on the culture maker of the entire world. God seeded his creation with so much good potentiality that in our culture making we develop it. Our development of it is always marred and hobbled by our rebellion, but it also bears witness to God’s glory. It is wheat among weeds.
We find in Isaiah 60 camels from Midian. We’re not just talking about the animals, but see them as a desert caravan that comes to the thrown of the LORD bearing the cultural riches of the nations from Africa and Asia.
Jethro is a harbinger of those camels.
Wisemen from the East
Jethro is also an harbinger of the wise men from the East that visit infant Jesus, Mary and Joseph to bring their gifts and lay them at his feet. This too is a rhyming of Isaiah’s vision. God brings the scattered tribes of earth together to build a kingdom of shalom, of peace, of well-being for our enjoyment and his own glory.
The big controversy this holiday season on the social media has of course been Phil Robertson’s statements about gays. This has caused all sorts of people to take sides and defend whatever group they feel the most affinity towards. Many post on their Facebook page that they “stand with Phil”. Others will talk about standing up for marriage equality rights. Warring tribes take up sides.
These ad hoc issue tribes then inform people’s other groupings. If I agree with Phil on this then he’s a good guy. If I disagree with Phil then he’s “a bad person” or a bigot or whatever label you wish to put on your adversary.
Suddenly we have all sorts of layers and levels to this. If I agree with Phil’s take on gays then I’ll like the tobacco he chews and the guns he shoots ducks with. If I disagree with Phil I’ll shun chewing tobacco, be for gun control and endorse a whole range of other issues and activities. Loyalties about ideas and people flow all over the place. Our identities get involved and we start to take on the form of one group or another.
Single issue tribes have played a big role in American politics and society for a long time. At the end of the colonial period people had to decide if they were for or against the British. After the revolution people had to decide if they were for or against legalized slavery. After that movement two thirds of both houses of congress, the president, and two thirds of all the state legislatures agreed that the nation would be better off if recreational use of alcohol were banned and they put that into law. Today of course we have debates swirling about gays, guns, taxes, pot, and a whole host of issues. We’ve got lots of flags to gather under and find affinity around.
El Papa in Rome
Part of the irony is that so often these groups seem to make little sense. Within a very short time lots of people decided they didn’t like Papa Duck while Time Magazine named Pope Francis “Man of the Year” partly motivated by his famous quote:
When I meet a gay person, I have to distinguish between their being gay and being part of a lobby. If they accept the Lord and have goodwill, who am I to judge them? They shouldn’t be marginalized. The tendency [to homosexuality] is not the problem…they’re our brothers.
the New York Times reads him this way,
The pope’s words are likely to have repercussions in a church whose bishops and priests in many countries, including the United States, have often seemed to make combating abortion, gay marriage and contraception their top public policy priorities. Francis said that those teachings have to be presented in a larger context.
“I see the church as a field hospital after battle,” Francis said. “It is useless to ask a seriously injured person if he has high cholesterol and about the level of his blood sugars. You have to heal his wounds. Then we can talk about everything else.”
No one is asserting that the Pope is about to change Roman Catholic teaching on a whole range of issues. A true/false quiz would likely find both Papa Duck and The “Papa” (Papa is Spanish for Pope) as asserting that heterosexual union as normative as asserted by the Bible and perhaps also “natural law”. Many of the left in the American culture war are thrilled with Francis and furious at Phil. Tribal dynamics are exceedingly complex.
Papa Duck Should Learn from El Papa
James Carroll makes an important observation in the activity of this new pope:
“Who am I to judge?” With those five words, spoken in late July in reply to a reporter’s question about the status of gay priests in the Church, Pope Francis stepped away from the disapproving tone, the explicit moralizing typical of Popes and bishops. This gesture of openness, which startled the Catholic world, would prove not to be an isolated event. In a series of interviews and speeches in the first few months after his election, in March, the Pope unilaterally declared a kind of truce in the culture wars that have divided the Vatican and much of the world. Repeatedly, he argued that the Church’s purpose was more to proclaim God’s merciful love for all people than to condemn sinners for having fallen short of strictures, especially those having to do with gender and sexual orientation. His break from his immediate predecessors—John Paul II, who died in 2005, and Benedict XVI, the traditionalist German theologian who stepped down from the papacy in February—is less ideological than intuitive, an inclusive vision of the Church centered on an identification with the poor. From this vision, theological and organizational innovations flow. The move from rule by non-negotiable imperatives to leadership by invitation and welcome is as fundamental to the meaning of the faith as any dogma.
Skye Jethani on the Phil Vischer podcast follows up on this with this observation.
Rather than saying like is predecessors ‘here’s what we’re for, here’s what we’re against…’ his posture is one of ‘come and see, come and engage God and we’ll deal with those other issues down the road’ and I think that shift in posture from a defensive, ‘who’s in and who’s out’ to a welcoming ‘come and see’ posture has been incredibly well received by the world.
Phil will follow up by suggesting that perhaps Phil Robertson could learn something from Pope Francis in how to engage people God loves across tribal boundaries.
“Saved” for What?
In the Exodus story, Israel was freed by God from Egypt in order to worship him in the desert. We are nearly to the place of worship, but what we are beginning to see is that God’s design on Israel would go far beyond their freedom from Egypt and the fact of God’s rescue. What we’re about to see is that the rescue is only the beginning, far more is still to come that will challenge simplistic tribalism and invoke an assertion that the LORD lays claim to the cultural riches of the world, even beyond those who recognize him or promise loyalty to him. Israel’s rescue creates space for the world the man and the woman were given to do in the garden. Israel will harvest the seeds sown and grown even though they be sown among the weeds.
While tribal wars continue we begin to see a missional God making his way through this mess. He is not afraid to get human on him. He is intending to not necessarily eliminate all the things around which we create our tribes but rather to help us sort through our things in order that the world that he brings in the resurrection appropriates and refines all the riches seeded in his creation.
In the story of Jethro we see the contours of this cultural reclamation project. We see the revelation of Yhwh and the process by which Jethro and others can begin to draw near to him. We see the beginnings of the great movement that Jesus would inaugurate and the wisemen’s visit would embody and we see the hope of the coming day when tribes and tongues and nations will gather before the throne with their cultural treasures after the age of decay and the glorious work of culture making will really bloom.
The tent where Jethro praised and professed, where Moses took advice, and where Yhwh began to once more live among us points towards the age to come where it will all happen together.