There are many great blacks who have influenced our spiritual heritage. We find them both in and out of the Bible. We should like to tell you the story of the priest’s family who took in Moses in his hour of desperation. We know that there are some problems, some different names given in the texts, but our purpose is to nourish our souls rather than to look for difficulties. Let us rather see the story with the eyes of faith. First Corinthians 10:1-11 tells us that the adventures of the children of Israel in the wilderness happened as spiritual examples for us. Certainly the family about which we are talking had much for all of us to emulate.
Moses in his younger years was not exactly an admirable character. He was apparently convinced that he was always in the right and should defend his position with aggression. He believed in solving problems by resorting to brute force. His first recorded effort to bring about a new social order ended in a murder. His attempt to be an arbitrator among his own people culminated in rejection and repudiation. The death sentence decreed upon him by Pharoah propelled him into a wild flight in order to save his own life.
His endurance must have been taxed to the utmost as he fled the fertile land of Egypt for the barren and inhospitable desert. Undoubtedly his military training had given him some sort of navigational skill which led him at last to a well in the land of Midian. Water was his first and most desperate need.
It is here that the family of Jethro first enters the story. The priest has seven daughters who herd the sheep, and they come to the well to water their flock. But water is a precious commodity in the desert, and soon the girls are driven away by rapacious shepherds who demand drink for their own flocks. They have reckoned without the stranger who stands beside the well and watches all that takes place.
Spurred again by his sense of social justice, Moses fought this time for women’s rights and trounced the sturdy denizens of the desert. He was one against many, but an Egyptian noble knew how to fight. His temper, military training and formidable strength proved more than a match against the ruffians. Once more he had shown himself to be a man of violence.
He was capable of kindliness, however, and willingly bent his back to the task of hauling up water for the whole flock. The young women sped home to their astonished father, who inquired how they had managed to get back from the well so soon. They answered that an Egyptian had driven away the high-handed shepherds and helped them to draw water both for the household and the flock.
The father is horrified that they have been so negligent in attending to the claims of hospitality. They must return to the well at once and bring their stalwart defender to their father’s tent. Perhaps Jethro was impressed with the tale of Moses’ prowess. His command to the girls, however, indicates that he knew that an Egyptian alone in the desert would have need of food as well as water. He was a stranger to be welcomed into their home.
It probably did not require much effort on Jethro’s part to perceive Moses’ fugitive status. There was a risk in sheltering someone at odds with the military might of Egypt. It must also have been readily apparent that he had been brought up at court a factor that might well enhance the danger. There is no hint that Jethro even hesitated in taking in this impetuous and pugilistic stranger who was so clearly an Egyptian of noble rank.
The Bible tells us that Jethro was a priest, the very person needed to lead Moses to a knowledge of God. It is recorded that he said to Moses “I know that Yahweh is greater than all gods.” (Exodus 18:11) The family had its origins in Ethiopia (Numbers 12:1), and Arab tradition maintained that Jethro had been sent by God to Midian as a missionary.
Certainly Moses needed a missionary. His ability to fight was well developed, and he had already a sense of social justice. The Bible says that he was learned in all the knowledge of the Egyptians (Acts 7:22), but they could not give him an acquaintance with the true and living God. The Jews themselves had long since lost faith to trust the Lord who alone could save them. They could not share what they did not have. The years which Moses had spent as an infant in his mother’s care were important years, but they had not opened to him the God whom he later found in the wilderness.
Egypt in the Bible usually represents corruption and sin, a condition from which God’s people need to be delivered. Moses has fled Egypt, and now he must become a new creation by God’s grace. He could not deliver his people until first he had come to know the Deliverer.
It was in this accepting and loving black family that he took his first steps of faith. Little by little he learned the ways and will of God. The pampered prince had to learn a new form of existence, to work at herding sheep, to wander over the formidable wilderness, to endure privations and discomforts. More uncomfortable yet, he must adjust to new forms of worship so unlike the elaborate ceremonies of Egypt. The young man who had taken a prominent part in the rituals of the great temple at Karnak must now bow his head in a simple tent or under the open sky.
It took a very long time. There is no record of an evangelistic meeting or a point at which he was required to sign a card. Rather, day by day, he lived with evidence of the love of this God who was One, and who poured out his grace on human beings. As Moses grew into the family, he knew that he must share their God if he was truly to be part of their life. The missionary family must have been very patient with him. It was forty years before he had finished with his preparation in the desert.
During this time, Moses came into another relationship with his adoptive family. Jethro gave to Moses a precious gift, his oldest daughter. Since the girls in the family seem to have had the care of the sheep, it was in all probability she who instructed Moses in his new occupation as sheep-herder. After he had learned all the intricacies of leading a flock through the wilderness, he would lead the flock of God as a shepherd.
The name of Moses’ bride was Zipporah, which means “bird”. Philo, a Jewish writer of the New Testament era, wrote that, like a bird, she was possessed of a winged, inspired, and prophetic nature. The Scripture account makes it clear that she had an understanding of God in her own right.
To this union is born a son whom Moses named Gershom, which means “stranger” for he said, “I have been a stranger in a strange land.” He knew what it was to be an alien in a harsh and inhospitable country. And he knew what it was to find a home there. Over the years, he walked all over the wilderness of Sinai and came to know its contours, its shelters, its dangers, and its watering places.
The second son was Eliezer, meaning “God is my help” because Moses said “the God of my father was my help and delivered me from the sword of Pharoah.” In this family and in the marriage, Moses had exchanged his feeling of strangeness for one of security and confidence in the Almighty.
One day, as Moses was keeping his father-in-law’s sheep, God called to him from the burning bush. When he returned, he went to Jethro, his spiritual mentor, and said, “Let me go, I pray thee, and return unto my brethren which are in Egypt and see whether they be yet alive.” And Jethro said, “Go in peace.” He could not leave this place of safety without the priest’s blessing.
Then Moses took his wife and his two sons and put them on an ass and returned to the land of Egypt. They stopped overnight at a simple resting-place constructed around a courtyard for the use of travellers. It was there, as God told Moses of the encounter which he would have with Pharoah over the first-born, that Moses experienced a terrible crisis and lay at the point of death.
Zipporah, with her astute spiritual perception, understood not only her husband’s peril but also the cure. The ancient covenant rite of circumcision had been neglected. Their son had not been circumcised. Zipporah seized a sharp stone and performed the surgery. Later rabbinic tradition, incensed that a woman should perform so holy a ritual, insisted that she simply caused her husband to officiate. (Tosepheta) The biblical account makes it clear that Zipporah served as priest in the rite and later cast the foreskin at her husband’s feet. She had simply seen the need and responded. The ancient covenant between God and believing people had to be renewed, and she had been the agent. She was not afraid to exercise her spiritual leadership when her family needed it.
Zipporah does not appear in Egypt with Moses, though we do not know why. We read only that Moses sent her back to her father. Perhaps she was unable to cope with the cultural conditions in Egypt, perhaps because she could not comprehend the spiritual depravity and servitude of the people of Israel. Later we read that Miriam and Aaron rejected her because of her Ethiopian origin. Perhaps the trouble had started already, and the children of Israel could not accept an interracial marriage.
In any event, “When Jethro, the priest of Midian, Moses’ father-in-law, heard of all that God had done for Moses and for Israel his people, and that the Lord had brought Israel out of Egypt,” he took Zipporah and her two sons and brought them to Moses. After Moses had told all of the saving acts of God in delivering a nation of slaves from the might of Egypt, Jethro pronounced a wonderful blessing.
Blessed be the Lord, who hath delivered you out of the hand of the Egyptians and out of the hand of Pharoah, who hath delivered the people from the hand of the Egyptians. (Exodus 18:10)
Then Jethro leads the people of God in worship. After Israel becomes a nation, the first burnt offering and sacrifices about which we read are performed by this black missionary priest. Aaron and all the elders of Israel are present and partake of the sacrificial feast with Moses’ father-in-law. It seems that he led the way in establishing the basic worship pattern for this disorganized and dispirited people.
On the next day, Jethro saw another problem: the overworked judicial system of Israel. People stood all day long, trying to get a hearing from Moses and to obtain justice for their grievances. Once again Jethro became a spiritual guide to his son-in-law. Not only did he devise a system of delegated authority which would not overtax the available resources, but he interpreted to Moses his own role in God’s plan.
Hearken now unto my voice, and I shall give thee counsel, and God shall be with thee: Be thou for the people to God-ward that thou mayest bring the causes unto God; And thou shalt teach them ordinances and laws, and shalt shew them the way wherein they must walk, and the work that they must do. (Exodus 18:19-20)
There needed to be a leadership development program. Able people were to be set over thousands, others over hundreds, fifties, and tens. These surrogates were to administer justice in all except the most difficult cases. The plan was put into execution, and the father-in-law went on his way.
When next he returned for a visit, the host was encamped before Sinai, and it was time for the pilgrim people to make their way through the wilderness. Moses begged his father-in-law to stay with them and to be their guide through the desert.
For thou knowest how we are to encamp in the wilderness, and thou mayest be to us instead of eyes. (Numbers 10:31)
The transformation to a nomadic life-style was far from easy. As they left the flesh-pots of Egypt to follow the pillar of cloud and fire, the people had much to learn. It is here that Zipporah would have much to contribute, for pitching tents was women’s work, as was the packing and unpacking of all the family’s belongings. To accept this new pattern of existence as sent from God cannot have been easy for the women, and perhaps this is why Miriam and Aaron grew so hostile toward Zipporah. They declared that God had spoken to them too, and they wished to do without both Moses and his wife.
And Miriam and Aaron spake against Moses because of the Ethiopian woman whom he had married; for he had married an Ethiopian woman. (Numbers 12:1)
God sent for Miriam and Aaron to come to the tent of meeting. There they learned that Moses was a servant who spoke with God mouth to mouth, and that they were to heed him. Moses could not have gained this acquaintance with the Holy One apart from his wife and father-in-law. The matter was settled, and the ministry of Zipporah and Jethro continued, and they were remembered with gratitude.
May God give us grace to follow the example of this family who played so large a part in leading a nation of captives and slaves to the Promised Land of their inheritance.