In this chapter, Midian brings Moses's family back to him and counsels Moses on how to administrate the nation.
The first thing we see is the return of Moses's family with his father-in-law, where he sent them after things started heating up with Pharaoh.
Jethro is an interesting person. He is one of Israel's few allies in this time period through his family relationship with Moses. Although it appears as if Jethro is a follower of the LORD by his words and subsequent sacrifice (verse 12), this is probably just customary on his behalf. We see something similar back in Genesis 14 when Melchizedek blesses Abraham "and God Most High" after Abraham's military victory. As before, Moses and Jethro eat a meal together to affirm their mutual alliance.
Moses's emergence as a leader gives him more and more responsibilities. Up to this point I haven't focused much on Moses because he has demonstrated stability and reliability in virtually every circumstance. He was unwavering throughout the entire series of plagues in Egypt. We have seen a bit of strain after entering the wilderness, but it seemed a reasonable reaction to the challenges he was presented with. In all of these things he has proven that God was wise in selecting him to lead the people.
In this chapter, we finally see a bit of immaturity in Moses as he had not instituted any leadership structures in the nation. It appears that every dispute was being sent for him to mediate.
On the other hand, this shows that the entire nation has very nascent laws and customs and that Moses is the only person who can hear the word of the LORD directly.
This is something that has been implied to us by the text for basically the entire book, as we see long, long segments preceded by, "and then the LORD said to Moses". It appears that nearly everything spoken to the Israelites is mediated through Moses, even though the presence of the LORD is visible to everyone in the cloud of glory. But beyond this, we see that the Israelites appear... ungrounded. With the establishment of the Festival of Unleavened Bread, the consecration of the firstborn, the institution of the Sabbath, and now with the institution of leaders over divisions of the people, this is truly the birth of a nation. We see this very clearly in the present chapter as we can imagine a crowd of people waiting all day for Moses to speak to them, to judge their dispute and to "make known the statutes of God and his laws." (v. 16) That's what I call a nation in search of its identity.
And the man who's leading all of this is a desert hermit. This must be very straining, as leading large groups of people was the last thing he was doing while tending small flocks in the desert. And while Moses has done admirably so far, he also demonstrates immaturity by not putting organization in place, which his father-in-law tries to correct. It's a nice picture of the "glorious leader" (as some people imagine Moses) accepting advice from another person who isn't even an Israelite. One wonders why none of the elders of the people previously suggested this, and I can speculate it's because they are under Moses's authority and dare not challenge him with even constructive suggestions. Maybe it takes an outsider to bring this much-needed criticism. Anyway, it seems like the elders are too busy complaining about the food or water to consider such things.
I think it's really interesting how we can observe this mass of people be shaped into a more stable, enduring structure. So much of this structure relates to their faith and this is a people who did not even know their God's name just a little while ago. One wonders if all their complaining is a sign that they do not entirely accept their new divine sovereign. Nevertheless, this is the course that has been set and while I repeatedly highlighted the unstructured nature of the patriarchs' faith in Genesis, in this book we will see a effusion of structure and rules governing the Israelites' behavior in all things political, social and religious. Once the rules have been set, we will see how the people respond.