There’s this really great story in Exodus 18. Moses is leading the Israelites through the wilderness and his father-in-law, Jethro, comes to visit. Now, Moses to this point has acted in the formal definition of a judge – the same way you find Deborah or Gideon responding later in Israel’s development. Judge meant rescuer or deliverer – one who fights on the behalf of another. That’s why God chose Moses to act as his judge in Egypt.
Somewhere along the way, Moses reinvented what a judge should be. Starting in verse 13, we see Moses sit down in a chair and begin to settle grievances among the people essentially acting in a legal capacity. A “judge” becomes someone who renders decisions in a legal fashion rather than someone who rescues others. Look at Moses’ answer to Jethro in verses 14-15:
Moses answered him, “Because the people come to me to seek God’s will. Whenever they have a dispute, it is brought to me, and I decide between the parties and inform them of God’s decrees and instructions.”
Jethro, in his own father-in-law way, tells Moses this is a horrible idea. But Jethro doesn’t put his finger on the real issue either. He says that Moses will be overwhelmed by the administrative task of rendering legal decisions for everyone. He advised him to spread out the responsibility. Good administrative decision. But one that misses the bigger picture. The reason Moses was sitting there in the first place is because he had exchanged the God’s original idea of judge as rescuer and deliver for the human concept that a judge uses delegated authority to tell everybody else what to do.
I’m not big on symbolic interpretation or anything, but this story strikes me as relevant to Jesus’ death on the cross. The crucifixion is not really the issue. It’s our inability to interpret the cross outside of what we know and understand. Just as Moses traded in the original understanding of a judge as deliverer for the belief that a judge renders a legal decision, we too throughout history have done the same thing. We’re the ones that based it on feudal honor (Anselm) and breaking the law (Calvin). We treat the death of Jesus as a “transactional” event. God was angry. Someone had to pay. Jesus took God’s punishment. Justice has been served. We came up with the legal model. Of course, now we are so used to talking about it that we can’t see the cross without it. The cross was necessary, though I’m not sure the reasons we have constructed are the reasons God initially intended. It takes only a cursory look at the verses preceding John 3:16 the know that the cross was about more than “breaking the law” in some cosmic courtroom - it was about reconciliation and healing. A point Moses makes clear a few pages over in Numbers 21 (I talk about that in-depth here).
I think Jethro had a point. Most fathers-in-law do. He knew Moses had created a way of understanding judgment far removed from God’s original calling. We do the same. How freeing would it be to embrace the cross as an avenue for rescue, redemption, and reconciliation?