Wisdom from “other religions”

It’s an interesting thing to note the effect of another religion on the Christian faith that we profess. Paul wrote “I contend to know nothing while among you but Christ, and Him crucified”, but within the law of Christ, within the teaching of the new testament we see wisdom that has been transmitted to us as a result of the example and influence of a pagan priest.

We read talk of "The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob" tracing the lineage of the people of God through these fathers in the faith. Abraham had many sons, yet we trace the work of God through only one: Isaac. We read in Genesis 16 (v 1-4):

Now Sarai Abram’s wife bare him no children: and she had an handmaid, an Egyptian, whose name was Hagar.

And Sarai said unto Abram, Behold now, the LORD hath restrained me from bearing: I pray thee, go in unto my maid; it may be that I may obtain children by her. And Abram hearkened to the voice of Sarai.

And Sarai Abram’s wife took Hagar her maid the Egyptian, after Abram had dwelt ten years in the land of Canaan, and gave her to her husband Abram to be his wife.

And he went in unto Hagar, and she conceived: and when she saw that she had conceived, her mistress was despised in her eyes.

The child of this union was Ishmael. Later we read talk of the nation that he founded, for example in Genesis 37 (v 23-28):

And it came to pass, when Joseph was come unto his brethren, that they stript Joseph out of his coat, his coat of many colours that was on him; And they took him, and cast him into a pit: and the pit was empty, there was no water in it.

And they sat down to eat bread: and they lifted up their eyes and looked, and, behold, a company of Ishmaelites came from Gilead with their camels bearing spicery and balm and myrrh, going to carry it down to Egypt.

And Judah said unto his brethren, What profit is it if we slay our brother, and conceal his blood? Come, and let us sell him to the Ishmaelites, and let not our hand be upon him; for he is our brother and our flesh. And his brethren were content.

Then there passed by Midianites merchantmen; and they drew and lifted up Joseph out of the pit, and sold Joseph to the Ishmaelites for twenty pieces of silver: and they brought Joseph into Egypt.

The Midianites were a sub-division within the larger grouping of "Ishmaelite" peoples. It is the Islamic belief that modern day Islamic peoples of the Middle East are descended from Ishmael, Abraham’s son. That said, the people of God – His chosen people – are traced through Abraham’s other son, Isaac. Though God blessed the offspring of Hagar and made him into a vast nation as we read in Genesis 17 (v 19-21), He didnt bless him with being of the line leading to the covenant or ultimately to Christ:

And God said, Sarah thy wife shall bear thee a son indeed; and thou shalt call his name Isaac: and I will establish my covenant with him for an everlasting covenant, and with his seed after him.

And as for Ishmael, I have heard thee: Behold, I have blessed him, and will make him fruitful, and will multiply him exceedingly; twelve princes shall he beget, and I will make him a great nation.

But my covenant will I establish with Isaac, which Sarah shall bear unto thee at this set time in the next year.

Fast forward a number of years, moving into the book of Exodus, and we see the nation of Israel in captivity in Egypt. God raised up Moses to lead His people to freedom, used Him to transmit the Law and establish them as a nation. However, to get to that point God needed to teach Moses lessions within both the royal court of Pharaoh and the wilderness years as a shepherd.

A shadow cast forward through time

God said, of the nation of Israel

And ye shall be unto me a kingdom of priests, and an holy nation.

Where Peter writes in his first epistle,

But ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people; that ye should show forth the praises of him who hath called you out of darkness into his marvellous light

Where does Peter derive the term “royal priesthood”? How has that term come about? Peter was schooled in the stories of the Exodus from childhood, and in the political structure of the Egyptian leadership. Pharaoh was both King and head of the state religion that deified him: he was a “royal priest”. There can be no doubt that the teaching of Judaism and the yearly observance of Passover would have reminded him of the role of Pharaoh. However, he also knew that we are children, adopted into the family of God as sons and heirs. To all who believe God gives the right to be called His children. God is sovereign, the King of Kings and as His children, we are part of a royal family. The notion of royalty, then, sits well with the teachings of Jesus. We also know that all who come to Jesus gain access to God, directly, with no need for another intermediary. In that respect, we are all in the same position as the old testament priests. So, the derivation of "Royal Priesthood" from another angle.

Jethro’s Legacy

Jethro shows great hospitality to the stranger, Moses, after he fled from Pharaoh. He took him in, provided him a wife and created an environment where "Moses was content to dwell with the man" (Exodus 2:21), so content in fact, that he stayed there 40 years! He later blesses Moses in his mission, after only the most scanty of explanations; Jethro demonstrates great trust in Moses’ judgement. When Zipporah was unable, or unwilling, to accompany Moses in the journey and mission in Egypt, she returned to live with her father. Jethro proceeded to provide a stable environment for her to raise her 2 sons while Moses was away dealing with Pharaoh.

It says in Exodus 18 (v 1-6):

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; Then Jethro, Moses’ father in law, took Zipporah, Moses’ wife, after he had sent her back, And her two sons; of which the name of the one was Gershom; for he said, I have been an alien in a strange land: And the name of the other was Eliezer; for the God of my father, said he, was mine help, and delivered me from the sword of Pharaoh: And Jethro, Moses’ father in law, came with his sons and his wife unto Moses into the wilderness, where he encamped at the mount of God: And he said unto Moses, I thy father in law Jethro am come unto thee, and thy wife, and her two sons with her.

What follows is a great example of father-son interaction. Jethro observes his adopted son and out of a wellspring of fatherly love, sees that Moses is on a track towards burnout. Speaking of Moses judging the people alone, Jethro says,

Thou wilt surely wear away, both thou, and this people that is with thee: for this thing is too heavy for thee; thou art not able to perform it thyself alone.

Moses hears what Jethro has to say on the matter and puts it into action, recognizing the wisdom of the older man (verse 24)

So Moses harkened to the voice of his father in law, and did all that he had said.

There are two fascinating things going on here. Firstly I am struck by the attitude of Moses: his humility as leader of the people of God, and the love and respect he shows towards his father in law. Moses, possibly the greatest leader in the bible, founder of one of the world’s major religious systems and one of the few people to see God and talk to Him “as one does to a friend”. This same man, quietly and without any argument or fanfare, without thought to claiming credit himself, instituted the changes that Jethro suggested.

The second striking thing for me speaks to a very contemporary issue. There are debates today over who "owns" truth. For that matter, what is " anyway? Is it ever absolute? We know that the Christian faith argues very strongly for an absolute measure of truth – Jesus claimed to not only speak the truth, but to be the very embodiment of truth. Modern Calvinist doctrine is interpreted by some to suggest that there is no truth, what so ever, to be found outside the teaching of Jesus. Some argue that because of our "total depravity" we are unable to even conceive of anything Godly until we are under the influence of the Holy Spirit. It therefore stands to reason, then, that religions other than Christianity contain no truth.

This viewpoint comes to an abrupt halt and sticks on the example of Jethro: a priest of Midian, he never converted to become one of the people of God. Even before his recognition (in chapter 18) of God as sovereign, he still took Moses in and offered hospitality.

In what way is ths significant? Well, simply the effect that it had on Moses and the writing of the Mosaic law. We read in Leviticus 19 (v 33-34):

And if a stranger sojourn with thee in your land, ye shall not vex him.

But the stranger that dwelleth with you shall be unto you as one born among you, and thou shalt love him as thyself; for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God.

Jethro, in his "unregenerate" state acted out in deed what later turns up within the Mosaic Law, the revelation of God. Moreover, his suggestion to Moses resulted in the Israelite judicial system. The event carried through to the New Testament though, in the teaching of Jesus:

Then shall the King say unto them on his right hand, Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: For I was an hungered, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in: Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me.

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