The honoured guest sat in the corner of the tent. Unlike the Israelites, who favoured robes as colourful as they could manage, he was dressed in the natural cream of a goat’s under-coat: a fabric as soft and light as a feather, beautifully woven, as simple as a sand-dune. There was no need for a guest to ask for anything, even among the fractious Israelites, but Jethro had never needed to ask for anything in his life anyhow. One look from the deep-hooded eyes always got him more than he wanted. Now he sat perfectly still in a corner and he seemed to take up half the tent.
Moses had greeted his father-in-law with real delight, and born with equanimity the news that his wife was soon to join him. He had insisted that his father-in-law sat with him as the day’s grievances were heard and sorted out. ‘He wants me with him. Why? To support him? To approve of him?’ Jethro had privately asked himself. As the sun reached her highest point, it had become suddenly clear to Jethro that the reason was much simpler. Moses wanted his beloved father-in-law in the tent with him because otherwise they were going to get no time together at all. All day Moses was engaged in hearing about little problems, small quarrels.
The sun was already making a long shadow out of the tent as the last debtor-and-lender quarrel reached Moses. ‘And so as night came on, Sira came begging for his cloak’, concluded Natan, and at this, Sira, broke indignantly in, ‘and Natan refused to give it back.’ ‘Well,’ started Natan, and Moses held up his hand for silence, and, mercifully, got it. There was a long pause.
‘I lay awake for a time last night,’ said Moses. In his head, Jethro, sitting impassively beside him, began to recite the next words. They had not varied in any of the other similar cases. ‘I heard a very strange sound. It was as though somebody was breaking up wood for a fire, but it came quite randomly, and nobody was at work. What do you think it was?’ asked Moses, as though really curious.
‘It was rocks, sir,’ started Natan, totally taken in.
‘Ah, but rocks are silent.’ Moses sounded most convincingly puzzled.
‘No, sometimes at night, they split – they fly apart. Especially when the day has been really hot, and the night is very cold, they split.’
‘Ah – the cold. Yes it was very cold. I had a blanket and I was still glad of my cloak,’ said Moses, his voice now starting to be a little more pointed. ‘Does Sira have a blanket, do you know Natan? No, I thought not or he would hardly give his cloak as surety, would he? Which is why it is a rule that everybody gets their cloak back for the night. Keeping all of our people healthy matters a lot more than exactly who owes what, Natan. If Sira …’
And Jethro still sat, looking calm, interested, engaged. Which in a sense he was, for in his mind, he was forming and reforming ways of tackling the problem; one aspect of which was that Moses would at once sense there was any deviation from the strict truth. It was one aspect of his son-in-law which had always exasperated Jethro.
So when at last night fell, and they sat in Moses’s tent, talking in murmurs, Jethro led the re-telling of old jokes, and happy stories, until at last Moses began to unwind, and Jethro could finally say: ‘I see what you are doing, and it is very very clever. Each time some silly quarrel reaches you, you use it as an opportunity to teach. Every problem becomes a chance to teach the values of compassion, decency, fair play. I would never have thought of it,’ (this was very true) ‘and it makes you into a really great leader. It is a kind and a loving thing.’ Moses, receiving praise from the person whose good opinion he valued more than any other, glowed.
Jethro took a half-sideways glance at the beloved, exasperating face and ploughed on. ‘What I worry about is that it will exhaust you. Well, not will exhaust you – already has exhausted you. You were at it all day – was yesterday any better?’ He looked full at Moses rueful face. ‘You see it takes a lot longer doing it the way you do than just giving a simple judgement. And I do see how it is needed, because your people are not yet.’ Moses started to look most prickly, and Jethro seamlessly stepped into a more emollient version of what he intended saying, ‘because your people are not yet skilled in tracing out the consequences of their actions.’
Jethro jettisoned half a dozen exasperated remarks and in a moment of inspiration hit on the one argument which would certainly reach Moses’s heart: ‘If you appointed a number of those you really trust, they would learn so much, grow so much, from becoming judges and advisers and teachers under you. They could hear the simple cases, the cloak-given–as-a-guarantee stuff. And it would take pressure off you, give you time for other things.’ A great light was dawning on Moses face as Jethro concluded with a totally heartfelt comment, which convinced Moses by the patent honesty behind it: ‘I am sure if you got them to sit in on your judgment-making, they would soon pick up the way you teach your lessons.’