It begins in the desert, shortly after the decisive victory over Pharaoh’s troops. The Israelites didn’t find water for three days, and when they finally found it, they couldn’t drink it because it was bitter. The people began to complain. The same God who judged Egypt… can He preserve life, too? The God who opened the sea… can He change water and make it pure?
“And he [Moses] cried to the LORD, and the LORD showed him a log, and he threw it into the water, and the water became sweet” (Exodus 15:25). But more than the preservation of lives takes place at this desert stop: “There the LORD made for them a statute and a rule, and there he tested them (Exodus 15:25). Instead of asking questions about Yahweh’s mercy and faithfulness, it would be better if the Israelites examined their own faithfulness. What will they do when they suffer? Will they trust in Yahweh only when things go their way? “If you will diligently listen to the voice of the LORD your God, and do that which is right in his eyes, and give ear to his commandments and keep all his statutes, I will put none of the diseases on you that I put on the Egyptians, for I am the LORD, your healer” (Exodus 15:26).
And the tests continue – as well as the lessons they should learn – so that they know Yahweh better and learn to listen attentively to His voice to obey Him. Hunger, thirst, rules associated with manna, the attack of the Amalekites – they are all tests and opportunities for the nation to know Yahweh and to obey Him. That’s what Yahweh will remind them of years later: “And you shall remember the whole way that the LORD your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, that he might humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep his commandments or not. And he humbled you and let you hunger and fed you with manna, which you did not know, nor did your fathers know, that he might make you know that man does not live by bread alone; but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD” (Deuteronomy 8:2-3).
And here in Exodus 18, at the same time that Yahweh is testing and training His people, He is possibly testing His prophet Moses, too. His father-in-law visits him, the priest of Midian. How is Moses going to describe the events of Israel’s redemption? Who is going to receive the glory in his narrative? If this is a test, Moses passes it perfectly: “Then Moses told his father-in-law all that the LORD had done to Pharaoh and to the Egyptians for Israel’s sake, all the hardship that had come upon them in the way, and how the LORD had delivered them” (Exodus 18:8).
Jethro understands the lesson, too. Listen to his testimony: “Blessed be the LORD, who has delivered you out of the hand of the Egyptians and out of the hand of Pharaoh and has delivered the people from under the hand of the Egyptians. Now I know that the LORD is greater than all gods” (Exodus 18:10-11).
If this conversation was possibly a test, then the one that follows may be a test, too. Jethro criticizes the way that Moses is governing the people. Will Moses get angry? Will he respond in pride? (Another might say haughtily to his father-in-law, “Since when did you guide a whole nation out of slavery? Where were you when it was time to talk to Pharaoh? And now you’re gonna tell me how to judge these people?”)
No. Instead, he listens to his father-in-law’s ideas… and immediately puts them into practice! Now wonder the Bible is going to tell us, “Now the man Moses was very meek [humble, self-controlled and respectful, aware of his place], more than all the people who were on the face of the earth” (Numbers 12:3).
Just like the Israelites, we will not see the hand of God in decisive victory over our foes every day; we are going to experience many days of testing. When we are under pressure and tests, what will our hearts display? Resentment over unfulfilled expectations or obedience? Murmuring or meekness? As we keep reading, may we see our trials as opportunities to know Yahweh better, and may we realize that even our conversations with family members may be tests that reveal the attitudes that govern our hearts.