What You Learn From Moses
Is Not What You Expect
Anyone who reads the Bible recognizes the extraordinary accomplishments of Moses. He was the first of his kind and no one since comes close.
You might argue that what he accomplished could never have been done without God’s help, and I would agree, but it is also true that very few could have done these things even with God’s help.
Moses couldn’t succeed without God and because God chose to use human instrumentality, He needed someone like Moses to accomplish the job.
Moses gets credit primarily because he qualified. He did something to prepare himself and develop his skills. Learning and growing before you serve God is something very few people talk about. We would do well to learn as much as we can from his example.
Moses teaches us that if you don’t become something before you give yourself to God, you may be giving Him nothing or very little at the most.
Moses is also referred to as a “type of Christ” and much is made about the similarities between the two. Moses even compared himself to Jesus (Deut. 18:15) but you can only take that so far. Over-emphasizing their likenesses sends the wrong message.
Moses may have foreshadowed Christ and he was super qualified but he wasn’t the pre-coming before the first coming. Simply put, Moses was a paradox. On his best day, he was no closer to Jesus than the east is to the west. He was still just a man and had all the faults and failures associated with human hood. He wasn’t Jesus. He wasn’t perfect and his list of missteps could be a separate category on Wikipedia.
It’s important to understand that Moses, though one of the most accomplished humans ever was still nothing compared to Jesus. We can learn from Moses but we shouldn’t try to be him.
Moses In Perspective
Moses experienced the entire range of material wealth and social status. He went from rags to riches (first 40 years), then back to rags (second 40 years), and was then catapulted into prominence in the last 40 years.
He knew the excesses flaunted by privilege. He grew up in Pharaoh’s palace.
He also knew the humiliation that comes with obscurity. His parents were slaves and he spent 40 years shepherding sheep.
The first forty-year period was obviously a learning stage during which his abilities were drawn out and developed. He studied with the children of foreign diplomats and dignitaries. He was upper crust all the way and he learned a lot. According to tradition, he is credited with notable military achievements during that time.
His second forty-year period was very different. There was no army to lead and no fawning public. If anything, he was held in ignominy. He was a murderer and a wanted man.
He also married someone far below his station during this period and there’s no evidence he shared his calling with his new and unfamiliar family.
His nondisclosure is easy to understand. Things hadn’t worked out well for his efforts and there was no clear pathway forward from the deserts of Midian. It was best to say nothing.
Moses went from extreme presumption in the first forty years to overly cautious in the second forty years. But the two perspectives were balancing rather than canceling. It prepared him better for what was to come and he still missed a few beats along the way even with all the experience.
The Last Forty Years
The last forty-year period of Moses’ life is where the magic happened. He led a community of rag-tag bondservants out of slavery and shaped them into one of the most significant nations in history, not just for the world of that day but for all time.
The Jewish nation became a beacon of hope in the time of Moses and has continued to make contributions to humanity ever since.
But the important observation is that the last forty years wouldn’t have been possible without the first eighty years and the first eighty would have meant nothing without the last forty.
There are lessons to learn from each stage. Our focus now is the last forty years.
What Moses Did
The last stage of Moses’ life is the most significant. The history is laden with accomplishments. It took four consecutive books in the Bible to record the details.
This stage began with the Exodus and when people think about the Exodus, they usually focus on the sensational miracles: the ten plagues or the crossing of the Red Sea. Those are significant but they also distract from the main point.
The biggest idea wasn’t that Israel was delivered from slavery. We can’t overstate how significant that was but the bigger issue is they were shaped into a world-leading national presence during the 40 years that followed. Deliverance and nation shaping building are two separate issues neither of which was easy to achieve but becoming an influential nation is clearly the more significant of the two.
One, deliverance, requires organized force. The other, shaping, requires the slow process of instilling truth and molding character. Miracles worked for the deliverance part. Only hard work was effective for the shaping part.
What’s more, Moses took on a nation-building task of huge proportions and then finished the job in a span of 40 years. Unheard of!
Three Separate Areas Of Development
His task involved three areas of development any one of which would require more intellectual, philosophical, physical, emotional, and spiritual depth than any one person is usually thought capable of. Moses did it.
- He led Israel out of slavery.
This alone boggles the mind. Israel was delivered in a matter of days. The American Civil War lasted for four years, was preceded by 200 years of protests and debates, and we’re still feeling the after-effects today. US History provides a timeline of Anti-Slavery events starting with the late 1400s and extending to the present.
It adds perspective to this discussion.
But Moses’ job didn’t end there.
- He organized Israel into a fledgling national/legal entity.
- And he taught them to know and follow God.
Was God involved? Yes. Did He do this single-handedly? No. Creation was accomplished singlehandedly by God. Following that, humanity is held to account for managing this world and maintaining the truth.
Moses was involved, not accidentally, not passively, not involuntarily. He had to be prepared and he had to be willing to step up. He was, he did and we still benefit from his work today.
His accomplishments put him in a different category. On a human scale, Moses is the most prominent figure in the Bible and for all time. In every area, his influence makes the broadest impression.
But don’t forget. Moses may have exceeded your abilities, but he still doesn’t come close to Jesus.
What he did is beyond fathom. Read Moses every day for the rest of your life and the observations will never end.
And that truth begs the question. Why Moses? What was it about Moses’ that made him the most likely choice to lead?
Was he chosen by chance? Did he just happen to be in the right place at the right time?
Were there no other candidates who could potentially do the job?
Was he genetically predisposed to become the most significant leader of Israel and arguably the most significant of all time?
Did God infuse him with some kind of spiritual mojo that made everything he touched turn to gold? Since everything he touched didn’t turn to gold, the answer would be no but we still need to ask.
Was he so right within himself that God couldn’t help but use him? Again, the same answer.
Did Moses find it easier to be The Man than anyone else would have?
Did he qualify to do the job only because God called him, or was he called because he qualified to do the job?
Moses Did More Than Read And Write
This was not a job for just any person. You needed more than sincerity to qualify. Memorizing a lot of Bible verses wouldn’t help either since Moses, the first author of inspired text, hadn’t written anything yet.
I’m not sure a high IQ would help either. Clever is impressive but it isn’t always smart. I don’t know how clever Moses was. I don’t know if he had a photographic memory, or was good with numbers, or was otherwise quick-witted. He knew more than most since he was trained in all the wisdom of Egypt (Acts 7:22) but that didn’t seem to help. His emotions got the better of him on more than one occasion.
Reading and writing were basic requirements but in the time of Moses, these skills weren’t common.
Our World In Data indicates that even as late as 1820 only 12% of the world’s population was literate. That means during most of history, literacy skills were developed by only a few.
Israel did take these skills more seriously than other contemporary nations, probably due to the need to read and recite Scripture – and the influence of Moses – but Mental Floss notes that even though literacy was more common in ancient Israel, it was still no more than 15% to 20%.
That may be why Scripture memory was important. If you can’t read or write you can at least repeat important biblical ideas from memory.
It’s doubtful many enslaved Jews learned to read and write so their leader not only needed literacy skills, he also needed communication skills. Teaching was critical. Handing the Jews a syllabus wouldn’t work.
But are we to believe Moses was the only literate candidate available?
Ancient Family Records
The information found in Genesis was first recorded in detailed family records passed down from one generation to the next. Moses drew from these records to compile the Book of Genesis.
How could that be done if there weren’t always a few people designated as record keepers?
What good would written records be if there wasn’t always someone who could read?
How could Moses’ mother know God promised to deliver Israel if she or someone else hadn’t read the history and shared the information?
There is plenty of evidence indicating ancient societies were familiar with reading and writing. King Hammurabi, who predated Moses by a few hundred years, had his encoded law inscribed on stone and placed prominently as a witness for everyone in the community.
Maybe more people could read than we generally suppose.
Moses’s Many Qualities
Comparing Moses to other prominent biblical figures shows him to be advanced in every important measure.
- Faith: Abraham was the father of faith but Moses’ life was entirely driven by faith.
From the start, Moses’ life was surrounded by faith. His life was spared and even enriched because of his parent’s (especially his mother’s) faith (Heb. 11:23). His siblings played a part too and all of his most important decisions, even the mistakes were motivated by faith.
- Leader: Jacob was the most prominent progenitor of Israel but Moses was the one who organized and shaped Israel into a nation.
Jacob spent most of his life overcoming the poor influence of his immediate family. Moses’ family were great examples of faith.
Jacob is known as the supplanter (Gen. 27:36). Moses was known as the lawgiver.
Jacob was led through dreams, threats, and chastisement (Genesis 31 & 32). God spoke to Moses.
- Protector: King David was the leader who protected and expanded the nation but Moses was the one who took them from slavery to international influence and protected them during their long journey through the desert.
David was colorful and entertaining. Moses was demanding and officious.
David had geographical boundaries and a nation full of people to work with. Moses had slaves.
David was loved and Moses was feared but of the two, Moses left the biggest mark.
- Philosopher – Thinker – Writer: Paul, the most prominent New Testament writer, shaped a universal religion but he couldn’t do it without repeated references to Moses.
Believers admire and quote Paul. Everyone quotes Moses.
Paul is credited with defining grace. Moses was living proof that God graciously makes and keeps His promises, an obvious expression of grace.
No other person comes close to the same level of influence as Moses.
The most important observation, though, is yet to come. Moses, for all of his greatness, was a mere mortal. He fought against his own human frailty and was often flummoxed by the failures of others.
What that means is Moses didn’t succeed because he was perfect. He made plenty of mistakes. It took eighty years to prepare Moses to fulfill his calling. He made mistakes during those first eighty years and then made a different set of mistakes during the last forty.
Even with all his learning and experience, he still found himself unprepared for what was to come.
Most of his mistakes were survivable. He learned and recovered but the last mistake was the proverbial straw that ended his ministry.
Let me be clear. Moses did succeed. He finished his course and kept the faith but he hit the wall mightily more than once because he was human.
Moses’ Biggest Fault
I’ve always thought of Moses as a patient man. Not laid back, not indifferent, not dull-eyed. He had something to say but he didn’t walk into everyday situations mouth first.
I mean that in a good way. Patience is a strength.
But his patience, like anyone’s, had limits. He could endure only for so long. When irritated, he simmered below the surface and once he hit flashpoint, it was an explosion which is another way to say he had anger issues.
Moses did NOT shine when it came to forgiving and forgetting.
Offenses registered and accumulated. When tolerance levels reached the limit, he didn’t hold back.
- He killed an Egyptian slave master. (Exodus 2:11-12)
- He fought off multiple male herdsmen to assist several female herdswomen. (Exodus 2:16-17)
This happened shortly after escaping Egypt and I imagine it was motivated by a strong sense of self-righteous social justice.
- In a fit of rage, he broke the tablets on which the ten commandments had been written by God. (Exodus 32:19)
At first glance, breaking the tablets doesn’t seem like such a big deal but the context tells a different story. The text actually says “Moses burned with anger.” Breaking the tablets was his outlet.
As it turns out it was a harbinger of things to come. Moses’ tendency to address problematic situations angrily culminated in a public act of aggression that was in direct disobedience to God’s command (Numbers 20) which occurred close to the end of his last forty years. It cost him the opportunity to enter the Promised Land.
I’ll talk about the Promised Land issue just now. First the Tablets and the Golden Calf.
Moses On The Mount
The detailed history of Moses’ last forty years is a lot to cover in one post. I won’t try to do that here but a few events during that time reveal a side to Moses that we don’t often acknowledge or analyze. The most telling is the first.
Three months following the Exodus, Israel arrived at Mount Sinai and set up camp (Exodus 19:1). They remained there for about a year (Numbers 10:11-12).
The first matter of business on arrival was establishing a covenant with God. It was a serious matter but relatively simple to arrange.
God was the Benefactor. He had everything to offer and the Israelites had nothing other than their newfound freedom and the goods they managed to take out of Egypt, most of which were given to them by the Egyptians as they left.
They were ignorant, unsophisticated, and undeveloped as a nation. They knew about God but had little experience relating to Him personally. In spite of that, they were the beneficiaries of the covenant God had first established with Abraham (Genesis 12:1-3). The covenant was later passed on to Isaac (Genesis 26:2-5) and Jacob (Genesis 28:12-15) in turn. The Israelite nation was next in line.
This initial meeting was important for establishing the covenant.
The Covenant Process
The contractual process in ancient Mesopotamia was similar to what they are today. Discussions and written statements were involved. The discussions negotiated the details and once the details were agreed upon, the written statements recorded those details.
Written statements could be recorded on flimsy materials such as papyrus or on more substantial materials like sheets of metal or stone. Substantial materials were reserved for more serious contracts like the Ten Commandments.
There are thousands of such tablets reflecting this process.
This same procedure was followed when God established His covenant with Israel. The first stage involved negotiation. Moses met with God on the mountain and then relayed the message for ratification to the people. Moses made several trips up and down the mountain to ensure clear communication.
The process took several weeks and at one point almost broke down. What is important to remember is that just like today, nothing was settled till documents were signed and exchanged. The negotiation was nothing more than a conversation till the details were set in writing. That’s where the tablets come in.
The Golden Calf
The tablets Moses broke contained the Ten Commandments. They had been prepared by God’s own hand and given to Moses when he met with God on top of Mt. Sinai (Exodus 24:12).
It was during this meeting that the Israelites – impatient because Moses was absent so long (40 days) – badgered Aaron into making them a god to go before them. It turned out to be a calf made from the golden ornaments donated by the people (Exodus 32).
This clearly was an act of idolatry but there are several reasons to be forgiving.
- The contract wasn’t established yet.
No doubt Moses had shared the restriction on idolatry with the people but this was still during the negotiation process. No tablets had been exchanged and the contract wasn’t sealed till the tablets were written and exchanged.
- The people rejected Moses not God.
For the people, Moses was the problem. They knew God had delivered them but where was Moses. He was on the Mountain and was up there at least 40 days.
Yes, they were being impatient and that led to poor decision making but last I checked, the penalties for the things we do out of impatience are far less than execution.
- Aaron didn’t object.
The people didn’t build an idol, Aaron did. We tend to be very forgiving toward Aaron while roasting the people but this is hugely hypocritical.
If anyone should have known better, it was Aaron. He had walked alongside Moses for a long way. He knew his brother’s calling and history as well as anyone could. Instead of steadying the people, he caved seemingly without hesitation.
- The people didn’t ask for a different God.
They weren’t denying God. They knew God was there but they didn’t know much about Him. They wanted to know. They wanted to move forward. They didn’t know what that looked like or how it would work but they were ready.
The only thing they’d known was Egyptian worship which was a personality cult. Sitting Pharaohs were worshipped while they were alive and then immortalized after death. In their minds, Moses had defeated the sitting Pharaoh and was now the replacement. They were accustomed to a living Pharaoh who was visible and involved until he died. Even the embalming and burial which followed were publicly celebrated. It wasn’t a private matter.
Moses on the other hand just disappeared.
I’m not suggesting the people weren’t accountable. They were but these ideas at least mitigate how severely one should respond.
Moses, burning with anger, made no consideration for these possibilities.
Moses’ Rationale Challenged
The Golden Calf incident was happening in the absence of Moses. He was on the mountain so he couldn’t know what was happening and didn’t get a visual until he descended the mountain. God told him about the idolatry before he descended and made some interesting comments all of which were designed to restrain his overly aggressive responses.
- God told Moses the people had corrupted themselves.
- God referred to Israel as Moses’ people.
- He referred to Moses as the one who brought them out of Egypt.
- He offered to destroy Israel and build a nation with Moses alone.
- And He referred to them as stiffnecked, meaning rebellious.
All the remarks are way off point and Moses knew this. Israel was not Moses’ people, he didn’t bring them out of Egypt, and destroying them would run counter to all of God’s promises.
Moses was neither fooled nor swayed and God knew he wouldn’t be. Instead, Moses argued for leniency and God played along.
These are the kinds of situations where you learn to tell the difference between what the Bible says and what it means. We have to ask what was going on here. What we find is a subtext.
God Precludes Moses Anger
The question is if God didn’t mean what He said, what did He mean? If He had no intention of destroying Israel, why did he suggest it?
To me, the answer seems obvious.
When pressed beyond measure, Moses reacted excessively. Remember, he seemed patient until he wasn’t and his tipping point was more of a psychotic break than a tip. His recent journey had been filled with stressful moments so discovering Israel in an idolatrous situation wouldn’t sit well.
Before Moses witnessed the shenanigans firsthand, God simply raised questions to draw Moses out. God suggesting one thing (destroying Israel) and then agreeing to something entirely different (leniency) had nothing to do with managing God’s responses and everything to do with obviating Moses’ violent reaction.
Given Moses’ angry nature, God knew exactly how he would respond once he discovered Israel’s idolatry. The whole nation could have been obliterated. Even after their discussion, three thousand died. It could have been much worse.
Breaking The Tablets
Moses’ first response proves the point. He broke the tablets and many people reckon that was an acceptable response but it raises a serious but often ignored question.
Is it any worse to build an idol than it is to break tablets handwritten by God? At a later stage in Israel’s history, a person died just for touching the ark (2 Samuel 6:6-7). The same rationale used to give Moses a pass should have applied to Israel also.
Rather than assume Moses was acting according to God’s will, we need to ask why he did this.
Did breaking the tablets serve some spiritual purpose? Did it send a clear message other than “I’m upset enough to destroy things?” I wouldn’t say so. Breaking the tablets was an expression of frustration. There was no deliberation. Moses asked no questions. He just reacted.
Remember, the people hadn’t seen or read the tablets yet so the arrangement hadn’t been fully ratified. We know how wrong they were from our vantage point but could they know this?
The only thing Moses did when he broke the tablets was express his anger and he could be a scary guy. The tablets had to be written again later only the next time Moses had to get his own tablets (Exodus 34:1).
Moses was out of line. Even the New Testament warns against angry eruptions (Ephesians 4:26):
Be ye anger and sin not.
Anger is not sinful but it can be. Moses’ response illustrates this.
It didn’t stop there. After breaking the tablets, Moses burned the golden calf, ground it into dust, mixed it in the water, and made the people drink it. I can see him destroying the idol but why turn it into an unpalatable smoothie. Where did Moses get such an idea?
You can spiritualize this to come up with some kind of rationale but I think it is just Moses being Moses. His rage could be insatiable.
After the drinking thing, he then takes a nepotistic turn. He organizes the Levites – members of his own tribe – and orders them to execute all the offenders. We don’t know how the offenders were identified but approximately three thousand died. It had to be gruesome.
Was this God’s will or was it something Moses came up with on his own?
A Word About The Levites
I’ve stated that Moses could be an angry man and mentioned a few of his outbursts but he came by this nature honestly. This was a family trait as well.
Levi, the primary head of the tribe showed a particularly cruel and violent side in the Book of Genesis (chapter 34). It records an event that occurred not long after Jacob returned to Canaan with his new family in tow.
Dinah, Levi’s sister, is raped by Shechem, a Hivite living in the vicinity, but rather than reject her he is smitten. He approaches Jacob and Dinah’s brothers to ask for her hand in marriage and the brothers agree to the union in principle if all the Hivite men would be circumcised.
At first, it sounds like they were being evangelistic, bringing more people into the family fold. The story, however, reveals a different reality altogether.
The Hivites agreed not knowing the plan was a trap. On the third day following circumcision, while the men were still sore (you can imagine), Levi and Simeon approach the village, murder all the adult males (who obviously couldn’t fight back), take all the women and children captive and confiscate all the valuables.
When Jacob discovered this (he didn’t attend the planning meeting), he was alarmed and said as much immediately afterward. Later he delivered a chilling prophecy about the Tribes of Levi and Simeon.
Simeon and Levi, brothers, are weapons of rage by their nature. Into their secrets, my soul has not entered, and I have not come down from my glory into their assembly, because in their rage they murdered men and in their anger, they tore down a city wall. Cursed is their rage, because it is severe, and their anger because that was violent. I shall divide them in Jacob and I shall scatter them in Israel. (Genesis 49:5-7)
The prophecy came true. Neither Tribe inherited territory in the Promised Land. Simeon faded over time, being absorbed throughout Israel. Levi inherited the priesthood. We usually think of that as an honor but I’m not so sure. They received no land other than a few cities here and there and the priestly functions to which they were dedicated were by any measure in those days a drudgery.
The point? Moses inherited this nature. He took issue with slights and offenses. He couldn’t let them go. It is no surprise that the Levites were very stand-up when Moses called for retribution. They bore the family resemblance.
Why Was Aaron Favored
More importantly, how did Aaron manage to escape Moses’ wrath? He, too, was guilty and made it worse afterward.
Instead of confessing his part in fabricating the golden calf, he lied! He said he threw the gold ornaments into the fire and the calf popped out. What a hoot! I don’t know if Moses believed that nonsense but either way, Aaron got a pass while thousands of others were slain.
We can’t blame Aaron for his fib. He surely knew how angry and violent his brother could be. In the same situation, I would have lied too.
There are several lessons to learn from Moses’ last forty years.
Lesson One: Moses Wasn’t Inspired
We often read Moses as if he could say or do no wrong but he was as vulnerable to wrongdoing as any other human. He didn’t have all knowledge so it was quite possible that in the moment his decisions were based on best guess. A good example was the preparation of the people for God’s meeting with Moses on the mountain.
Before the negotiations began in earnest, God instructed Moses to tell the people to wash their clothes and prepare for His coming to the mountain. Obviously, this was an important meeting, and what better way to prepare than to clean yourself up and make yourself presentable.
They had two full days to take care of business before God met with Moses and negotiations were to begin on the third day.
Moses obeyed, sort of. He added one extra point of instruction. They were to have no sex beforehand.
Do not draw near to a woman. (Exodus 19:15)
It’s important to note that Moses said that, not God.
We have no idea why Moses made that restriction. What we do know is that God didn’t sanction it and we also know there have been many speculations about what it means. All sorts of things have grown out of this one small addition, from not having sex on certain days – like Saturday, the day before Sunday – to a celibate priesthood.
Why can’t we just admit that Moses was being obsessive? Not everything Moses said and did was inspired by God. The text was inspired, Moses was not. He acted on his own occasionally and it was no less confusing then than it is now.
Lesson Two: Everyone Is Accountable
During their forty-year journey, the Israelites repeatedly complained. Repeatedly! It was incessant and Moses was usually the target of those complaints.
They complained about where they were, what they had to eat, and the lack of water. The complaints weren’t entirely unreasonable. They were in the desert (not a desirable habitation), the food was usually scarce and not that great, and water was even more scarce.
The desert was temporary and easily survivable. Food was a necessity but it comes in many different forms, is easier to find than water and you can survive without food longer than you can without water.
The point is complaining about these things wasn’t entirely unreasonable especially when water was low. You can survive without it for only three days.
And these weren’t mature, well-experienced people. Problem-solving wasn’t taught in slave schools. Complaining was what they knew so that’s what they did.
Moses’ problem was different. He didn’t handle complaints well.
The complaints about water started shortly after the Exodus and occurred twice within the first couple of months (Exodus 15:22-215 and 17:1-7). The complaints continued the entire forty years (Numbers 20:2-12).
On two occasions (Exodus 17 and Numbers 20) the scenario played out similarly. The people complained, Moses prayed, and the Lord directed Moses to a rock that would supply them water.
On the first occasion, Moses was instructed to strike the rock with his staff. On the second, he was told to speak to the rock. Moses obeyed in the first instance but disobeyed very loudly and visibly in the second. He not only struck the rock the second time, he struck it twice and completely lost it in the process.
Before the people and said:
Listen now you rebels! Must we bring water out of the rock for you?! (Numbers 20:10)
He was obviously mad and since he was venting he let the rock have it.
I can just see him pounding the pulpit with spittle flying.
Water gushed out of the rock but immediately following, God had a serious message for Moses.
Because you have not believed me, to treat me as holy in the sight of the sons of Israel, you shall not bring this assembly into the land which I have given them. (Numbers 20:12)
His penalty for disobedience was not being allowed to enter the Promised Land.
There are many lessons to take away from this one event but the primary lesson is everyone is accountable. Even the leaders. Moses wasn’t above failure or being accountable for his failure.
Admittedly, Moses made many mistakes for which he received a pass. The people had too but this wasn’t a mistake.
He clearly disobeyed God’s simple instructions, not because he didn’t understand or thought them strange or was unable to comply. He disobeyed because he was mad. He wasn’t tricked into disobedience. No one strongarmed him or threatened him. He wanted to vent and obedience didn’t allow for that.
Lesson Three: Blaming Is No Excuse
It was hard for Moses to accept God’s ruling. He wanted to at least enter the Promised Land and begged God to let him do so (Deuteronomy 3:25). The answer was a definite no and don’t ask again.
Moses’ only consolation was he got a view of the Promised Land from the top of Mt. Nebo where he died and was buried by God (Deuteronomy 34:1-6).
He didn’t ask again but he did complain. In the first three chapters of Deuteronomy (which constituted Moses’ last message to Israel) he blamed the people three times for his predicament.
- Deuteronomy 1:37 – Because of you the Lord became angry with me and said You shall not enter the land.
- Deuteronomy 3:26 – But the Lord was angry with me on account of you and He would not listen (when I pleaded to enter the land).
- Deuteronomy 4:21 – The Lord, however, was angry with me on account of you, and He swore I would not cross Jordan.
The thing that irritated Moses the most about the Israelites is the thing he was guilty of himself. He blamed others for his bad situation. The words of Jesus apply: Judge not lest you be judged.
Moses didn’t learn his lesson but we can and should learn from Moses. Attitude can be a big problem. Thinking you deserve something and blaming others when you don’t get it will lead you nowhere.
Lesson Four: Everybody Learns
Having been trained in all the wisdom of Egypt meant Moses was about as well informed as a person could be. He had to feel a certain sense of intellectual pride but there was a problem. He was surrounded by people who could neither relate to his status nor converse with his knowledge. Their most prominent characteristics were calloused hands, bent backs, and a lack of noteworthy skills.
They weren’t stupid but they weren’t well-schooled or intellectually polished. They couldn’t fake an air of social rank. Moses surely cared about these people but there was no way he could relate to their backwardness.
Moses had to feel at times like his educational talents were being wasted. Why did God call him to deal with such people?
The truth Moses needed to keep in view is that no one, other than God, is omniscient. The forty-year trek was a learning process for everyone, including Moses. The people were learning, the leaders were learning, and even Moses was learning. He struggled to believe the people could ever learn enough and he failed to understand that he still needed to learn a lot more.
Learning is what humans do. It is one of the few things we can do that God can’t.
As an example, from the start, there was endless bickering between the Israelites that was serious enough to require mediation. Initially, Moses was the only mediator for the entire nation and he spent entire days hearing and judging their cases before his father-in-law, Jethro, advised him to delegate a share of the responsibility to those wise enough to judge (Exodus 18:13-24).
What that means is Moses was learning on the fly. He knew a lot but there is much he didn’t know. His pride of place inhibited his hunger to learn more.
Lesson Five: Leadership Failures Are Costly
Moses inhabited a very special place. He stood between God and the people. People could still believe as individuals and could pray privately but God led the nation through Moses.
As the text points out, Moses could make wrong decisions occasionally and when he did people were hurt.
That’s always true. It was true then and it’s true now. When leadership takes a wrong turn, people die. It’s a frightening truth and a harsh reality. Poor leadership hurts people and that applies to all leaders, not just spiritual leaders.
Lesson Six: Better Is Incremental – Perfect Isn’t Possible
Many people take issue with Moses’ brutality and the whole Exodus story. They complain about the Ten Plagues being harsh and the Israelites being cruel to the inhabitants of the land they eventually inhabited and God is blamed for it all.
It’s difficult to appreciate from our perspective but Moses and Israel represented better way even if it was far from perfect. In our world, personal rights are recognized and protected by law but for long periods of history, including the Exodus, the world was brutal. They didn’t have a word for Freedom. They didn’t understand the concepts of Democracy or Equal Rights.
Slavery dominated much of ancient history. The Greeks were the first to institute large-scale slavery. Between the 6th and 4th centuries BC, as much as half of the population under Greek control were slaves. The Romans expanded even further on slavery but it was the Egyptians who were first to demonstrate the economic benefits of a labor force comprised mostly of slaves.
Even the code of Hammurabi, predating Moses by a few hundred years, regulated the practice and it only grew worse over time but it was the Egyptians enslaving an entire nation that illustrated for everyone who came after the monetary benefits.
Cruel and unusual weren’t just accepted in ancient history, they were regulated. It was the norm.
How do you change that? These were cultural issues entrenched by privilege. Abuse was the tool used to manage societies. The laws institutionalized abuse and were designed to protect the privilege.
Besides that, barbarity was also the norm. The Egyptians routinely buried a full entourage of living servants with the Pharaoh when he died. The practice endured in parts of Africa even into the 19th century AD. It’s reported that King Shaka of the Zulus buried ten maidens alive with his mother, Nandi.
It was a world where a sitting Pharaoh could enslave an entire nation within his borders, could impose unreasonable and life-threatening demands on the enslaved, and could publicly order infanticide to reduce slave population growth.
It was a world where a nation’s security was determined by their acquiescence to whoever happened to be the most powerful. It was smash-mouth diplomacy and Egypt was the biggest bully at the time. Diplomatic relations were reserved for occasions when neither of the two warring sides could best the other. In other words, diplomacy was an afterthought.
The world’s first peace treaty was established between Egypt and the Hittite Kingdom only because neither side could achieve a military advantage over the other.
It was a world where murder by gang rape, heterosexual and homosexual, happened with impunity.
How do you change a world like that? To be snarky, not easily. It could be done but only to a degree. Perfection wasn’t the target then and it still isn’t the target now.
The world could be better and that was the aim. But who could lead this charge and how easily could it be done? Another great question.
The answer isn’t what we like to hear. We imagine God doing things nicely, and easily, and smoothly, and without hiccups or mess-ups of any kind, and certainly without bloodshed.
The problem is God works with people, not on them. We are as much a part of His creation as the planet He placed us on. We are the crowning touch. We are the ones who need the guidance so desperately.
When God works, He employs the involvement of humans. We are the managers and we must learn to do our part.
All of that is to say Moses and Israel were starting something new and different. It wouldn’t be perfect and however they got to where they were headed would get messy occasionally but their experience, though offensive and difficult to explain at times, was an improvement on what was happening around them.
It’s horrible to us. We are looking back from a much better vantage point. Although atrocities still occur in our day, they don’t define the greater populous. As a whole, we’re better and still moving forward.
So, yes, we might wonder why God used Moses. We might be confused as to how God could tolerate his flaws but he represented the best at that time.
Who else could God use? Was there anyone better suited? How would you have handled the situation in Moses’ place?