Moses and the crucible of exile

There are some similarities between the leadership journey of Moses and that of Joseph. The early stages of both men’s lives carried hints of an unusual destiny in the future. Joseph’s dreams. Moses’ remarkable preservation as a baby when three women combined to protect him. And as was the case for Joseph, so for Moses the path to leadership did not run in a straight line.

Joseph’s journey took him through the crucible of prison. Moses’ path to leadership took him through rejection and forty years in exile in the Midianite desert.

The biblical text gives little by way of narrative detail in relation to Moses’ exile years. However the contrast between Moses at 40 (when, according to Stephen in Acts 7, he is rejected by the quarrelling Hebrews) and Moses at 80 is striking. Obviously it’s fairly normal for people to change between 40 and 80, but while at 40 Moses sees himself as a solution to the Hebrews’ plight, by 80 he simply wants to be left alone, looking after sheep in the desert.

In her book, Isolation, Shelley Trebesch builds on some of the work of Robert Clinton. She writes about seasons which are sometimes referred to as ‘dark nights of the soul’ or wilderness/desert experiences. Trebesch uses the term isolation (hence the title of her book). She writes that

So prevalent are these desert times that they can be found in many lives of the leaders of the Bible. From the Scriptures we can see that these isolation or desert times always influence or have an impact on ministry…

She reckons that more than 90% of leaders go through a season like this. So, if you are a leader, don’t be surprised if it happens to you (if it has not already happened at some point). It may happen as a result of personal or ministry failure or it may happen as a result of illness (either physical, or – not unusually – emotional). Some seasons of isolation are voluntary: self-sought seasons of renewal.

While – superficially at least – the Exodus account says little about what happened during this phase of Moses’ life (he met his wife, gained a wise father in law, had a couple of sons and learned to look after sheep in the desert), it seems that there is quite a bit we can observe from the whole episode of rejection by the Hebrews followed by the season in exile. These observations speak powerfully into the crucible of isolation.

  1. For Moses, exile was a place of unexpected circumstances. The Midianite experience was completely different from what he would have expected, had he continued in Egypt, or had the Hebrews responded differently to his intervention.
  2. Exile was a place to acknowledge reality. In naming his first son Gershom, Moses was acknowledging his status as someone who did not quite belong.
  3. Exile marked the stripping away of a life vision. By attempting to intervene on behalf of the Hebrews, Moses demonstrated his belief and his hope that he could be the deliverer of his oppressed brothers. However when God called him 40 years later, he had no interest in going, preferring to be left in the desert with his father-in-law’s sheep.
  4. Exile provided him with some strategic relationships. His wife would become the 4th woman to save his life and his father-in-law would provide him with wise counsel at a time when he might have burned himself and his people out.
  5. The situation of his exile eventually paved the way for an encounter with God. While it is true that part of the unrelenting weariness of a desert experience may be the result of God’s apparent absence, the desert may also become a place where God appears.

When leaders experience the crucible of exile or isolation, they need to be ready for these five things.

  • Unexpected circumstances. When life takes an unanticipated twist and the place where you find yourself is not the place you expected (or hoped) to be in.
  • Acknowledging reality. This can be hard for leaders in a Christian environment where everyone and everything is expected to be ‘fine.’ However neither denial nor – at the other end of the scale – bitterness allows for successful navigation of these seasons.
  • Loss of the vision. Disappointment becomes discouragement which in turn can become disillusionment and cynicism. ‘I tried that once and it didn’t work. Why should I try it again?’
  • Strategic relationships. In his brilliant book on leadership, A Work of Heart, Reggie McNeal writes that,

The recounting of leaders’ life journeys usually turns up a Jethro or two. These individuals are God’s gifts to provide extraordinary affirmation, encouragement, and guidance.

  • An encounter with God. The desert is transformed if God is in it. From being a place of bleak discouragement, it can become the place of encounter and commission: perhaps even the place where your vision and programme are replaced by God’s.

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