Moses and the crucible of leadership

One more (longish) reflection on Moses in this series on crucible experiences in biblical leaders. I’ve already written about the crucible of his exile years and the crucible of his dramatic call experience. It’s not too much of a stretch to talk about the whole of his leadership as a crucible experience. Never comfortable, often desperately difficult, the final forty years of Moses’ life throw a light on many of the challenges of leadership.

Here are several of the challenges he faced:

The challenge of responsibility

While the Lord promised to be with him (Moses did not want to attempt the task without this promise), the burden of responsibility was, nonetheless, heavy. Faced with yet another crisis (Numbers 11), Moses tells God that he is not able to carry the burden and he would prefer to be dead if this is the way it is going to be.

It’s worth noting some of the interplay between God and Moses about whose the people actually are. Clearly the overall picture is that these are God’s people: that’s how he spoke of them when he called Moses to leadership. And that is the burden of the OT (for example ‘if my people who are called by my name…). However as the Golden Calf episode unfolds (Exodus 32) God appears to be in the process of disowning his people – they become Moses’ people whom Moses brought out of Egypt. It is Moses’ intercession on behalf of the people that leads God to relent from consuming them.

The weight of responsibility never fully lifts from Moses. On two occasions, others are selected to help share the weight.

The first occurs relatively early in the journey when Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law observes Moses whom he reckons is about to wear out both himself and the people. Whether or not Jethro qualifies as the first ever management consultant, his practical advices points Moses in a direction that will help spread the load.

The second incident comes on the heels of Moses’ complaint in Numbers 11. This time the Lord intervenes directly by imparting the Spirit on the elders so that Moses will not be alone in bearing the burden of the people.

Three observations for leaders on all of this:

  1. Leadership brings responsibility. There is no escape from that fact.
  2. Responsibility can be heavy if borne alone.
  3. Sharing responsibility is not always easy for leaders. Some leaders have an unhealthy need for control. If that’s you, take a look at Joshua’s reaction (and Moses’ response) to the prophesying of Eldad and Medad (Numbers 11).

The challenge of criticism

As if responsibility for guiding and providing for this vast crowd was not enough, Moses was frequently the target of their complaints and unhappiness. When there was a lack of water or the food did not match the memories of Egyptian cuisine, the instinct was to blame Moses. One of the unwritten aspects of a leader’s job description might be the need to function as a lightning rod from time to time!

And it was not just the people in general. Aaron and Miriam joined in too (Numbers 12). And then there was the rebellion of Korah and his friends (Numbers 16). These people reckoned that Moses (and Aaron) were assuming too much for themselves.

Where does a leader go when this kind of thing is going on? For sure it is important to have the support and encouragement of people who understand, but when his own family members turned against him, Moses had nowhere left to go. And, as a meek and humble man (Numbers 12:3), he was not inclined to fight back.

Which is why he needed God to step in to vindicate him: which he did.

The leader has a fine line to walk. There will be times when unruly and disruptive people have to be rebuked before they cause instability to the community. But there will be times – not least when facing personal attack – that the leader will have to learn to keep quiet and trust God to vindicate him as and when he chooses.

The challenge of intercession

There are two similar incidents during the people’s journey when God was threatening to wipe them out. One was in the incident of the Golden Calf and the other when the people’s unbelief leads them to reject the Promised Land. On both occasions God offered to start again with Moses in the place of Israel.

One wonders if Moses was tempted! After all, it was quite an offer: he would never again have to put up with this people’s grumbling and complaining. Instead, a new nation, with him as the founding father.

But both times he said no, putting the welfare of the people ahead of himself. More than that, he knew that the destruction of the people was likely to set tongues wagging among the surrounding nations. The Lord was not as powerful as they had been told or as they had feared.

Reggie McNeal observes that

Maturity begins to be in evidence when leaders who find themselves arrayed against the enemies of God worry more for God’s reputation than their own.

The challenge of bitterness

While Moses was described as more meek than anyone else on earth, we have to wonder if there was a hidden, angry dark side to him that never really went away. There is a place for appropriate strong emotion. Moses was angry at injustice when he killed the Egyptian (whether or not he should have taken the law into his own hands is another story); he was deeply moved when he smashed the first set of stone tablets at the sight of the people’s idolatry.

There came a day when the people provoked him one time too many. It is Psalm 106 that talks about the way the people made Moses’ spirit bitter with the result that he spoke rashly with his lips.

Not only did he speak rashly, but he also disobeyed God by striking, rather than speaking to, the rock. His failure to uphold the holiness of God before the people led to him being disqualified from entering the Promised Land.

Leaders need to remember that whatever the sins and provocations of their people may be (Psalm 106 is honest about this), they are responsible for how they behave in the face of that provocation. People may make you bitter, but you have a responsibility to guard your heart from nurturing and developing that bitterness. If you don’t, you could leave yourself open to a poor choice that could put the success of your leadership at risk.

The challenge of succession

No human leadership is eternal. Even Manchester United supporters had to watch Sir Alex leave their team! Moses knew that he would not always be around to lead this people. The next phase in their journey would be without him. Instead of retreating into a sulk about his own disqualification (though it hurt him and he asked God to relent), Moses was concerned about the future needs of the people, asking God to appoint someone to lead in his place. The answer would be Joshua who had been around Moses for some time as his assistant. Moses’ task became the encouragement and preparation of Joshua for what awaited him.

Which leads to a challenge to older leaders, in particular. The final phase of your leadership can be a time when you live with your eyes on the rear view mirror, recalling the good old days, stewing over regrets about missed opportunities, or wishing that you could stay on a bit longer. Remember that your regrets or your reluctance to hand over the reins to the next generation will not serve your people well. Perhaps succession is one of those times when leaders need to realise that their leadership is not primarily about them.

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