Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Notes On a Wilderness Prophet

“And Moses was content to dwell with the man…” ~Exodus 2.15-21

Moses is commonly regarded as the greatest prophet of the Old Testament. Yet he started out as a flop. From a temporal standpoint, his role as mediator, deliverer and rescuer ended before it began, like the burgeoning ingénue whose much-anticipated debut onstage ends with boos and jeers, instead of applause.

"Moses was forty years old when it came into his heart to visit his brothers, the children of Israel” (Acts 7.23). But who can say how long he had nursed this hidden dream – that of saving his people from the cruel bondage of his adoptive grandfather? Was the impulse to visit them sudden and spontaneous? Or painstakingly planned - perhaps from the first moment he discovered his true origins? We cannot know.

What is clear is that Moses's decision to visit his people reflected his desire to identify with them. Perhaps he nurtured a vague hope that his kinsman might recognize in this decision his desire to defend and help them. Perhaps they would recognize him as the deliverer for which they had long hoped, and would confer upon him their confidence as a would-be leader.

But whatever his expectations might have been, Moses could not have prepared himself for what he actually saw - the cruelty and injustice, the misery and filth; nor could he anticipate the effect such realities would have on his conduct. For when he saw an Egyptian guard mistreating an Israelite slave - his brother! - Moses could not restrain himself: he got between the men, “struck down” the Egyptian, and killed him, thus sealing his own fate, and forcing himself to flee into the wilderness of Midian.

"He supposed that his brothers would understand that God was giving them salvation by his hand, but they did not understand" (Acts 7.25). Ironically, as so often happens in today's world, the very act Moses imagined would secure his reputation was the self-same one that undid it: for the Israelites did not want this kind of attention; nor had they asked him for any such help. 

The book of Hebrews affirms the idea that Moses's ex-patriation was an act of his own will and not the product of haphazard circumstance - "[B]y faith...he refused to be called the son of Pharaoh's daughter" (Heb. 11.24). Yet those truths which are presented so clearly and cleanly in Scripture have to be worked out in the messiness of time: for even if Moses had counted the cost before putting himself in such a jeopardizing position, even if he chose "rather to endure ill-treatment with the people of God than to enjoy the passing pleasures of sin" (Heb. 11.25), he did not know the future. Nor could he have anticipated, precisely, what this step of faith would mean for him in practical terms. Could it be that this outcome was worse than his worst imaginings? 

For in choosing to be identified with the Israelite people Moses not only forfeited his status as the son of Pharaoh’s daughter, he made himself an outcast in both the Egyptian and Hebrew culture. There could be no going back – not to the old life, not in the old way. That Moses had died with the Egyptian. Now he was alone, in the wilderness – all at once, and irrevocably, an exile and a criminal, a stranger in yet another strange land. In a single act, he had burned all his bridges. He had flung himself into the unknown, into the arms of God.

Can you imagine the shock and horror he must have felt during that frenzied flight out of Egypt? No doubt Moses sat down beside Midian's well, dizzy and confused, his mind pulsing with questions: What had just happened? -- and how? Then – all at once – a group of seven shepherdesses arrived and began to water their father’s flock. Such pretty women, he might have thought, and yet - so strange! The Midianite culture was as alien to him as, presumably, the Israelite culture was to them. But these thoughts were interrupted when a band of shepherds appeared and began to drive the women away. Despite his exhaustion, his bewilderment and despair, Moses roused himself and did the first thing that came into his mind to do: “[He] stood up and saved them, and watered their flock.”

There is a kind of teleological inevitability to Moses’s actions here… One gets the impression that he simply could not help himself. Like the acorn that cannot but become the tree, or the compass needle pointing irresistibly north, Moses could not but intervene and deliver the women from the hands of the unjust shepherds. In so doing, he offered a tiny hint of proof - if not to himself, then to God, to Creation, the sun, moon, and stars - that he was, in fact, born to rescue.

Like that greatest Deliverer, Jesus, whom his ministry foretold, God had woven it into the fabric of Moses's being to be a deliverer, and deliver he would, in whatever circumstances God provided. This is, perhaps, the point at which Moses’s remarkable humility first presents itself: for Moses was content to do what God put before him, without insisting for work more “worthy” of his talent. If his circumstances would change, God would change them; and it was not for him to try to engineer an alternative.

For saving the women, Moses – whom the shepherdesses identify simply as “an Egyptian ” (Ex. 2.15) – is invited into the home of their father, Jethro, a shepherd and Midian’s priest. Moses is offered bread, shelter, and a wife, Zipporah, one of the seven whom he had rescued. Nevertheless, it would have been only natural -  axiomatic, expected - for Moses to have any number of highly unfavorable reactions to this turn of events. Yet Scripture tells us “…Moses was content to dwell with the man (Ex. 2.21, italics mine).

Think of it! Moses, the Egyptian, raised in the household of Pharaoh, in the culture of Egypt, was content to dwell with a Midianite shepherd, an occupation which was considered an abomination to the Egyptians (Ex. 46.34). Likewise, Moses, the Israelite, born into the priestly tribe of the Levites, was content to live with a non-Israelite priest, and marry a non-Israelite woman, facts which, by themselves, would have destroyed any hope Moses might have nurtured of somehow re-entering either society. This, I imagine, was precisely God’s intent.

For how else but as an outcast of earthly society could Moses have become the most humble man who ever lived, "considering the reproach of Christ greater riches than the treasures of Egypt" (Heb. 11.26)? How, if God had not hollowed him of every inclination to “seek great things for himself,” could Moses have had the meekness to serve as God’s spokesman? How, if God had not kept him for forty years as a kind of wilderness captive could Moses have been prepared to lead God’s people through the wilderness for yet another forty? Most importantly, how, if he had not been emptied of every atom of self-reliance, self-effort, and self-assurance, could he have served as the vessel through which God’s great wonders would be made manifest? 

Yes, it's true. Astonishing as it might seem, Moses was content -- for forty years! - to do humble shepherd's work. And when these forty years were expired there appeared to him in the wilderness an angel of the Lord in a flame, in a burning bush:  “When Moses saw it, he was amazed at the sight, and as he drew near to look, there came the voice of the Lord: 'I am the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham and of Isaac and of Jacob.' And Moses trembled and did not dare to look. Then the Lord said to him, 'Take off the sandals from your feet, for the place where you are standing is holy ground” (Acts 7.30-34).

"This Moses, whom they rejected, saying, 'Who made you a ruler and a judge?'--this man God sent as both ruler and redeemer…” (Acts 7.33). This Moses. The one who had acted presumptuously all those years before now responded to God with incredulity. “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the children of Israel out of Egypt?” Gone was the young, impetuous and self-assured man; in his place was a man of brokenness and humility. “Who am I…?” Moses no longer entertained illusions that he possessed within himself the qualities required to free the people from their cruel bondage. He knew that, if they would be delivered, God would deliver them, not by the might or power of any man, but by His Spirit. Paradoxically, God was calling Moses to be, at once, Deliverer and Not-deliver: He would be the ship; God the wind to make it move. He the instrument; God the skilled player. He the empty vessel; God the water, filling it and bringing life to many.
“A saint’s life is in the hands of God like a bow and arrow in the hands of an archer. God is aiming at something the saint cannot see, and He stretches and strains, and very now and again the saint says – ‘I cannot stand any more.’ God does not heed, He goes on stretching till His purpose is in sight, then He lets fly.” ~Oswald Chambers

1 comment:

Shilo Taylor said...

Speaks to my heart in a way that brings tears... and soon I want a heart to heart to share all the reasons why. Love you so much & thank you for using your blog to convict and encourage.