Learning Leadership From Moses
cheering as God announced, “I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey” (Exodus 3:8–9). No doubt Moses was thinking, “That’s wonderful, God. I’m really happy you are going to do that.” But God was not quite finished with the revelatory speech. He went on to say to Moses, “So come, I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt” (Exodus 3:10).
This was definitely not in the script of Moses’ career development plan at this time in his life. He found himself summoned to God’s agenda, not his own. And the task to which he was summoned was one that seemed humanly impossible: to confront the most powerful ruler in the ancient Near East with a demand to “Let my people go.” This public confrontation with the power of Egypt was not an ambition that Moses conceived on his own; rather, it was a result of hearing God’s unforeseen call to imagine a new liberating possibility and to act in faith to bring it into reality.
Listening to God
One strikingly consistent feature of the narratives about Moses is that he received guidance from God. Whether in the story of the burning bush, or in his dramatic conflicts with Pharaoh, or in his ascent of Mount Sinai to receive God’s Law, Moses is consistently portrayed as one who listened to God and received revelation that not only directed his own actions but also shaped the life of God’s people.
In the Chagall painting reproduced on the left, we see Moses reaching up to receive the Torah from the Lord. This posture defines his character. He is not portrayed in Scripture as a decisive strategist, a resourceful analyst, or a great military leader. Rather, he was the faithful recipient and teacher of God’s word, the one who mediated it to the people. This trait of Moses is described in God’s declaration in Numbers 12:6–8: “Hear my words: When there are prophets among you, I the Lord make myself known to them in visions; I speak to them in dreams. Not so with my servant Moses: he is entrusted with all my house. With him I speak face to face—clearly, not in riddles; and he beholds the form of the Lord.” Moses could be “entrusted” with “all God’s house” because he entered the presence of God and listened.
Action and Institution Building
Yet Moses is not only a contemplative figure. He listened to God and then acted on what he heard. He went back to Egypt and confronted Pharaoh by performing mighty signs; he instructed God’s people about the institution of the Passover feast (“By faith he kept the Passover and the sprinkling of blood, so that the destroyer of the firstborn would not touch the firstborn of Israel,” Hebrews 11:28); he led the long pilgrimage across the sea and through the desert; he painstakingly established the design for the tabernacle and the institutions of the priesthood (Exodus 25–31); he appointed 70 elders to share the responsibility of governance (Numbers 11:16–25).
To be sure, the sort of institution building that he did required the creation of provisional forms that were adaptable to the long wilderness journey; he never built a city or a temple. But perhaps for that very reason, he offers us a good model for leadership for the church today, in an era of transition and uncertainty. The important point is that he listened to God in order to discern the forms that would provide a structure for God’s wandering people to survive and flourish. And he then sought to implement God’s plan to lead the people, even when they remained grumbling and “stiff-necked.”
The recalcitrance of the people both required and revealed another character trait of Moses: his humility. Those who lead are often subject to temptations of pride and self-assertion. It is therefore surely significant that in the very same passage in Numbers where we are told God spoke face to face with Moses and entrusted authority to him, we also hear this: “Now the man Moses was very humble, more so than anyone else on the face of the earth” (Numbers 12:3). The Septuagint renders the key adjective (“humble”) here as praüs, “gentle” or “meek”—the same term that appears in Jesus’ Beatitudes: “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth” (Matthew 5:5).