Without doubt one of the most significant characters in the history of the people of Israel is Moses. He brought them out of the land of Egypt and slavery, he brought them the words of their God, and he led them through the wilderness to the very border of the Promised Land. For forty years Moses was the visible leader of the people of God. What made Moses into a leader? Was he effective? Can we use his example to teach us how to be effective leaders of God’s people? Let’s look at Moses’ example and see what we can learn.
Even though Moses was raised as the son of Pharaoh’s daughter, his earliest years were spent with his natural mother as she was the one called upon to be the wet nurse for the baby Moses. During those years she instilled in the young boy a knowledge of who he was, one of the people of God. The people of God were waiting for God to rescue them from the slavery they were left in. God had promised to Abraham that four hundred years were all He would let the people stay in the land of Egypt. The time for deliverance was near and it looked like the young man Moses was being positioned in the best possible way to lead the Israelites.
In the years after he was given completely into the care of his Egyptian teachers, Moses never forgot his heritage. He used the opportunity God had given him to learn the best that he could. He became wise in the teaching of Egypt (the most advanced civilization of that day). (Acts 7:22) He became a powerful soldier in one of the world’s most powerful armies. “By the time he reached the age of forty, there was probably no greater leader . . . in all the land than Moses.” (Rodgers, p. 35) Indeed to man, and most likely to Moses, he seemed to be the perfect leader to set the Israelites free (cf. Acts 7:23-25). But God does not see as man sees. Moses rashly decides to take matters into his own hands by joining his people. Almost immediately he finds an excuse to begin the rebellion by killing an Egyptian. But instead of being the rallying call to bring the people to his side in rebellion, it rather leads to his betrayal into the hands of Pharaoh. “However, this attempt was in the energy of the flesh and, although God had chosen him for this great task, he attempted through self-effort to bring it to pass. This never accomplishes what God has in mind.” (Rodgers, p. 35)
Instead of facing the wrath of Pharaoh, Moses flees from Egypt. Certainly by then he must have thought that he was wrong about his usefulness in God’s plans. God must have decided on someone else. The next forty years Moses spends as a simple shepherd. He leads mild-mannered sheep along mountain trails to find food and drink for them. He probably fought off wild beasts to protect his sheep, and his heart was probably torn with grief when one of his sheep died. A far different man he became than the young self-reliant man who thought he could deliver his people from Egypt with the might of his arms and the eloquence of his speech.
Yet it is exactly this kind of man that God chooses. God does not want a leader who thinks he can stand alone. God needs leaders who know how to provide, protect and show compassion. The humble are useful to God, the proud cannot serve Him well. So when God calls upon Moses to be the leader of His people and deliver them from bondage, Moses protests that he is not fit to lead. Moses was still thinking in human terms. No longer was he the strong young man he had been. He was no longer well known, he had not used his voice for speeches in many years. Moses did not think he could act as a leader. “When he met God at the burning bush, he was a broken man.” (Rodgers, p. 36)
That is why God chose him. He chose him because he no longer thought of himself as the leader. God wants Moses to rely on Him. God tells Moses to tell the people that He, the great I AM, had sent Moses, and God would deliver the people with His own powerful hand. So eventually Moses agrees to lead the people and when the people hear that God will deliver them, they believe and worship God (Ex. 4:31). Perhaps with this initial success “the old feelings of success and conquest came back.” (Rodgers, p. 36) However, God does not let him keep those old feelings for long.
Things do not proceed as Moses and the people probably expected. The Pharaoh did not let them go immediately. Instead things got harder for the Israelites. Even Moses was reduced to blaming God for the trouble on Israel. (Ex. 5:22-23) Moses still thought God should act as man desired. But God is not a man. A leader of God’s people has to be able to accept God as God is, not as man wants Him to be. A leader of God’s people must be able to accept adversity without doubting in God or His plans. So during the time of the plagues upon Egypt, Moses is growing in his faith toward God and in his ability to be an effective leader.
After the plagues while the people were leaving Egypt, Pharaoh and his army approached. Here might have been the great opportunity for the military mind of Moses. Moses, trained as a mighty warrior of Egypt, could he defeat the Egyptian army with his band of slaves? A question never to be answered because Moses had learned a lesson about leading God’s people: let God lead. Moses told the people, “The LORD will fight for you, and you shall hold your peace.” (Ex. 14:14) But that faith did not excuse Moses from acting. He simply waited for God to tell him what action He desired, then he did as he was told. Moses had finally become a fit leader of God’s people.
Yet leadership always involves problems. Moses quickly faced a series of problems that would test his leadership. First there was the problem of water for all these people. Although Moses had learned to trust in God, the people “failed to trust God or respond to Moses’ leadership.” (“Moses”) When the people brought the problem to Moses, he cried out to God. (Ex. 15:25) Moses did not try to solve the people’s problems by himself. These were God’s people and he knew that God would be able to solve their problems. In like manner Moses let God solve the problems of food and meat. Moses refused to be the one to solve the problems. God was the true leader of this people. One who leads God’s people must always remember whose people they are and allow God to be the source of answers to problems.
But leadership requires more than a casual commitment. When Moses was up on Mount Sinai, the people committed a very great sin. They turned against God and Moses, and God said to Moses, “Go, get down! For your people whom you brought out of the land of Egypt have corrupted themselves.” (Ex. 32:7) No longer did God claim the people as His own. They were Moses’ people and he had brought them out of Egypt. Originally that was exactly what the younger Moses had intended. He was going to be their savior. Now God was offering Moses the chance to be the kind of leader he once wanted to be.
Yet Moses is no longer the bold and arrogant young leader. He has learned humility from those years leading sheep. But he has also learned to care for the sheep. Boldly Moses stands before God and intercedes for the children of Israel. (Rodgers, p. 41) Humbly he reminds God that they are His children whom He had brought out of Egypt. He also reminds God of the effect it would have on God’s reputation if He destroyed His people in the wilderness. (Exodus 32:11-14)
Moses has been able to intercede on behalf of the people placed under his care. He has put into practice the leadership skills he spent his first eighty years in acquiring. But there are greater challenges facing his leadership. To begin God has agreed to let Moses take care of the problem of idolatry going on with the children of Israel. Moses must be able to discipline the children of Israel if he is going to lead them on behalf of God.
When Moses finally approached the camp of Israel, his initial reaction was one of uncontrolled anger (Exodus 32:19; cf. Cook, p.89). The anger is certainly a result of his early years in Pharaoh’s house where strict obedience was to be expected. Moses breaks the tablets and grinds up the golden calf and makes the people drink of the gold dust mixed with water. Perhaps that would have been the end of the discipline except that some children of Israel were continuing in their idolatry by running around naked (Exodus 32:25). More severe discipline was required for some. This continued rebellion was a test of Moses’ leadership. If he failed to get the rebellion under control, then he could never lead this people for they would always be rebelling against him and God. So Moses calls for those who were loyal to God. The rebels, about three thousand men, were put to death. (Exodus 32:27-28) The rebellion was at an end. But Moses knows that his leadership is still called for. Now he must lead the people back to God and he calls upon them to set a day aside for the LORD. But Moses knows the sin is very great and that sin requires atonement. Moses knows that he may be called upon to make that atonement (Exodus 32:30). So when he stands before God, Moses takes responsibility for his flock and offers his life for them. God does not accept that offer, but he does not allow Moses to forsake his position as leader either. He tells Moses to “go, lead the people”. (Exodus 32:34)
Again Moses had passed a challenge to his leadership. He was able to discipline the rebellious people, quash the resistance of the more stubborn rebels, bring the people back to God, and be accepted by God as still a fit leader for His people. However, his success led to more challenges to his leadership.
Being chosen by God as the leader and then reaffirmed in that leadership position caused some other potential leaders to be jealous. The first attempt to take over, or at least share, the leadership came from Moses’ own family. Miriam and Aaron protested to Moses that they were at least as capable as he was as a leader. After all God spoke to them, as well as to Moses, they said. (Number 12:2) Moses did not make a rebuttal, perhaps as is stated, it was because Moses was such a meek man (Numbers 12:3). Again consider how much has changed in Moses life. Where is the bold and arrogant young Moses who killed the Egyptian? Moses has learned his lessons about leadership. The battles belong to God, so Moses steps aside and lets God do battle. The Lord wastes no time in putting Miriam and Aaron back into their places (Numbers 12:5-12; cf. Edersheim, p. 2:164). Once again Moses is called upon, this time by Aaron, to personally intercede with God. (LaSor, p. 109)
The next challenge to his leadership came in the form of a full-fledged attempt to permanently remove Moses from leadership. The people rose up to stone him to death, along with Caleb and Joshua and Aaron (Numbers 14:10). Once again it is notable that Moses intercedes for the people who sought to kill him (Numbers 14:13-20). But still Moses must accept that the people under his care are to be punished. Moses has to bear with the people in the consequences of their sin, for again he must lead the people back to God and prepare the next generation for entering the Promised Land.
One last attempt is made to displace Moses as leader. This challenge came from the leaders of the assembly. Two hundred and fifty men led by Korah of Moses own tribe of Levi (Numbers 16:1-2). These men protested that Moses and Aaron had made themselves too important, that Moses had failed to bring them to the Promised Land, and that the priesthood should not belong exclusively to Moses and Aaron (Jones, “Korah”) Again Moses faces the battle by saying that the Lord would choose (Num. 16:5) And again Moses was rewarded by God doing battle on his behalf (Num. 16:28-35), and also again Moses is called upon to intercede for the rebellious flock he leads. (Jones, “Korah”)
The final challenge to Moses’ leadership was one that he did not overcome. For the final challenge that faces all leaders is one that comes from within — pride. Moses had struggled and succeeded in letting God do battle with the obvious rebellions and challenges. Moses had stood up for the people time and again sparing their lives even while they sought to kill him. But deep down inside Moses was still the Egyptian trained leader of men. The constant complaints were wearisome. Finally, while the people yet again complained about needing water, Moses slipped. “Moses looked at the people as they were in themselves, instead of thinking of God who now sent them forward, secure in His promise, which He would assuredly fulfill.” (Edersheim, p. 2:186) In the heat of his frustration or anger Moses complained that he must again bring forth water for them (Num. 20:10; cf. Rodgers, p. 55). Moses had said HE was bringing forth water. It was not Moses who brought the water; it was God. Moses had failed to give God the glory due to Him. Perhaps he felt justified in having a share of the glory after all he had put up with, but God immediately notified Moses that he would be punished for his sin (Num. 20:12). “Certainly, this should teach us that no individual can sin with impunity, regardless of who he is or what his station in life.” (Rodgers, p. 55)
So what lessons can we learn from Moses example of leadership? We learn first that a leader may need to be educated in the ways of the world. God’s people live and work and move in the world. Knowledge of how the world works is a helpful tool. But the leader must always remember that his training is only a tool. More important than an earthly education are humility and service, like what Moses learned as a shepherd. Then God’s leader must be able to balance the two parts of his training, leading the people of God with wisdom and humility. Also the leader must be willing to sacrifice of himself and to intercede on behalf of God’s people, even when the people are unkind toward, or rebelling against, the leader. Finally, the leader must be able to step aside and let God fight the battles, and then he must give God the glory. For it is only in God that the battles can be won. Moses, as a leader of God’s people, was “a man who performed great deeds in the strength that only God can provide.” (“Moses”)
By Glenn E. Hamilton
Cook, F. C. ed. The Bible Commentary: Exodus-Ruth. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1953.
Edersheim, Alfred. Bible History, Old Testament. 7 vols. 1890 ed. Reprint 1 vol. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1982.
Jones, T. H. “Korah.” New Bible Dictionary. 3rd ed. Ed. I. Howard Marshall, et al. Downers Grove: IVP, 1996.
LaSor, William, et al. Old Testament Survey. 2d ed. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996.
“Moses.” The Revell Bible Dictionary. Grand Rapids: Revell, 1990.
Rodgers, Thomas. The Panorama of the Old Testament. Newburgh: Trinity, 1988.