January 2008 - Vol. 15

Scripture Study and Reflection on the Life of Moses - Part I

Handling Failure and Rejection 
with Faith and Perseverance

What Lessons Can We Learn 
from the Life of Moses?

By Mark F. Whitters, Ph.D.

This the first in a series of Scripture meditations on the life of Moses as reflected in the Book of Exodus. The struggles of Moses as savior of the children of Israel prefigure Jesus Christ, savior of the world. 

Dr. Whitters is a member of The Servants of the Word, an ecumenical brotherhood of men living single for the Lord. He leads the Servants of the Word household in Detroit, Michigan, USA, which serves urban youth and seeks to foster racial dialogue in the inner-city. He is a lecturer in ancient history and religion at Eastern Michigan University and a regional coordinator for a scholarly guild called the Society of Biblical Literature. In 2005 he was selected as one of five “Regional Scholars” by the Society. 

Moses at the Well at Midian
painting by James Tissot
Background: The text and two stories

The opening of Exodus picks up where Genesis left off, in Egypt.  The first paragraph reminds us of Jacob’s sons.  Literally, the Hebrew for “born to Jacob” (1:5) is “coming out of Jacob’s thigh.”  Remember Jacob’s thigh?  This is what was impaired by the divine messenger, and he limps for the rest of his life because of it.  The thigh (“loins”) stands for the reproductive capacity of a man, and so symbolizes as well the begetting of sons.  In Jacob’s case, his sons correspond to Jacob’s limp, because they are a source of heartache for him.  This is the whole latter half of Genesis, summed up in a couple words.

So the children of Jacob, called “children of Israel” in Exodus, are living in Goshen, a province of Egypt.  By the time of Moses their condition is tantamount to slavery.  Note that the actual condition of slavery in Egypt is not mentioned. The sheer anonymity of Israel and the main actors of chap. 1 reinforce the strangeness of Egypt more than its oppressiveness against slaves. The suffering therefore is inward and personal, not economic and physical. The Book of Exodus therefore speaks to anyone who is burdened, not just the poor and disenfranchised.

Into the midst of this condition is born another son of the children of Israel/Jacob. This son, however, is given exemption from the oppression that the rest of the children of Israel must bear. As a child, he is granted a miraculous rescue from sure death on the water and raised in house of the oppressor ruler, Pharaoh. Oddly, at no point so far in the Book of  Exodus is there a direct reference to God.  There is only a vague hint, in the miracles that surround Moses, that a divine plan will unfold. 

Moses apparently never forgot his ethnic roots in spite of his position and privilege. He twice intervenes to execute justice for his people, once by killing an Egyptian, but his efforts backfire when he realizes that Pharaoh probably has learned of his crime and his prop-Hebrew sympathies. So he abandons his status and home in Egypt and flees to another land. 

Here is where we pick up the involvement of God in the life and mission of Moses. In the subsequent chapters Exodus 2-4, there are two stories woven into one. First is the story of Moses going to Midian in order to escape the rejection of his people and the punishment of Pharaoh. He resembles his ancestor Jacob who was rejected by his brother Esau and fled into Paddan-aram, where he found a home, family, and new life. Moses flees to Midian, obtains wife and family, and lives as a shepherd for priest Reuel. This first story is filled with symbolism, and largely spans Exodus 2:11-22.

The second story –  next month’s meditation – is longer (not ending until Exodus 4) and more divinely tinged.  Here we see a middle-aged Moses, perhaps settled in and unwilling to get much involved in God’s plan for his life.  Here we find that the father-in-law is Jethro (another name for Reuel) in the first story), an employer and ruler, who has almost no role in the story. This second story focuses on God rousing Moses through the burning bush, a story that continues in later chapters. The theme echoes in the lives of other heroes who set out on pilgrimage, perhaps to the underworld or to a far-away land, to discover their destiny or some secret about life. 

The first story: Exodus 2:11-22 

Moses slays an Egyptian 

11 One day, when Moses had grown up, he went out to his people and looked on their burdens; and he saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, one of his people.  12 He looked this way and that, and seeing no one he killed the Egyptian and hid him in the sand.  13 When he went out the next day, behold, two Hebrews were struggling together; and he said to the man that did the wrong, "Why do you strike your fellow?"  14 He answered, "Who made you a prince and a judge over us? Do you mean to kill me as you killed the Egyptian?" Then Moses was afraid, and thought, "Surely the thing is known."  15 When Pharaoh heard of it, he sought to kill Moses. But Moses fled from Pharaoh, and stayed in the land of Midian; and he sat down by a well.  16 Now the priest of Midian had seven daughters; and they came and drew water, and filled the troughs to water their father's flock.  17 The shepherds came and drove them away; but Moses stood up and helped them, and watered their flock.  18 When they came to their father Reuel, he said, "How is it that you have come so soon today?"  19 They said, "An Egyptian delivered us out of the hand of the shepherds, and even drew water for us and watered the flock."  20 He said to his daughters, "And where is he? Why have you left the man? Call him, that he may eat bread."  21 And Moses was content to dwell with the man, and he gave Moses his daughter Zipporah.  22 She bore a son, and he called his name Gershom; for he said, "I have been a sojourner in a foreign land."

Meeting failure and rejection
Exod 2:11-14:  Moses leaves the security of his privileged upbringing and he wanders out among his people.  He sees the oppression that the Egyptians inflict on them, and he decides to intervene to help the underprivileged. When he intervenes again on the next day, his own people rebuke him. They reject him for his “do-gooder” mentality, and he correctly fears that his own people will turn him in to Pharaoh. 

It is worth noticing the uncooperative attitude of the children of Israel.  In the pages ahead, the Book of Exodus gives many examples in whoch the children of Israel prefer the onions of Egypt to their own freedom, and so they rebel against the leadership of Moses. The Egyptians have successfully implanted the slave mentality in the Israelite consciousness. The Egyptians have stripped them of dignified work and the memory of their glorious father Joseph (1:8), so they are clearly unruly now, undisciplined and unaware of their own dignity. 

The uncooperative attitude first is directed against Moses. For Moses the people’s rejection of his leadership is his first taste of failure, a failure that will be the by-line of many of his leadership projects. The idealism of Moses meets the realities of a people who are unwilling to avail themselves of the divine plan. Moses is set back by this obstinacy, but he will encounter it throughout his tenure as leader. 

2:15-22:  In Midian he meets seven daughters at a well, and again his big heart stirs him again to help them by protecting them and drawing water for them.  The father of the daughters, Reuel, invites Moses to his home for “bread” and in time offers his daughter Zipporah as wife. Then Moses and Zipporah have a son, whom Moses names Gershom (meaning, “a stranger there”). In other words Moses finds contentment in the midst of his failure through the birth of a son.  He finds a new way of life and some consolation for losing his first home and status.

God unfolds his plan
What can we make of this episode in Midian? We see ever more clearly that God is unfolding his plan in prodigious ways. The text shows us this divine dimension in several ways. First, Moses meets seven daughters, and the number should remind us of God’s presence. Second, he meets them at a well, like Jacob who met his wife at a well – another hero whose travels abroad were ordered mysteriously by God. Wells are often portals or liminal zones in the Bible: at a well, Isaac’s wife is met; Jesus meets the woman of many husbands; and wells often are symbols of God’s revelation and outpouring. Third, he is invited by Reuel – a deliberate change of name for this man also called Hobab and Jethro (see 3:1) – who is a priest. Reuel means “friend.” Thus, we have another hint of God who is befriending Moses with this man who appears in other Bible stories as an advisor and helper. Finally, he marries Zipporah, a name meaning “bird,” and they have son whom he symbolically names Gershom. In effect Moses applies his experience as stranger in a foreign land the name of his son.

We can now see the evidence of God’s hand upon Moses clearly, though the divine name is not yet mentioned by the editor or Moses. The seven daughters indicate the fullness of God meeting him at the well, where he will have something like a baptismal ritual of initiation. Reuel reminds us that God is befriending Moses and offering help and hospitality. The invitation of bread could remind the reader of Eucharist or festal union with God himself. His wife is Zipporah, a name harkening the reader to the presence of the Holy Spirit as dove or bird. Where would be the symbol of the Son? That will come in the next story – next month’s meditation – about the burning bush, where a transcendent and almighty God takes on incarnational form. 

Nonetheless, through this pilgrimage the call and mission of Moses are starting to dawn on the reader, and (I conjecture) upon Moses himself.  He names his son Gershom, implying he knows his status and is not content with living out a quiet life among the Midianites.  He is a stranger in a strange land, and he knows that his home is elsewhere.  Whoever has directed his life up to this point will continue to keep his hand upon him, so that he will one day return to his native land. 

Naming is an important dimension of biblical typology and symbolism.  No less, the naming of sons in the first five books of the Bible (the Pentateuch) is a way for the Patriarchs to express personal feelings about their pilgrimages (see Joseph’s naming of his sons in Gen 41:50-52).

Questions for reflection:

1. How has God called me? From birth? In a midlife crisis? Can I see distinct signs of his call on me?

2. How have I responded to tests in my life? Do I fight or cooperate with God’s presence or his dealings with me?

3. Have I ever been on what I would consider a pilgrimage? When did I reach my destination or refuge? What did I learn from that pilgrimage?  How can I foster a sense of pilgrimage in my life? 

4. Where is my ultimate destination? How do I regard my true home in the midst of success or failure? 

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