2008 - Vol. 15
Scripture Study and Reflection
on the Life of Moses - Part I
Failure and Rejection
Faith and Perseverance
Lessons Can We Learn
the Life of Moses?
By Mark F. Whitters,
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
painting by James Tissot
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
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:
Moses slays an Egyptian
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
failure and rejection
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.
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.
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?