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Moses — An Ancient Leadership Story

This story has four sections. Stop the reading after each section to share reflection as guided in Activity 2, Description of Activity.

1. Moses Is Called to Leadership

"Today," Moses thought, "I'll take the flock to the base of the Holy Mountain . I know there is some green pasture over there." As Moses walked, he daydreamed, remembering how it was that he came to be in Midian, in the land of the Kennites. He vaguely recalled his childhood in the court of Egypt, and his long-ago discovery that he was not Egyptian, but had instead been born to a Hebrew woman, one of the slaves who labored on the Pharaoh's pyramids. He remembered that awful day when he had killed an Egyptian soldier, and then had run and run and run until he came to this land. He wondered what had become of his people, still enslaved in the land of Egypt . He thought about how lucky he was to have escaped and come to Midian. He smiled as he remembered his wife and two sons, and thought about how contented he was to spend his days tending his father-in-law Jethro's flock.

Soon Moses and the flock reached the base of the mountain, where they would surely find good pasture. As Moses walked, something caught his eye and pulled him abruptly from his reverie. A single bush was on fire, an odd occurrence. As Moses approached the bush, he heard a voice calling to him, "Moses! Moses!"

"Here I am," he replied. And the voice ordered him to put off his sandals, for the place where he was standing was holy ground.

"Who are you?" asked Moses, trembling with fright.

"I am the God of your fathers, of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. I have heard my people call out to me as they suffer in slavery. I want you to go and tell Pharaoh to let my people go!"

"Who, me? I can't do that! Why would they believe me? Whom shall I say sent me?"

"Tell them that 'I AM' sent you! I will give you a sign. Cast your staff upon the ground." When Moses threw his staff to the ground, it began to move. It became a snake! "Take the snake by the tail," commanded the voice. When Moses grabbed the snake, it became once more his staff.

Convinced that the voice was indeed God's, a reluctant Moses pointed out that he was a poor choice to go and make demands of Pharaoh: "I have never been eloquent," he said, "I am slow of speech and slow of tongue."

"Go and tell Pharaoh to let my people go! Your brother Aaron can serve as a mouthpiece for you if you need help."

"Will you please send someone else? There must be others who can do this."

"Go and tell Pharaoh to let my people go!"

And reluctantly Moses made preparations to leave for Egypt .

2. Out of Egypt

Moses was glad to meet his brother Aaron on the edge of the wilderness outside of Egypt . Aaron told him of the difficulty the Hebrew people had under the yoke of slavery. Moses told Aaron of the strange vision at the burning bush and of his understanding that he and Aaron were to go to Pharaoh and demand that he let the Hebrew people go.

A few days later, Moses and Aaron stood before Pharaoh, saying, "The God of our fathers demands that we hold a feast for him in the wilderness at a place three days' journey from here. If we do not go, then he has promised that terrible events will befall us and also the people of Egypt ."

Pharaoh mocked the request, angrily saying, "Why do you want to take your people away from their work? They must not have enough to do." And then he ordered his taskmasters to force the Hebrews to find their own straw to make bricks. The people were forced to gather stubble for straw, doubling the work expected of them.

And the foremen came to Moses and Aaron to complain: "Why did you ever go and talk to Pharaoh? You have made things worse; he has doubled our work and increased our suffering." And Moses told them of the freedom that awaited them and they kept before them the hope and the vision of the land God had promised would be theirs.

And again God said to Moses and Aaron, "Go and tell Pharaoh to let my people go." And Moses responded, "The people of Israel are not listening to me. Why would Pharaoh listen to a person like me?" But God repeated his demand.

When they went to Pharaoh, they showed him the many wonderful and terrible things that God could do. The waters of the Nile turned to blood. There was a plague of frogs in the land. Gnats invaded the land and flies swarmed throughout Egypt . And Pharaoh said, "Go and sacrifice to your God within the land of Egypt ." Moses replied, "It would not be right for us to sacrifice within the land of Egypt . We must travel three days into the wilderness for our feast."

And God demanded again that Moses go to Pharaoh and tell him to let the people go. God threatened that a sickness would come upon the cattle and a pestilence upon the people of Egypt if Pharaoh did not let the Hebrews go. There would be thunder and lightening and hail that would ruin crops and cause famine in the land. And Pharaoh did not listen, and those plagues came to pass. When the hail came upon the land, Pharaoh said to Moses, "Go and sacrifice to your God, but take only your men. Women and children and flocks and herds you must leave behind in Egypt ." And Moses said, "We must go with our young and our old; we will go with our sons and daughters and with our flocks and herds three days' journey into the wilderness to hold a feast for our God." And Pharaoh refused, driving Moses and Aaron from his presence.

And when they went again to Pharaoh to demand that he let the people go, Moses and Aaron threatened that their God would bring a plague of locusts and a plague of darkness upon the land of Egypt . And so it was that the plague of locusts was followed by a plague of darkness. And Pharaoh called Moses in to him and said, "Go and sacrifice to your God. You may bring your men, women and children, but your herds and flocks you must leave behind." And Moses said, "We must have animals to sacrifice. Not one hoof will we leave behind!" And Pharaoh said, "NO! Get out of here! If I ever see your face again, I will have you killed!"

Moses spoke to the people of Egypt and not to Pharaoh when he told of the last plague to come: All the first-born in the land of Egypt would die if Pharaoh would not let the Hebrews go. Moses and Aaron called the people of Israel together and gave them instructions, "You shall slaughter a lamb and take some of the blood and put it on your door and your doorposts so that the plague will pass over your abode." And so it was that all the first-born of the land of Egypt died that night and the first-born of the Hebrews were spared. Pharaoh heard the great cry in all of Egypt . He summoned Moses and Aaron in the dead of night and told them, "Go! Take your men, your women, your children, your flocks and your herds. Go out of Egypt now!" And the people of Israel left so quickly that they could not allow their bread to rise; they ate unleavened bread as they journeyed.

When they reached the Red Sea, Pharaoh's army was in pursuit. As Pharaoh drew near, the people cried out to Moses, "Is it because there are no graves in Egypt that you have taken us out to die in the wilderness? What have you done to us? Why didn't you leave well enough alone? In Egypt we would have lived and here we will be slaughtered." And Moses said to them, "Fear not! Stand firm!" And he stretched out his staff over the waters of the Red Sea and a great east wind blew and the waters were divided. The people passed across the Red Sea on dry land, and when they reached the other side, they watched as the waters closed in, drowning Pharaoh's pursuing army.

There was great celebration in the land, songs and dancing and the sound of tambourines. And the freed people prepared for their journey into the wilderness toward the land that God had promised them.

3. In the Wilderness

The journey through the wilderness was difficult. Moses was called on to do many things, and he sought advice from God to figure out what to do.

After three days; journey, the only water they could find was bitter and undrinkable. The people complained, demanding something to drink. Moses threw a piece of wood into the water and it became sweet. The people drank eagerly, and then continued their journey until they reached Elim, where there were 12 springs of water and 70 palm trees.

After they departed Elim, some weeks after leaving Egypt , they ran short of food. The people complained against Moses and Aaron: "If only we had died by the hand of God in the land of Egypt , when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill the whole assembly with hunger." And Moses told the people that God had promised manna would reign down from heaven in the night, and at daybreak they could gather and eat their fill. And so it was that manna, looking white like coriander seed with a taste like that of wafers and honey, was found everywhere as the sun rose. And the people ate their fill, and continued to gather and eat manna each morning through their journey.

And when they camped at Rephidum, there was again no water to drink. And the people complained, "Why did you bring us out of Egypt to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?" Moses cried out to God, "What shall I do? They are ready to stone me!" And God instructed him to take his staff, and in the presence of the elders, to strike a rock. Moses did so, and water came out of the rock so the people could drink.

The Amalekites who lived in the area did not want to share their water with this wandering people, and they attacked. Moses told his commander Joshua to choose some men to fight the Amalekites. They went out to fight, and Moses, Aaron and Hur, one of the elders, went to the top of the hill. The battle unfolded before them. Whenever Moses lifted up his hand, Israel prevailed. Whenever he lowered his hand, Amalek prevailed. When Moses grew too weary to hold his hand up any longer, they brought a stone and put it under him so he could sit. Aaron and Hur held up his hands, one on one side and the other on the other side so he was steady until the sun set. Thus Joshua and the Israelites defeated the Amalekites.

When they came to the land of Midian , where Moses' father-in-law, wife and children were living, Moses told Jethro of all that had befallen since he had left Midian. Jethro observed that the people came to Moses with all of their complaints and disputes, and that Moses worked to resolve every one. Moses was exhausted, and had no time for his wife or his children. Jethro said to Moses, "Why are you doing all of this? Why must you solve disputes between people from morning until evening? You need to delegate some of this work. Choose individuals who are trustworthy. Teach them to be judges and preside over the complaints and disputes of the people." Moses listened to his father-in-law and named some judges. After that, the judges brought only the hard cases to Moses; the rest they decided themselves.

4. Forming a New Society

When they reached the foot of Mount Sinai, Moses summoned the elders and told them to instruct the people to wash their clothes and prepare for God to come three days hence. "Do not allow anyone to go up the mountain or to touch it," he said.

On the third day a thick cloud covered the mountain and there was thunder and lightening and the blast of a trumpet. Moses and Aaron approached the mountain, covering their faces. The people were afraid and stood at a distance. After a time, Moses journeyed alone to the top of the mountain, where he received from God two tablets containing the words of the covenant with Israel , the Ten Commandments. On the mountaintop, Moses received many instructions for forming a new society, including prescriptions for behavior, instructions for worship and for construction of a tabernacle and for an ark to hold the tablets of the covenant. And he was gone from the people for a long time.

Meanwhile, the people at the foot of the mountain grew anxious. "Who is this Moses anyway? And why has he been gone so long? What of this God he keeps talking about and the promises of a new land?" They urged Aaron to do something to help them, to make for them a golden calf that they might worship something familiar. Aaron was worried about the people and wanted to reassure them, so he gathered all of their gold jewelry and melted it down and created for them a golden calf to worship.

As Moses came down from the mountain carrying the tablets with the covenant, he heard much singing and dancing, and he became concerned. He knew that the first thing on those tablets was, "I am the Lord your God and you shall have no other gods before me." So when Moses came upon the people worshiping the golden calf, singing and celebrating, he grew angry. He broke the tablets. He pulverized the golden calf and put the powder into water which he made the people drink. Then he called out, "Who is on the side of the Lord?" Those who came to him he instructed to take their swords and to kill all those who had worshiped the golden calf, even brothers and cousins and other family members. Three thousand people were slaughtered that day.

Moses pitched a tent apart from the people, outside the camp. There he withdrew to speak with God and to plead on behalf of the people.

After a time, God instructed Moses to once again journey up the mountain to meet God, once again to carve tablets upon which would be written the instructions for a new society. And so Moses went up the mountain for a second time and received the words of the covenant on behalf of the people of Israel . And he came down from Mount Sinai much changed. He looked and sounded calm as he gathered the people around to tell them the laws for a new society. He instructed them on the roles they were to play, the ways they were to worship, and the ways they were to behave with one another. He ordered the construction of the ark and the tabernacle according to the instructions he had received.

And so it was that the Israelites went forth, carrying the Ark of the Covenant, journeying toward the Promised Land. But God told Moses that the people were not ready for a new land. They were to wander in the wilderness for 40 years until a generation had died; the next generation of Israelites would be the one to enter the Promised Land. Moses himself went to the mountaintop and saw the Promised Land, but did not enter it. He died there, and to this day no one knows where he is buried.

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Last updated on Saturday, October 29, 2011.

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