God’s Word is full of men and women whose lives are worthy of a hard second glance. Moses rates among the very top of such a list of people.
The Greatness of Moses
Numbers 21:4-9 paints a stunning picture of an elderly man pouring himself into the next generation, and doing so with unconditional love and relentless grace that is at once captivating and convicting. To appreciate the drama of it all, one must remember that by the time the story is revealed in Numbers 21, Moses is between 110 and 115 years old.
The people of Israel, once again, complain bitterly about their circumstances. Specifically, they had been very close to the land of Canaan; all that was needful was for the little kingdom of Edom to grant them safe passage through their territory. Edom refused, however (see Num. 20:21), and this refusal caused Moses and the Israelites to wander back into the wilderness to seek a longer route. Everyone was understandably frustrated, and, in typical fashion, this frustration was taken out on God and on Moses (cp. Num. 21:5). God, weary of the constant complaining, “sent fiery serpents among the people” (Num. 21:6), and these serpents killed many, while still others suffered because of the bites. Ultimately, the people humbled themselves before God and Moses, approached Moses in contrition and fear, and begged him to intervene.
The end of Numbers 21:7 highlights the greatness of Moses: So Moses prayed for the people. And God responded, having Moses erect a bronze serpent on a staff to which the bitten people should look for healing. Centuries later this bronze serpent was recognized by Jesus as a type for his own pending death and resurrection (see John 3:14-15).
How the Past Shapes Us
The elderly cynic might muse Moses pouring himself out with such love is nice and such, but it is, after all, Moses. The elderly cynic might imagine it is not possible to attain Moses’ stature, what with health issues and dashed dreams and griefs and western societal notions that older folks need to move to the sidelines. But to relegate Moses to some higher plain is to ignore the raw backstory in his long life.
The Man Left Alone
When Moses humbly interceded for the people in Numbers 21 he was a man overwhelmed with deep grief. The text doesn’t spell that out directly, but according to Numbers 20:28 Moses’ older brother, close confidant, and ministry partner—Aaron—had just died. They had worked closely together for decades, dealing with the ups and downs of power and position and people in all its beauty and ugliness. The two of them shared experiences before God no one else could possibly imagine. Now Aaron was gone.
The Man Who Lost Face
As if that were not enough, Numbers 20:21 implies international political and military drama no doubt causing Moses, the Israelites, and in the eyes of some, even God, to lose face. This must have been humiliating for Moses, and actually sets up the bitter reaction of the Israelites ultimately prompting Moses to intercede for them before God. The reader should not underestimate the embarrassment of this on both a personal and national scale.
The Man Who Was Angry
And that follows right on the heels of Moses angrily striking the rock (twice) so that the once-again-whiny Israelites could quench their thirst with the water that would pour forth. Numbers 20:2-13 details a terribly sad story of Moses letting his frustrations get the best of him. By striking the rock he disobeyed the One who had clearly said, “tell the rock . . . to yield its water” (Num. 20:8). Moses’ disobedience hurt God’s reputation before the people, and had the effect of elevating Moses to a place only God could occupy (cp. Num. 20:12). The result of this drama was Moses forfeited the privilege of entering the Promised Land. The dream he no doubt had of seeing the land to which he was leading the people evaporated before his eyes. Few can appreciate the pain this must have been for him.
The Man Who Grieved
And yet there is more, for Numbers 20:1 reminds us Moses’ sister Miriam had died and was buried in the wilderness. She is the one who when Moses was born helped her mother place the basket in the Nile River, thus sparing Moses’ life (see Exodus 2:7). She was the one who led the congregation of Israelites in worship following their dramatic exodus from Egypt (see Ex. 15:19). Her companionship and counsel was vital to Moses throughout the years in the wilderness, even with moments of tension such power-partnerships can sometimes create (see Numbers 12:1 and following). Moses’ heart was broken. Perhaps this was a major reason he was so particularly raw when the thirsty masses came to him at Meribah.
Every Leader Has a Backstory
These things remind us every leader has a backstory of some kind. And these remind us we have no reason to believe Moses was a superhero whose undying love for the Israelites was a step above anything we could offer. We all—and certainly some who are elderly—might be tempted to say such responsibility is beyond us, and that Moses’ qualities could not be had because our own lives are too packed with pain. Clearly Moses’ life was, too, yet he loved to the (bitter) end.
The Moses Principle
Perhaps this principle, what I call the Moses Principle, will prove helpful: Unconditional love and sacrificing one’s own dignity never grows old. How true this is, and Moses exemplifies this for us. To amplify this principle, consider the following thoughts.
Your Backstory Need Not Limit You
First, our personal backstory is never an excuse to withdraw from relationship, or for mediocrity in our lives. Moses wavered, frankly, with the rock and the staff, and it cost him. But the larger narrative of his life as a leader shows him refusing to let the realities of raw existence get the best of him. He doesn’t move away from the rebellious generation around him. Indeed, he moves toward them. Time and again, even though it cost him his dignity.
Be a Lifelong Learner and Listener
Secondly, we must remain lifelong learners and listeners. Moses’ refusal to properly listen to God, as told in Numbers 20:12, is a reminder to us we should not live on the fumes of the past and close our ears to new things. Some time prior, in a situation quite similar, Moses had been asked by God to strike a rock that water might come out (see Ex. 17:6). Now God wanted a different approach, but Moses relied on the way it used to be done. We cannot underestimate the power of remaining teachable and open.
Be Available to the Younger Generations
Thirdly, we must be available to the younger generations. Something often misunderstood is by the time we find Moses in Numbers 20 and 21 he is a rarity. Most of his generation are dead. The great majority of the Israelites under his leadership are under forty years old. Yet though they have a rhythm of entitlement and complaint, Moses never gave up on them. He valued them. He wanted God’s best for them, and rather than dismiss them he pursued them and, like the Lord Jesus who would come much later, he advocated for them—time and time and time again.