Hacking the Hexateuch* to Finish Well

Just Shy of The Promised Land: God’s Plan, God’s Timing…Not Mine

After spending a few weeks reading up on the challenges and frustrations that accompanied the historical Exodus of the Jews out of Egypt, the primary feeling that welled up within my soul was a desire to drive around town and personally apologize, face-to-face, to anyone who has ever been present when I lost my temper in the context of Christian ministry…or in any other context, for that matter.

Moses Receives The Ten Commandments

The conviction that immediately followed hard upon that first reaction is the certainty that my ability to minister to people – who are, on their best day, a decidedly-mixed bag of desires and intentions – clearly needs several major overhauls. Compared to the charge given Moses – and the miserable resources he was given to carry out that charge – Christian ministry in the 21st century can seem pretty childish by comparison.

Even if our biblical knowledge is entirely limited to having once watched the 1998 animated film Prince of Egypt, we all know the basic outlines of the Exodus narrative by now. I won’t spend any time here reiterating the call of Moses at the burning bush (Exodus 3), the Ten Plagues that fell upon Egypt as a result of Pharaoh’s stubbornness (Exodus 7:14-11:10) or the miraculous rescue of the Hebrew tribes when his armies had them pinned down against the Red Sea (Exodus 13:17-14:29). What has captured my attention rather is the episode that resulted in Moses being barred from entering The Promised Land at the end of his life. God instructs Moses to alleviate the physical thirst of His people by speaking to a rock (Numbers 20:6-8), but in furious anger at the continuing unbelief of God’s people, Moses chooses to act independently of God’s design, speaking harshly to the people and forcefully striking the rock…twice (Numbers 20:10-12).

For many years, I have often wondered – given his amazing “batting average” of faithfulness to God, coupled with his compassion for the Jewish people – if “the punishment fit the crime,” or if perhaps (zero blasphemy intended) God might have over-responded to this singular display of temper?

In human terms, we look at Moses spending about 40 of his 120 years patiently leading and guiding the Hebrews and regularly interceding for them when God threatens to wipe them out and start over from scratch (Deuteronomy 9:13-14); does a single temper tantrum really disqualify Moses from, at long last, witnessing the culmination of everything he has worked decades to accomplish? As it turns out, the unsurprising answer is “Yes.”

The severity of God’s punishment is not to be understood as an overreaction to “some guy hitting a rock with a stick,” but rather as mercy displayed at the shocking turnabout displayed by Moses’ decision to temporarily part company with the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (Exodus 3:6) and enact his own unique version of a Golden Calf Moment (Exodus 32). Whatever we think we see in Numbers 20, the reality is that Moses has chosen to pursue his own path, apart from God’s leading and will. This episode is not ultimately about a rock, it’s about a ruptured relationship.

Aggravating the episode at the waters of Meribah was the status of Moses both before God and before His people. It’s often noted that, as a society, we correctly respond differently to the shooting of a stray dog than we do to the shooting of a president; the status of the injured party is the determining factor. Moses was both a close friend of God (Exodus 33:11) and the acknowledged leader of the Jewish nation (Exodus 7:1); how could he reasonably expect obedience from the people when he so publicly displayed a willingness to depart from God’s plan? As it turns out, only with increased difficulty, no surprise there. The New Testament likewise affirms that ministry leaders are expected to live life according to a more rigid standard (James 3:1).

Moses on Management by Rabbi David BaronTwo books that have been instrumental at reshaping my understanding of the seriousness of the episode at Meribah are Moses on Leadership by Pastor Gene Mims and Moses on Management by Rabbi David Baron. Both of these books are relatively-quick reads and the primary emphasis in both cases is applying the lessons of Moses to modern-day corporations, ministries and family life.

How does one lead confidently in a postmodern world, a culture that begins many of its cultural lesson plans with a conscious, intentional effort to dismantle truth and discredit hierarchy? Mims and Baron pepper their books with plenty of real-life examples drawn from the past 50 years, such as the “New Coke” debacle of 1985, along with many more incidents immediately recognizable to many of us. Interviews with leaders (successful…and otherwise) provide plenty of grist for the mill and keep the relevance of adopting biblical leadership principles in plain sight.

For his part, Rabbi Baron affirms the orthodox understanding of the Meribah Temper Tantrum as the most egregious ministry failure in the life of Moses. While modern readers would tend to critique this assessment by pointing out that Moses had, after all, willfully murdered an Egyptian slave driver (Exodus 2:12) – the taking of a human life surely outweighs hitting a rock with a stick – it’s important to note that the rupture in trust which was on display at Meribah occurred long after the call of God at the burning bush, and after multiple demonstrations of God’s power and authority. The sins of his youth, including striking down the Egyptian and burying him in the sand, did not carry the same seriousness as Moses had not yet entered into God’s service and (significantly) trust. Baron goes on to offer the management principle of being well prepared for the thorns and thistles certain to crop up as we do business, teach and interact with far-less-formidable personalities:

Feeling cranky, Moses deviated from the plan. He called the people together and taunted them: “Listen, you rebels, shall we get water for you out of this rock?” Then he struck the rock twice, and out poured water. God was not pleased. He had said to order the rock, not strike it. God, not Moses, set the terms for miracles. The penalty was that Moses would never enter the Promised Land. A lot of people think this punishment is like being executed for a parking ticket, but the point is that a perfect, flawless role model doesn’t exist. It doesn’t exist in a president or in corporate CEOs – it doesn’t exist in the human condition. Too often, people don’t accept the fact that they are dealing with other human beings who are occasionally going to make mistakes. Since (as the law of entropy instructs) breakdowns are inevitable, every organization should anticipate them and have in place a mechanism for repair.
David Baron, Moses on Management (Page 146)

To Baron’s thoughts, I would simply add that anyone in a leadership position would be well-advised to put in place a plan for their own, personal breakdown, which might be getting “lost in the fog” spiritually and losing one’s way, or might be as innocuous as simply acknowledging that old age, diminished capacity and (finally) death is certain to cause a leadership crisis…unless we have planned well in advance for these inevitabilities.

Moses on Leadership by Pastor Gene MimsIn contrast to Scripture, which sees human beings primarily as adopted sons and daughters, modern American culture tends to exalt two things as primary identities: work productivity and sexuality. In the arena of work, “more is always better,” meaning that we tend to stand back in awe of those who work 90-hour weeks and somehow keep their sanity. In later chapters, Baron goes to some length to demonstrate how Moses had a number of trusted souls in his camp – Joshua, Aaron, Jethro, etc. – who advised him, called him out on his errors and helped train up additional leaders to take on the heavy burden posed by hundreds of thousands of people wandering around in a harsh environment. The lesson was not lost in Baron’s book; every leader should assume that he or she will fail badly at some point and require the objective critique of those who are committed to the leader, yes, but more committed to the shared task at hand, i.e. turning freed slaves into a great nation.

In his book, Mims spends a great deal of time emphasizing that the primary character trait necessary to lead well is surrender to the guidelines that you will be attempting to promulgate to those you lead. In the case of Moses, the non-negotiable code that he lived by, even prior to the call from God, was the Ten Commandments. Moses was not picked for his special skills, he was chosen because of his heart for God. Period. Nowadays, we can readily see the wisdom of God’s choice play itself out in workplaces where, for example, rank-and-file employees are expected not to steal from their employer while upper management helps itself to larger salaries, luxurious perks and company resources used for personal pleasure. Failing to live by a code that you have endorsed is a recipe for failure; Moses had to deal with grumbling even though his conduct was consistently (though not perfectly) upright. Imagine how much tougher his job would have been had he delivered the Ten Commandments…only to turn around and take a mistress for himself!

Forced to choose between these two books, I’d say go with the Mims book first, and not simply because Mims writes from the vantage point of Christianity. Baron’s book is far more readable as each of the 50 chapters is short and a self-contained episode. My primary observations would simply be that his approach can feel a bit too “cookie cutter” at times, but that’s a minor kvetch given what a great job he has done of condensing and simplifying for the average reader. Still, I confess it is baffling to me why a rabbi would spend any time deconstructing some of the miracles attributed to God’s chosen messenger; perhaps to make it more “palatable” to unbelieving business leaders?

Where Baron tends to put his focus on methods and outcomes, the focus for Mims stays trained on the condition of the human heart and its tendency to wander away or fall into snares. It’s an over-simplification, but the word picture that comes to mind is that whereas Baron spends a lot of time fixing broken legs, medicating sore throats and so on, Mims directs most of his energies toward a relentless X-Ray of the stirrings deep inside, heart longings that surface as we make decisions along the leadership trail. “Why did he do that?” tends to count for more with Mims than “How did he accomplish that?”

The final word goes to Mims, who exhorts all ministry leaders to a higher level of persistence alongside the cultivation of humility:

Persistence and perseverance are qualities that must be developed through practice in the heat of our battles. We do not need either one until conflicts arise, problems develop, and opposition shows up. We develop endurance in the fires of our testing as leaders by:

  • Trusting in God to empower us to stand firm against anything that comes against us or our people.
  • Obeying His will no matter the cost or consequences to us personally.
  • Remembering what He called us to do, where He sent us to do it, and that it was God Himself who gave us our present task(s).

Gene Mims, Moses on Leadership: How to Become a Great Leader in Forty Short Years (Page 64)

*Hexateuch: The first six books of the Bible, Genesis to Joshua, collectively.

Hacking the Hexateuch* Three-Part Series

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