What we were should not disqualify us from what we might be for God
Intelligence agencies have come to rely on the psychological profile of the suicide bomber and it would be interesting to know how they would respond to this one. A male survives ethnic cleansing as a child; is deserted by his parents and taken into care; has a confused identity and becomes an angry young man; has a bad temper and murders another; becomes a fugitive from justice; is given messages by God to lead the deliverance of his people. Today he might awaken the interest of the security services. The Bible called him Moses, one of the most revered spiritual leaders in history.
Everything about Moses is written on an epic scale and he is almost impossible to describe in ordinary categories, rather like Jesus whose contemporaries unsuccessfully compared him to others like Elijah. Moses grew up in a captive and oppressed ethnic minority, a fertile ground for resentment and simmering violence which boiled over when he murdered an Egyptian taskmaster cruelly beating an Israelite slave. The subterfuge of hiding the body proved to no avail because someone had witnessed it, compelling Moses to flee to the land of Midian. Here he became a shepherd, forgot his people’s plight and any pretensions of leadership and tried to stay out of history’s way until his encounter with the burning bush.
Every now and then, a local church has to choose a new leader. Those tasked with appointment scour application forms and – let’s be honest – Google each candidate to trace their digital history. What would happen if one had been convicted of murder a long time ago? We believe in repentance and faith but how resolutely would we adhere to this belief if a reporter chose to make a scandal out of the story? The truth is we prefer Christian leaders without suspicious baggage but this brings us closer to a religion of works rather than grace and to a position where we might be more readily accepting of those with few faults for which they are not seeking forgiveness than we are of those with big faults for which they have sought repentance. The calling of Moses is a direct challenge to this.
The calling of Yahweh from the burning bush is also an inspiration to those who feel their personal specification does not match up to their job description. Firstly, Moses had to establish credibility with the Israelites when he was a shadowy figure with a dubious history that had fled Egypt before at the first sign of trouble. He had to unify them behind a single cause: that God was going to use him to liberate the people from slavery when his only previous attempt at leadership had been scorned by those who witnessed his lack of self-control. He had to eyeball Pharaoh, supreme leader of an ancient superpower, and state God’s inflexible demands when he was an incoherent and uninspiring public speaker. He had to create sufficient faith and hope in an oppressed people for them to rise up, when he suffered from a poor sense of his own self-worth. He had to lead the Israelites on their own Long Road to Freedom out of a nation whose economy was staked on their slavery.
And all this was the easy part.
The hard bit always comes after the revolution. People form easy alliances when they want to be liberated from oppression; they become more fractious in defining what they want to be liberated to. The initial surge of optimism which accompanies a revolution usually recedes as people settle old scores under the guise of ideological purity. Once they had escaped from Egypt, Moses had to forge for them a renewed identity as the people of God, round a constitution we call the Ten Commandments. One of which, incidentally, says you shall not commit murder. Today, a public leader whose hypocrisy in this respect was uncovered would be compelled to resign; for Moses it demonstrated a forgiving God who does not disqualify from service those who repent of their past.
Enoch Powell said that all political careers end in failure and Moses might seem to prove this dictum long before its time. Though called by God to lead the people into Canaan, he never arrived. After the intoxicating surge of hope forged by their miraculous deliverance from cruelty, the people spent the next forty years wandering round the desert until most had forgotten why they were there in the first place. Momentum all lost and his patience exhausted, Moses abused the power of God in a lapse of anger, the outcome of which was the loss of the privilege of leading his people into the Promised Land. It was a high price to pay for a momentary loss of control, but perhaps it was for the best. Charging Joshua with leadership instead, God showed the importance of dependence on him alone, rather than on enduring human leaders. By this time, anyway, Moses’ place in the pantheon of faith was secure.
Yet history does strange things. Moses became enshrined as the greatest leader Israel ever had without any sense of irony attached to it. While he was alive, everyone moaned at him endlessly for failing to deliver the goods; no-one seemed to have a good word to say about him. How typical of human nature to criticise the living and respect the dead and to despise the present and revere the past. Moses is idealised as an irreproachable man of God, an untouchable hero of faith, when in reality he was an ordinary human being with a bad temper and a criminal record who was touched by the grace of God.
Many Christian eyes have distorted Israel’s biblical history, missing what it says about the grace of God which is stronger throughout than all the weakness of the human spirit; a truth which should be written across the C.V. of every repentant sinner.
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