Moses’ Meek Leadership

Moses' Meek Leadership

The life of Moses contributes much to the study of leadership theory

By Lael Caesar


Among history’s pre-eminent leaders, secular or religious, ecclesiastical or political, social and practical, or theoretical and intellectual, ancient Israel’s slave-born son Moses occupies the rarest of rare ground. He stands, perhaps without equal, in his witness to the value and practice of great leadership, so transcending in his time, so compellingly impacting the millennia since his birth, that he is now freely acknowledged as the human fountainhead of three great world religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Acknowledging him as the one who introduced the world to the sacred Scriptures of the Hebrew Bible, and considering the way he dominates the Old Testament, as well as the prevalence of references to him in the New, it would be hard to exaggerate either the power or the value of Moses’ life and example.

Peter’s words after the healing at the Gate Beautiful supply a most compelling demonstration of this fact. During His ministry, Jesus’ liberal use of Old Testament Scripture at times included comparisons of His actions to those of various Old Testament personalities. When challenged about Sabbath breaking, He referred to David’s law breaking (Matt. 12:3, 4), or priestly Sabbath work in the temple (vs. 5). Jonah’s time in the belly of a great fish was a sign, He said (vs. 39). And His acclaim elsewhere, compared to His rejection at Nazareth, is reminiscent of the success of Elijah and Elisha in territories and with persons outside of the land of Israel (Luke 4:24–27).

But nowhere in His evocation of Old Testament Scripture is found any reference as remarkable as that of Acts 3:22 to 26; and 7:37. In an astonishing reversal of roles, Moses had predicted that people would recognize Messiah when He came because Messiah would be like Moses (Deut. 18:15–18). And so it is, with Peter and Stephen citing the text from the Book of Deuteronomy to argue that Jesus is the fulfillment of Moses’ words (Acts 3:22–26; 7:37). There surely are other arguments, but Jesus here is recognizable as the Messiah through similarity with Moses. In such an exalted context, it is most unlikely that any discussion of Moses’ greatness and contribution as a leader would transgress the bounds of reason and fairness.

From among the many characteristics one might select from Moses’ life and example, a non-compelling, yet unsurpassable leadership trait—meekness—is best exemplified by no other human being in the way it is witnessed to in the life and work of the son of Amram and Jochebed.

Moses’ Beginnings

Despite all the veneration in which Moses’ life is held, history has still not bestowed him his due. His awe-inspiring aspect in Michelangelo’s artistic representation strongly contrasts with the legacy of Scripture. The biblical Moses deserves to be remembered as beguilingly attractive. Scripture represents the future liberator’s birth as immediately confounding to the tyranny of Egypt’s pharaohs and disruptive of the burden of oppression of his parents and his people. Hebrews 11:23 expresses the inspiration that the very sight of this infant brought to his parents’ hearts. They could see that he was “no ordinary child”1(“exceptional” in J. B. Phillips). The author of Hebrews represents him, in his infancy, as possessed of “an attractive comeliness that is uncommonly striking.”2

Abraham Even-Shoshan identifies 495 occurrences in the Old Testament of the word translated as “beautiful”3 that describes Moses’ appearance when he is introduced in Exodus 2:2: “The woman conceived and bore a son; and . . . saw that he was beautiful” (NASB). More than anything else, this word means “good,” in contrast with evil, as applicable to human character (Prov. 14:14), or to God Himself (Ps. 136:1). It also may mean cheerful or contented (Prov. 15:15). It is also recognized as a signifier of beauty, outstanding physical attractiveness.

Selectively, only seven times in the entire Old Testament, it is specifically employed to qualify named individuals as attractive. Through the ages, almost all of those so described have become legendary for their comeliness, their names inseparably bound up with celebrations of irresistibly attractive physicality. The list runs through Rebekah (twice—Genesis 24:16; 26:7), David (1 Sam. 15:12), Bathsheba (2 Sam. 11:2), Queen Vashti (Esther 1:11), Esther (2:7), and Israel’s first king, Saul, than whom none more handsome could be found in all Israel at the time of his coronation (1 Sam. 9:2).

One other in Old Testament history receives the description bestowed upon those six, and that other is Moses, of such engaging charisma, even in infancy (Ex. 2:2), that he could inspire first resistance, then boldly rebellious confidence in Amram and Jochebed. Looking into his lovely countenance moved his parents to fearless defiance of the nation’s supreme monarch. So they hid him first in secret, then out in the open. Hiding in the open, he won the heart of a woman of the palace, and found his place and life next to the throne of the empire, where he would become “educated in all the wisdom of the Egyptians and . . . powerful in speech and action” (Acts 7:22).

Thus God used Moses’ beauty, even in infancy, to engender and nurture a seed of rebellion in his parents’ hearts. That rebellion he himself would harness for God 80 years later, and it would climax in national deliverance for all of his parents’ people, though Amram and Jochebed would not live to see the end and triumph of their daring.

Moses the Meek

“Moses was a very humble man, more humble than anyone else on the face of the earth” (Num. 12:3). This superlative testimony has been quite uniformly rejected by commentators as the word of Moses’ mind. Perhaps Moses, like Paul much later (2 Cor. 11:5; 12:11, 12), might be seen as “forced to it by the insolence and contempt of opponents.”4 But the Jamieson, Faussett, and Brown commentary suggests Ezra as author of the gloss, adding alternatively that the rendering may be a mistranslation. The most basic of reasoning supports belief that the statement could not be original with Moses, for the virtue of meekness is indisputably incompatible with self-celebration. Personal proclamation of one’s humility may prove stupidity, or arrogance, or both, but surely not meekness. Moses the meek would not therefore be expected to declare himself so.

Against this view is the simple fact that Numbers 12:3 need not be read as Moses’ celebration of personal superiority. The literary and historical context of Numbers 12 is that of episodes (11–21), and a period, during which one man, Moses, is subjected to more undeserved and ungrateful insult than any other would bear, at least in the biblical record, but Jesus Christ Himself.

The sequence opens with fugitive slaves’ insolence about wanting to return to the good life of bondage (11:4, 5). Next his own brother and sister become hostile and insulting, baptizing their racism in a rhetoric of holiness (Numbers 12) that God sees through. After which, the entire nation—in the incident of the spies—refuses, now more specifically than in chapter 11, and this time at the edge of victory, the goal toward which they had set out, ranting and clamoring that they prefer to be losers (Numbers 13 and 14). They even threaten to murder the leaders who continue to claim God’s word can be trusted (14:10). There is method to their outrageous madness: The leaders who are killed for believing will be replaced with new ones who will oblige the congregation by helping them return to slavery (vs. 4); more than 250 brilliant leaders of the congregation raise a new challenge, more clearly rationalized than before, followed again by nearly the entire assembly (Numbers 16 and 17).

The incident at Meribah (Numbers 20) is a case of a human snapping under pressure. But chapter 21 shows that anger and self-pity are not the solution, for Israel is soon back to their murmuring and complaining ways, and it is Moses who must first inquire, and then act, to rescue them from the ravages of another plague. For its sheer hostility to God’s chosen leader, there is no section in all Scripture equivalent to that covered by the narratives of Numbers 12 to 21. Only Jesus, in proportion, and by virtue of who He is, may be seen as having gone through more than Moses did in this regard.

Repeatedly, through these incidents Moses’ leadership authority and spiritual credentials are called into question. For Miriam, whom God shames and castigates as chief instigator, and her brother Aaron, Moses, the youngest in the family, is clearly out of place. Scripture does not report their respective ages. What is known is that Aaron is older by three years than his brother (Ex. 7:7), while their sister Miriam, is probably the first of the three, being already mature enough at the time of Moses’ birth to be his wise and alert protector.

The cause of their grievance is social displeasure with Moses because of his Ethiopian wife (Num. 12:1). The terms of the complaint are more elevated, and Miriam is the speaker. Aaron, already known to be a follower (Ex. 32:1–6, 21–24), is an accomplice even when they both speak: “‘Has the Lord spoken only through Moses?’” (Num. 12:2).

It is alarm at Moses’ posture as divine spokesperson that inspires their skepticism. God, who knows their true motivation, summons them to the tent of meeting (vs. 4). Moses stands before them and the whole congregation as they gaze now in frightened awe at the numinous cloud (vs. 5). God speaks judgment against their impudence (vss. 6–8) and strikes Miriam white as snow (vs. 10), despite Moses’ pleas on her behalf, and demands that she remain unclean and ostracized for a full week (vss. 13–15).

But the nation does not well learn its lesson from this private family feud turned by God to public rebuke of Aaron and Miriam and public affirmation of His servant Moses. For Israel’s next major historical moment, following this, will be the rebellion of the entire nation against Moses’ leadership.

The incident of the 12 spies is not often read in such terms. But taken together, Numbers 13 and 14, and Deuteronomy 1:19 to 36 show that the very selection of spies was a failure of faith and a contradiction of Moses’s first instructions. Taken alone, Numbers 13 appears to show God and Moses as initiating the selection of tribal representatives who will review Canaan’s territories and bring back their report to the congregation waiting in the wilderness of Paran at Kadesh (Num. 13:26). The parallel account in Deuteronomy 1:19 to 36 tells a more complete, and very different story: “I said to you, . . . See, the Lord your God has given you the land. Go up and take possession of it as the Lord, the God of your fathers, told you. . . . Then all of you came to me and said, ‘Let us send men ahead to spy out the land for us and bring back a report about the route we are to take and the towns we will come to’” (vss. 20–22). Taken together, Numbers and Deuteronomy show God and His human representative as dedicated to the support of people bent on perversity that directly insults and disgraces the divine name and purpose.

True, Moses’ humanity allows him to appreciate and accept the recommendation for spies (vs. 23). But this does not negate the character of his leadership. It is the message of his meekness. Moses is right. And subsequent events declare without doubt that he was right at the beginning.

But it is the deference of spirit here exhibited that creates the space for Miriam’s attack, and the tribes’ contradiction, and the uprising of Korah and his brilliant friends, men of name, and fame, and renown (16:1–3). This is because Moses no longer knows how to assert himself on his own behalf, how to contend for rights and fight for justice, as he once did (Ex. 2:11, 12). This is the message of Numbers 12:3. And because he does not—will not—everyone may rise up against him—his sister and brother, the rabble and the elite, the spiritual leaders and the laity, Levite and Reubenite, individuals, and whole congregation (Numbers 12–17).

Finally, at the climax of it all, Moses is constrained to speak for God in judgment against Korah, Dathan, Abiram, and On: “‘If these men . . . experience only what usually happens to men, then the Lord has not sent me. But if the Lord brings about something totally new, and the earth opens its mouth and swallows them, with everything that belongs to them, . . . then you will know that these men have treated the Lord with contempt.’ . . . The ground under them split apart and the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them” (Num. 16:29–32).

But this settles nothing. When God does a new thing and opens the earth to prove that Korah’s rebellion has not been against Moses and Aaron but against Him, then the congregation, more amenable to bombast and brilliance than to meekness, seethes in protest at their dead heroes. “The next day the whole Israelite community grumbled against Moses and Aaron. ‘You have killed the Lord’s people,’ they said” (vs. 41). To trust themselves rather than stand with Moses in humble trust in God was a congregational mistake, the incipient stage of national rebellion that concluded in national tragedy.

Meek Leadership: Its Theoretical Core

That God, and His servant Moses, were willing to carry the burdensome consequences of that rebellion, and write themselves down in Numbers 13 as responsible for the flawed choices, is itself an effective exposé of the theoretical core of meekness as leadership principle. Distinctive records on the incident of the spies is not proof of Scripture’s self-contradiction.

Respect for Tota Scriptura and the fact that both accounts are Mosaic provides the reader with an exceptional lesson on the virtue of meekness. The combined message of the two accounts discloses the heart of the God who condescends to work with, wait for, and listen to sinners, neither tyrannizing them into conversion, nor abandoning them in despair. It is only because He is willing to be the God of sinners that He will reign over us all one day as the God of saints.

It is apparent that multiple other admirable elements of Moses’ character are significantly dependent on this fundamental trait of meekness. His ability, as leader of a nation, to listen to the counsel of his father-in-law, and his disposition to do “everything he said” (Ex. 18:24), are surely witness to the truth of Numbers 12:3.

His respectful consideration of the radical unorthodoxy of five courageous, fatherless women (Num. 27:1–4), his taking their request to the Lord (vs. 5), and his willing implementation of God’s new word on the matter (vss. 6–11) speak eloquently to willing deference to God and others, including, significantly, women, a deference that was part and parcel of Moses’ character.

His final farewell on Nebo’s flanks, heavy-hearted and obedient, denied his life’s dream because a myriad provocations had brought him to one flash of intemperate anger (Num. 27:12–14; Deut. 34:1–4), is only the reasonable end of a journey of submission that Moses learned to walk while minding Jethro’s sheep in the wilderness of Horeb-Sinai (Ex. 3:1).

That path of submission was the opposite of the road he was trained to follow in his youth in the Egyptian palace. In an attempt to win over a hostile audience by appealing to their pride, Stephen reminds them that “‘Moses was educated in all the wisdom of the Egyptians and was powerful in speech and action’” (Acts 7:22). That which human nature most readily admires, emphasized here by Stephen, is not deference that allows for personal affront. It is its opposite, the courage of certainly for God and country. On the other hand, Moses’ inaccessibility because he is in the mountain with God can hardly be interpreted as assertiveness. It alienates the crowd and breeds the golden calf (Ex. 32:1). Dynamic public action stands in opposition to private communion with God and wins the day. But Moses is meek. Not because meekness was deemed admirable at the time.

Numbers 12:3 is not a parenthesis. It is a necessary introduction to so much that follows. Meekness is mostly celebrated by Christians—despite our continued preference for its alternative—because Jesus, who is like Moses, declares Himself to be “gentle and humble in heart” (Matt. 11:29). Projecting that sentiment backward through fifteen hundred years, it seems clear that Moses could not have described himself as meek.

Properly appreciated, however, Jesus’ embodiment of meekness, as well as His self-identification as meek and lowly in heart (Matt. 11:28–30), might teach the consistency of Moses’ statement in the Book of Numbers. Jesus is not, of course, faulted for declaring Himself to be meek. This is primarily because gospel believers accept Him as Holy Ghost-anointed from the outset (Matt. 3:16; Acts 10:38), and living exclusively by every word from the mouth of God (Matt. 4:4). But distinction between Jesus’ credibility and that of an ordinary human such as Moses may possibly deny the Spirit the freedom to use a surrendered servant of God to teach a critically necessary lesson.

Review of the biblical use of the term translated as “meek” pertaining to Moses (Num. 12:3), provides good insight into Old Testament significance of this quality. Though at times synonymous (and even confused) with the related word translated “poor” or “afflicted,” the term’s 18 most certain occurrences never represent high social standing or popular esteem.

Nor is it clear why Moses should be deemed arrogant or unspiritual for confessing that he did not, or could not, defend himself, his rights, or his personal causes. Though the word translated as “meek” is often the object of divine succor and blessing, benefits received in no way relate to their standing or duties in the community. The God who commits to sustaining Davidic scions or the Aaronic or Levitical priesthood has no such specific covenant with meek people.

Rather, it is the need of the needy that makes them the object of His protection. He sees that evil ones, if allowed, will destroy the meek and the needy by slander (32:7), twist their way (Amos 2:7), and even completely wipe them away (8:4).They are the focus of divine solicitude precisely because they are otherwise helpless. And one needs but to read Numbers 12 to 17 to recognize this is an accurate description of Moses’ situation before Miriam and Aaron, the returning spies, and their mass audience, and the 250 famous men who stand up and speak up in Numbers 16. It is this last incident, the political insurrection that unites Korah of the first and largest Levite clan with powerful Reubenite personalities, Dathan, Abiram, and On, that lifts the narrative of wilderness rebellion to its climax, in the contrast between Moses and the men of fame. Moses, the meek, will only act exactly as the Lord commands him. He is incapable of accomplishing anything except the Lord does it for him. And this is the core of meekness as leadership principle.

For meekness as leadership principle is neither dependent on popular permission, nor on personal whim and preference. It is controlled neither by social status nor by personal will. It is the simple conviction that this is what God, unique and supreme Authority, has required and would will. It is doing what God says to do regardless. Patience with human perversity is part and parcel of such leadership, for the crowds do eventually follow, however reluctantly. But however unwilling the multitude may prove to be, God will still lead, and His meek human agent will lead by following Him (Ps. 25:9). Such single-minded, shame-despising commitment was and is the leadership of Jesus (Heb. 12:2), and of His servant Moses.

Over against such a mentality of submission, self-denial, and self-sacrifice, are allied, in the case of Numbers 16, those who nurse recent and long-cherished convictions of privilege denied—Reubenites deprived of a birthright, and Levites who know themselves to be as godly, holy, competent, and gifted, as any who claimed that they served by divine election. The elite orchestrate their prime-time confrontation against Moses specifically in context of their confidence that they control, and can count on, the crowd’s affections. Moses, and the meek, have nothing of which to boast. And they lack all human or material recourse.

Perhaps because of their vulnerability and sense of need, it is to them that Zephaniah directs his call to seek the Lord, that they may be protected in the day of the Lord’s wrath (Zeph. 2:3). For the Lord does care about them. He hears their cry (Ps. 10:17), He will guide them with judgment, and will teach them His way (25:9). Evidently, the meek person is a teachable individual. Such willingness to be taught, and the openness that is its necessary element, easily invite acts of aggression against the meek person. Affronts by those who are (1) his seniors—Aaron and Miriam; (2) many—the whole congregation; and/or (3) celebrated for their brilliance—Korah and company—are reasonable consequences that Moses reports suffering for his meekness.

The close relationship between meek and suffering, the semantic range they share (“poor,” “afflicted,” “humble”), and divine warnings and action against those who would exploit individuals thus labeled, scarcely suggest that anyone so self-described, would, in his time, be heard as boasting. Israel is under unqualified injunction to open their hand to the poor, who will never cease from the land (Deut. 15:11), and God Himself can be counted on to rise in judgment to save all the meek of the earth (Ps. 76:10). Biblical usage gives them no other possibility of deliverance. Simply told, Moses’ self-description as meek is no boast, for the meek did not occupy a position of stature, are totally dependent on God, and never possessed any title or social position generally celebrated as a thing to be desired.

Meek Leadership

Of the 120 years of Moses’ life (Deut. 34:7), he has left the greatest detail on the last third, the 40 years during which he may be said to have fulfilled the promise of his early days when gifted brilliance presented him to the world as the adopted Asiatic prince who would be pharaoh though the Hyksos had been expelled, “educated in all the wisdom of the Egyptians and . . . powerful in speech and action” (Acts 7:22). Decades would elapse before this man of learning and power would undertake and carry through that daunting task that would cause him to be memorialized in Jewish, biblical, Ancient Near Eastern, and world history, as the greatest liberator the ages have ever documented. The Book of Numbers contains most information on those last 40 years of Moses’ life. Its Hebrew name,Bemidbar, highlights the venue of its occurrence, the wilderness. And the wilderness story of Numbers teaches in more detail about Moses’ story and character than any other book of the Pentateuch.

In the context of the book and the wilderness, 11 chapters (chaps. 11–21), do more than all the rest of the book to illustrate Moses’ trials as leader of a recently released multitude of unstable, intemperate ex-slaves. Particularly because of the episodes there reported, it is clear that their greatness notwithstanding, Moses is not to be confused with history’s celebrated Caesars, Napoleons, Churchills, and such. Gracious discrimination may permit, upon occasion, the idolization of those who in other contexts would not deserve as much. But the military mastery of these mentioned heroes cannot more starkly contrast with the meekness of Moses. The flaw of his youth, intemperate passion for justice, is the sin of youthful idealists through a thousand generations to the present. But that which drives him to exile in the morning of his years is turned to almost flawless victory in the evening of his days.

Almost, but not quite. And of all Scripture’s example stories, the tragically painful disappointment that closes Moses’ earthly sojourn declares as finally as any that God will not immortalize a flawed heroism. The ideal He holds out will always be higher than our highest human thought can reach.

Nevertheless, Mosaic meekness, once given a more deserving clarity, may provide the world with a leadership model as close to the manner of Jesus Christ Himself as has ever been witnessed here on earth. Moses’ life exemplifies seven aspects of meek leadership:


1. Teachable Leadership. Moses reports perhaps the most conspicuous example of teachable leadership in his life when he describes the meeting between Egypt’s recent liberator and his father-in-law in Exodus 18. The report of this meeting is significant, communicating the courtesies of desert hospitality (Moses providing a meal—vs. 12), generational respect (bowing and kissing—vs. 7), paternal pride (Jethro’s joy and praise—vss. 9–11), and family affection (welcoming, exchanging greetings, enquiries of well-being, sharing, and rejoicing over experiences—vss. 5–11). Yet these do not exhaust its import. For outstanding among its messages is the principle of teachable leadership that lets the prince of Egypt learn from his desert-dwelling father-in-law.

That God has just used Moses to deliver His people from the world’s most powerful monarch by His mighty power (Ps. 136:12), that he has been God’s agent for silencing the pharaoh’s power, consigning his host to the bowels of the Yam Suph (vs. 15), that he has stood and spoken as God before the Pharaoh (Ex. 7:1), none of this qualifies Moses, in his own mind, as omniscient, or prevents the one who once had the run of the palace from taking instruction from another from the desert.

Omniscience may suggest itself in his answer to Jethro’s query: “‘Why do you alone sit as judge, while all these people stand around you from morning till evening’”? (Ex. 18:14). To which Moses answers: “‘Because the people come to me to seek God’s will’” (vs. 15). And he continues, “‘[I] inform them of God’s decrees and laws’” (vs. 16). But Moses’ stress does not fall on the pronoun “I.” What drives him is not conceit, but self-forgetful consecration to God and the service of His people.

Jethro knows this, and can help. His insight is that Moses’ earnestly inadequate administration threatens both him and his people. His counsel: “‘Select capable men from all the people—men who fear God, trustworthy men who hate dishonest gain—and appoint them as officials over thousands, hundreds, fifties and tens. Have them serve as judges for the people at all times, but have them bring every difficult case to you; the simple cases they can decide themselves. That will make your load lighter, because they will share it with you’” (vss. 21, 22).

And Moses is a leader willing to be rebuked, and happy to be helped: He “listened to his father-in-law and did everything he said” (vs. 24). Did it work? It most surely did. And because Moses could accept the word of God from a desert chieftain, he would come to the end of his days possessed of his full powers: “a hundred and twenty years old when he died, yet his eyes were not weak nor his strength gone” (Deut. 34:7).


2. Open-minded Leadership. Open-mindedness is certainly related to teachability. But it does involve more. Whereas teachability allows one to accept instruction, open-mindedness in his leadership permitted Moses to do the unprecedented, and on behalf of those for whom such action was not simply overlooked before, but held to be improper. Moses the open-minded leader could listen to and initiate in favor of disenfranchised women.

When Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah approached him with a request to change the nation’s laws and practices for the sake of fairness (Num. 27:1–4), he had already twice spent 40 days and nights in the mountain with God (Ex. 24:18; 34:28). It was he who had brought down to them and to all the rest, the tables of holy oracles written with God’s finger (Ex. 31:18; Deut. 9:10). The second of those tablets Moses himself had carved for God to write on (Ex. 34:1, 4).

Moses might have dismissed those women for history’s sake. He knew his history books; or for culture and custom’s sake—he was an international, with experience in what his own people were accustomed to, what practices obtained in neighboring countries where he had lived and linked himself by marriage, and he knew how they would react to something so radical. He could have argued that after he had shared the data from his two 40-day-and-night sessions in God’s law-giving company, it was likely inappropriate for the women even to raise such a question. It could amount to questioning the adequacy and reliability of revelation.

Instead, “Moses brought their case before the Lord” (Num. 27:5). It did not seem to him that his God, who had already spoken as clearly as He had, would mind another consultation. And Mahlah and company did not believe that the God of past revelation was now exhausted. It would be reasonable and proper to ask Him new questions.

And God? He might have reproved Moses for not properly appreciating already communicated revelation. But “the path of the righteous is like the first gleam of dawn, shining ever brighter till the full light of day” (Prov. 4:18). There is, and there will always be, new truth to comprehend. Because Moses was an open-minded leader, he could take a new case to the Lord. And God could speak categorically: “‘What Zelophehad’s daughters are saying is right’” (Num. 27:6). Things changed, old and long and established discrimination was confronted, and justice prevailed.


3. Obedient Leadership. Given Moses’ charisma and intellect, it is remarkable how willing he shows himself to be in paying attention to the wishes and counsel of those who were far from being his administrative equals. But if he was respectful to his fellow humans and their concerns, it was because he was first respectful to his God. As already noted, this is the theoretical core, the essence of meek leadership—the confidence that whatever God requires is to be done to the limit. And the true totality of obedience to God never excludes respect for humans created in the image of God.

Nowhere is Moses’ devotion to total conformity to God’s instructions more consistently underlined than in the account of the sanctuary’s establishment. The report of setting up the sanctuary belabors the admirable Mosaic leadership trait of cooperative obedience. Though the assignment demanded generous assistance and the particular gifts bestowed on Bezalel and Oholiab, Moses is represented as personally performing all tasks involved. Throughout the setting up of the structure the phrase is seven times repeated: “as the Lord commanded him” (Ex. 40:19, 21, 23, 25, 27, 29) or “as the Lord commanded Moses” (vs. 32).


4. Withstand-the-Consequences Leadership. At a place that would be cursed with the labels of Massah (“test”) and (“quarrel”), Moses was charged to honor God before a desperate congregation. He was to speak to a mountain that would thus spring a fountain of water enough to quench the thirsty ingratitude of the whole congregation, and water their beasts as well (Num. 20:1–8). Instead, Moses vented his indignation at the people’s gracelessness by denouncing them as rebels who would now demand of him and his brother that they bring water out of flint. Whereupon he slammed his shepherd’s stick against the rock, from which, in that instant, a river of water burst forth before his and the people’s incredulous eyes (vss. 9–11).

God’s answer to Moses’ rage was firm and unalterable: “‘Because you did not trust in me enough to honor me as holy in the sight of the Israelites, you will not bring this community into the land I give them’” (vs. 12). God had ever intended to give water to the complainers. Neither Moses nor Aaron could do what God could, and bring water out of the flinty rock (Deut. 32:13). Moses had desecrated God’s wonder-working bit of dry stick by striking the rock twice with it. He had arrogated to himself responsibility that belonged solely to God by his irritated query, “‘Must we bring you water out of this rock?’” (Num. 20:10). And he had confused the people by the bewildering context he had given the miracle: Was God now to be represented as (or pleased and persuaded by) frothing at the mouth?

God’s uncompromising response to Moses’ Meribah anger weighed heavily on the patriarch’s soul. Leading Israel into Canaan was what he had meant to do as a youth, what he had given up on ever doing as he tended Jethro’s sheep, and what he finally undertook and had sacrificially labored to do for the last 40 years of his existence. Accepting that he would never accomplish the only thing he lived for accomplishing was difficult to accept. He begged his God about it until, after the conquest of Sihon and Og, God spoke categorically to him, “‘That is enough. . . . Do not speak to me anymore about this matter’” (Deut. 3:26).

The Moses who speaks on the plains of Moab is a disappointed man. But he is one who has accepted the consequences of his actions. Though he knows of the people’s guilt in the matter (1:37; 3:26), he neither curses God nor throws up his hands and refuses to go on. Even on Moab’s plains his mind and counsel are ever turned toward Israel’s success, and distressed about their future failures—after he is gone, after they enter the land of promise.

But there is more than disappointment in God’s uncompromising position toward Moses. For it must also be recognized as a powerful confirmation of his practice of meek leadership. By stern rebuke of that single instance, God Himself witnesses to innumerable occasions when His servant did not fail: to times, reported and unreported, when he bore large insults with grace of manner and countenance; to the ways and days he drew on strength from nights in the mountain with his God, and persevered because he knew that tonight when the roar of their tumult and the whine of their complaining was momentarily stilled, he would be able to go again to his mountain or his desert secret place and share another hour with his God, drawing one more day’s worth of strength from his unfailing source of spiritual and physical sustenance.


5. Praying Leadership. For Moses, God-immersed, God-saturated living was a privilege and pleasure. And so it was for God, too: “The Lord would speak to Moses face to face, as a man speaks with his friend” (Ex. 33:11). Leadership that spends days, weeks, and months alone with God is not necessarily the best in the congregation’s eyes. There are people at the foot of the mountain who resent the absenteeism of such sustained private devotion. They believe in action, and do not know what to make of leaders who disappear because they must have time alone with God: “‘As for this fellow Moses who brought us up out of Egypt, we don’t know what has happened to him’” (32:1). They do. But prayer is not their priority.


6. Shared Leadership. It is leadership that as per Jethro’s advice, already noted (Ex. 18:17–23), appoints captains of tens, fifties, hundreds, and thousands, rather than micromanage the entire operation. And it is leadership that respects the people’s abilities and allows them to serve in the areas of their gifts. It both refreshes the larger group, and preserves leaders’ energies, so they may continue to share the accumulated wisdom of their years even after they have passed their command to others and retired to less demanding schedules of service.

Moses also stumbles backward into another aspect of shared leadership and teaches us at least three lessons in the process. They are lessons on:


● The shortsightedness of flawed humility, the flawed humility that complains to God about His wisdom in assigning a task, the frightened humility that, looking to the self, knows then that God has erred in entrusting to us as much as He has. This is the error of Moses’ protested inadequacy in Numbers 11:11–13.


● The impetuosity of irritated humanity, when Moses blurts out his mistaken conviction that his assignment is not a task for which God has fitted him (vss. 14, 15). This is not the meekness that Numbers 12 eventually celebrates. Instead, it is but a stage in the process of his growth and sanctification. It is a stage where too many too long linger, in perpetual dismay over the humanly perceived and creaturely designed dimensions of divinely appointed assignments. His work on earth would never be completed were it to be apportioned to us based on human assessments. For then the proud would never be satisfied about their portion of work, and their more modest companions would forever be terrified of the mountains they were expected to move.


● God’s disappointment when His children’s faith fails. His response to Moses implies this disappointment, as He will relieve Moses’ burden, not by a new impartation, but by taking what Moses has and sharing it with others (vss. 16, 17).


7. Next-generation Leadership. The final aspect of meek leadership touched upon is next-generation leadership, which respects and plans on continuity. “Moses said to the Lord, ‘May the Lord, the God of the spirits of all mankind, appoint a man over this community to go out and come in before them, one who will lead them out and bring them in, so the Lord’s people will not be like sheep without a shepherd.’ So the Lord said to Moses, ‘Take Joshua son of Nun, a man in whom is the spirit, and lay your hand on him’” (Num. 27:15–18).

Was God now choosing Joshua? Or was He, rather, confirming Moses’ original selection? It is quite evident throughout Israel’s sojourn that Moses’ closest human companion is the young man Joshua. Like Elisha, who poured water on Elijah’s hands and succeeded him in the prophetic ministry in the northern kingdom (2 Kings 3:11; 2:9–15), so Joshua is Moses’ servant, his perpetual companion, serving an apprenticeship that would prepare him to lead the people in the spirit and power of Moses (Josh. 1:1–5).

Joshua’s spirit is not at first as discriminating as his master’s. He hears debauchery as war (Ex. 32:17), and prophecy in the camp as spiritual insubordination (Num. 11:25–29). He is protective of his master Moses. But he is teachable and a leader, and a man of faith who passes the Moses test at Kadesh when he stands almost alone against the rebellion of the faithless multitude (14:2–9). If he can stand and be a leader for God in such circumstances, then he is ready to follow Moses’ footsteps. He has learned well. And at the appropriate time, he receives the divine approval, and becomes the new Moses, who leads God’s people into the land of promise.

“As historian, poet, philosopher, general of armies, and legislator, [Moses] stands without a peer.”5 A close study of his life further contributes much to the study of leadership theory besides model meekness. From him may be learned relational leadership, leadership as stewardship, leadership as servanthood, or more on the critical importance of practicing tolerance, being teachable, and deferring to deity. Beyond these, other issues of good leadership may be considered: thorough organization (Numbers 2), foresight (Deut. 31:27–29), careful documentation (vss. 9, 25, 26), faithful obedience (Ex. 39:26, 29, 31, 42, 43; 32:16, 19, 21), delegation of duties (Ex. 17:8–10; Num. 1:50; 3:25, 26, 30–32, 36, 37), appropriate outrage (Ex. 32:15–20), or even planning for the next generation, exhibited in effecting a smooth leadership transition from himself to his successful successor Joshua (Deut. 31:7, 8). But the trait of meekness is a mark of Jesus Christ Himself. It is perhaps just as uncelebrated and just as desperately needed today as it was in Moses’ time.

Lael Caesar is Associate Editor, Adventist Review and Adventist Worldmagazines, Silver Spring, Maryland; and Research Professor of Hebrew Bible, Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan.



1. Unless noted otherwise, all Scripture references are quoted from the New International Version of the Bible.
2. Fritz Reinecker, Cleon Rogers, Linguistic Key to the Greek New Testament (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1976), p. 710.
3. Abraham Even-Shoshan, A New Concordance of the Bible (Jerusalem: Kiryat Sepher, 1982).
4. Robert Jamieson, A. R. Faussett, David Brown, A Commentary Critical, Experimental, and Practical on the Old & New Testaments (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1984), vol. 1, p. 544.
5. Patriarchs and Prophets, p. 246.