Holy Chutzpah – Moses

Holy Chutzpah – Moses

Holy Chutzpah – Moses.

“Why are you treating me, your servant, so harshly? Have mercy on me! What did I do to deserve the burden of these people? Did I give them birth like a mother? Did I bring them into the world? Why did you tell me to carry them in my arms like a mother carries a nursing baby? How can I carry them to the land you swore to give their ancestors? I can’t carry all the people by myself! The load is too heavy! If this is how you intend to treat me, just go ahead and kill me. Do me a favor and spare me this misery!” (Numbers 11:11-15).

Chutzpah (hoots-pah) is a Yiddish word that long ago entered English usage. It is from the Hebrew word, “hutspah,” which means insolent or audacious. Chutzpah is a neutral word that can be either positive or negative. Chutzpah can be righteous or unrighteous, holy or unholy. It is an idea difficult to define, so there are a lot of synonyms for it, especially in the biblical sense: spiritual audacity; brazen gall; tenacious stubbornness; headstrong persistence; outrageous guts; shameless nerve; feisty assertiveness; brazen impudence; unyielding boldness; courageous spine; expectant defiance. The Holy Scriptures, both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, are overflowing with examples of holy chutzpah. One wonders not only if it’s a job requirement for saints and prophets, but also a faith requirement for all believers. In fact, God seems to love chutzpah in us when it is based on our ultimate trust in Him and His character, our unselfish motives, our yearning for justice and mercy. Chutzpah in front of others becomes holy when it is done in obedience to the Lord and is an outworking of our faith in Him. As Rabbi Schulweiss once said, “Spiritual audacity toward God finds a place of honor in Jewish religious thought.” The rabbis of old have always insisted that chutzpah is a valid expression of faith. Just a quick glimpse at the Gospels reveals that Jesus and His followers fully embraced the ancient Jewish ethic of holy chutzpah. When Jesus saw chutzpah in action, He usually said things like, “Great is your faith!” Maybe Christian scholar Dr. Brad Young said it best. “True faith requires bold perseverance. Sometimes it is expressed by brazen impudence. Faith can be defined as chutzpah. Persevere with unyielding tenacity.” (Brad Young, Jesus the Jewish Theologian).

If anyone in Scripture takes top prize for chutzpah, it’s Moses. Here is a biblical hero who seems to have audacity and holy boldness baked into his genes. His very presence as a baby succeeded in thumbing his nose at the King of Egypt. We can thank Moses’ mother and sister Miriam for that. When he was forty years old and still a ward of the palace, Moses thought he could take justice into his own hands and wreak vengeance on an Egyptian guard. That demonstration of chutzpah was ill-advised and proved the wrong way to go about being assertive. God redeemed that incident forty years later after Moses had his chutzpah humbled being a shepherd in the wilderness of Sinai. At eighty years old, Moses was called to the presence of Yahweh God in a burning bush. God had a heart-to-heart talk with Moses there and gave Moses His unknown Name, Yahweh. At this point one would think Moses would have a sense of awe and respect, enough to accept whatever God told him. But no, Moses had the shameless audacity to reject God’s calling. Once again, maybe Moses’ chutzpah hadn’t quite been fully redeemed yet. There he is, saying thanks but no thanks to the almighty God. Go ahead, Yahweh, and pick someone else, would you, and leave me alone, says Moses. I don’t have what it takes, and you are asking the wrong guy.

Finally, after a miracle or two, Moses was convinced this may be a good idea after all. Moses now had the mission to confront the Pharaoh of Egypt and liberate God’s chosen people after 400 years of slavery. It is the right time, says Yahweh, for the Israelites to renew their God-given identity and start their new nation in the Promised Land. Moses was then infused with holy chutzpah, and he brazenly confronted the Pharaoh and demanded liberation for the people of God. Moses was tenacious and determined and was not going to take no for an answer. To prove he was serious, Moses fearlessly inflicted many plagues on Egypt which made life very difficult for the whole country. The end result of these plagues was that Moses proved his God was way more powerful than the gods of Egypt.

Pharaoh finally relented to the holy stubbornness of Moses, and Moses led his people to the far boundary of Egypt, the Red Sea. By this time, Pharaoh had second thoughts and sent hundreds of Egyptian soldiers to take the people back to Egypt. So the Israelites were stuck… the Red Sea on one side and the soldiers on the other side. But the presence of Yahweh in the form of thick clouds and blazing fire protected the chosen people till Moses struck the Sea with the staff and the waters parted. The people walked through the path in the parted Sea to the other side, and the soldiers started following them. Just in time, Moses brought those parted waters back together, drowning all the soldiers and assuring the Israelites of their newfound freedom.

Now in the wilderness with all these ex-slaves who did not exactly possess wilderness survival skills, Moses had his hands full. There is no certainty about just how many Israelites were in this initial group. Exodus 12:37-38 claimed 600,000 men, which would translate to around a couple of million people! But the Hebrew scholars say that is a mistranslation of the Hebrew text. The word for thousand was “eleph,” which usually meant “clans” or military units.” So this text from Exodus 12 could easily read “600 clans” or “600 military units.” Still, that’s a lot of unprepared people for Moses to shepherd through the barren wilderness. During all their ups and down, miracles, rebellions, insurrections and disasters, Moses had developed a relationship with Yahweh that was on a first name basis. Moses and God were bosom buddies, believe it or not. “Yahweh would speak to Moses face to face, as one speaks to a friend.” (Ex. 33:11). So Moses, as with any close friend, was blunt and candid and ever since the burning bush was unafraid to be unashamedly brazen with Yahweh.

If anyone deserves to complain to the Lord, it was Moses. Look at what Moses had the gall to tell Yahweh before they even left Egypt, “Then Moses went back to the Lord and protested,Why have you brought all this trouble on your own people, Lord? Why did you send me? Ever since I came to Pharaoh as your spokesman, Pharaoh has been even more brutal to your people. And you have done nothing to rescue them!’” (Ex. 5:22-23). And look at how Moses used his chutzpah in advocating for his people after the golden calf incident. Yahweh wanted to destroy the whole group and start over with Moses. But Moses said, “Why are you so angry with your own people whom you brought from the land of Egypt with such great power and such a strong hand? Change your mind, Lord, about this terrible disaster you have threatened against your own people!” (Ex. 33:11-14). Moses here had the audacity to question the judgment of the Almighty God and hold Him to his earlier promises. Regarding this episode in Moses’ life, there was an old rabbinic saying… ‘Moses took hold of the Holy One, blessed be He, like a man who seizes his fellow by his garment, and said before Him: ‘Sovereign Lord of the Universe! I will not let You go until You forgive and pardon these people!” And so we see that Yahweh did indeed “change His mind about the terrible disaster He had threatened to bring on His people.” (Ex. 33:14).

To confront the Almighty God in that way took uncommon nerve. Even though he was and remains the greatest hero of the Hebrew Bible. Even though he was an unparalleled teacher, a profound prophet, a powerful miracle-worker, and Israel’s most faithful intercessor before God. Despite his one-of-a-kind resume, he at one point wanted his Lord to take his life. Moses at his low point in Numbers 11 thought of himself as a failure and God’s mission as impossible. Moses believed he had failed God’s calling, that the Israelites were a burden he couldn’t carry. So that’s when he had that painful heart-to-heart conversation with Yahweh.

That famous last line in Numbers 11:15 reads different ways according to the translation. “Do not let me face my own ruin!” “End my miserable life!” “Don’t let me see my wretchedness!’ “I need no longer to face my distress!” Moses had reached his breaking point. He was exhausted, overwhelmed, discouraged, and feeling like a complete failure. It’s no wonder Moses had this low moment. Look at what led up to Moses’ brokenness… The Israelites, after being freed from 400 years of slavery in Egypt through astounding miracles like the Plagues, started complaining as soon as they left Egypt. They complained at the Red Sea; then they started murmuring about the bitter water; they then whined about the food; they complained again about the lack of water. At Mt. Sinai, they grumbled and grew impatient and committed a grievous sin: they fashioned and worshiped an old Egyptian deity in the form of a golden calf. Nonetheless, the Lord patiently came to the rescue at the Red Sea, He provided pure water to drink, and daily bread from heaven. After this their ingratitude went to new heights. They complained that they didn’t have meat to eat there in the wilderness in the middle of nowhere. At this point the Lord was disgusted and angry, and Moses thought their actions to be disgraceful and just plain evil. And that was what led up to Moses’ cry of despair in Numbers 11. The Lord did provide some meat in the form of quail, but it had strings attached. All the people who complained about meat died of the plague while the meat was still in their mouths.

Yes, this was the moment when Moses had had enough. He didn’t think he could take any more. He personally took responsibility for the Israelites, and they were letting him down at every opportunity. So he thought he had failed the Lord’s mission, that he wasn’t adequate for the task before him. He thought his leadership was a total flop. He just couldn’t seem to change the hearts of the Israelites. So Moses was disappointed in himself, and he believed he had failed God. Or so he thought.

At the end of his life, Moses had grown into a man who didn’t complain, who trusted God and had fully surrendered to Him. God and Moses had engaged in many arguments and often had differences of opinion. Moses was never afraid to voice those thoughts of his, and God Himself seemed to enjoy His friendship and openness with Moses. But now as the end of his life was coming soon, the time for differences was now over.

How blessed you are, O Israel! Who else is like you, a people saved by the Lord? He is your protecting shield and your triumphant sword! Your enemies shall submit to you, and you shall march on their high places! (Deuteronomy 33:29).

Much like Jacob in his dying moments, Moses gave prophetic blessings to the tribes of Israel before his final breaths on earth. “This is the blessing that Moses, the man of God, gave to the people of Israel before he died.” (Deut. 33:1). His final words exclaim how lucky Israel is to have God on their side, and how unlucky their enemies are to have God oppose them.

But there must have been a mood of sadness in Moses’ spirit as he extended those final words to his people. God had just told him something that must have broken his heart. The Lord confided to Moses that as soon as His people enter the land of Canaan, they will abandon God and chase after the foreign gods. They will violate their marriage covenant with God, they will commit spiritual adultery (Deut. 31:16). We wouldn’t blame Moses if he felt like a failure. After all his work of delivering the people out of the clutches of Pharaoh and away from the slavery of Egypt. After leading and guiding them for forty grueling years through the wilderness doing the impossible. After helping them finally reach the entrance to the Promised Land of their forefathers. After all that sacrifice and commitment, the Chosen People will act like they are not God’s people at all. After Moses dies, the Lord told him, they will act like they never heard of their Savior Yahweh.

Moses was undoubtedly heartsick as he spoke the end of his blessings. He might have been a bit outraged as well. After speaking these blessings in Deuteronomy 33, he climbed Mt. Nebo with God to witness the far reaches of the Promised Land, his goal after all these years. At this point, in his disappointment, he could only find hope for the Israelites in the forgiving grace of God, in God’s fidelity to His covenant with the people. Moses must have felt like a parent who can only watch helplessly as his children wander away from everything he has taught them growing up. Moses was perhaps the greatest leader who ever lived, yet he couldn’t make their decisions for them. Moses had to let it all go in his dying moments and trust in His God.

When Moses died somewhere there on Mt. Nebo, he was 120 years old… Forty years in Egypt growing up; forty years as a shepherd; forty years in the wilderness with his people. His eyesight remained clear to the end, and his strength was not diminished. Despite the disappointing news of their future rebelliousness, Moses closed his life on a hopeful, optimistic note. Israel is blessed. The Lord is their refuge. Their enemies are destined to fail. Moses earnestly sought to be an encouragement to his people till his dying breath.