Low Moments: Moses

Low Moments: Moses

Low Moments: Moses. 

The Hebrew Bible is the most realistic book ever written. Christians might call it the Old Testament, but the stories contained within it are anything but old in the sense of outdated, hobbled by age or past their prime. These old stories remain relevant because of their inclination to show everything there was to see about its characters. The Jewish Scriptures are totally transparent, revealing the people at their high points, low points, and everything in between. Its writers had nothing to hide, evidently, and was all about real life in all its glory and all its failures. There were five biblical heroes who were revealed as all too human, all of them at low points during their life with God. These five all asked to die, they requested that the Lord take their lives. But God refused to take the lives of Moses, Elijah, Job, Jeremiah and Jonah. God had more for them to do, and anyway it was unthinkable. Of course God wouldn’t take their lives when they were at such low moments. Anyone who has ever reached their limit, who has had enough, can learn from these five real life episodes of faithful people at their lowest.

“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).

If anyone deserves a weak moment here, it was Moses. 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 this low point 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. 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.

The Lord saw the road ahead and saw Moses in His plans. There was more work to do. Moses wasn’t finished with the mission quite yet. So the Lord helped solve at least a part of the problem. He told Moses to carefully choose 70 elders to help bear Moses’ burden of leadership, “so you will not have to carry it alone.” (Num. 11:16-17).

It was at this point that it was reported that Moses was very humble, the most humble man on the face of the earth. (Numbers 12:3). It’s interesting that the Hebrew word for humble in this context can mean humble, meek, as well as bowed down with care and afflicted, and even miserable. How are we take this? We can take it that Moses was all those things. He had no cause for pride at this point in his needy and wretched state. Yet he remained the most humble man anywhere.

The truth is that the burden of leadership seemed just as heavy after his breaking point as before. Even after this addition of 70 elders to support Moses, the hearts of the people did not change. Soon they complained about being stuck in the wilderness without any hope of defeating the Canaanites. They wanted to choose a new leader and return to Egypt! Then later they complained again about Moses’ leadership. And then once again they complained about the lack of water. Finally, in Numbers 21:5, the people strongly complained about being brought into the wilderness to face all these problems. After each rebellion, the Lord responded with judgment on the complainers… a fire in the camp, a plague or two, cursed with wilderness wandering for forty years, swallowed up in an earthquake, and even a horde of poisonous snakes. Nothing seemed to change the rebellious hearts of the people.

It is impressive that Moses remained faithful and strong at this point and didn’t revisit his low moment earlier. He continued to guide them through the wilderness, he continued to intercede for the people before God, and he brought them to the very border of the Promised Land. Moses finally completed his mission as assigned by the Lord so long ago at the burning bush. Forty years of faithfulness, and there he was.

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 once again 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.