Numbers 8 – 12
In this week’s Torah reading we are confronted with a despairing and discouraged Moses. The children of Israel complain about the food: ‘If only we had meat to eat. We remember the fish we ate in Egypt at no cost – also the cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions and garlic. But now we have lost our appetite; we never see anything but this manna.’
It was not the first time they showed such appalling ingratitude for all that the Lord had done for them; it was the fourth time. Yet Moses’ reaction is one of utter despair.
Why are you treating me, Your servant, so harshly? Have mercy on me! What did I do to deserve the burden of all these people? Did I give birth to them? Did I bring them into the world? Why did You tell me to carry them in my arms like a mother carries a nursing infant? How can I carry them to the land You swore to give their ancestors? Where am I supposed to get meat for all these people? They keep whining to me, saying, ‘Give us meat to eat!’ I can’t carry all these people by myself. The load is far too heavy. Is this is how You intend to treat me, just go ahead and kill me. Do me a favor and spare me this misery!
Can you believe it? The great Moses prays to die! He is not the only biblical character to do so. Elijah, Jeremiah and Jonah prayed the same – making us realize that even the greatest can have their moments of despair.
Yet there is something curious about this particular incident. He had faced, and overcome, such difficulties before. So, what is going on here?
God’s response is also curious.
Bring me 70 elders who are known to you as leaders and officials among the people. Make them come to the Tent of Meeting that they may stand there with you. I will come down and speak with you there, and I will take of the spirit that is on you and put the spirit on them. They will help you carry the burden of the people so that you will not have to carry it alone.
How would the appointment of seventy elders resolve Moses’ inner struggle? He had already created a system of delegated authority on the advice of his father-in-law, Jethro. So why appoint more?
And what does God mean when He says: ‘I will take of the spirit that is on you and put the spirit on them’? Was He anointing them to be prophets like Moses? Prophets don’t carry out administrative affairs. Prophets give guidance to the people. Well, they already had Moses. If the 70 elders were simply going to repeat what Moses was teaching the people, they were rather superfluous. If not, they would undermine his leadership. Strange, no?
Yet something happened when God spoke these words to him. Moses’ despair disappeared and his attitude changed. Immediately, it is as if a new Moses stands before us, untroubled by even the subsequent challenges to his leadership.
Just a few verses later we read that two of the elders, Eldad and Medad, prophesy not in the Tent of Meeting but in the camp. Joshua, protective of Moses’ authority, says, ‘Moses, my lord, stop them!’ Moses replies, with amazing generosity of spirit, ‘Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets and that the Lord would put his spirit on them.’
In the next chapter, his own brother and sister, Aaron and Miriam, start complaining about him. There is no angry or despairing reaction. ‘Now Moses was a very humble man, more humble than anyone else on the face of the earth.’ When God became angry at Miriam, what did Moses do? He prayed for her. His despair has gone; his inner crisis has passed. These two challenges were far more serious than the request of the people for meat, yet Moses meets them in a spirit of peace and selflessness. Something has taken place between Moses and God. What was it?
We need to look back for a moment. There is a noticeable change of tone between the book of Exodus and the book of Numbers. While there are complaints in both, the responses of God and of Moses are different. In Exodus, God does not generally get angry with the people. When He does, Moses’ prays and God hears. In Numbers, the responses of both God and Moses are less forgiving and long-suffering. Why?
The early whining and complaining of the people appears more forgivable. Granted, in Egypt and during the early days after they were freed, they should have had faith in God, but they had not yet reached the Red Sea, or the desert, or lack of food and water. Their greatest sin – the making the Golden Calf – is followed by an extended interruption of the narrative as God instructs Moses and the people to build the Tabernacle. In fact, the next 53 chapters of the Torah (the second half of Exodus, all of Leviticus and the first ten chapters of Numbers) are dedicated to the Tabernacle – its construction, the services that were to be held there and the arrangement of the nation around it. These 53 chapters cover a break in the Israelites’ journey as if time and space stand still.
From the giving of the Torah on Mt. Sinai to the completion of the Tabernacle, the children of Israel are changed from a crowd of fleeing slaves into a nation whose constitution is the Torah, whose King is God alone and at whose center is the visible presence of their God hovering over the Tabernacle day and night. They are no longer what they were before Sinai. They are now ‘a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’
And that is why Moses despaired when they murmured about the food.
What caused Moses’ spirit to break was the fact that, no sooner had they left the Sinai desert to begin the journey again, they reverted to their old habits of complaining as if nothing had changed. If the revelation at Sinai, the experience of Divine anger at the Golden Calf, and the long process of building the Tabernacle had not changed them, what in the world ever would or could?
Moses’ despair is understandable. For the first time since his mission began he could visualize defeat. Miracles, deliverances, revelations – it seemed that nothing could change this people from a nation so focused on food into one that grasped the significance of the unique spiritual destiny to which they had been called. Perhaps God, from the perspective of eternity, could see some ray of hope in the future. Moses, as a human being, could not. ‘I would rather die,’ he says, ‘than spend the rest of my life laboring in vain.’
God graciously gave Moses what he really needed. In saying that he would take some of the spirit that was on Moses and put it on the 70 elders, Moses realized that he did make a difference. He didn’t need their help; he needed to know that ‘his spirit’ – the essence of everything he had become in his personal journey with God – was indeed communicated to someone else – to 70 others.
He didn’t need to know that people would be studying his words for hundreds and thousands of years in the future; that history would remember him as one of the greatest leaders of all time. All he needed to know was that his life had not been in vain; that he had disciples who could carry on the building and establishing of God’s nation after his demise; that the glorious vision of a nation dedicated to the Almighty wouldn’t die.
That was enough.
In Tune with Torah this week = if it was enough for Moses, it must be enough for us. The good we do lives after us. It is the only thing of value that really does. Not wealth or power but a trace of our influence for good is the most important legacy any of us can leave behind. That alone is the antidote to despair, the solid ground of hope….and the greatest blessing of leadership in whatever capacity life has made you a leader.