The beginning of Exodus is about the choosing of a leader. Moses’ birth and adoption by an Egyptian princess is told. As a young man he kills an Egyptian and flees to Midian. He marries a local girl, has a son, and works as a shepherd. God speaks to him out of a burning bush and orders him to lead the Hebrews out of bondage. He returns to Egypt and approaches Pharaoh asking for the freedom of his people without result. Their suffering increases. God promise him that redemption is close at hand.
The choice of Moses, who accepts his divine assignment with the utmost reluctance, seems odd. Though he turns out to be the greatest leader in history, there is virtually nothing in his life story prior to being selected by God that would suggest a multitude would follow him for decades through a parched wilderness. He cannot even speak for himself and needs his brother to be his spokesman. When chapter 6 ends Moses has been recognized by his people as following the command of God, but he has thus far accomplished nothing.
When Moses returns to Egypt he is about 40 to 50 years old. While his age at this point is not stated, we can approximate it from the following details of his life. He has a wife and young son. He has been away from Egypt long enough for his killing of the Egyptian to be far enough past making it safe for him to return. His father-in-law is still living when he leaves Midian. Moses asks his permission to depart. Despite his acceptance as speaking the word of God by the Hebrew Elders nothing happens for 30 to 40 years. Why do I conclude this?
When Moses makes his second approach to Pharaoh (in the next section of Exodus) we are told that he was 80 years old. What has he been doing all the time between his return to Egypt and his first and second meeting with Pharaoh? Is it even with the same Pharaoh?
Leadership is a tricky business. Great leaders bear a heavy burden and often suffer difficult endings. Not only is the right person required, but the time must be right. Consider some of the greatest leaders of the last century. Start with both Roosevelts. TR started life as a sickly, near sighted, asthmatic child who grew up to find his persona in the wild west. He survived immense personal loss; his wife and mother died on the same night. As scholar (he wrote 47 books as well as 150,000 letters), war hero – he was awarded The Medal of Honor – man of action, and politician he is unmatched in American public life. He remains the youngest man to become president of the US. He also was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize; unlike many others so honored he deserved it. He planned to run for another term as president in 1920, but died the year before, mostly from the effects of the super strenuous life he had lead. He had crammed three centuries of life into 60 years.
His distant cousin FDR was as aristocratic as was TR, but he was considered somewhat of a light weight despite being nominated as vice-president on the Democratic ticket in 1920. Many thought his political successes were the result of his aristocratic lineage rather than from ability. Unlike TR his leadership skills came after a disaster. His stature grew after his paralysis from polio in 1922. The illness almost killed him; though crippled for life he emerged a political heavyweight. His qualities as a great leader became apparent when he was elected president during the country’s worst depression. Despite the failure of his sweeping policies to end the depression, his dynamic personality held America together. He then lead the nation to total victory in the biggest war in human history. His death shortly before the war in Europe ended denied him the satisfaction of seeing the complete success of his wartime policies.
Winston Churchill was both a man of action and letters – he won the Nobel Prize for literature. He achieved political success at an early age, but as he entered his 60s was considered a failure. He was out of office and seemingly forever stained by the disastrous Gallipoli campaign of WW I. He became Prime Minister at 65. He lead Great Britain through the darkest period of its history. When victory was assured, the voters turned him out of office. The ensuing socialist government nationalized all of the UK’s industries denying the country the opportunity to prosper from the massive rebuilding projects that reconstructed much of the world.
Margret Thatcher had to overcome both sexism and her middle class origins to become her country’s first woman prime minister. Her administration revitalized Britain’s industries and financial institutions. She then was removed from office by her own party.
By now you should see a pattern between great modern leaders and Moses. The only exception was Ronald Reagan, a B actor who became governor of California and then president after his movie career was over. He retired with grace and not under stress.
Back to Moses. God chose him to lead the Israelites because He knew he had the capacity for greatness, though such qualities were initially apparent to no one, including Moses himself. Moses was so unsure of his leadership skills that God became angry with him. Great as Moses was, God denied him entry to the promised land – dead or alive. This denial despite Moses’ monumental accomplishments. He revealed the Divine Law to the Israelites; the Jewish nation and religion only came to be under his stewardship. The interval between his first and second meeting with Pharaoh may be uncertain, but something matured during that span such that Moses, the fearful and uncertain, became the dynamic leader and the most important person in the Hebrew Bible. When he was chosen, only God could perceive his leadership skills. At the end of his life he was the unquestioned leader of his people. He had made the Hebrews into Jews.
What characteristics make a great leader? They vary according to time and place. The right person at the right place at the right time sums things up as well any short description can. Churchill said, “we are all worms, but I do believe I’m a glowworm.