There is an adage that speaks to the inward journey many take in this life: “If you are not a liberal when you are young, you have no heart; and if you are not a conservative when old, you have no brain.” It is not my purpose to debate the merits of the observation, just to notice that our perspectives and priorities tend to move with the currents of life.
Core truth is not relative, true. But we do not always have a static, mature grasp of implications or applications of truth at all times in life. Conditioning, inexperience, idealism, ignorance, associates, goals, psychological needs and a host of other factors may greatly influence how we see the world. But life is a journey that hopefully will take us to different places, expose us to various people, challenge our ideas and worldview and educate us more deeply along the way.
There are so many Biblical examples of developmental journeys that it is hard to pick just one, but let’s briefly focus on Moses. As most students know, Moses’ life divides into three 40-year spans: 40 years steeped in Egyptian culture and royal palace life (while learning of his Hebrew heritage); 40 years of seclusion and reflection as an exile in Midian; and 40 years in close association with God as Israel’s leader and lawgiver. Through all of these contexts of life Moses’ humanity is on display.
The early 40 years. Scripture does not give a detailed account of the first two 40-year spans of Moses’ life. We are given the circumstances of Moses’ entrance into the household of Pharaoh (Ex 2:1-10). What his upbringing was like as a royal we can only imagine (cf. Ac 7:22), and we can only surmise how he learned of his genetic connection to the Hebrews. But a journey took place in Moses’ own mind, and he gradually identified with the downtrodden Israelite slaves rather than Egyptian power and privilege. This was no mere social awakening, for Moses, “when he became of age, refused to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter, choosing rather to suffer affliction with the people of God than to enjoy the passing pleasures of sin, esteeming the reproach of Christ greater riches than the treasures in Egypt; for he looked to the reward” (Heb 11:24-26). This violent swerve was a conscious choice based on a change in values and an overarching desire to be acceptable to God.
But Moses misfired, taking matters into his own hands and trying to mount a slave uprising: “for he supposed that his brethren would have understood that God would deliver them by his hand, but they did not understand” (Ac 7:25). So now a 40-year remedial course in worldview was in order. The bold, assertive, self-appointed Israelite savior had to learn humility, to trust God and to do things His way.
The middle 40 years. Again, information is scant. Moses escapes to Midian as a fugitive to live a quiet domestic life as a wilderness shepherd (Ex 2:21-3:1). But change again is brewing. While Moses transitions to a more pedestrian life, his Hebrew brethren back in Egypt are suffering mightily. And God intends for these two trajectories to cross paths in a cataclysmic explosion of His power and judgment against Egypt.
The final 40 years. The changes in Moses are evident by his initial resistance to God’s overtures (Ex 3:1-4:17). The once brash warrior now shrinks from duty, and Moses must alter his thinking in a way all of us must if we are to accomplish anything of spiritual value: he must trust in God and accept that the task ahead is only possible insofar as he relies on God’s guidance and power.
First, Moses grows exponentially in faith as he confronts Pharaoh and calls for plague after plague to gradually batter the Egyptian potentate into submission. The Israelites, who were initially skeptics of Moses’ ability to free them from bondage, “were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea” (1 Cor 10:2). The plagues, the parting of the Red Sea, the pillar of cloud and fire and the quaking of God’s presence on Mt. Sinai temporarily elevated Moses in the sight of the people. But the bitter complaining, the clamor for the golden calf at Sinai, the deaths of Nadab and Abihu – these were all warning signs that the present generation of Israelites was terminally ill. Consequently, Moses had to embark upon another literal and figurative life-journey.
Whatever future grandeur Moses might have anticipated after triumphantly leading Israel through the Red Sea eventually was crushed by the reality of the wilderness death march. While attempting the next phase of God’s plan – the invasion of Canaan – Moses instead was met with mutiny by the fearful, faithless Israelites. It was a watershed moment as the people threatened to kill Moses and Aaron and appoint a champion to lead them back to bondage (Num 14). God angrily declared to Moses: “How long will they not believe Me, with all the signs which I have performed among them? I will strike them with the pestilence and disinherit them, and I will make of you a nation greater and mightier than they” (Num 14:11-12).
Ah, Moses’ chance for immortality! His name will be mentioned in the same breath with the great father Abraham. A nation spawned from Abraham but refined and perfected in the descendants of Moses! But wait … how did Moses answer God’s proposal? “Now if you kill these people as one man, then the nations which have heard of Your fame will speak, saying, ‘Because the Lord was not able to bring this people to the land which He swore to give them, therefore He killed them in the wilderness.’ And now I pray, let the power of my Lord be great, just as You have spoken, saying, ‘The Lord is longsuffering and abundant in mercy, forgiving iniquity and transgression; but He by no means clears the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and fourth generation.’ Pardon the iniquity of this people, I pray, according to the greatness of Your mercy, just as You have forgiven this people from Egypt, even until now” (Num 14:15-19).
Moses still had 40 years to go, but he had basically “arrived” at his mental destination: It was all about God – His honor, His reputation among men, His plans and purposes. Moses saw himself as he was – a tool for God’s use to bring about His purposes. And this is the north star of the rest of Moses’ life as he wanders through the deserts patiently sharing with Israel the penalty for their faithlessness. And so it should be in ours.