Wise Leaders Know That They Don’t Get There By Themselves
By faith Moses’ parents hid him for three months after he was born, because they saw he was no ordinary child, and they were not afraid of the king’s edict
None of us gets to choose the time or circumstances of our birth.
In his thought-provoking book Turas, which envisages a group of Northern Irish Presbyterians attempting to come to terms with an imagined United Ireland, one of Colin Neill’s characters makes this observation:
I never fail to marvel at how much of a person’s character and experience often seems the consequence of a random chance of birth. Think of the Kamikaze pilot flying his plane into American aircraft carriers off the coast of his homeland. Think of the civil rights marchers thronged behind their banners in the Deep South. Think of the North Koreans who live and then die within such a narrow tunnel of opportunity that oppression is numbed only by their not knowing how oppressed they are. If God in his providence had set all these people, made in his own image, in another time and place, their lives would have been completely different.
Imagine how different your life might have been if you had been born 100 years earlier, and on the other side of the world. What if you had been born to different parents or born into a different race, with a different skin colour?
The shape of so many aspects of our lives is influenced by things that are totally beyond our control and by decisions made by other people.
So it was with Moses. He was not consulted about any of the circumstances into which he would be born. No one asked him to choose the historical era of his birth; no one asked how he felt about being born into a race of slaves at one of the low points in their history. He wasn’t asked to indicate his preferred choice of parents.
The Scottish philosopher Thomas Carlyle famously claimed that ‘the history of the world is but the biography of great men’: he saw these ‘great men’ as the initiators of whatever was accomplished in the world. The study of leadership has moved far beyond the so-called great man theory, but we can’t dismiss all the implications of Carlyle’s statement, for we too expect leaders to shape their times.
The other side of that coin is that leaders are also products of their times. Indeed, how many of history’s great names might have been consigned to obscurity had it not been for the particular circumstances that formed them, or that called for their unique gifts of leadership?
The birth of Moses
Moses’ ancestors had settled in Egypt many generations previously, a legacy of the remarkable influence of Joseph at a time of national crisis. However, the passage of time had brought with it the fading of memory, and eventually a king (possibly Ramses II) ‘to whom Joseph meant nothing’ (Exodus 1:8) came to power. To him and his people, this burgeoning group of resident foreigners represented something of a problem: they could not be allowed to become so numerous that they might join with hostile external forces in the event of a war, and so escape, something that would doubtless have reduced Pharaoh’s labour force.
The narrative in Exodus 1 traces the Egyptians’ attempt to resolve their Israelite problem. First came hard labour. Then came a campaign of racially based infanticide where the Hebrew midwives were told to kill newborn Hebrew boys while letting the girls live. The midwives refused to comply, and were rewarded by God with children of their own.
Sadly, their resistance was not the final piece of the story, as responsibility for eliminating newborn Hebrew boys passed to the Egyptians who were to throw the boys into the Nile.
These were desperate times.
No one ever gets to choose the circumstances of their birth but, were it possible, no one would choose to be born into this.
However, at the same time there was another reality. The Israelites were people of promise. God had promised their ancestor, Abraham, that he would become ‘a great nation’ (Genesis 12:2). He had also foretold the long years during which they would live as aliens and slaves (Genesis 15:13). But that time would pass and their future would be prosperous.
Pivotal to this transformation in their fortunes would be Moses.
There is something about the way Exodus tells the story of his birth that ought to catch our attention:
Now a man of the tribe of Levi married a Levite woman, and she became pregnant and gave birth to a son.
To all intents and purposes it looks as though we are reading the story of this couple’s firstborn. But Moses was not their first child. It soon becomes clear that Moses’ parents already had a daughter, and we eventually discover that they also had an older son, born three years previously.
Why, then, is the story told in this way?
One theory is that Moses’ parents, Amram and Jochebed, had separated after the birth of their older children, rather than run the risk of bringing another son into the circumstances described in Exodus 1. Jewish tradition claims that it was the intervention of Miriam that in some way shamed her father into re-establishing his marriage, and Moses was the fruit of that union.
While that’s an intriguing interpretation of the apparent strangeness of the narrative, it may simply be that the writer has compressed the details of the story, omitting the births of Miriam and Aaron, in order to get to the birth of Moses which, in a sense, is the starting point for the story of redemption that will shortly unfold.
Either way, Moses was born into the most precarious of circumstances.
In the church I pastored for seventeen years in Switzerland, new parents had the opportunity to participate in a dedication service for their children. I remember one young father, on the occasion of the birth of his first son, admitting with considerable honesty that he wondered what he had done in introducing a new child to the world.
It’s a question any parent might ask. The world, after all, is a dangerous and turbulent place. Of course it has its stunning beauty, and life has the potential to be a wonderful adventure of discovery. But it is a world of political uncertainty, of famine, of climate change, of deep division and much brokenness. How many people’s experience of the ragged edges of existence leads them, like Job, to wish they had never been born? Yet, as Jewish author Levi Meier puts it, ‘most of us still choose to bring new life into the world’.
There is a sense in which bringing a child into the world is an act of faith. Faith, perhaps, that this child will lead a fruitful life: who knows but that they might discover a new treatment for cancer, or that they might emerge as a significant reforming and life-bringing leader in the Church? Faith that they will bring joy, faith that they will be loved.
If bringing any child into the world may be construed as an act of faith and courage, the dark cloud of Pharaoh’s decree underlined the faith and courage of Moses’ parents: faith and courage that would soon be further tested.
Strikingly, the early months of Moses’ life were dominated by the parts played by three women.
The first was his mother, Jochebed: it’s highly unlikely that she would have regarded her son as anything other than a ‘fine child’ (Exodus 2:2), but such was the power of maternal affection that she chose to protect him from the fate that had been decreed by Pharaoh.
It’s worth noting that the word ‘fine’ (Hebrew tov) is translated ‘good’ in the telling of the creation story in Genesis. Its first occurrence in Scripture comes in relation to the newly created light – ‘God saw that the light was good’ (Genesis 1:4). Levi Meier comments that the use of the word points to the birth of Moses as ‘the time for another beginning, for new life, for a radiant life force, for positive energy’. Certainly the arrival of this particular baby would prove to be light in the darkness of the Hebrews’ experience.
But we need to ask a question: what was it that led this one mother to defy the measures to which others had presumably submitted? Did other mothers not feel the same affection for their sons? Did the instinct to protect Moses involve more than maternal affection?
We should also observe that Hebrews 11 – adding the involvement of Moses’ father – tells us that his parents ‘saw that the child was beautiful’ (v23, ESV) or that ‘he was no ordinary child’ (NIV), and that Stephen, in his speech to the Jewish Sanhedrin, adds the detail that ‘he was beautiful in God’s sight’ (Acts 7:20, ESV). There was something about this boy that prompted his parents to act in faith, choosing to hide him, refusing to be ‘afraid of the king’s edict’ (Hebrews 11:23).
Whether or not we accept the Jewish explanation of the birth story mentioned earlier, Jochebed and her husband had taken a gamble in conceiving and giving birth to this child. Now that she had given birth to a son, what would she do about the king’s edict?
As Hebrews 11 tells it, the answer lies in her (and her husband’s) faith. Since their faith was stronger than any fear of the king’s edict, they chose to hide their son. In effect they believed that, whatever the king might decree, there was a higher hand. Had Moses’ mother not trusted God, but had instead given way to fear, Moses would not have lived and could never have become the leader that Israel needed.
Isn’t it humbling to realise that the earliest destiny-shaping decisions in any leader’s life may be taken when the leader is totally unaware of them?
But keeping a small child hidden is not easy. All it needed was for one of Pharaoh’s loyalists who had believed the anti-Hebrew message emanating from the throne to hear a crying baby in the middle of the night.
After three months of seclusion, it must have become impossible for Jochebed to keep her son hidden. So she sheltered him in a well-prepared papyrus basket and left him among the reeds along the bank of the Nile.
Miriam (Moses’ sister is eventually named in Exodus 15) stands nearby to see what will happen, and it is her quick thinking that leads her, in her turn, to contribute to the salvation of her brother. Then, when the third woman appears, the story takes a dramatic twist.
This third woman – in a wonderful touch of delicious irony – is the daughter of Pharaoh, the king who wanted rid of Hebrew boys in the first place. It was when she noticed the basket and discovered the crying Hebrew baby that she was stirred to pity (maybe Moses’ mother wasn’t the only one to think her son was good-looking). Whatever her personal view of her father’s genocidal campaign, a crying baby was to be pitied, not destroyed.
It’s here that Miriam proposes a solution. Why not find ‘one of the Hebrew women to nurse the baby’ (Exodus 2:7)? The result is that, far from being thrown in the Nile, Moses is cared for by his own mother, whose services are recompensed by the daughter of the king who had issued the genocidal decree: rewarded for looking after her own son.
As well as the rich irony of the fact that Pharaoh’s own daughter has undermined his scheme – and time will reveal how profoundly undermined it has been, since the man who will be Egypt’s nemesis has been allowed to live – we need to notice a further irony in the story.
Pharaoh’s solution to his ‘Hebrew dilemma’ is the elimination of the males: in the providence of God, his plan is subverted by three females. I’m sure there might be some fuel there to kindle the fires of debate on the nature of the ministry of women, but I’ll leave that for others, and make these two observations:
- God’s plan is advancing while Pharaoh’s attention is focused elsewhere (Pharaoh is focused on the obvious – deal with the males);
- God uses people whom the culture finds easy to overlook.
Like the wider culture, the contemporary Church has had its heroes and celebrities. Perhaps we should be careful to distinguish between those terms. Heroes, properly understood, have done something worth admiring; celebrities tend to be famous for being famous (if that’s not too cynical). It’s probably normal and healthy to have heroes, those whom we respect and aspire to emulate, just as long as we remember their limitations and that they are not deities to be worshipped. Recent years have exposed the flaws in too many of our heroes: a pedestal can be a perilous place. There is truth in the old adage that ‘the best of men are but men at the best’.
We fall easily into the trap of assuming that if anything of note is going to happen for the sake of God’s kingdom, it will come about as a result of the influence of the big names. It’s the speakers with the large platforms and huge gatherings. It’s the singers and songwriters with the most recent hit songs. It’s the well-known authors or the high-profile leaders that God will use to bring about revival and the transformation of the world. Put like that, it all sounds suspiciously like a Christianised version of Thomas Carlyle’s great man theory, mentioned above.
I’m grateful for well-known and gifted writers, singers and speakers who faithfully serve God and bless the Church. And it’s not that we should embark on some kind of iconoclastic crusade to chop all such people down to size: we should honour and acknowledge those who serve God well. It’s just that we ought to realise that there may be times when our eyes are so intently fixed on the big platforms that we miss the fact that God is working away off stage through the faith and courage of people who may be almost completely unknown beyond their immediate circle of acquaintances. Who can measure what God is doing through the quiet faithfulness of unassuming followers that we have not even noticed?
Arthur Boers puts it like this:
While history focuses on victors and the powerful, people at the top and in charge, the Bible pays an astonishing amount of attention to regular, normal folk who are nevertheless the unexpected means of God’s dramatic work.
One of the practical pastoral implications of this is that leaders need to honour and encourage those ‘regular, normal folk’. Sometimes these are older men and women who have passed the stage where they’d be regarded as movers and shakers. They may well shun publicity and avoid platforms, but they may be the ones through whom the Lord is advancing the work of His kingdom.
And if you are one of those quiet, understated folk, be encouraged. God knows your name. Not only were the Hebrew midwives who defied Pharaoh blessed with children, but their names are recorded in Scripture: the name of the Pharaoh is not.
Shaped by the influence of others
The reality of this earliest phase of Moses’ life is that much of it is shaped by decisions that lie entirely in the hands of other people.
In the summer of 2020, one of the guests on my podcast was Dave Burke. Dave lives in the North of England where he runs training in mental health first aid. Previously he served for several decades in church leadership in various parts of England. I think it’s fair to say that Dave would describe himself theologically as a conservative, Free Church guy.
Which means that labyrinths would not normally have tended to be part of his expression of spirituality.
Nonetheless, Dave told me about an experience he had of walking through a labyrinth. He was visiting a retreat centre that was run by a couple of northern Anglican dioceses. The retreat centre had a labyrinth.
He admitted that his initial reaction was to think, ‘What on earth is that for?’ But he decided to walk the labyrinth, and as he did, he would try to remember everyone who had had an influence on him. It took a while. Every few feet he would recall his list of influencers in chronological order. By the time he got to the end of the labyrinth, he had a list of easily thirty people who had influenced him.
I don’t think we necessarily need to walk through a labyrinth to come up with a list of people upon whose shoulders we have climbed, or who have helped to steer us along the way, though if you have a labyrinth nearby, you may want to give it a try.
I can certainly recall the influence of many people on my life.
The first Christians I ever met were my parents. Like Moses, I was born into a family of faith. My parents had been followers of Jesus before I was born, so church and faith were very much part of my upbringing. As my faith grew and my vocational direction crystallised, my parents provided encouragement, as well as the freedom to move in expressions of church that were a bit different from their own.
I had Sunday school teachers and Bible class leaders. I listened to large quantities of preaching, some of it memorable and some of it less so. As a teenager I was invited by an older member of our church fellowship to do some preaching of my own: my first effort, in a little Gospel Hall on the County Down coast, was truly pitiful (though I probably was unaware of how pitiful at the time), and I can only hope that I have improved. There were people whose preaching ministry nourished me and helped me to see the relevance of the Bible to real life. There were those who taught me how to study the Bible, or whose relationship with God inspired me. There were opportunities to get involved in aspects of Christian ministry and help to discern my calling.
Beyond that there have been those who have influenced me from afar, through their writing or through their public ministry (some of them I have since had the opportunity to meet). There have been church members who have helped sharpen my thinking or have encouraged, even goaded, me in my growth and development.
I cannot leave this without mentioning my wife, who has been a wonderful support and partner with me and has helped develop and hone some of my ministry skills: not least in her challenge for me to answer the ‘so what?’ question in my preaching.
Like Moses, none of us is likely to get far without the involvement of others. In a recent conversation with a friend – on the theme of humility – he told me that if his life was a film, the credit list would be long.
Nor was it simply in his earliest years that Moses benefited from the part others played. At various phases in his leadership, others had contributions to make – something we will explore in Chapter Four when we will reflect on the part played by Jethro. We do well to remember that lesson for ourselves.
But the story of Moses’ formative years is not only the story of the influence of others. As significant as that influence was, there comes a time when we all need to take responsibility and begin to make our own life-shaping choices. As Moses faced a significant defining moment in the second half of Exodus 2, so it is that from time to time leaders encounter these defining moments and arrive at major turning points.
The defining moment for Moses came when he saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew. Without really developing the idea, the text observes that the people whom Moses saw struggling with their hard labour were ‘his own people’ (Exodus 2:11). As if to underline the point, the same verse describes the unfortunate Hebrew who is being beaten by the Egyptian as ‘one of [Moses’] own people’.
This is significant. For all the privilege of his royal upbringing, Moses had not forgotten who his own people actually were. He was a Hebrew, and not an Egyptian.
The story of Moses striking down the Egyptian leaves us with some questions. Was Moses right to do what he did? He was certainly motivated by a keen sense of justice: this was not the last time he would stand up for the weak. Had he assumed that his unique background left him ideally placed to be what the Hebrews needed? If so, whatever memo Moses thought he was reading had not been delivered to the Hebrews, or if it had, they had not read it.
Is it possible, as John Calvin believed, that Moses had found his calling? Interestingly, Stephen, in Acts 7:25, claims that Moses thought that the Hebrews would understand that God had sent him. In that case we might wonder if the fault lay with the Hebrews who refused to accept him. Or could it be that Moses was right about his calling but wrong about his timing and method?
Calvin actually suggested that Moses had been divinely inspired with courage to deal with the Egyptian: this, says Calvin, was his vocation, and he knew it. His fault lay in his lack of boldness.
On the other hand, Desmond Alexander notes that even though he may have been well motivated, there is nothing to suggest that Moses’ actions are intended to be a model to be followed.
His own desire for secrecy underlines the inappropriateness of what he does. Had he believed that his action was morally defensible, he might have claimed the authority for doing so on the basis of being a member of Pharaoh’s household.
Whichever of the arguments persuades you, the fact is that Moses’ grand gesture failed to win over the Hebrews and he had to go on the run. It would be forty years before he would see his people again.
It was a mess, and in the next chapter we will explore the phase into which it plunged Moses. But it was a defining moment, and one which the anonymous writer of Hebrews appears to have in mind when writing about Moses’ life-changing choice to identify with the Hebrews.
By faith Moses, when he had grown up, refused to be known as the son of Pharaoh’s daughter. He chose to be ill-treated along with the people of God rather than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin.
Moses’ choice involved turning down the opportunity to enjoy ‘the treasures of Egypt’; in their place, he would accept disgrace ‘for the sake of Christ’ (Hebrews 11:26). The author of Hebrews offers no criticism of his action: it was ‘by faith’ that Moses had made this choice (v24).
While it may well be true that significant elements of our lives are shaped by the decisions of others, leaders can expect that their leadership journey will toss up some defining moments when they need to make their mind up about their identity and the direction of their life.
I’m not particularly into musical theatre in general, but I have watched the musical adaptation of Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables on several occasions. It is full of powerful and poignant moments. There is the old priest who forgives Jean Valjean for exploiting his hospitality to steal from him: his redemptive act sets up Valjean’s new life. There is the dramatic suicide of Inspector Javert, who has been let off the hook by Valjean but whose world has been so destabilised by this act of mercy that he cannot go on living. There is the moving moment at the end of Valjean’s life when he is reunited with Cosette and Marius.
And there is a dramatic scene where Valjean, now a successful factory owner known as Monsieur Madeleine, realises that someone else has been mistaken for him and is on trial. To say nothing would condemn an innocent man, but to reveal his true identity would put the livelihood of his workers at risk.
In one of the show’s many memorable moments, he weighs it all up (in a song – remember, it’s a musical) before deciding to come clean and announce that he is indeed Jean Valjean. It’s a defining moment.
Simply put, although in themselves they may be far from simple, and may involve anguished choices, defining moments are those moments that force us to decide who we are and what we stand for.
Who are you? Why are you here? What really matters? Why should you choose this path and not another? Why turn down some opportunities and accept others? Why should you draw a line here and not there?
These are vital questions for anyone to ask, never mind leaders.
The answers will not always make sense to other people. Why should someone turn down the prospect of a well-paid job to lose themselves as a missionary in some far-flung corner of the world, or because they know that the job may require choices that will conflict with their deepest convictions? Why would you turn your back on a comfortable existence to give your life in the service of people who have nothing of material value to give you in return? At various times we will need to ‘nail our colours to the mast’, perhaps when our colours are not in fashion. It’s part of deciding who we are.
Even though the outcome of Moses’ action was far from what he had envisaged, he had nonetheless marked a significant stage in his journey: he was a Hebrew, and these were his people. Moses had made a life-shaping decision about his identity.
It would be another forty years before it all really began to take shape; first, he had to spend time in the wilderness.
Questions for reflection
- Can you identify ways in which your circumstances have contributed to your leadership journey, in terms of both challenges and opportunities?
- Take some time to list the people who have most influenced you in terms of your faith and your leadership.
- Can you recall a defining moment when you had to decide what you and your leadership stood for?