(This is not a picture of Midian. This is a picture of Colorado. Because Colorado is pretty.)
Moses was, arguably, the most honored man to have ever lived. He alone was invited into the Almighty’s presence and called His friend; he experienced a kind of intimacy with God that, if we are honest with ourselves, both inspires and terrifies most of us. He was God’s friend. But he didn’t start that way! His eventual success in fulfilling God’s whole plan for his life is encouraging – inspiring – overwhelmingly full of hope to me, but not because he succeeded. It is all these things because he failed.
Can you imagine being born into Moses’ circumstances? Intended for death from the first breath of life, spared by the courage of a mother and the protection of God, hand-delivered by God into the palace of the very people who ordered your death – and spared, and spared, and spared again. Given back to the courageous mother for a little while, long enough for her to tell you over and over again what a miracle you are, then taken back to the palace to be told you were a gift from the gods, used as leverage, pampered and educated and prepared to be one of the greatest men in the world. By the age of 40, he had clearly decided who he was going to be. Maybe his birth mother told him it was his purpose; maybe his mother or a mentor had suggested it was his fate (believing he would use the Israelites to stage a mutiny and rule Egypt, perhaps?); or maybe the circumstances of his life convinced him, but he knew. He was Israel’s deliverer. He would save them.
Now the bigger problem: they did not know this was his intention. Whose side was he really on, anyway? Would he ally himself with the Egyptians who had raised him, or the Israelites who had birthed him? To save them, he needed their allegiance; for their allegiance, he needed their trust; for their trust, he needed to do something – anything – to help them. So he killed a man, an Egyptian man, a man who abused them.
And thus began his failure.
First of all, he killed the coward’s way. He waited until the man was alone, until no one would see, and buried his body in the sand while he thought no one was watching. And he learned immediately what all cowards must learn eventually; someone is always watching.
(For the record, I’m not condemning cowards; understand, I am one. That’s what’s so exciting to me about all this.)
The rumor must have made it to the palace fairly soon. There were plenty of people seeking Pharaoh’s favor, and to be the messenger delivering the news of the black sheep’s misdeeds, the Hebrew prince, well, that would surely be rewarded, no? Moses did not have the courage to find out.
He ran. He ran from everything – the confrontation, the consequences, the expectations of his mothers, the failure – his failure, his failure to be anything extraordinary at all. He ran to Midian. For forty years he hid tending sheep and soaking in his failure, like meat in a marinade, pulling it into himself until it saturated him with disillusionment and belief in his inadequacy. He pulled together what little hope for a fulfilling life he had left – a wife, children, a job that put food on the table – and he just gave up.
Moses gave up. MOSES gave UP! Can I get a hallelujah? I am not the only one who’s ever felt this way, folks. PRAISE THE LORD.
God let him wallow there for FORTY YEARS. Forty! I tell you what, you know if he’d had any hope left at the beginning, he certainly didn’t by the end.
Now I don’t know about you, but forty years would be long enough to convince me that if God even had saved me for a purpose, He must’ve given up on me, too. And then, when Moses was so thick with his failure and shame that he could have never gone back, he met someone.
One part relief from the burden of saving Israel, ninety-nine parts shame and disappointment, wallowing out in the desert just trying to forget, and then there he stood, in front of a flame-filled bush that was not burning up, hearing a voice he thought would never have a reason speak to him now. A whole lifetime had gone by – the man was 80 years old – and there he was, making his excuses to the Most High God, telling Him all the things he had told himself for forty years in the desert: You don’t want me. I am not good enough for You.
But God did want him. Not someone like him, but him exactly, and not him forty-one years ago, puffed up with his own importance and driving after his own glory, but him now, filled with his own insignificance, resigned to spend the rest of his life herding sheep.
Somehow, that made him ready to lead arguably the greatest event in Israel’s history (barring the birth of the Messiah): the Exodus.
There must be something about herding sheep that uniquely qualifies a man to lead a nation. Israel’s two greatest leaders, David and Moses, were both trained this way. Maybe it’s because sheep are so stupid. Maybe it’s because they’re so stubborn and wayward, and maybe those are all the same thing. Or maybe it’s because they all look alike to everyone except their shepherd, who recognizes them as individual, gentle creatures who only need a little guidance, care, and protection to be peaceful and happy and devoted and free.
Or maybe, just maybe, it’s because sheep can so quietly be abused: “Whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with much, and whoever is dishonest with very little will also be dishonest with much.” (Luke 16:10) A shepherd spends most of his days alone, with no one to hold him accountable if he doesn’t try his hardest to fight off that lion or that bear. It’s not his fault if he wasn’t fast enough to kill the wolf, or if he didn’t see the sneaky little lamb who wandered away from the flock. He had ninety-nine others to watch, after all.
But the good shepherd does notice the missing lamb. The good shepherd never says, “better a few sheep than me” when a wolf attacks. Why? Because a good shepherd knows the differences in all of their faces, and it’s not just a few sheep. It’s Black-Eyed Susie and Fluffy and Mary-Lou, who nuzzles his hand every morning and curls up on his lap at night. He loves them all differently and fully like you or I would if we had a hundred dogs, and he’d miss Fluffy’s bleating-before-the-sun-is-up every morning no matter how much it annoys him. So he’d step between them and take the wolf down.
In sum, a good shepherd is selfless, generous, gentle, protective, full of integrity, and wise. Hey, I would vote for him. Wouldn’t you?
Apparently God agrees. And more than that – everything that had happened in those forty years in Midian while Moses was wallowing in his worthlessness – every little sheep he hunted down and every hungry wolf he fought – it all had its purpose. PRAISE. THE. LORD. Because most days, I feel like I’m all alone out there in the desert, tending sheep.
His time in Midian did mold Moses into exactly the man God wanted him to be. It gave Moses the two-ears, one-mouth kind of wisdom that the Israelites desperately needed in their escape. It stripped from him reverence for his own importance, and replaced it with reverence for the God by whom he was important. It turned his eyes above him so he did not even see if his feet touched the ground because it didn’t matter; God could make him fly. (He didn’t, but He could have. I’m just making a point, people.)
It made him a friend. Of GOD.
Maybe, just maybe, after all my failures, I can still be one, too.
Maybe God hasn’t given up on me.