Society & Politics

Faith & Politics in the Life of Moses - Lesson 4: The Role of the Leader


Preston Manning, Senior Fellow

As we have seen throughout this series, there are many lessons that we can learn from the life of Moses. In this article, we will look to learn from Moses’ role as both a spiritual and political leader, and try to understand what the role of the leader is fundamentally about. Although the initial call Moses received was to lead the Israelites out of Egypt, that task was only the start of his leadership. Through the journey in the wilderness, Moses’ role shifted from being an inspirational, revolutionary leader to leading a reluctant people on a depressing detour of their own making, away from and not toward the better future originally envisioned for them. As we will see in this article, Moses was instrumental in acting as a mediator between God and the people; in the institutionalization of values and practices; and, finally, in serving the people by preparing for a successor to lead in his inevitable absence. At the heart of all that Moses did was the recognition that his leadership was not about self-glorification. Instead, it was about serving one greater than himself and joining in his work.

Leadership as Mediation

To understand the role of the leader, it is important to first establish what lies at the heart of leadership. Through my experience in politics, I’ve come to see that leadership of any kind and at any level invariably involves the reconciliation of conflicting interests. In Moses’ case this meant not only mediating disputes among the Israelites themselves, but also acting as a mediator between God and his people.

Initially, of course, Moses acted as a mediator between God, the Israelites, and Pharaoh. But once the Red Sea had been crossed, Moses began to face intense criticism from the people he was leading (a topic we will explore more deeply in the next article). Despite being freed from slavery, they resented the hardships of the desert journey toward the Promised Land and frequently demanded a return to Egypt. Most often their criticisms were directed at Moses as God’s representative, forcing Moses to stand in the gap between God and his people.

For example, when the Israelites (after receiving the negative report from the spies) refused to enter the Promised Land, God threatened to destroy them and start all over again by creating a new nation from Moses’ own descendants. But Moses interceded as a mediator on their behalf, reciting back to God the promise he had declared to Moses on Mount Sinai: “The Lord is slow to anger, abounding in love and forgiving sin and rebellion” (Numbers 14:11-19).

But perhaps the most striking example of Moses as mediator occurred when venomous snakes were sent among the people in response to yet another outbreak of rebellion. Again Moses interceded in prayer for the people, and God responded by instructing him to make a bronze snake and put it up on a pole. Whoever looked at the bronze snake, after being bitten, would live (Numbers 21:4-9). In the New Testament, Jesus specifically refers to this incident as analogous to his own role as a sin bearer and his mediatory death on the cross—“Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life” (John 3:14).

As Christians, no matter what position we occupy in society or in an organization, we are called to practise the ministry of reconciliation. In doing so we are acting out one of the most central doctrines of our faith (II Corinthians 5:17-21). And while this is not the place to expand on all that the ministry of reconciliation involves, it is nevertheless instructive to recognize that mediation was one of the central tasks of Moses the political and spiritual leader, and that in this regard he models leadership in the spirit of Christ.

Institutionalising for the Future

While dealing with issues at hand through mediation is an unavoidable aspect of leadership, it is also critical to prepare for the future if the values, mission, and distinctive character of the organization or community is to be sustained over the long run. Such preparation includes more than succession planning; in particular it includes institutionalising those values and practices necessary to achieve long run sustainability.

Thus—on instruction from God—Moses communicated to the children of Israel the legal, material, and procedural/ceremonial means whereby they were to worship and serve Him and one another. In fact, more than sixty chapters of the Pentateuch are devoted to descriptions and instructions pertaining to how the Israelites were meant to live with respect to their treatment of one another and resolving conflicts; how they were to celebrate the Sabbath and various feasts and festivals; how they were to worship individually and communally, and the role of priests within worship; what they were to eat, and the means by which they were to stay healthy; and the various punishments and blessings for their responses to these instructions.

On the surface these laws may look like mere religious trappings. On closer inspection, however, they were about preparing the community for the future. In fact, all these regulations are means to facilitate the end of bringing glory to God through worship, obedience, and service. In order for the future to be prepared for, the correct end had to be kept as the central concern.

But as the historian Will Durant has ruefully observed, “It is the tragedy of things spiritual, that they languish if unorganized and yet are corrupted by the material [and, I would add, intellectual] means of their organization.” True to Durant’s observation, many of the laws, structures, and ceremonies established under Moses and meant to facilitate the worship and service of God became, by Jesus’ time, ends in themselves. Moses’ Law had become corrupted to such a degree that, in Jesus’ judgment, the Temple was now a “den of thieves”; the Sabbath a wearisome burden; and the law itself was more about splitting hairs than about justice and mercy. The Rule of Law established by Moses had tragically degenerated for the most part into a dry and spiritually bankrupt legalism. It was perverted to the point where the Pharisees could even say to Pilate “we have a law [the Law of God], and by our law he [the Son of God] ought to die” (John 19:7).

Any worthwhile pursuit—spiritual, political, economic, academic, or charitable—needs to be organized in some fashion if it’s to be sustained. More often than not, this is the leader’s responsibility. When done well, institutionalising sustains the life and purpose of the enterprise. But far too often the means of institutionalising can quench the spirit of an organisation. It takes wise leadership indeed to discern what leads to life and what leads to death. Being acutely aware of these possibilities, however, is the first step toward preventing institutionalisation from eventually strangling the organization or community it is meant to sustain.

Preparing for Succession

Providing for a qualified successor is often one of the last and most trying tasks of leadership. This task is complicated by the fact that there will be many others with distinct ideas as to who your successor should be.

During Moses’ long tenure as Israel’s political and spiritual leader there were several attempts to displace or replace him as leader—by members of his own household (Numbers 12:1-16); by angry mobs of discontented and disillusioned followers (Numbers 14:1-4, 10); and even by the community leaders he had appointed (Numbers 16).

But instead, God had Joshua in mind as a successor for Moses. And perhaps Moses was vaguely aware of this from an early stage as he assigned Joshua to lead the Israelites in one of their earliest battles (Exodus 17:10). He also picked Joshua to serve as his aide at the Tent of Meeting where Moses met face to face with God (Exodus 33:7-11). Likewise, Joshua was selected as one of the twelve spies to explore Canaan, and on the completion of this mission only he and Caleb still believed that God could give the Israelites the land (Numbers 13: 8; 14: 5-9). It seems like Joshua was being prepared by God, long before he ever received the mantle of leadership from Moses.

Eventually Moses was clearly directed to “commission Joshua, and encourage and strengthen him, for he will lead this people across [the Jordan] and will cause them to inherit the land …” (Deuteronomy 3:28). By largely leaving succession and his own reputation in the hands of God, Moses left the leadership of Israel in capable hands as Joshua went on to fulfill the mission of leading the children of Israel into the Promised Land.

The Leader’s Legacy

At the end of the day, perhaps the greatest lesson we can learn from Moses is that true leadership isn’t about the leader. It’s about serving someone and something greater than one’s self.

One of the most admirable things about Moses is that, unlike many modern leaders, he was not preoccupied in his latter years with creating a personal legacy. My father, who spent all of his adult years in politics and government, twenty-five as Premier of Alberta, described the dangers of a leader trying too hard to shape his own legacy while still in office: “It’s like trying to drive a car forward while looking in the rear view mirror. The most likely result will be a crash—and that will be your legacy.”

Moses for the most part was willing to leave not only the choice of his successor but also his legacy in the hands of God. He made no provision for members of his family, or even members of his own tribe, to succeed him. He erected no monument to himself, named no institution after himself, and even his gravesite is known only to God. He steadfastly served his people by serving the one who had called him to that service and to whom he was ultimately accountable. And what a legacy of leadership that left for Israel and for us. The Books of Moses conclude with this fitting epitaph to Israel’s first political and spiritual leader: “No prophet has risen in Israel like Moses whom the Lord knew face to face” (Deuteronomy 34:10).

Biography of Preston Manning

Preston Manning works with the MI on the development and communication of faith-informed approaches to political leadership and public policy, including new approaches to the intersection of faith with democratic governance, the market economy, pluralism and multiculturalism, science and technology, and environmental stewardship.

Preston served as a member of the Canadian House of Commons from 1993 to 2001, part of which he served as his party’s critic for Science, Technology and Innovation. He founded two new political parties—the Reform Party of Canada and the Canadian Reform Conservative Alliance—and was the Leader of the Official Opposition from 1997 to 2000. Preston also has 20 years of experience as an owner and manager of a consulting firm specializing mainly in strategic planning and communications advice to the energy sector. In 2005, he founded the Manning Centre for Building Democracy, which supports research, educational, and communications initiatives designed to achieve a more democratic society in Canada guided by conservative principles.

Source: Marketplace Institute

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