I’ve been making my way slowly through the Bible and am currently slogging through Numbers. But you can’t go to sleep on even the difficult books, because you’ll suddenly find a gold mine where you least expect it. Numbers 11 is so packed, I’ve been stuck on it for almost three weeks.

We all know that Moses was a great leader, and his life is chock full of leadership examples. But as with most leaders, a lot of the examples we can learn from come from mistakes and weaknesses. Moses’ life has been laid bare for us, and there are a number of lessons here in this chapter.

Don’t join the whining

We open with verse 4. The first three verses are a preamble full of foreshadowing. The people complain, God’s anger is kindled, and people die. Yet they don’t learn their lesson. They begin to complain again.

Verse 4 says the people “yielded to intense craving” (NKJV) and began to complain. This “lusting” (ESV) originated with the “rabble” living among them – the foreigners who came along with them from Egypt. They’re tired of their daily manna and want meat. Their discontent quickly spreads from the fringes to consume the camp, even tainting Moses.

It seems to be a universal tendency of children to manipulate with tears. Have you ever noticed how children project their crying? When you hear them projecting, rather than sobbing to themselves, you know they’re trying to manipulate. The text here says the people of Israel wept at the doors of their tents. They are not embarrassed; instead, they’re projecting.

And have you ever noticed that non-tonal languages get tonal when it comes to whining? You don’t even need to hear the words. As it does with many parents, the manipulative chorus pushes Moses over the edge.

Moses and God are united in their disgust at what they hear. While the former is aggravated, the latter is described as irate. But then Moses turns and unloads on God. And boy does he whine! He complains about the load he has to carry, about why the responsibility fell on him in the first place, about why God is treating him so badly. Then he takes it over the top: “If this is how you intend to treat me, just go ahead and kill me. Do me a favor and spare me this misery!” (Nu 11:15)

How will an irate God react? Surprisingly, God’s anger disappears. He doesn’t lash out at Moses, his friend. Something about the way Moses says it communicates his vulnerability in that moment, and God provides solutions instead of rebuke. First, he provides a long-term answer. Then he takes responsibility to meet the short-term, tangible need.

Address the systemic problem first

Moses is on a journey in his understanding of leadership. Governing a nation is no small task. You’ll recall the hierarchical judicial system Moses installed on the counsel of his father-in-law (Exodus 18). Now God helps him assemble a distributed executive branch. Instead of trying to run everything himself, his focus should be on seventy elders who can assist in governing the people.

Note that this new system is not really designed to solve the immediate crisis. After all, finding meat is not a problem that is better solved by a committee of seventy instead of one. God chooses first to address the more long-term, systemic issue behind Moses’ rant: the fact that he can’t bear this people alone. It won’t be a quick fix. The “soft skills” of mediation and morale-lifting are among the more difficult tasks of leadership, so Moses will need to invest a lot in these seventy before they can adequately and consistently deal with the hearts of the people. But God opens the door to systemic, foundational improvement.

In my experience, it’s difficult to think about a long-term systemic solution when you’re in a crisis. Leaders who are overwhelmed just want to put the fire out. To put it in Stephen Covey’s terminology (The Seven Habits of Highly Successful People), if you dwell in the quadrant of putting out fires, you’ll spend all your time putting out fires. God is interested in moving Moses’ time and energy into quadrant 2, where he can look at more important issues. God makes this shift before he addresses the immediate need.

Do you see the intimacy in the relationship between Moses and God? Moses can be himself, and he can pour out his frustration on God without fear of reprisal. And God in turn acts to sustain Moses by addressing the core issue before answering Moses’ request. Moses’ success was not about leadership technique that can be turned into formula. His success depended entirely on his relationship with God. That’s the central lesson in my study of Moses.

Next post I’ll turn to the lessons Moses learned about leading through the Spirit.