I want to spend a bit of time looking at two cautions in the leadership lessons of Numbers 11.
Do we cut God’s abilities short?
God answers the people’s request. He tells them he heard their complaint, and he’ll provide meat. But lest you read tenderness into this “answer to prayer,” God tells them they will have so much meat it will be coming out of their nostrils, and they’ll hate the sight of it! Moses is quick to point out the impracticality of God’s words. As you consider his hesitation and lack of faith, consider his track record with God. In Exodus 3, God said he heard Israel’s cry and had come to rescue them. Then he shocks Moses with his solution: “Now go, for I am sending you to Pharaoh” (v10) Here, when Moses hears God say he’ll provide meat, he’s probably thinking of all the work he’ll have to do to make it happen.
He learns a couple of important principles. One, God doesn’t work in the same way every time. This time is more like the plagues, when Moses sat back and watched. Two, he has to consider this fantastic question: “Has my arm lost its power?” Another version renders it, “Is my arm too short?” This is a very direct challenge to Moses’ faith, and a great question for leaders to consider.
In what ways do we cut short in our minds and in our planning the ability of God to work wonders? In what ways do we take on God’s responsibility as we lead his people (1 Peter 5:2)? It’s a dangerous thing to conclude, “If this is going to happen, I’m going to have to do it myself.” God makes it very personal for Moses: “Now you will see whether or not my word comes true!” (Numbers 11:23)
Do we take God at his word?
God has given us promises as leaders. He has given us general ones through Scripture and when he gives us a vision, he often accompanies it with overt and implied promises that are much more personal in nature. Part of leading is our own faith journey — our ability to take God at his word. This was the challenge Moses experienced at that moment of crisis.
Of course, God comes through in a miraculous way. Can you imagine seeing quail piled three feet deep and stretching a day’s journey in any direction? Can you imagine the number of birds? Moses couldn’t either.
Do our mistakes influence others?
Joshua only shows up once in this story, but there are several important points to consider. As Moses’ assistant “since his youth,” it’s clear that Moses identified his leadership ability early on and has mentored him for several years. But in this instance he earns a rebuke for attempting to protect Moses. Why?
I suspect he’s afraid of insurrection. With all the people whining, there could be danger in the fact that two leaders stayed behind in the camp rather than accept the invitation to join the other 68 at the Tabernacle. So Joshua begs Moses to stop those two from prophesying. Moses, on the other hand, points out that Joshua doesn’t need to be jealous for Moses’s sake. Moses knows he isn’t the point.
In addition to the natural tendency for an assistant to see himself as guardian of his boss’s honour, Matthew Henry suggests that Joshua would have been one of the seventy himself. He may well have been “jealous for the honour of their order.” In that moment, Joshua demonstrates a foundational flaw in his belief system. Could it be that he had a scarcity model, as if God’s Spirit going to others might dilute the power in each individual? Or could it be a desire for control, as if Moses could restrict or put parameters on God’s Spirit? In our most unguarded moments, our core beliefs become evident.
Most importantly, I suspect Joshua heard Moses whining. After all, other passages talk about how Joshua is a witness to the intimate conversations between God and Moses. He was the only other person allowed on Mount Sinai with Moses, and he was often in the tent of meeting as Moses and God talked face-to-face. So it’s reasonable to expect that he heard Moses complaining. While Moses quickly rebounds to leadership form, Joshua doesn’t recover quite as quickly. He’s clearly on the wrong side in this one, and Moses has to rebuke him. It’s a reminder that others can be drawn into and hurt by our sin and weakness. I’m all for vulnerability and modelling, but it can be both instructive and destructive.
The good news is that Joshua made his mistake before he stepped onto the leadership stage himself. It was a learning opportunity. And that is probably the greatest leadership lesson in this passage: we are all learners. Whether we’re already in that position of leadership and influence or on our way, we never stop growing in our understanding of God, our faith in him and our ability to lead. Thank God that he’s not finished with us, and he shows grace to help us learn from our mistakes.