Predictable unpredictability

On a surface-level reading of Exodus 17:8-16, it seems like Moses hands the reigns to Joshua, saying, “You go fight. I’m going to grab my hiking stick and climb that mountain.” Moses feels no need to explain himself to Joshua, or to us. Why did no one protest or ask questions? I certainly have a few!

The risks of delegation

At this point in the Exodus story, Moses’ track record leading his own people is fairly brief. Since the day he reappeared from 40 years’ solitude in the wilderness, the people’s relationship with their untested leader has been running hot and cold. Their gratefulness and worship in Exodus 4:31 quickly turns to accusation by 5:21 when Pharaoh takes his anger out on the people. Moses then manages a series of crises—some of which he provoked. A few weeks after the highs of the miraculous Red Sea crossing (Ex 14), the people are ready to mutiny and stone Moses to death (Ex 17:4). And it won’t be long before the people give up on Moses when he spends six weeks on Mt. Sinai (Ex 24, 32). There’s a surprising arms-length detachment in their assessment of him in Exodus 32:1: “As for this fellow Moses who brought us up out of Egypt, we don’t know what has happened to him.”

What kind of leader is Moses? In these first months of his leadership, some of his idiosyncrasies and patterns of his leadership style are still developing. So, at the point the Amalekites attack, Moses hasn’t earned the benefit of the doubt with the people.

Viewed through that lens, the risks Moses takes in walking away from the fight are enormous. The quarrel only a few verses prior was no small dispute; Moses feared for his life. It was no-confidence territory. Insubordination. Potential mutiny. So God gave a solution that was very public and deliberate in elevating Moses before the people.

With his leadership so recently in danger, we could forgive an inclination from Moses to solidify his leadership further with one more bold demonstration that he is in charge.

Instead, he walks away.

By delegating the key responsibility, Moses also risks the people latching onto Joshua and giving him credit, just as David’s successes would be a threat to King Saul (1 Sam 18:8) and Absalom would one day steal followers from his father, David (2 Sam 15:6). But Moses shows no fear.

Moses’ choice looks naive, uncalculated. He simply isn’t driven by politics. He clearly knows God has called him to this role, but these are God’s people. This stewardship view of leadership removes any fear that he might lose his job. Yes, Joshua might get the glory and gain some followers due to his hands-on, ground-level leadership among the people. Moses isn’t driven by those motivations, and that allows him to make a courageous choice.

I find Moses to be unpredictable, and yet also entirely predictable.

What about me?

I ask myself: Is my spiritual practice, my means of leading out of my relationship with God, predictable? Have I established a track record of obedience, of hearing God, of drawing on my time with him to take courageous steps? So, when God prompts surprising plans or methods, the one predictable thing about me is my quickness and readiness to follow?

I’ve had years with my senior leadership team, and they’ve noticed my style of decision-making and leading. Would an action like Moses’ be out of character for me? Would my team trust me implicitly?

The key seems to be Moses’ focus on following God, no matter what. My first instinct often isn’t spiritual leadership. I think things through and gather data. My responses are measured, and it’s really only in the past decade that I’ve learned to lean on my intuition. I’m still early in my journey into using discernment methods. One of Ruth Haley Barton’s foundational principles for discernment is to rely on God’s goodness and “ask God for the grace to desire his will—nothing more, nothing less, nothing else” (Pursuing God’s Will Together, p188)

Moses’ authority to lead is spiritual in nature. It comes from the fact that his followers know he has spent time with God. By Exodus 33:7-11, he will eventually establish a pattern of conversing with God face to face in the tent of meeting. It’s obvious to the people exactly how much time he spends with God; when he goes in the tent, they stand at the doors of their tents and worship. Even his countenance reveals he has been with God.

How obvious is it with your followers the amount of time you’ve spent with God?

When you have been with God and then propose a wacky idea like marching silently around a city for seven days or throwing nets on the other side of a boat or walking away from battle to climb a mountain, followers’ doubts are quelled. That predictable unpredictability is the signature of a leader worth following.


Moses on the Mountain series:

  • Don’t delegate this!
  • Predictable unpredictability
  • Who was Joshua? (coming soon)
  • Eyes wide open (coming soon)
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Moses on the mountain: Don’t delegate this!

I have been on a journey around spiritual leadership in the past seven years. That kind of leadership doesn’t come naturally to me. In terms of my style of leadership, I’m more of a king than a prophet or priest. When it comes to spiritual leadership, there is no better model than Moses. Ever since a board member first handed me a copy of Ruth Haley Barton’s book, Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership, I have been intrigued at the depth of Moses’ relationship with God as the basis for his leadership. However, I’m not sure spiritual leadership came naturally to him either—it was an acquired discipline, skill and way of life. Over the next few weeks, I want to mine some gold from one event in particular.

In Exodus 17:8-16, Israel faces its first battle since God miraculously helped them escape Egypt and single handedly wiped out Pharaoh’s army in the Red Sea. Now, as Amalek attacks, Moses turns to someone never before mentioned in the Bible and tells him to choose men, go out and fight while he goes up on a mountain. The passage never definitively unpacks what happens at the top of that mountain.

Have you ever read a passage where numerous things don’t quite add up? You sense it needs deeper study to understand the complexity. Over the past year, I’ve been continually drawn back to Exodus 17. At one point, I read it every day for a month, writing down my discoveries. It’s not transparent, and there are layers to be peeled back. Some of the questions that triggered my study were:

  • If Moses has a “tent of meeting,” where he regularly talks to God face-to-face, why does he go up on the mountain to pray?
  • When we have so many great prayers of Moses recorded, why do we know nothing of Moses’ day on that hill other than his hand positions?
  • When he comes down at the end of the battle, why does he have a message about Amalek so completely out of touch with Joshua’s experience that day?

My study of this passage has shaped my understanding of spiritual leadership and how my role needs to shift. Let’s jump in.

Don’t delegate this!

To be effective, every leader has to ask the question, “What is it that only I can do?”, then delegate everything else. That’s the lesson Moses will get drilled into him by his father-in-law in the next chapter. The ancient historian Josephus says Moses was a general in Pharaoh’s army. Sure, he’s long retired from his own fighting days, but when Amalek attacks, he chooses to delegate on-the-ground leadership while keeping spiritual leadership responsibilities. Why?

There are some hints about the insights that lead Moses to this conclusion.

The first thing I noted is that this story begins with the word, “then.” It begs the question, “what came before this?” Moses has just produced water from a rock, but in a context where the people are angry enough to stone him. It’s a critical-enough moment in Israel’s history that the place will forever be identified with the events of that day. However, rather than naming it after the miracle, Moses names it after the danger: “Testing and Quarrelling.” There are several fundamental questions raised in that event:

  • Is God among us or not?
  • Does Moses speak for God?

Moses clearly identifies the circumstances as a spiritual attack – an indirect attack on unity, using accusation and division.

Before they have even left that site, a direct attack comes. It’s a test of a very different nature, and Moses recognizes that it needs a different response.

We also have the benefit of hearing Moses’ commentary on that moment, recorded years later. In Deuteronomy 25:17-19, he would remind Israel that, “When you were weary and worn out, [the Amalekites] met you on your journey and attacked all who were lagging behind.” Such predatory behaviour, picking off the weak and isolated, resembles Peter’s warning to believers: “Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.” (1 Peter 5:8). 

The second half of the chapter is a continuation of the same two foundational tests: whether God is among them, and whether Moses speaks for God. Moses could dive into the task at hand, boldly leading the people in battle from the front. Instead he holds onto components that address the deeper spiritual nature of this challenge. That is the part he can’t delegate.


Moses on the Mountain series: