Why Moses failed to free the Israelites
Nearly everyone knows how Moses freed the Israelites from Egyptian slavery. Not many know that Moses had made a previous attempt to free them and had failed.
One day, when Moses had grown up, he went out to his people and looked on their burdens, and he saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, one of his people. He looked this way and that, and seeing no one, he struck down the Egyptian and hid him in the sand.
When he went out the next day, behold, two Hebrews were struggling together. And he said to the man in the wrong, “Why do you strike your companion?”
He answered, “Who made you a prince and a judge over us? Do you mean to kill me as you killed the Egyptian?”
Then Moses was afraid, and thought, “Surely the thing is known.” When Pharaoh heard of it, he sought to kill Moses. But Moses fled from Pharaoh and stayed in the land of Midian.
This appears to be nothing more than Moses seeing an act of cruelty and intervening but the New Testament gives more information.
By faith Moses, when he was grown up, refused to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter, choosing rather to be mistreated with the people of God than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin.
Moses had rejected his adopted family and their gods and chosen to identify himself with how own people and their God.
When he was forty years old, it came into his heart to visit his brothers, the children of Israel. And seeing one of them being wronged, he defended the oppressed man and avenged him by striking down the Egyptian. He supposed that his brothers would understand that God was giving them salvation by his hand, but they did not understand.
And on the following day he appeared to them as they were quarreling and tried to reconcile them, saying, “Men, you are brothers. Why do you wrong each other?”
But the man who was wronging his neighbor thrust him aside, saying, “Who made you a ruler and a judge over us? Do you want to kill me as you killed the Egyptian yesterday?” At this retort Moses fled and became an exile in the land of Midian.
He not only identified himself with the Israelites but believed that God wanted him to free them from their slavery. We aren’t told why he believed this. Perhaps God and appeared to him and told him; perhaps he believed God had caused him to be adopted into the royal family so he could acquire the skills he needed. After all, he had learned things he couldn’t have learned if he had grown up as a slave.
Regardless of why he believed this was his destiny the fact that his people rejected him convinced him that he was wrong. He fled to Midian where he acquired a wife and spent the next 40 years taking care of his father-in-law’s sheep.
It was while he was doing this job that God spoke to him out of the burning bush.
Now Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law, Jethro, the priest of Midian, and he led his flock to the west side of the wilderness and came to Horeb, the mountain of God.
And the angel of the LORD appeared to him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush. He looked, and behold, the bush was burning, yet it was not consumed. And Moses said, “I will turn aside to see this great sight, why the bush is not burned.”
God commanded him to free his people and this time he succeeded.
One reason for his success is something that had happened after he left Egypt.
During those many days the king of Egypt died, and the people of Israel groaned because of their slavery and cried out for help. Their cry for rescue from slavery came up to God. And God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob. God saw the people of Israel—and God knew.
Sometimes we don’t get what we want from God because we don’t ask. That seems to have been the case with the Israelites. But now they turned to God and God was getting ready to answer their prayer.
The second reason Moses succeeded this time was that he had changed during his time in exile. This change is shown in his responses to God.
But Moses said to God, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the children of Israel out of Egypt?”
He would never have asked such a question when he made his first attempt. He knew exactly who he was.
Moses was instructed in all the wisdom of the Egyptians, and he was mighty in his words and deeds.
His failure had taught him that his abilities and accomplishments weren’t enough to enable him to do what he wanted to do.
Then Moses answered, “But behold, they will not believe me or listen to my voice, for they will say, ‘The LORD did not appear to you.’”
Earlier he had expected others to simply accept his claim that he was carrying out God’s will. Now he knew he would need to prove to them that God had sent him.
But Moses said to the LORD, “Oh, my Lord, I am not eloquent, either in the past or since you have spoken to your servant, but I am slow of speech and of tongue.”
This is a strange statement coming from someone who had been described as being mighty in his words. For 40 years he had spent much time with no one but sheep to talk to and he realized his verbal skills had become weak through disuse. On the other hand a shepherd has plenty of opportunity to pray and meditate and the close relationship to God that Moses demonstrated after this event show that he must have done this.
Moses failed when he relied on his own abilities. He succeeded when he finally learned to depend entirely on God and his power.