Moses is such a reluctant leader at the beginning of his mission. He’s already turned God down a few times back at the Burning Bush. He couldn’t believe God was choosing him to do this huge task – freeing the Israelite slaves after four hundred years of bondage. And who was he? A shepherd who had left a completely other life behind, one of palace living….and murder.
One can imagine how insecure Moses was. Indeed, who was he? Was he the long-lost Jewish boy , abandoned to a basket and a river by his own mother? The son-in-law of a Midianite Priest, living a shepherd’s life with a wife and sons? Was he the murderer , who tried to disappear from his crime, yet standing out to all who met him, due to his speech impediment?
And this is the guy God picks to lead an entire nation out of slavery? Gutsy move.
The strength and conviction to lead comes from a variety of places. For some, it’s so in-bred, so much a part of the core identity, nothing can sway that person from the path. Not so for Moses. Especially at this time, as his story begins, he is constantly looking for his own identity and confidence, not just from God, but more importantly (to him) from the people. He needs the people to believe him, to listen to him, to be willing to follow him. After all, without followers, who needs a leader?
Naturally, the traditional commentators have something to say about this verse. I point out one: Ibn Ezra, a 12th century Spanish scholar. He lived the majority of his life in Muslim Spain, and his remaining years wandering through Christian Europe and England. His perspective, therefore, is one of a Jew living fully among non-Jews, and his commentary reflects that inside/outside experience. His commentary (in italics) on this line is “The Israelites (who are Your people) would not listen to me; how then should Pharaoh (who is not one of Your people) heed me?” For Moses, Ibn Ezra says, the recipients of the message seem to pre-determine the success of the mission. That is, if Moses can’t even convince his own people of his mission on behalf of God, how could an “outsider” possibly believe him? For Moses, the conviction comes from his followers, not God and certainly not from himself.
In establishing his leadership identity, Moses had a divided audience. He may have been playing to the Pharaoh, but he knew the Israelites were watching closely, and the ensuing plagues needed to impress them as well as Pharaoh….maybe moreso. What difference would it have made if Pharoah was persuaded, but the Israelites weren’t? They wouldn’t have followed him, and his entire God-given mission would have been for naught. Moses needed them to believe in him at least as much as he needed Pharaoh to believe, if not more.
Our success or failure may have less to do with ourselves, and more to do with the response we get from others. To what extent do our leaders derive their identity as Moses did; from those they lead? God may have chosen Moses as a leader, but as soon as Moses tried to relay that status to the people, he needed them to complete his role. How much of our own identity is formed from the responses we get from others? How often do we need to find out what others will give back to us before we realize how much we have to give?