Meditations in Exodus: 7. Life in a Desert
Ex 2:21,22 Moses agreed to stay with the man, who gave his daughter Zipporah to Moses in marriage. Zipporah gave birth to a son, and Moses named him Gershom, saying, “I have become an alien in a foreign land.”.
Moses is on the run and keeps running until he arrives in the land of Midian and comes to an oasis or, as the text puts it, “he sat down by a well”. (v.15) We then read, “Now a priest of Midian had seven daughters, and they came to draw water and fill the troughs to water their father’s flock. Some shepherds came along and drove them away, but Moses got up and came to their rescue and watered their flock.” (v.16,17) In these desert regions there are a number of well established traditions. If you live in a desert survival is the name of the game. Your clothing, your tents, your very life style and traditions are designed for survival. For the desert dwellers hospitality is a very high priority as we shall see. Respect and protection for women whose role usually included getting water was well known, which suggests that these ‘shepherds’ did not belong to such a traditional grouping in that they bullied these girls. It says something for Moses that he stood up to these shepherds and watered the flock belonging to these girls who were most likely to be in their teenage years.
When they return home with their father’s flock, they tell him what had happened at which point his strong sense of hospitality kicks in and he chides them: “When the girls returned to Reuel their father, he asked them, “Why have you returned so early today?” They answered, “An Egyptian rescued us from the shepherds. He even drew water for us and watered the flock.” “And where is he?” he asked his daughters. “Why did you leave him? Invite him to have something to eat.” (v.18-20) This suggests that it was common for the girls to have trouble getting water and probably usually had to wait until the other shepherds had left.
It is also an indication of the type of men these shepherds were that they had no respect for whose flock these girls were caring for. Everything about Moses indicates he is an Egyptian. He may well have had time to collect together some of his belongings, clothes especially and maybe even took a couple of camels along with him as well. It is also possible that his adoptive mother had helped him and sent him on his way with provisions. I make these points in the light of what soon appears to follow.
Verse 21 is classic brevity: “Moses agreed to stay with the man, who gave his daughter Zipporah to Moses in marriage.” Moses was tired of running, Reuel would appreciate male help, help given without much pay no doubt, and the hospitality stretched out. There is a lot about Moses, he is after all a Prince of Egypt, and therefore in Reuel’s eyes, and no doubt those of his eldest daughter, he would be a good catch.
He becomes a shepherd (see 3:1) but more significantly, “Zipporah gave birth to a son, and Moses named him Gershom, saying, “I have become an alien in a foreign land.” (v.22) The name Gershom, your footnote will tell you, “sounds like the Hebrew for an alien there.” However the emphasis should be on “a resident alien” or a ‘legally tolerated alien’. This says two things: first, he holds on to his distinctiveness (which may be more about being a Hebrew than about being an Egyptian) and second he is holding on to his identity; these are not necessarily the same things. He is a Hebrew but he is also a Prince of Egypt, shamed and on the run maybe, but nevertheless one who has had royal upbringing. He has not become a Midianite despite their hospitality and despite his marriage.
Time passes by. I wonder what you would be feeling if you were Moses? Initially it might have been, “How stupid I was, but perhaps with the passing of time I’ll be able to go back and recover the life I lost.” But then time passes and the more he thinks about it the more he realises he cannot go back; he completely blew it and he will probably forfeit his life if he returns to Egypt. The years pass and memory dulls. He still has anguish when he does think back but it’s best to forget it, it’s gone, it’s past, it was another world but I have a new life to live now. A new life? A shepherd in a desert. Oh, my goodness! The past? A dream. I’m an old man now and old men don’t do new things. I’m a shepherd and that’s how it will be until I die. I’m a nobody. After say thirty nine years of life in a desert looking after sheep, you have no ambitions, no hopes, no dreams, nothing – except the ability to survive in the dessert, and that isn’t the sort of thing that changes the world – is it!
The point I would wish to make here is that forty years in a desert with sheep changes you. It takes away your self-confidence and so when we come to chapter 3 and Moses’ ‘conversation’ with God, don’t be surprised at his negativity, but it is a crucial characteristic for this future leader. In fact I might go as far as to say that it is absolutely vital to any hope of a life with God and doing great things with God.
Yes, think about this more a moment. The only way a person comes to Christ is by giving up on themselves, on realizing they are really needy, realizing they are a failure, a sinner who deserves judgement, realizing they are hopeless and helpless. Until you come to that point you will never surrender to God and allow Him to bring His salvation to you. The work of conviction is a work of the Holy Spirit but so often He will use our personal circumstances to pull us up in life. Possibly one of the greatest examples of this was Chuck Colson, senior member of the White House team serving the President of the United States, a man who had it all but crossed the line, was caught and jailed and who met Christ, but it was only when he was confronted with his failure that he began to face the bigger truth.
We have courses and we have personal trainers and mentors, all boosting our abilities and our ‘self’ to make us successful, and that we may become in world’s terms, but at the same time lose our soul. A recognition of our limitations and our sinfulness are prerequisites to enter the kingdom of God – and indeed to keep serving Him in His kingdom. To get to the point of “I can’t” Moses had to live in a desert for forty years and nobody told him it was boot camp for the greatest job ever detailed in the history of the Bible. He is a man who is going to have to confront the most powerful despot in the Middle East. Put all the dictators of the twentieth century you’ve heard about and this is the Pharaoh that Moses is to go up against. He’s then going to have to lead a bunch of moaning, groaning, grumbling, griping Israelites for the next forty years – and most of it will be in a desert. A where? A desert. Ah! Moses knows about deserts!!!!