Moses and Divine Providence

Moses Undergoing Trial by Fire
by Giorgio Barbarelli da Castel Franco (Giorgione) [1505]
Wikimedia Commons

In an excellent article, “When YHWH Tests People: General Considerations and Particular Observations Regarding the Books of Chronicles and Job,” published in The Philip R. Davies Festschrift, Ehud Ben Zvi deals with the issue of divine testing. He wrote that in many societies kings were concerned with assessing whether their servants were loyal and trustworthy servants. Ben Zvi’s contention is that even YHWH needed to know whether his servants were loyal and whether they loved him as king. In his article Ben Zvi said “that the more a personage seemed to embody the values of loyalty and commitment to YHWH, the more likely candidate she or he will be to stand as the main object of a tradition of a divine test.”

I agree with Ben Zvi’s conclusions. The examples Ben Zvi gives in his article provide irrefutable evidence that YHWH’s faithful and loyal servants are tested for their faithfulness and loyalty. In the present study I would like to include another reason for divine testing. I contend that potential servants of YHWH are also tested to see whether they are worthy of a greater assignment.

One good example of a person who was tested by YHWH in preparation for a greater assignment was Moses. The biblical narratives about Moses present him as an individual who went through much trial and tribulation before he was ready for the work God had prepared for him: to lead the people of Israel from their oppressive situation in Egypt to their journey toward the land of Canaan. From a child in peril, to the luxury of the palace, to a fugitive from justice, to the savior of his nation, Moses was tried and tested in preparation for his work of liberating Israel from their oppression in Egypt.

According to the biblical narratives, Moses grew up with the members of the royal family in Egypt, enjoying the life of luxury that came from being the adopted son of Pharaoh’s daughter (Exodus 2:10). But all that changed when, in a fit of rage, Moses killed an Egyptian who was mistreating a Hebrew. All of a sudden, Moses became a wanted man and a fugitive from justice.

His attempt at helping the Hebrew slaves was a costly mistake. Instead of becoming the savior of his people, Moses had become an outlaw. Because Pharaoh wanted Moses dead, he had to abandon his life in the palace and leave Egypt. By divine providence Moses fled to Midian, a region outside Egyptian control, where he lived for forty years. When Moses arrived in Midian, he sat by a well and there he was again confronted with injustice. Several women came to the well to water their father’s sheep but some shepherds came and chased them away. Moses rescued the women and helped them water their sheep.

By rescuing the women, Moses acted as a deliverer of the oppressed and by stooping down to water their flock, Moses was serving the women. And it is here where Moses’ education begins. People whom God calls into service must begin their education by finding a place of service because those who lead others must learn how to serve all. This was the lesson Rehoboam never learned.

When Rehoboam sought the counsel of the elders concerning the request of the people of Israel to remove the forced labor, the elder told him: “If you will be a servant to this people today and serve them, and speak good words to them when you answer them, then they will be your servants forever” (1 Kings 12:7). But Rehoboam disregarded the advice that the elders gave him because in his mind, a king could not be a servant of the people.

Moses’ life in Midian became a time of preparation. The first lesson that Moses had to learn was how to control his anger. Because of anger he became a fugitive. In his encounter with the shepherds he did not kill them as he had killed the Egyptian. The second lesson Moses learned was how to become a servant. By watering the flock for the women, Moses was learning how to serve others. Another lesson Moses learned while in Midian was how to survive in the wilderness. Living in the wilderness helped Moses gain a basic knowledge of wilderness survival and how to find food and water in the desert.

One experience in Midian that greatly contributed to Moses’ spiritual education was his association with Jethro and his family. Jethro was a priest and he became Moses’ father-in-law (Exodus 3:1). It is possible that Jethro belonged to the Kenites, a Midianite tribe of nomads who lived in the wilderness, in the vicinity of Mount Sinai. The Midianites were descendants of Abraham through his wife Keturah (Genesis 25:1-2). Jethro was “the priest of Midian” and it is possible that his God was the God of Abraham. If the Midianites worshiped the God of their father Abraham, then Moses received religious instructions about the God of the Fathers from Jethro.

In addition, in Midian Moses became a shepherd. In fact, Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law at the time he came to Horeb, the mountain of God (Exodus 3:1). Moses’ new profession was his final break with Egypt since shepherds were an abomination to the Egyptians (Genesis 46:34). One lesson shepherds learn very fast is that sheep depend totally on shepherds for their care.

It was by taking care of Jethro’s flock that Moses learned how to be the shepherd of Israel, how to rescue, protect, and feed the people on their journey from Egypt to Canaan. When the Psalmist was thinking about what God had done for Israel, he said: “You led your people like a flock by the hand of Moses” (Psalm 77:20). At the end of his life, Moses asked God to raise another shepherd to care for Israel. Moses prayed: “Let the LORD, the God of the spirits of all flesh, appoint someone over the congregation who shall go out before them and come in before them, who shall lead them out and bring them in, so that the congregation of the LORD may not be like sheep without a shepherd” (Numbers 27:16-17).

God used the trials and tribulations in Moses’ life to prepare him for his work as the deliverer of Israel. Throughout all the ordeals Moses faced, God was training him for a very special work. It took God eighty years of training to prepare Moses for forty years of ministry.

Going to Midian, living in the wilderness, and becoming a shepherd was not part of Moses’ plan for his life. However, God used those events in Moses’ life to teach and prepare him for his assignment. In order for Moses to become the deliverer of Israel it was necessary for Moses to be tested and tried.

In Moses’ life and experience Christians discover the real meaning of Paul’s words: “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28).

The greatest desire in the lives of those who serve the Lord is to know that they will be able to serve God with gladness of heart and the assurance of divine help. However, the reality is that at times they serve the Lord with much sorrow, suffering, and trials. Although many of the trials and tribulations bring sorrows and discomfort, in God’s providence they can be useful. In fact, as Paul says, these things that happen to the Christian can be overruled by God for his good.

However, if God knows the problems and the struggles of his servants, why then are they not delivered from these afflictions? The answer, as Paul shows, is that in the providence of God, these trials and tribulations can become a teaching time for God’s friends, so that, although they are not removed, God can make them work for their good.

Paul’s words and Moses’ experience teach God’s friends that whatever may be the number and overwhelming character of their trials, they are all contributing to their spiritual preparation. Divine providence uses all things to teach and prepare God’s friends to serve him in a greater way.

It is tough being God’s friend.

NOTE: For other studies on Moses, read my post Studies on Moses.

Claude Mariottini
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary

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4 Responses to Moses and Divine Providence

  1. James Pate says:

    Hi Dr. Mariottini.

    I enjoyed your contrast of Moses with Rehoboam.I’ve read and heard a lot of people criticize Moses’ killing the Egyptian. But I wonder what else he could have done in that situation? What are your thoughts on that?


  2. James,

    Good question! I think Moses had three choices: he could have done nothing, he could have tried to stop the Egyptian from beating the Hebrew, or he could have killed the Egyptian. To do nothing meant that he was taking the side of the oppressor. To try to stop the Egyptian could have solved the problem but Moses probably would be accused of being on the side of the Hebrews, which could then jeopardize his status in the Egyptian court. Moses took the third option. Moses decided to kill the Egyptian and tried to hide his crime, hoping that nobody would discover what he had done.

    The text does not say that the Egyptians knew that Moses had killed the slave master. When the Hebrew rebuked him, Moses thought that his crime had been discovered. He said to himself: “What I did must have become known” (Exodus 2:14). Probably only the Hebrews knew what he had done, but Moses panicked and fled to save his life.Thank you for your comment.

    Claude Mariottini


  3. Steve says:

    What were God educational intervention in Moses


  4. Steve,

    Thank you for your comment. I am not sure whether your comment was cut or this is what you intended to write.Moses was tested in order to prepare him for the difficult job of confronting the Pharaoh of Egypt and to deal with an ungrateful people in the wilderness.

    Claude Mariottini


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