Chapter 3

Moses' Moments of Anger

Moses was a natural leader even though he didn’t always think so (Ex. 3:11; 4:10). He was blessed with numerous gifts:

• Good looks (Ex. 2:2; Acts 7:20)

• Intelligence (Acts 7:22)

• Unparalleled opportunity (Acts 7:22)

• Eloquence (Acts 7:22)

• Leadership ability (Acts 7:22)

That’s quite a résumé. Yet, to whom much is given, much will be required. Even in the best of circumstances this is true—and Moses was not in the best of circumstances. While trying to use his God-given capacity for leadership, he was at the same time seeking to control the seething fire of anger in his belly over the plight of his people. While Moses was following the clear direction of God, his anger would occasionally flare up and overtake the moment. We need to see these episodes of anger, and recognize them for what they were.

While Moses was following the clear direction of God, his anger would occasionally flare up and overtake the moment.

Moses’ Anger Over Injustice (Ex. 2). At age 40, Moses made a critical choice: He determined not to be identified with the life of privilege in which he had been reared but with the enslaved Hebrews whose blood and heritage he shared (Acts 7:21; Heb. 11:24). This would be an amazing choice under any condition, but it becomes even more dramatic when you see what Moses left behind:

Wealth. He grew up amid the grandeur and excitement of Pharaoh’s court and could have continued to live in material comfort.

Education. He had become “learned in all the wisdom of the Egyptians” and could have received all the benefits of being a nationally respected orator (Acts 7:22).

Fame. For 20 years he had been a highly successful military leader. Josephus, the Jewish historian, says that he was a skilled general who brought Egypt a stunning victory in a war against Ethiopia.

No wonder Acts 7:22 says that he became “mighty in words and deeds.” Imagine the acclaim and honor that came from these achievements. Yet, incredibly, Moses walked away from it all and became a slave. Why? The writer of Hebrews said that he made two critical value judgments:

Choosing rather to suffer affliction with the people of God than to enjoy the passing pleasures of sin, esteeming the reproach of Christ greater riches than the treasures in Egypt; for he looked to the reward. By faith he forsook Egypt, not fearing the wrath of the king; for he endured as seeing Him who is invisible (Heb. 11:25-27).

Interestingly, this New Testament perspective describes Moses’ healthy response to someone else’s anger. This passage tells us that Moses was not afraid to face the anger of the self-absorbed Pharaoh who raised Moses in his own house.

To remain in Pharaoh’s court would have brought Moses wealth and social privilege, but only for a short while. Given insight by God, Moses saw what was critical in decisionmaking— the need to look beyond the moment and see the result of the decision.

While not cowering before the rage of Pharaoh, Moses saw beyond the moment. We can probably assume that he must have felt some healthy anger as he observed the mistreatment of the enslaved people of Israel.

What we do know is that God gave Moses the wisdom to see that choosing the immediate pleasures of adoption as Pharaoh’s grandson (material wealth, education, fame) did not deserve to be compared with the lasting honor of standing up to the plight of his own flesh and blood.

Among those who worship material success, such a choice would evoke ridicule, mockery, and a sanity check. Yet this was Moses at his best. He made the right choice. Even though he could not have understood all that he was choosing at the time, he left the posh environment of imperial Egypt to suffer with those who needed his help.

The healthy anger that Moses must have felt in behalf of his enslaved relatives ended up getting him in trouble.

Ironically, however, the healthy anger that Moses must have felt in behalf of his enslaved relatives ended up getting him in trouble. A life-changing event occurred when he tried, in his own strength, to go to the aid of one of his Hebrew brothers who was being beaten by an Egyptian taskmaster. Moses’ emotions took over and he committed a crime of passion—murdering the Egyptian and hiding his body in the sand.

Unfortunately, Moses’ motives were not totally pure. The “why” behind the “what” isn’t found in Exodus. It’s discovered in a speech given by Stephen in Acts 7. Stephen’s analysis of Moses’ actions gives the additional insight that Moses killed the taskmaster while trying to step forward as the deliverer of the slave nation. Acts 7:25 says:

He supposed that his brethren would have understood that God would deliver them by his hand, but they did not understand.

Moses was undoubtedly right about the mistreatment of the slave. His response, however, revealed how unprepared he was for the task ahead. As Merrill Unger wrote, “He needed divine preparation, as is shown by his killing of an Egyptian taskmaster in anger.” He would never be able to accomplish this deliverance by his own strength and cleverness, and it was vital for him to learn this lesson.

Stepping out on his own with a rash act of anger cost him dearly. He spent the next 40 years of his life as an exile and fugitive in the wilderness of Midian—a far cry from the position of power and authority he had once held. Some say that “life begins at 40,” but Moses must have felt that his life had just ended.

Moses’ Anger Over Pharaoh’s Rebellion Against God (Ex. 11:8). Forty long years had passed in the blowing desert sands. Moses had been humbled on the backside of a barren wilderness. Now he was about to face a new challenge. God was about to lead him back into Pharaoh’s court.

The moment of truth occurred in the wilderness. God surprised Moses by speaking to him from a mysterious burning bush (Ex. 3–4). From the bush, God told Moses that He was going to use him to lead His people out of Egypt.

It didn’t sound like a good idea to Moses. He remembered his last effort to be a hero. Yet, because of the conversation at the burning bush, Moses realized that he had little choice but to return to the place from which he had fled.

Imagine the inner turmoil Moses must have felt as he returned to the place where he spent the first 40 years of his life. Things were different this time. No longer did Moses stand in the finery of Egypt, being groomed for greatness. Now he stood in the simple clothes of a nomadic shepherd to demand from the most powerful man on earth the release of Egypt’s work force.

This time Moses didn’t step forward in his own strength. Instead, he knew that if anything would be accomplished, it would be through God’s power alone.

What was Moses’ part? His responsibility was to trust God enough to stand in the Egyptian court and tell Pharaoh what God told him to say. He did not have to accomplish the deliverance, but he did have to believe God and do his part.

God’s plan was to carry out a series of supernatural interventions—plagues that would attack the spiritual heart of Egypt. Each miracle-plague had a direct correlation to the Egyptian nature-based religion. The one-and-only God would prove His authority as Creator by making His creation mock the idolatry of polytheistic Egypt.

Moses did not have to accomplish the deliverance, but he did have to believe God and do his part.

By the time this display of the supernatural was over, there would be no doubt in Moses’ mind that he could trust God to meet the demands of the trying days ahead. Having witnessed God’s power, the Hebrews could have hope in a future they had never before dared dream of.

Notice how the plagues expressed God’s righteous anger toward the idols and false gods of Egypt:

1. The Nile turned to blood (Ex. 7:14-25). The Nile was the center of Egyptian religion, and the agricultural lifeblood for the nation. The gods Hapi and Osiris supposedly protected the river.

2. Swarms of frogs (8:1-15). In Egypt, Heqt, the frog god, was a symbol of fertility and resurrection.

3. Dust became lice (8:16-19). The Hebrew word for lice, kinnim, refers to gnats.

4. Swarms (8:20-32). The exact nature of this swarm is not certain, but some co mmentators believe it was the dog fly, a bloodsucking insect that laid eggs on other creatures and “swarmed with a voracious appetite, attacking every man, inflicting painful wounds.” Kheper, represented by the scarab beetle, was the insect god shown to be impotent by the third and fourth plagues.

5. Pestilence (9:1-7). This was a fatal disease for cattle, which were also considered sacred and supposedly protected by the bull-god Apis and the cow-goddess Hathor.

6. Boils (9:8-12). These painful sores were seen as a failure of their personal god of healing, Thoth.

7. Storm and hail (9:13-35). This plague destroyed the crops and food supply. Nut, the sky god, failed to stop this weather-borne disaster.

8. Locusts (10:1-20). A locust can eat its own weight daily, and locust swarms of 400 square miles have been recorded (a single square-mile swarm could contain 100 to 200 million locusts). Osiris, protector of agriculture, was seen as the ineffective god in this plague.

9. Darkness (10:21-29). Ra, the sun god of Egypt, was the god mocked by this plague—a plague of darkness that was so thick it could be felt.

10. Death of the firstborn of man and animal (11:4-5; 12:29-30). This plague marked the failure of Pharaoh himself, who was considered a god. He was powerless to stop it—even losing his own firstborn.

This was the final blow against the idolatry of Egypt. God executed His own righteous anger on both Pharaoh and Egypt’s gods. The God of the Hebrews demonstrated that He was indeed the one true God with power and authority over all creation, and that He would use any means necessary to secure the freedom of His people.

Yet, even with the suffering generated by these plagues, God displayed the depth of His mercies. He made a way of escape for the tenth and final plague. The warning was given that the firstborn would die, but God made a provision. The provision was that the firstborn did not have to die, as long as a substitute died in his place.

The firstborn would live if a flawless lamb was slaughtered and its blood placed on the doorway of the house. For those homes, the death angel would “pass over.” (The Jewish feast of Passover was begun to remind Israel of this event.) No wonder the writer of Lamentations wrote, “[The Lord’s mercies] are new every morning; great is Your faithfulness” (3:23). Even in the midst of divine judgment, God demonstrated the faithfulness of His mercy.

Even in the midst of divine judgment, God demonstrated the faithfulness of His mercy.

The great sadness about the judgments on Egypt, however, is that they never needed to happen. God is merciful and loving and provided a way for Egypt to avoid judgment, but Pharaoh hardened his heart against the warnings of Moses—and calamity fell. It was this rebellion that brought down the wrath of God and caused the anger of Moses, who answered Pharaoh’s hard heart with this cryptic prophecy of the results of the final plague:

All these your servants shall come to me and bow down to me, saying, ‘Get out, and all the people who follow you!’ After that I will go out. Then he went out from Pharaoh in great anger (Ex. 11:8).

This time, Moses’ anger was healthy. His anger with Pharaoh mirrored God’s disapproval, and the ensuing tragedy devastated an Egyptian generation. God showed His power over the gods of Egypt. He used a series of plagues to break Pharaoh’s iron grip on the children of Israel. Finally, by God’s power a slave nation escaped the boundaries and armies of Egypt. But the challenges facing Moses were far from over!

Moses’ Anger Over The Hebrews’ Idolatry (Ex. 32:19). A few weeks into the wilderness, God called Moses to the top of a rocky barren mountain called Sinai. As the people of Israel waited below, God wrote on two stone tablets His laws for a new society.

Looking back, we can see some of what God was doing. For any nation to function in an orderly way, there must be a system of law. For Israel, however, the value of these laws was dramatically increased by the fact that they were not just a nation of people— they were God’s people. God’s laws followed by G od’s people were meant to demonstrate God’s goodness to the world.

The laws of the new society were summed up in 10 rules that would indicate whether or not they were showing love for God and for one another.

An Immediate Violation (Ex. 32:1-14). As important as these laws were, the people of Israel were breaking them even as they were being given. The first four of the Ten Commandments called for proper worship of God. Yet, as Moses lay on his face worshiping the invisible God from the top of Sinai, his brother Aaron was at its base fashioning a calf of gold for the people’s hearts of stone.

The children of Israel had turned to worship the creature instead of the Creator.

It’s hard to believe how quickly the Israelites lost sight of reality. How could the invisible God who demonstrated His power over the visible, material world through the plagues, the opening of the Red Sea, and the daily provision of food and water be reduced to a humanly-crafted idol? Like the picture of paganism found in Romans 1:18-23, they had turned to worship the creature instead of the Creator.

Their actions revealed how little they had learned. Even as God was speaking to Moses on the mountain, the Hebrews were corrupting themselves on the plain below—and now it was time to pay the price. Moses was furious.

A Return To Anger (Ex. 32:15-30). It is important that we see through Moses’ eyes the events that followed. He had just spent 40 days in communion with God. Moses had seen nothing but what was pure and holy. But when he came down from the mountain, he experienced an unexpected culture shock. The religious adultery that Moses saw at the foot of the mountain profaned the relationship with God that had been enveloping him.

How did Moses respond? What Joshua the general thought were the noises of war, Moses the prophet recognized as the tumult of sin. He probably felt a range of emotions that included fear, frustration, and despair. His actions also indicated that he was overcome with anger. In an act of apparent fury, Moses broke the tablets on which God had engraved the laws His people were now breaking. In what appears to have been an ongoing expression of smoldering anger, he destroyed the golden calf and made 3,000 worshipers drink its crushed residue.

The first half of his reaction is troubling. There can be no doubt that Israel’s idolatry deserved a strong response. But to destroy the tablets of the law written by the finger of God seems like the expression of a lost temper. As understandable as it is that he would be angry with his nation, it seems hard to justify his action in breaking the tablets that God had engraved with His own hand.

To destroy the tablets of the law written by the finger of God seems like the expression of a lost temper.

What a visual display this was! Their false god (the golden calf) was not able to save itself from Moses, let alone save the people from the wrath of God because of their idolatry.

Could it also be that God used Moses’ temper to tell us something about the law He was giving? As important as the law is in showing us what a right relationship with God looks like, the law cannot save those who violate it. A broken law can condemn, but the law cannot save.

Moses’ Anger Over His Disappointment With God (Num. 11:10). The old saying is often true, “Be careful what you ask for, because you might get it!” After believing he had been chosen to lead the Israelites, after failing in his own strength, and then after succeeding in God’s strength, Moses was the leader. Yet, this “dream come true” became a burden that he not only didn’t want, but that for which he seems to have become angry with God! Notice the description that appears to reveal Moses’ frustration and anger with God:

Then Moses heard the people weeping throughout their families, everyone at the door of his tent; and the anger of the Lord was greatly aroused; Moses also was displeased. So Moses said to the Lord, “Why have You afflicted Your servant? And why have I not found favor in Your sight, that You have laid the burden of all these people on me? Did I conceive all these people? Did I beget them, that You should say to me, ‘Carry them in your bosom, as a guardian carries a nursing child,’ to the land which You swore to their fathers? Where am I to get meat to give to all these people? For they weep all over me, saying, ‘Give us meat, that we may eat.’ I am not able to bear all these people alone, because the burden is too heavy for me. If You treat me like this, please kill me here and now—if I have found favor in Your sight—and do not let me see my wretchedness!” (Num. 11:10-15).

The key word in this text is found in verse 10, where Moses is described as “displeased.” The same word is found in verse 1, but it is actually much stronger. In verse 1, God also was “displeased” (literally, “it was evil in His ears”) and the result was His intense anger. In verse 10, the word displeased is so similar (literally, “evil in the sight of”) that it would appear that Moses was mirroring God’s angry displeasure.

It is significant to notice, however, that God’s righteous anger was stirred against the faithlessness of the Hebrews, but Moses’ anger was directed at God Himself. At the root of his anger was pure, unadulterated frustration. Why? Because, once again, Moses had reverted to attempting to lead in his own strength, and the pressure was overwhelming.

Moses’ Anger Over The Hebrews’ Complaining (Num. 20:8-11). After 38 years of leading a stubborn people through the wilderness, Moses failed again. It was Moses’ anger that we see, and this time it was not a reflection of God. It was human frustration. It’s like the woman whose bumper sticker said, “ I only have one nerve left, and you are starting to get on it.” Moses was fed up—and he didn’t care who knew it.

In Numbers 20, the people again complained, and again it was about lack of water. Once in the past, God had instructed Moses to strike a rock, and water would be provided (Ex. 17:6). This time, however, he was only to speak to the rock. But in anger Moses disobeyed. He displayed his frustration with the people, calling them “rebels.” Along with Aaron, he claimed credit for the miraculous water when he said, “Must we bring water?” And then Moses struck the rock a second time (Num. 20:8-11).

The Expositor’s Bible Commentary puts it this way:

Then, at long last, Moses exploded! Was he disappointed that the Lord had not burst out against His people, as had happened time after time? Moses burst out at them—and against the rock—to his lasting regret. . . . In his rage Moses disobeyed the clear instructions of the Lord to speak to the rock.

In the account of this event recorded in Psalm 106:32-33, Moses’ angry heart was fully exposed. The New English Translation reads, “They made him angry by the waters of Meribah, and Moses suffered because of them, for they aroused his temper, and he spoke rashly.”
How tragic. It seems that Moses had returned to where he began—presenting himself as the answer to the people’s needs rather than God—just as he had done in the killing of the Egyptian taskmaster. For Moses, the battle with anger was not a struggle for a day, or a week, or a year, but for a lifetime. And it cost him dearly. His life’s mission was terminated just short of its goal. He forfeited the privilege of leading the children of Israel into the Promised Land.

Moses’ anger cost him dearly. His life’s mission was terminated just short of its goal.

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