October 6, 2008
Other People's Donkeys
Today's Donkey Tale takes us into the desert, where we find Moses facing some heat.
Try walking through a desert for forty years and see how well you get along with people. Moses, one of the key figures of the Old Testament--so key that Jesus summoned him to a meeting with him and Elijah in the New Testament--had the tough job of delivering an enslaved Israel out of Egypt and then delivering an ungrateful Israel into a land flowing with milk and honey. In between the two he had to walk for years along a senselessly meandering path through a desert. And along the way he faced betrayal and even mutiny from people who didn't know where they were going or why they left in the first place.
In Numbers 16 Moses faces a particularly frustrating trial, as Korah and a few other insurrectionists accuse him of hoarding power and lording it over them. They tell him, in their outdoor voices, "You have gone too far!" Interestingly enough, that's how Moses feels about them. "You Levites have gone too far!" he shouts in response.
It would be laughable if it weren't so potentially calamitous: two type-A leaders taking classic positions--one for the even distribution of power throughout the community (Korah) and one for the respect of God's ordained and established hierarchy (Moses)--in the middle of a pilgrimage to (seemingly) nowhere. But this was a walk they'd been ordained to take, all the way from Egypt to what would become Israel. This was God's gift to them, and God had prepared Moses to be their guide, and Aaron to be their priest.
Moses had not necessarily shown to this point that he knew where he was going or how long it would take to get there, but he had shown empirically that God was with them, providing for them and watching over them. To challenge Moses' authority was to challenge Moses' interpretation of history, which was to challenge the presence and ongoing work of God among the people.
It's one thing to challenge authority; it's another altogether to subvert it. Dathan and Abiram, two of Korah's co-conspirators, moved beyond opposition to defiance, refusing to come when Moses called them. The message they sent back was a slap in the face; for Dathan and Abiram, Egypt was the land flowing with milk and honey, and Moses had offered them nothing but a death march. Moses responded not to them but to God: "Do not accept their offering. I have not taken so much as a donkey from them, nor have I wronged any of them."
The Bible establishes authority by the call of God but validates it by the careful handling of power. Moses, who could have demanded everything of his people, didn't even take one of their donkeys. David, who could have seized property to consecrate the ark of the covenant and so stave off a crisis, demanded to pay full market value instead, showing himself in the process to be just and devout. Samuel, the last judge of Israel, critiqued a culture of kingship first by reminding the people that he had taken nothing from them, then by warning them that a king would take everything from them.
The mishandling of power is also in view throughout the Bible. The apostle John calls out Diotrephes, "who loves to be first," as someone obstructing the work of God in the early church. Rehoboam, in one of his first acts as king over Israel, tries to prove to the people and to himself that he'll be stronger than his father--Solomon, the wisest man who ever lived. By his actions he effectively splits the kingdom in two and inagurates the inevitable collapse of Israel's autonomy. The judges are no more devout than the kings; Gideon anticipates the steady decay of piety among the leaders of Israel by first denying the power the people want to give him but then taking their gold from them and worshiping it.
So Moses is not alone at the horns of this dilemma. But he is among the few who use power wisely, with integrity and humility--who don't take people's donkeys just because they can but who take the people under their care safely to where God wants them taken. There are perks that come with power, to be sure--just take a look at Moses' shiny face--but God will be the judge of all who take power, and all who take it too far.