Having fled Egypt and stumbled into a new life in Midian, Moses enters what Rabbi Jonathan Sacks calls “the slow movement of the symphony of his life,” as a wilderness shepherd, close to the cycles of nature, far from his destiny in Egypt. I’ve always loved the narration on this moment from Charlton Heston’s Ten Commandments movie; “Through the burning crucible of the desert he is driven onwards, where holy men and prophets are cleansed and purged for God’s great purpose.”
The slow movement in a multi-movement piece of music is usually near the middle, sandwiched between the more dramatic opening and closing sections. Often, interestingly, it is in a different key to the rest of the piece. And sometimes, where the rest of the music has been in a major key, the slow movement is in a minor key.
I don’t like the idea of a slow movement – especially not one lasting 40 years! I prefer drama. Action. Travelling. Signs and wonders. But there have been slower years, and 2020 was certainly one of them. And – who knows? – maybe 2021 will be, too!
Here are some things that we can learn from how Moses handled his slow movement (Exodus 2:21-22):
Focus on Family
Moses marries Zipporah, and they start a family. He is “content to dwell” (v21) with this extended family network. Often, slower times have been an opportunity to re-focus on building strong relational networks, in your household, your wider family and wider still, in your tribe. Relationships are the key resource for everything that we do together, and connections are how we make life work, particularly in a global family like the church. When we are busy, we can often be “cashing in” on relationships to get stuff done. In the slow movement, we have an opportunity to re-invest and re-strengthen these.
Get close to nature
Moses joins an itinerant desert tribe who live in tents and move their flocks with the seasons, ranging across a vast area. Their whole rhythm of life is attuned to the rains between November and March, when the wilderness turns green and they can graze their flocks widely, and the long dry season from April to October when they need to stay closer to permanent water sources.
After his static, urban upbringing in an Egyptian palace, this simplified, “stripped back” rhythm of life would have taken some getting used to. Across the Middle East, there have often been moments when people, for various reasons, have “gone Bedouin” for a season – taken to the wilderness. J.T. Luke writes:
“Occasionally village folk took to Bedouin life to evade conscription, or to flee from tribute, taxes, blackmail, debts or drought. Sometimes, too, criminals might turn Bedouin, having perforce left their villages after committing murder or other crimes. Tribal tradition frequently has it that a certain tribe or family is of non-nomadic origin and at a certain time has gone over to the Bedouin way of life.”
David did this for a while – hid out in the wilderness to escape from King Saul – used the desert as a buffer between him and an evil king. That’s exactly what Moses is doing, and in the process he has the opportunity to re-evaluate his rhythms, to change his pace of life, to feel closer to nature.
During 2020, many conservationists were delighted with some of the side effects of lockdowns in various countries – better air quality in the cities, more fish in the rivers, more people in many places growing their own food, shopping locally, hedgehogs in my garden. If lockdown has acted as a buffer between you and the rat race of the Evil Kingdom, and if it has got you closer to nature, and if it has simplified your rhythms, so much the better.
Those who have been in the wilderness will be able to lead others through the wilderness
Everything Moses learnt as a keeper of Jethro’s sheep would later aid him in shepherding the people of Israel. Everything he learnt about a tent-bound nomadic lifestyle would later come in useful in the Exodus. Everything he discovered about desert routes and water sources and the great expanse between Egypt, Sinai and Canaan – all of this would later be essential to his Grand Purpose.
You know this, but don’t despise wilderness times. Don’t write off the slow movement. If you have been there, you will be able in time to lead others through that same topography.
And yet, don’t completely settle
Moses names his son Gershom, saying “I have been a sojourner in a foreign land.” (v22). Moses has always been an outsider – a Hebrew in the court of Pharaoh, and now an Egyptian among the tents of Jethro. Naming Gershom somehow enshrines his outsiderness – it’s a stake in the ground mitigating against his ever completely settling. This is good discipline and a good lesson – keeping us ready for an Ex 4:18 moment when the time comes to “go back to [our] brothers in Egypt.”
2020 gave a lot of us cultural claustrophobia. Our view of the world shrank to be limited by our news feeds (tailored to us by the algorithms in our social media) and our immediate challenges and priorities. Having a Gershom in our lives can keep our perspectives broad, be a divine grain of sand under our skin, stop us from the lulling effects of self-absorption. We don’t belong here. Not really.
I only once had a suit tailored for me – in Turkey, where it is both normal and affordable. Before it was finished, I tried it on. Felt good, but the prick of the pins reminded me that it wasn’t quite ready yet. Moses naming his firstborn Gershom was like still having these pins in the suit. Every time he spoke his son’s name over the next 40 years he would feel the prick and remember – the suit isn’t finished yet. God still has another place for me to be, another life for me to wear. My brothers in Egypt still need deliverance.
As you reflect on 2020 and begin 2021, perhaps you will find some of these lessons from Exodus 2:21-22 instructive.