This is part 3 in a series of posts on Moses.
The LORD said to him, “What is that in your hand?” He said, “A staff.” Exodus 4:2
The shepherd’s staff in Moses’ hand was the very symbol of his marginalisation. And yet through the wisdom of God it would become the instrument of his people’s liberation.
Shepherds were considered unclean, inferior, despised by the Egyptians. In Genesis 46:34, we read that shepherds were an “abomination” to the Egyptians, and therefore had to live in a separate, unclean province called Goshen. The word translated “abomination” is toeba. This word is a mixture of moral, cultic, ethnic and political distaste. Unclean, barbarian, outside the bounds of order, dangerous, “other.” Think the caste idea of “Untouchableness.” This toeba community, the Jewish people, were given their own separate area in which to live. This Apartheid policy further exacerbated their disenfranchisement, subjugation and alienation. Wherever there are walls of separation between communities, mutual fear and mistrust festers and grows on both sides.
Now that Moses, who grew up under Pharaoh’s patronage, is exiled among the Midianites, he has become a “keeper of flocks” (Ex 3:1). The very identity he had learnt to despise now became his own. Hebrews is clear on the honour-and-shame implications of this for Moses:
Heb 11:24-26 By faith Moses, when he was grown up, refused to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter, choosing rather to be mistreated with the people of God than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin. He considered the reproach of Christ greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt, for he was looking to the reward.
Becoming a shepherd gave Moses a solidarity, a sharing of shame with the people who he was going to lead to freedom.
“Keeper of flocks” in an identical phrase to that used of Abel in Genesis 4. In fact, it is possible to consider the Cain and Abel story as a kind of reflection of the experience of the Hebrews in Egypt: Cain is land-owner, honourable, firstborn, producer of crops. Abel is a despised, oppressed shepherd. And yet, when Abel offers a firstborn lamb, the Lord looks favourably upon his sacrifice, much as the Israelites, at Passover, would offer firstborn lambs.
When God, therefore, asks Moses, at the burning bush, “What is that in your hand?” it is more than just a question about resources, or abilities. It is a deeply personal and symbolic question. With which community do you identify? Who are you?
And the shepherd’s staff of Moses will be the very vehicle of God’s power in deliverance. With this staff he will perform signs and wonders, strike the Nile and the Red Sea, bring forth water from the rock, and myriad other miraculous moments.
The very totem of marginalisation will become a badge of honour. The very emblem of weakness will become a vehicle of power. The thing that disenfranchises you will become the very thing by which you are liberated.
The point is this: Hebrews don’t gain deliverance from Egyptians by becoming like Egyptians, but by being even more distinctively themselves. Those on the margins do not gain justice by aping those in the centres of power, but by celebrating the very badge of their marginalisation as a trophy of grace.
What is in your hand? What is the cause of your disenfranchisement, the thing of which you are ashamed? What is your weakness? Perhaps that is the very vehicle which God will use to display his strength.
The writer to the Hebrews, having used the example of Moses alongside numerous others, ends his catalogue of faithful examples with the example of Jesus Christ himself, who, “endured the cross, despising its shame.” The cross, the very vehicle of Christ’s humiliation, became the doorway to his eternal honour. This instrument of death became our totem of life. That by which Christ chose solidarity with our powerless shame rather than the wealth of the treasures of heaven, that which, in the eyes of Romans and Jews alike was toeba, became, for those who believe, honour and life and salvation.