He was born in 1835 in Scotland to a weaver’s family, in a one-room house shared with another family. He emigrated to America with his parents at age 13. The family landed in the Pittsburgh area, where the father and son both found jobs in the same cotton mill. The son worked as a bobbin boy, changing spools of thread 12 hours a day, 6 days a week in a cotton factory. His starting wage was $1.20 per week ($34 by current standards). He was responsible in his tasks and gained new and better opportunities as time went by, managing the steam boilers.
Soon he was working for a telegraph country, and then at age 18 for a railroad. By age 24 he had a management position in the railway, gaining many valuable educational experiences in both management and cost efficiencies. These experiences positioned him to become, at the outbreak of the Civil War, Superintendent of the Military Railways along with the Union government’s telegraph lines in the east. Personal investments in the iron industry paid off well, as railroads and the war effort demonstrated the high value of efficient steel production.
Turning his attention fully to this industry, he made a fortune, controlling the most extensive integrated iron and steel operations ever owned by an individual in the United States. He invented a cheap and efficient mass production of steel by adopting and adapting the Bessemer process, which allowed the high carbon content of pig iron to be burnt away in a controlled and rapid way during steel production.
Selling the business at age 66 for over $300-million, he went on to other endeavors, as well as giving away unprecedented amounts of money for all sorts of varied causes. He funded over 3,000 public libraries, gave to many universities, built a music hall in NYC, and from his love of music paid for 7,000 church organs, totaling $6-million (much of that money surely found its way to Hagerstown and the Moller Pipe Organ Factory).
Altogether, he gave away about $350-million… not bad for an immigrant boy born in a one-room house in poverty. Many of you probably already know that I’m talking about Andrew Carnegie.
Though “rags to richer / pauper to prince” types of stories are popular and well-known, still, they are particularly interesting because it remains far from the common experience of the human condition. Such stories are beyond normal EXPECTATIONS – the title of our holiday season sermon series.
Today, the second infant character we will look at is Moses, who goes from “weeds to wonders.” In studying the life of the man who is the most venerated person for the Jewish people in their history, we do begin “in the weeds.” This is a phrase we use when we talk about something being lost, hidden or out of plain sight. It is not the place you want your shot off the tee on a par-five hole to land. Or even worse … in the water, among the reeds.
You will recall the story of the family of Jacob going to Egypt because of the providential position of Joseph, as God saved the chosen family in this fashion. But their future of blessing was not to be in Egypt. Several hundred years had now passed and the family became larger and larger, growing into a veritable nation, though falling ultimately into a slave class of people. Joseph was long-forgotten by Egyptian leadership.
Now the Hebrew nation was becoming a threat, due to their numbers. To deal with this issue, the order from Pharaoh was that Hebrew baby boys would be thrown into the Nile River. And that is the context into which Moses was born.
At three months old, in order to hide him from this fate, it says in Exodus chapter 2 … But when she could hide him no longer, she got a papyrus basket for him and coated it with tar and pitch. Then she placed the child in it and put it among the reeds along the bank of the Nile. 4 His sister stood at a distance to see what would happen to him.
5 Then Pharaoh’s daughter went down to the Nile to bathe, and her attendants were walking along the riverbank. She saw the basket among the reeds and sent her female slave to get it. 6 She opened it and saw the baby. He was crying, and she felt sorry for him. “This is one of the Hebrew babies,” she said.
Miriam, his sister was nearby and watching this, approached and asked to get a Hebrew mother to come nurse the child, getting their mother to come. And so, Pharaoh’s daughter raised Moses as her own son. In this situation he surely had the best of educations and opportunities, and likely had training in leadership and matters such as the military.
The text quickly jumps to Moses as having grown up. He has a rekindled interest in his people of origin; and when he sees one of his own Hebrew kinsmen being mistreated by an Egyptian, his anger leads to him killing the Egyptian. Fearing for his life, he flees Egypt and heads out into the Midian wilderness. There he marries and spends four decades as a shepherd for his father-in-law.
Conditions for the Hebrew people remain difficult, and between their prayers and the providential hand of God, the time comes for them to be returned to occupy the land of promise according to the Abrahamic Covenant. It is God’s determination to use Moses as a leader of the people to lead them out of this Egyptian exile and into the Promised Land.
We might speculate on what Moses introspectively thought about his life, during all the hours he was alone with a bunch of sheep essentially in the middle of nowhere. Surely he had a component of gratitude for the good circumstances of being rescued from the Nile and having so many privileges in life. But he had lost it all; he had blown it big-time! (Maybe he even thought of changing his name’s spelling from Moses, to Loses!) He certainly did not have any expectation of great things being accomplished through him. His was, merely now, a life of survival. But, that fit well with his oft-passive personality.
We pick up the story in Exodus chapter 3 … Now Moses was tending the flock of Jethro his father-in-law, the priest of Midian, and he led the flock to the far side of the wilderness and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. 2 There the angel of the Lord appeared to him in flames of fire from within a bush. Moses saw that though the bush was on fire it did not burn up. 3 So Moses thought, “I will go over and see this strange sight—why the bush does not burn up.”
4 When the Lord saw that he had gone over to look, God called to him from within the bush, “Moses! Moses!”
And Moses said, “Here I am.”
5 “Do not come any closer,” God said. “Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground.” 6 Then he said, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob.” At this, Moses hid his face, because he was afraid to look at God.
7 The Lord said, “I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt. I have heard them crying out because of their slave drivers, and I am concerned about their suffering. 8 So I have come down to rescue them from the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land into a good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey—the home of the Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites. 9 And now the cry of the Israelites has reached me, and I have seen the way the Egyptians are oppressing them. 10 So now, go. I am sending you to Pharaoh to bring my people the Israelites out of Egypt.”
11 But Moses said to God, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?”
12 And God said, “I will be with you. And this will be the sign to you that it is I who have sent you: When you have brought the people out of Egypt, you will worship God on this mountain.”
Moses continued to argue with God. After saying “Who am I to do this?” he next asks, “Who shall I say sent me?” God says to tell the Hebrews that “I AM” sent him.
Then Moses counters with a “What if they don’t believe me?” argument. God gives him signs … his rod to a snake, and back again to a staff … his hand leprous, then healed.
Moses next says that he is not an articulate fellow. And he comes right out and says, “Pardon your servant, Lord. Please send someone else.”
We cannot blame God for getting irritated at this point, as the text says in 3:14-17 … Then the Lord’s anger burned against Moses and he said, “What about your brother, Aaron the Levite? I know he can speak well. He is already on his way to meet you, and he will be glad to see you. 15 You shall speak to him and put words in his mouth; I will help both of you speak and will teach you what to do. 16 He will speak to the people for you, and it will be as if he were your mouth and as if you were God to him. 17 But take this staff in your hand so you can perform the signs with it.”
Moses and Aaron met with the leaders of the Hebrews, and then went before Pharaoh with the plea to “Let my people go.” The Egyptian monarch balked, over and over. And you know the story that through a series of wondrous signs, at last, Pharaoh agreed to let the people go – finally after the death angel slew the firstborn throughout Egypt, passing over the doors of the Hebrews where the blood of atonement was applied.
Seeing their servants heading out of town, the Egyptians reconsidered, following the Israelites. With his rod, Moses caused the waters to stand, allowing dry passage – those same waters then drowning the armies of Pharaoh.
Having seen such miracles, surely the people would trust God to take them boldly into the good land of promise. Spies who searched out the land reported that it was indeed a land of milk and honey; but you know that 10 of 12 also reported that the land was inhabited by people too strong and powerful to be defeated. And the masses believed the report of the majority. Due to this unbelief, the nation is sent into what will be 40 years of wandering in the wilderness until the unbelieving generation dies off.
All of this is but a sampling of the problems Moses had to contend with. Being called to the mountain to receive the Law of God to give guidance for successful living, he returns to the people to see that they have revolted and made images to worship. He goes before the Lord and says, “Oh, what a great sin these people have committed! They have made themselves gods of gold. But now, please forgive their sin—but if not, then blot me out of the book you have written.” (Ex. 32:31-32)
The people complain about lack of food, and God supplies through the miracle of the manna – to which they later complain about their boring diet.
Lacking water, God uses Moses to bring water out of a rock. They are led from place to place by a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. The people see that Moses meets with God, yet they continue to rebel and complain. There is the incident of them wishing they could go back to Egypt, and they complain against Moses … “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? There is no bread! There is no water! And we detest this miserable food!” God sends venomous snakes amongst the people, with Moses being told to make a brass serpent toward which people could look when bitten to find healing.
Moses was not perfect through all of this, but he persevered, getting the people to the door of entry into the Promised Land – to be accomplished through Joshua.
In that this is the Christmas season, why are we talking about Moses and not baby Jesus? And the reason is that so many of these stories and events look forward to Jesus in a bigger and more expansive way, even a spiritual way. Moses himself wrote in anticipation that this would indeed happen, writing about one who would come later, one whom we know as Jesus … (Deuteronomy 18:15,18) – The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your fellow Israelites. You must listen to him. … 18 I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their fellow Israelites, and I will put my words in his mouth. He will tell them everything I command him.
Last week we talked about this thing called typology – by definition, something in the Old Testament that is a symbol or prefiguring of another something to be more perfectly accomplished in the New Testament. And these TYPES abound with Moses/Jesus, there are many dozens. For example, both are shepherds, both sent out 12 men, both did miracles with large bodies of water, both provided food for the people.
But here are some other major types of Moses/Jesus …
- Moses was hidden away in Egypt as a baby when Pharaoh sought to kill all Hebrew baby boys. Jesus was hidden away in Egypt as a baby when Herod sought to kill him and all baby boys from Bethlehem.
- Moses, son of royalty, willingly left his royal home in Pharaoh’s palace to come to his own Hebrew people. Jesus, the royal Son of God, willingly left the glory of heaven to come to earth for the sake of His people.
- Moses spent 40 days on the mountain without food and water when getting God’s Law. Jesus spent 40 days in the mountainous wilderness without food and water during his temptation.
- Moses delivered Israel out of bondage and slavery in Egypt through the blood of the Passover lamb. Jesus is the deliverer of Israel and all peoples from bondage to sin and slavery by being the Passover Lamb. (“Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” – John 1:29)
- Moses, in love for his people, interceded for the Israelites when they sinned by worshipping a golden calf, offering his own life. Jesus interceded for all sinful people, laying down His life in love by taking our sin and guilt upon Himself as our substitute.
- Moses was the mediator of the Old Covenant of Law. Jesus Christ is mediator of the New Covenant of Grace. (“For the law was given through Moses but grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.” – John 1:17)
Isn’t that amazing how all of these consequences just sorta happened! Indeed, typology gives us great confidence in the Scriptures, as varied authors separated (in this case) by 1500 years reveal an amazing story of pre-shadows and fulfillments. And all of this is such a major part of what we reflect upon in celebration at this season of the year.
So, it is all an amazing story. But like so many biblical characters – in that the Bible does not hold back when telling the whole (plus/minus) story of peoples’ lives – Moses is someone we all can relate to in various ways. He is not always perfect, not always a champion on the field.
- He was a murderer – most of you haven’t done that!
- We see his weaknesses in his hesitations to take on God’s calling upon his life.
- There are occasions where his temper and frustration come boiling out. At times he even yells at God, essentially saying things like, “Isn’t this what I said would happen?”
- He did not get to enter the Promised Land due to his sin of disobeying God and striking the rock to obtain water, rather than speaking to it. Moses took glory to himself which belonged to God, making it necessary for God to demonstrate fully before rebellious Israel that it was not Moses who had led them from Egypt, but God Himself.
Yet the great accomplishments of the latter part of his life take chapter after chapter to record. So, what makes the difference, and what might we learn from this?
Think back to the rod in his hands when he was called. This staff was for him, as with all shepherds, their primary human tool and security. It could be used to accomplish many things – the guidance of the sheep, safety from attacks, stability in uncertain terrain, etc.
God told him to throw it down, to give it over. And when Moses “put the staff in God’s hands,” great things happened – miracles like turning the water of the Nile to blood, like the parting of the waters of the sea to enable Israel to cross, like lifting it high and giving victory over the Amalekites. But when he went back to using it in his own power, bad things happened.
We all have a “staff” … a something that is our comfort and security in the material world. Perhaps it is accumulated wealth, or maybe a career or place of position. It might be the blessing of a strong mind and sense of rational wisdom. Maybe it is the stability of a family and home and a predictable way of life.
We all have something … and probably it is a good something, generally speaking. But God wants us to throw it down, to give it over to Him. He wants us to not go out into the world in our own strength, but only in His strength working through us by what He has given to us as abilities and gifts of blessing.
If you read all through this, here is a bonus for you from my music past. There was a well-known Christian musician – a blind pianist/vocalist – named Ken Medema. He wrote wonderfully creative songs, including one about the story of Moses. Close to 40 years ago I had my Dallas choir perform this 8-minute song. It is still performed in many places. Here are some links to see it on YouTube …
To see a college chorale doing it –
To see Ken Medema himself performing it –