We love hero stories.
At the beginning of the tale, heroes often have a destiny they have yet to discover. Some are plucked from obscurity and thrust into situations that reveal gifts they didn’t know they had, gifts they use to defeat evil. Some already have power, but have to learn difficult truths that will change how they use that power, and for whom. From movies to memoirs, satisfying stories often take a heroic turn.
Such stories may shape our own sense of calling or destiny. Does my life count for something? we may wonder. We don’t have to believe that we have an actual superpower to want our lives to be marked by a touch of ordinary heroism.
Reading the testimony of Stephen in Acts 7 makes me wonder: what would happen if we tried to read the story of Moses in a heroic vein? Stephen’s biographical sketch of Moses breaks his life into three forty-year chapters that teach us something of a biblical perspective on heroism.
Chapter 1 begins with Moses’ birth and runs through early adulthood. When Joseph ruled Egypt as second-in-command to Pharaoh, all was well between the Egyptians and the Israelites. Later, however, another Pharaoh worried about how the Israelites had grown in number. Thus, he began to oppress them with slave labor, and commanded that every baby boy born to them be thrown into the Nile (Exod 1:8-22).
In faith, Moses’ parents refused to obey the edict (cf. Heb 11:23). They hid the baby for three months. When they could hide him no longer, they laid him in a watertight basket and set him in the shallow water by the riverbank.
You know the story: Pharaoh’s daughter found him and took pity on him. She knew he was a Hebrew baby, but adopted him as her own and named him Moses.
In chapter 1, therefore, Moses grows up as an Egyptian prince. Yet he knows that he is not Egyptian. He has been raised in privilege, but is aware of the suffering of his people, suffering being inflicted by his adoptive grandfather. What will he do?
As chapter 2 begins, Moses is forty. He decides to visit the oppressed Israelites and sees one of them being beaten by an Egyptian. Thinking no one will see, he kills the Egyptian and hides the body. Stephen adds a detail not found in the Exodus account: Moses assumes that “his kinsfolk would understand that God through him was rescuing them” (Acts 7:25, NRSV). Here I am! I’ll save you!
But the violence backfires. The next day Moses, perhaps filled with confidence in his role as rescuer, tries to intervene in a quarrel between two Israelites. The one who started the fight pushes him away, saying, “Who died and made you boss? Or are you going to kill me like you killed the Egyptian yesterday?” (Acts 7:27-28; Exod 2:14).
Busted. The news reaches Pharaoh, and Moses is forced to flee east to Midian, where he settles down to raise a family and tend sheep.
For the next forty years. Not much heroism going on just yet.
Chapter 3 begins with Moses still tending his father-in-law’s sheep. It is there, out in the wilderness, that an angel of the Lord appears to Moses in a bush that blazed with fire without being burned up. Curious, Moses goes to look; but when the voice of God speaks to him from the bush, he is terrified.
God identifies himself as the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and commands Moses to remove his sandals because he is standing on holy ground. Then he tells Moses the reason for their little chat: “I have surely seen the mistreatment of my people who are in Egypt and have heard their groaning, and I have come down to rescue them. Come now, I will send you to Egypt” (Acts 7:34).
The book of Exodus describes in embarrassing detail how Moses repeatedly resists the mission. But, but, but…what if this happens? What if that happens? Given the events of the previous chapter of his life, his reticence is understandable. But God answers every one of his anxious questions: Moses, I’ve got this covered. Just go. Finally, Moses simply blurts out, “Please send someone else!” (Exod 4:13).
Moses finally obeys, and eventually leads the Israelites out of Egypt. But lest we forget, he spent the final forty-year chapter of his life wandering with the people in the wilderness. When the time finally came for them to enter the Promised Land, Moses wasn’t the one to bring them into their new home.
In some ways, the story of Moses is indeed a heroic tale. But as both Stephen and the book of Exodus make clear, God is the hero of the story. Moses is tending sheep in Midian when God decides to answer the cries of the Israelites. Though Moses is his chosen instrument, God is the one who hears; God is the one who rescues.
We don’t have to be the heroes and heroines of our own individual stories for our lives to matter. We need only receive and live out the call to play our part in the larger, saving story of God.