A gap in the story does not mean nothing important was happening.
Exodus, chapter 2, tells us that Moses was 40 years old when he murdered an Egyptian overseer. He fled to Midian to save his life. He lived there for another 40 years within the household of Jethro. He married Jethro’s daughter, fathered two sons, and shepherded Jethro’s flocks.
That is all we are told about those 40 years. They are the silent years of Moses’ life.
Possible Influences of Midian Experiences on Moses’ Character
We would like to know what was happening to Moses during this time. What experiences shaped his life and attitudes? How did his life circumstances shape his developing character? How was he acquiring the skills of leadership that would be so evident later in his role as Israel’s leader? We are given no clue. Yet I can’t help but believe that things were happening in those years that would be decisive to his future. But I can only speculate.
For one, it is important to note that his employment was that of a shepherd. In the ancient world, the role of kings was often described as a kind of shepherding. Kings were shepherds of their people. Israelite kings were certainly seen in that light. When Nathan the prophet confronted King David over his abuse of power, he expressed his criticism through a parable about a rich man stealing a poor man’s sheep (2 Samuel 12). In Psalm 23 God himself is portrayed as the good shepherd.
… Moses’ years shepherding were possibly cultivating skills in leadership without his or anyone else’s noticing.
So Moses’ years shepherding were possibly cultivating skills in leadership without his or anyone else’s noticing.
Moses had fled to Midian as a prince of Egypt. In Midian he would have had to accommodate himself to a life of obscurity and non-privilege. Midian would then have become his training ground in humility. This was an essential quality he would need to be an effective leader of Israel in its wilderness. Numbers 12:3 tells us that Moses was regarded as the humblest of men, despite his exalted position.
Where and how did he acquire that distinctive quality of character? One wonders if it was not during those years he lived in obscurity in the tents of Midian. He would have had to shed the trappings of privilege he brought from Egypt and accustom himself to a life that may have seemed to him a frustration of all the dreams and expectations he had acquired in the palace of Pharaoh’s daughter.
In Midian, too, Moses as a husband and father was experiencing the joys and the anxieties of family life. When he came later to assume his role as leader of Israel, he did so not as a celibate priest but as one acquainted with the realities of family life.
There may have been other important things happening in the shaping of Moses’ character in those silent years. We just do not know. But what I do notice is that there is this long gap of silence in Moses’ biography.
A Parallel in the Life of Jesus
I take note of that because we find something parallel in the life of Jesus. The gospels tell us some stories about Jesus’ birth and one story about an incident in the temple when Jesus was 12 years old (Luke 2:41-51). They remain silent, however, about the rest of Jesus’ childhood, youth, and early adult years.
Tradition says that Jesus was about 30 years old when he began his public ministry. What was happening in the 29 years before that? The gospels remain resolutely silent. And yet, as in the case of Moses, I cannot help but believe that the humble, obscure activities and interactions that Jesus was engaged in in those silent years were shaping his character and sharpening his skills and deepening his insights. He would draw upon them in his public ministry.
This is the dynamic of sainthood. It takes a process to grow a saint.
One evidence for that is the parables Jesus would tell. They are often told in the dress of ordinary life, especially the activities of farming. They show an acute observation of the peculiarities of people in ordinary living. Where did Jesus acquire that awareness? It had to be during those silent years when Jesus was working and walking around and engaging in commerce with the people of Nazareth and its neighborhoods?
Judging Our Lives from a False Platform
Both the life of Moses and the life of Jesus demonstrate an important truth about the spiritual life. Times of seemingly obscure ordinary life and times of patient silence play an essential role in our spiritual journeys. We may feel that nothing important is happening in our lives. We may feel a frustration over dreams that remain unfulfilled or over career goals that remain unrealized. We may come to feel a sense of resentment about the life we feel we have never lived.
But our platform of judgment may be far off base. Sometimes we are blind to the important ways our years of obscurity were or are preparing us for some important work we shall be called upon to do. They were important years of preparation.
In other cases we are blind to the extraordinary things we were doing in our ordinary life, things we never see as extraordinary at all. One of my favorite examples is the poet Emily Dickinson. She wrote several thousands of poems.
In her lifetime, only a handful were published. Most she stuffed away in boxes and desk drawers. They were written on scraps of paper. She instructed her sister-in-law to burn them all after her death. Her sister-in-law disobeyed her instructions.
When the poems were published, America discovered that in her withdrawn life as the spinster of Amherst, Emily Dickinson was developing into one of the most extraordinary poets of American literature. Her poetry significantly redirected the writing of poetry in the 20th century.
In one of her most famous poems, she begins:
I’m Nobody! Who are you?
Are you – Nobody – too?
Then there’s a pair of us!
Dont tell! they’d advertise – you know!
Apparently Emily was not able to rightly judge the value of her own obscure life and worth.
An Important Theme in the Contemplative Prayer Tradition
The importance of times of silence, not only daily but also over the course of years, is a very important theme in the contemplative prayer tradition. That tradition is all about the process of personal and spiritual transformation.
What is demonstrated over and over again not only in the lives of publicized saints, but also in the lives of ordinary saints that each and every one of us knows is that their beauty of character is not a product of a spiritual flash in the pan.
The cultivation of character is a process, a process which scriptural writers see as parallel to the process of growth in nature. The glorious oak tree is the product of the acorn. But the tree does not emerge from the seed as full-grown tree overnight. It emerges through a slow process of growth, first emerging as a tiny sapling, then steadily growing in height and girth until it towers over its landscape. During those early years of growth, the tree is not impressive. It looks like other young trees around it. Only in maturity is its full beauty apparent.
This is the dynamic of sainthood. It takes a process to grow a saint. As the spiritual writer Jonathan R. Bailey has put it: Christlike character is not something we get; we grow into it.*
Years of obscurity and patient waiting may play an essential role. It is in the daily rounds of ordinary life when we seek to faithfully fulfill our duties and responsibilities to family, work, and community that we are developing those exemplary traits of character that we associate with the saints. Sometimes they are training us for some important mission ahead. But in others they are polishing us to shine as creatures of beauty in God’s world.
* Jonathan R. Bailey, The Eternal Journey: Daily Meditations on the Stages of Transformation. Renovaré, 2020. Page 6.
Poem by Emily Dickinson: Used by Permission of Harvard University Press. THE POEMS OF EMILY DICKINSON, edited by Thomas H. Johnson, Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Copyright © 1951, 1955 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. Copyright © renewed 1979, 1983 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. Copyright © 1914, 1918, 1919, 1924, 1929, 1930, 1932, 1935, 1937, 1942, by Martha Dickinson Bianchi. Copyright © 1952, 1957, 1958, 1963, 1965, by Mary L. Hampson.