After a long Genesis narrative of simple (or not-so-simple) family groups led by patriarchs and matriarchs, we read in the remaining books of Moses of a sprawling and contentious Israelite nation. Like the church of today, Moses’ people were affiliated by belief and covenant rather than immediate family ties. And although Moses admittedly shared bloodlines with his Israelite followers, his complaints to the Lord as he shouldered the heavy burden of leadership are expressed in language that points out his lack of family obligation. He says in Numbers 11:12 “Have I conceived all this people? have I begotten them, that thou shouldest say unto me, Carry them in thy bosom?” Without the close ties of immediate kinship that might make serving the Israelites feel like a necessary duty, Moses instead fulfills a calling that extends his sphere of influence and forces him to learn to love people against his natural inclinations.
Isn’t this the essence of church service and organization? As the early model of a fellowship of believers, the wandering Israelites are best known for their faults: their tendency toward power struggles, their despair and disobedience, their lack of trust and faith. Rising above his unruly followers, Moses is the faithful one, the prophet of his dispensation, the one who forges the covenant and is the mouthpiece of the Lord to deliver his law. But when we look closer at his story, we see that Moses spends much of this time trying to figure out how not to the be the only conduit between heaven and earth and how not to be the only bearer of the covenant. He undertakes a strenuous campaign to lessen his own burden of responsibility and to prepare the people to receive and utilize spiritual gifts. And in fact, despite their many failings in this regard, we can learn much from the Israelites’ developing sense of shared spiritual agency.
Perhaps the most notable support system for Moses comes from his own family: his siblings, Miriam and Aaron. Many hundreds of years later, Micah refers to them as a kind of triumvirate, three leaders jointly authorized by the Lord: “For I brought thee up out of the land of Egypt, and redeemed thee out of the house of servants; and I sent before thee Moses, Aaron, and Miriam” (Micah 6:4). Aaron stands as Moses’ spokesman and priest. Miriam enters the story in Moses’ infancy, saving his life and setting the course of his destiny. Later, during the exodus from Egypt, she is called a prophetess (Exodus 15:20). They are a potential model of complementary spiritual gifts.
But more help is needed than what Aaron and Miriam can offer in leading the people, and Moses’ pleadings to the Lord on this subject are finally answered when God directs him to find seventy elders of the community: “I will come down and talk with thee there: and I will take of the spirit which is upon thee, and will put it upon them; and they shall bear the burden of the people with thee, that thou bear it not thyself alone.” (Numbers 11:17).
When two of these elders later demonstrate this spiritual gift by prophesying in the camp, some of the people are scandalized to see “rival” prophets and hurry to report the offense to Moses. His response is a gentle rebuke:“Enviest thou for my sake? would God that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit upon them!” (Numbers 11:29)
Moses’ call to prophetic leadership may have come when he spoke with the Lord face-to-face, but his wisdom and prophetic understanding are also clearly demonstrated in his longing for his people to lead and minister to each other. Moses had no desire for solitary spiritual leadership but for a spiritually empowered community. This vision was common in the early days of the church, as expressed by Joseph Smith and the early missionaries and apostles. In 1841, Sydney Rigdon described the qualities of a true body of Christian believers as: “a host of inspired men and women— prophets and prophetesses, healings, miracles, and the gifts of the Holy Ghost, not only in one church, but in all the churches” Doesn’t this describe the fulfillment of Moses’ wish?
How then can we bear the burdens of the people as Moses envisioned? Can we do this by seeking the spirit, by accepting callings and the spiritual power that those callings allow us to exercise? Can we also fulfill this through ministering, a call which requires crucial gifts of inspiration and strength? And is there really anything more spiritually empowered than this call to minister? When Eliza R. Snow described the goals of the first assigned visiting teachers, she asked that each woman “should surely have so much of the Spirit of the Lord, as she enters a house to know what spirit she meets in there…Plead before God and the Holy Ghost to get [the Spirit] so that you will be able to meet that spirit that prevails in that house…and you may feel to talk words of peace and comfort, and if you find a sister feeling cold, take her to your heart as you would a child to your bosom and warm [her] up.”
Functioning as we do within complex social structures of our sometimes contentious wards, stakes, and general church body, we can take lessons from the Israelites of Moses’ day. We can do our part to fulfill Moses’ prophetic desire. We can be a people who receive the Lord’s spirit. And with those spiritual gifts, we can get to work, bearing the burdens of our people.