“Moses said to Hobab son of Reuel the Midianite, Moses’ father-in-law, ‘We are setting out for the place of which the Lord has said, ‘I will give it to you.’ Come with us and we will be generous with you; for the Lord has promised to be generous to Israel.’ ‘I will not go,’ he replied to him, ‘but will return to my native land.’ He said, ‘Please do not leave us, inasmuch as you know where we should camp in the wilderness and can be our guide. So if you come with us, we will extend to you the same bounty that the Lord grants us’” (Num 10: 29-32).
Moses was social justice warrior, advocate, scholar, adjudicator, judge and defender-in-chief of the Israelites, but by the time we reach Numbers 10, he hit a wall. He could not manage the wilderness without help. And just as Moses relied on his father-in-law Yitro to help him manage the burden of judging, he relied on his brother-in-law to navigate the trip (some identify Hovav as his father-in-law). He asked and then begged Hovav to join the Israelites and be their guide. In Hebrew, the request is more stark. Moses needed Hovav to be the very “eyes” of the community, a living compass. Yet, just as Yitro admired the Israelites’ God and was awed by their story but did not want to join them, his son did the same. The gift of bounty was not enough to incentivize Hovav to take a rather thankless job.
It is not coincidental that from this point forward, there is a tectonic shift in the style and content of the Book of Numbers. The first ten chapters of the book is tightly ordered and didactic. The next 26 are mostly narrative in form, featuring one devastating leadership collapse after another: the whispers of Aaron and Miriam against Moses, the sin of the scouts, Korah and his rebellion, Balaam and his attempt to curse the Jews, the hitting of the rock, the deaths of Aaron and Miriam, the debacle at Baal-peor.
Perhaps one of the most devastating lows of the book was Moses’ struggle in Numbers 11, one chapter after Hovav’s refusal. Suddenly more alone than ever and unable to bear the burden of the entire community, Moses asked God to take his very life. God, like Hovav, also refused.
Organization cannot always combat chaos when the problems are deep and swampy. At those times, the combination of preparation and the support of allies help negotiate the path forward.
Dr. Erica Brown is associate professor at the Graduate School of Education and Human Development at The George Washington University
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