Images of Leadership in the Hebrew Bible

Images of leadership in the biblical texts vary greatly between books and oftentimes within books. The first two books of the Bible, with focus on different time frames and different figures, can illustrate the differing of leadership figures we find within the text. Abraham, in the Book of Genesis, is willing to abuse and manipulate his wife and his concubine in order to get what he wants. His concerns as a leader are his homeland and his lineage. While Abraham is chosen by God to be patriarch, it is clear that he is incomplete and must transform in order to fill out his role. These themes repeat in Genesis as the patriarchs manipulate others and seek to continue their lineage and people. Moses, in contrast, reluctantly and violently begins his story. Moses acts as mediator between YHVH and the Hebrews through many divine encounters. He follows YHVH’s instructions and is able to liberate his people from oppression and deliver to them a legal system to form their society, but falls short of bringing them back to their promised land. While Abraham uses people in order to accomplish his goals, Moses liberates and defends his people.

When Abram, the apparent “father” of the Hebrew Nation is introduced, he is chosen by God, as the story tells us: YHVH promises Abram that YHVH “will bless [him], and make [his] name great,” further promising to bring fortune upon him and misfortune upon his enemies.(1) Abram goes to Egypt to avoid starvation, bringing his wife, Sarai, and uses her to gain better treatment. Sarai, a beautiful woman, is presented as Abram’s sister and the Pharaoh “took her for [his] wife.”(2) Calling back to this ancient people and their customs, we can recognize that Sarai, as Abram’s wife, would have been considered his property. He abuses his power society gives him over her and essentially trafficks her to the Egyptian ruler for personal gain. While we see little of how Sarai reacts to this affair and little explanation of how Pharaoh comes to learn of this deception, Abram and his wife are expelled with their wealth, offering a view of Abram and his family as nomadic herders. As Abram settles in Canaan, YHVH promises to give Abram and his lineage an expanse of land in that region (“for all the land that you see I will give to you and your offspring forever”).(3) Sarai, however, appears barren.

Perhaps we can see in the themes of barrenness present in the patriarch stories (Sarah, Rebekah) as a very real fear of a nomadic people. A wandering, herding people concerned with In-Group markers may feel that infertility threatens their people: the theme, arising in Genesis multiple times, likely marks a concern of the authoring people.

However, as with the other figures who struggle with barrenness, Abram does have children and continues (or in his case, begins) the people. This begins, again, with an abuse of power (though not considered such at the time), this time by both Abram and Sarai. Sarai offers her servant, Hagar, (also considered property) to bear children for her husband. Hagar has a son, Ishmael, but in a story that may reflect origins with another tribe or histories of conflict between tribes, Ishmael, like other biblical figures, loses his claim when he (and his mother) are betrayed.

In later chapters, we see that when Abram and Sarai are chosen, they are incomplete– they are childless and must be transformed in order to have children. God gives them each an additional letter (Hebrew hei), renaming them and perhaps in this way, brings them under God’s “umbrella.” As we see in the earlier chapters of Genesis, predominantly in the “E” narratives, speech and naming is a prominent theme in creation. In naming Abraham and Sarah, God brings them under God’s care and claims them. This passage changes from referring to God as YHVH and progresses into usage of “God” (more often a translation of “Elohim” as opposed to YHVH). As the passage then reverts to the YHVH, anthropomorphic God who eats with Abraham and promises him a son by his wife, Sarah. In chapter 21, when Isaac is born, Sarah almost immediately calls for Ishmael and Hagar to be banished, which indeed they are.(4) Again Abraham, the leader of the tribe, abuses his power and sends off Hagar and his son, presumably because he now has a “better option.”

Abraham, the first of the Jewish patriarchs, begins the form for those that follow. Abraham needs to be transformed by God by naming (as does Jacob/Israel). He is portrayed as a nomadic herder, wealthy, as are those who follow. Abraham is deceptive, using and abusing others for his (and, presumably, his lineage’s) gain. He uses his wife in Egypt, uses Hagar, and then casts both Hagar and Ishmael aside. Similarly, Jacob will coerce Esau for power and his favorite wife, Rachel, will be barren (like Sarah) until she finally conceives. Perhaps in a turning from this story line, Joseph is coerced by his brothers because he is Jacob’s favorite. His brothers sell him into servitude and he no longer dwells in the family of his ancestors, but in Egypt, setting the stage for the Exodus storyline/s. Abraham is a manipulative leader, clearly willing to hurt others for his own gain and displaying ideas of people as property (as they were considered in the times these texts were written). His concerns, like those of the men who will continue his lineage, are for his tribe and their success and continuance as a people. As the stories of Genesis unfold and lead us back to Egypt, where Joseph dies with hope of his people returning to the land promised to them by God.

As Exodus begins, it illustrates that the Israelites have remained in Egypt, but are oppressed by a new Pharaoh who “did not know Joseph.”(5) In Chapter 2, we are introduced to Moses, who becomes the new leader and liberationist for the Hebrew people. Moses, although having an Egyptian name, is said to have been born of Levite lineage, qualifying him to be part of the Israelite tribe. The Egyptian king, then-ruler over the Hebrew people, is painted horribly as a ruler who not only enslaves the Israelites but then demands the murder of baby boys. When Moses reaches adulthood, he clearly has a concern for the wellbeing of his fellow Hebrew people, despite having been raised in the wealthy Egyptian family of the Pharaoh. He murders an Egyptian who is beating a Hebrew man and thereafter flees. Moses appears to be a reluctant leader who cannot help but follow the call of God. He must resist the suffering of the Hebrew people, even to the point of murder, which we might not advocate in our modern Western society, removed as it is from the death and disease that was more pervasive and on-the-surface of the ancient world. In self-exile, Moses takes on the role of shepherd, like the generations of Hebrews before. In Midian, he encounters YHVH (in the first of many divine encounters that mark his leadership) and is informed that he is to lead the Hebrews out of enslavement. Moses’ leadership involves a series of miracles/plagues, unlike the leaders who came before him. Through these miracles, done in concert with YHVH, Moses and the Hebrews escape from Egypt. Moses leads his people in their encampment, though the people are demanding of him in a way that Genesis leaders did not seem to face. He acts as mediator with YHVH, petitioning for them when they are thirsty,(6) warning them not to look at YHVH,(7) giving them God’s law,(8) and defending them after they formed a golden calf (whether as another god or a throne to their god).(9) Moses, the leader of the Israelites in Exodus, is liberator and mediator.
Moses begins his journey hesitantly and violently, killing a man in defense of a people he seemed never to publicly claim kinship with. After self-exile and an encounter with YHVH, he returns to Egypt to free the Hebrew slaves from an oppressive ruler. While Moses accomplishes this task and is able to keep the Hebrew people together in encampments for the next 40 years by acting as mediator between the people and YHVH and delivering the Law for the Hebrews to follow in order to live into their covenant; He does not ultimately bring them back to their homeland.

Abraham, the model patriarch, and Moses, the liberator of the Hebrews, show changing views of leadership between Genesis and Exodus. Abraham, concerned with building and preserving a lineage in covenant, uses those beneath him, often abusively so, in order to accomplish his goal of building his people and populating the promised land.

His lineage will use other forms of manipulation and struggle with barrenness/threat to their people. When Genesis closes, this formerly shepherd/nomadic people arrive in Egypt to survive. As Exodus begins, Moses is reluctant to embrace his heritage but does so in violent defense of another Hebrew man. He flees until a divine encounter. Henceforth Moses acts as mediator between YHVH and the Hebrews, defending them at times from YHVH’s wrath and informing them of YHVH’s will. With miraculous powers, Moses and YHVH help the Hebrew people escape oppression and come into their own identity. Moses delivers the covenant law (perhaps a new way to guard their lineage and tibe) and continues to defend the Hebrews when YHVH becomes angry with them. While both leadership models are strongly rooted in an ethnic identity and its formation and protection, Abraham seems to abuse those beneath him (“making the hard decisions”) in order to walk his path, while Moses liberates his people from an abusive power and protects them both from government and, at times, YHVH.

1. Wayne A. Meeks, The Harpercollins Study Bible: New Revised Standard Version, with the Apocryphal/deuterocanonical Books (New York, NY: HarperOne, 1993), 20.
2. Wayne A. Meeks, The Harpercollins Study Bible, 21.
3. Wayne A. Meeks, The Harpercollins Study Bible, 21.
4. Wayne A. Meeks, The HarperCollins Study Bible, 31.
5. Wayne A. Meeks, The HarperCollins Study Bible, 79.
6. Wayne A. Meeks, The HarperCollins Study Bible, 110.
7. Wayne A. Meeks, The HarperCollins Study Bible, 115.
8. Wayne A. Meeks, The HarperCollins Study Bible, 115-135.
9. Wayne A. Meeks, The HarperCollins Study Bible, 138.
Works Cited

Meeks, Wayne A. The Harpercollins Study Bible: New Revised Standard Version, with the Apocryphal/deuterocanonical Books. New York, NY: HarperOne, 1993.