Moses didn't grow up in a democracy. He also didn't grow up in expansive, politically unaffiliated pastureland. Moses grew up in Egypt, where powerful families passed localized absolute political power down from one generation to the next. His example of governing or leading people was rather one-sided, unless one counts the example of his father-in-law, about which we know almost nothing. The nice thing about absolute rulership is that one never needs to learn conflict management or communication skills. Everyone else is simply expected to fall in line behind your orders. If they don't, bad things will happen to them. We see the frustration that brings about time and time again in the story of Moses' leadership, not least in Numbers 16, which records two back-to-back challenges to Moses' authority over the Israelites with a combined death toll close to 15,000 people.
One could draw a few different messages from this. Assuming that we accept the suggestion that God killed all those people because they challenged his chosen leader, we can interpolate a great many things about how believers should engage in the political spectrum. It would appear that God is in favor of granting absolute political power to a single individual, and it would appear that challenging the person God places in charge is sinful to the point of being deadly. We can assume that people who happen to be in the position of dictator were placed there because God wanted them to be, so revolution is an ungodly endeavor, even if the person in charge is doing a less than admirable job.
This actually fits with the biblical depiction of the "Pharaoh" character as well. God never suggests that the Israelites should overthrow him, or effect regime change through an assassination attempt. Pharaoh’s role as ruler of his little patch of Egypt was never contested or portrayed as unjust. And it is with that example in mind that the governance of the Israelites emerges as an unassailable dictatorship. As every gangster film ever made has taught us, it's difficult to hang on to that kind of power. When the Bible tells us that 14,700 people died from a plague because they complained that Moses had just killed 250 people for complaining, God is the one who is clearly responsible for the deaths. According to the story, Moses didn't really kill anyone. But placing that sort of behavior on God has some other dangerous implications.
Why are some people so convinced that God is in favor of democracy? He supposedly had the chance to tell Moses exactly how to do things, and he apparently didn't mention democracy once. Even so, how can some Christians in the United States rail against the president and cry for impeachment when they know that God kills people for that sort of thing? If a divine power appoints leaders that are not to be criticized, why are some believers so convinced that God wants them to be involved in politics at all? And if God punishes people with death for complaining against the behavior of their leader, why do some Christians get so up in arms when a dictator abuses his power somewhere in the world?
There is something within us that recognizes that we are all connected as human beings. We call it human rights, and we refer to human dignity and such, but whatever terminology we use, there is something within us that is offended by a politically powerful person hurting less politically powerful people. We know that there is something wrong with genocide. We know that there is something wrong with testing weapons on innocents. We have started to become a bit jaded by this point, but a part of us knows that there is something wrong with using violence to solve our problems. Even people who vehemently defend preemptive aggression know in some part of themselves that there's something wrong with that course of action.
We don't just intuitively know that there's something wrong with using violence to preserve or challenge power. We also have piles of historical evidence to support that belief. From the aforementioned gangster movies to gang violence in urban America to drug cartels south of the border to Middle Eastern warlords that have been at each other’s throats for millennia, violence begets violence. This is not a new idea. This is nothing original. And yet, we are often quick to promote the easy and reactive solution to the world's problems.
It's interesting to note that the people who were challenging Moses' authority in Numbers 16 weren't out for blood. They wanted to be given equal consideration, and they wanted leadership that would benefit the Israelites beyond just scraping up unidentifiable "dew flakes" from the desert generation after generation. And when the first complainers got killed, the mob that rose up in their defense wasn't trying to knock Moses completely down off his pharonic pedestal. They were just saying, "We don't approve of you causing those people's deaths." I guess the example of divine violence in response to those complaints is what gives many believers today the impression that violence is a holy ideal. It isn't.
People don't always want to do what they know is right, though. Even when we recognize the endless and futile vendetta cycles that violence provokes, we still want to be violent. Even when we realize that some complaints about our leadership have merit, we still want to defend ourselves rather than admit that we've made a mistake. Sometimes we want permission to make decisions that go against the deepest truths that we know. Sometimes we just want permission to be thoughtless – to make a choice and then not be held responsible for the consequences. And so we perform little acts of divination.
For Moses and Aaron, it was a matter of whose incense would be lit or whose staff would blossom. For us today, we may interpret divine approval from getting a particular piece of mail just after a significant phone conversation, turning on the radio just in time to hear something important, or running into someone at a neighborhood supermarket. I know some Christians who literally believe that God will provide answers to their personal problems if they just let their Bible fall open randomly. Hitting all green lights on your way across town does not mean that some supernatural overseer approves of your destination. When the man in your television set looks out into your eyes and points, he's not literally speaking to you personally. And if he is, it's a clever trick.
Whether someone is dealing out tarot cards, casting bones, reading tea leaves, or treating scripture like a fortune cookie, divinations work because of what we already know. We already know what we believe is right in a given circumstance, and we already know what we actually want. We use divinations of various kinds to give us permission not to think too hard about it when a conflict arises between what we believe and what we want in the moment. When we actually take the time to consider what we believe and what we want, we stand a pretty good chance of learning something about ourselves. We might reconsider our beliefs, or they might be refined a bit. We might realize that what we want is superficial or petty compared to beliefs that are very important to us. Either way, we grow a bit when we actually work out those conflicts instead of relying on some kind of divination to give us an easy answer.
These chapters of the book of Numbers reveal some prevalent tendencies we slip into very easily. We want to save face. When someone challenges us, our impulse is to defend ourselves. And when we experience self-doubt or internal conflict, we often want easy third-party permission instead of in-depth self examination. We know that these things don't ultimately serve us, but they are starting point behaviors from which we can grow. Imagine a leader who could handle the criticism of 250 people without resorting to having the earth swallow them up. Imagine a leader who could admit that he exercised poor judgment in a particular instance instead of letting thousands of people die to keep his position of power intact. That would be an impressive leader. And imagine what life would be like if more people took a moment or two to think about their actions instead of letting random meaningless symbols determine things on their behalf. It wouldn't mean that people always made wise choices, but it would certainly encourage personal responsibility for those choices.
As with all change, it starts with you.