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Moses’ divine instruction on governing a nation

God’s instructions to Moses on how to properly govern a nation are simple in nature. Though models of future nations (such as the United States) duplicated this divine design, the original plans hold moral stipulations which are inherently missing in all modern replicas of government. Many founding fathers of the United States acknowledged the necessity of moral values coupled with a proper democratic design of governmental power. John Adams, for example, stated, “[I]t is religion and morality alone which can establish the principles upon which freedom can securely stand. The only foundation of a free constitution is pure virtue.” 

Birth pangs of establishing a nation and its government

Moses was God’s chosen leader for His People. His primary task was to lead them out of slavery from Egypt. However, after physically guiding the young nation out into the desert towards the Promised Land of Israel, Moses was given the task to govern His People as well. It’s one thing to release the shackles of slavery from their bodies. It’s something wholly different to rewire their thinking so that, in the long term, these former slaves can effectively and independently govern themselves.

Physically, the people of Israel were, at this time, grown men and women with children of their own. Mentally, emotionally, and spiritually; however, they were a nation of babes, in need of constant guidance and leadership. This is not too much unlike any group of people who possess new-found governmental freedom. So shortly into this historical trek across the desert, Moses was confronted with the burden of not only showing the nation a geographical way, but a daily way of living. 

Don’t govern alone

In the Book of Exodus, Jethro (Moses’ father-in-law) points out that Moses was needlessly  placing the responsibility of governing the nation solely on his shoulders. Chapter 18, verses 17-23, outlines Jethro’s observations and subsequent plans for lighting Moses’ governing load over the people. 

17 Moses’ father-in-law replied, “What you are doing is not good. 18 You and these people who come to you will only wear yourselves out. The work is too heavy for you; you cannot handle it alone. 19 Listen now to me and I will give you some advice, and may God be with you. You must be the people’s representative before God and bring their disputes to him. 20 Teach them his decrees and instructions, and show them the way they are to live and how they are to behave. 21 But select capable men from all the people—men who fear God, trustworthy men who hate dishonest gain—and appoint them as officials over thousands, hundreds, fifties and tens. 22 Have them serve as judges for the people at all times, but have them bring every difficult case to you; the simple cases they can decide themselves. That will make your load lighter, because they will share it with you. 23 If you do this and God so commands, you will be able to stand the strain, and all these people will go home satisfied.” (NIV version)
This outline of delegating leadership responsibilities is echoed later in the Books of Leviticus and Deuteronomy as God instructs Moses (in greater detail) on how to govern this newly formed nation of Israel.

Instruct a Nation on the Laws

Before gaining the ability to govern a nation, the people  need to know what is expected of them. In the Books of Leviticus and Deuteronomy, God instructs Moses on His Laws and then commands that he relay these to the people; not just to a select few, but to the entire nation. 

1 The LORD called to Moses and spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting. He said, 2 “Speak to the Israelites and say to them:… (Leviticus 1:1-2a, NIV version).
While the Ten Commandments were the basic premise of God’s government, He also laid out multiple rules and regulations, encompassing every aspect of the nation’s daily living. God had Moses deliver to the people laws concerning everything from the foods they should eat, the proper way to clean a house of mildew, to what a man should do if he comes across his neighbor’s lost cattle. While the majority of the laws were related to religious, social, and moral behavior expected of every citizen, God even instructed Moses on personal indebtedness. (Leviticus 25:1-7)

Interwoven into the listing of laws for the people were the consequences for breaking the laws.  And, as a reminder to all the people, there was a time set aside annually for these laws to be reread to the entire nation. In this way, God instructed Moses to be diligent in insuring that he was governing a nation knowledgeable of God’s expectations.

Divide Leadership Responsibilities

“Appoint judges and officials for each of your tribes in every town the Lord your God is giving you, and they shall judge the people fairly.” (Deuteronomy 16:18, NIV version)
As seen in Jethro’s advise in the Book of Exodus, God instructed Moses to divide the responsibility of governing the nation instead of shouldering it all alone. This division of leadership is mirrored in today’s democratic governments, but those chosen to be judges had to follow strict morals. The selection process here was not by popular vote or even based upon who had the most experience. Instead these men (notice, not men or women) had to not only be capable of completing the tasks of judge, but also “men who fear God, trustworthy men who hate dishonest gain.” (Exodus 18: 21, NIV version) In other words, men of outstanding religious and moral character. (Such qualifications are not always a requirement in today’s governmental positions.)

No Double Standards

God specifically instructs Moses that when the nation decides to elect a king to rule over them, the same laws and consequences were to apply to him as to the rest of the people. Actually, the king was to be held to even higher standards than the rest of the nation. These standards were recorded in Deuteronomy 17:14-20:

15 [B]e sure to appoint over you a king the Lord your God chooses. He must be from among your fellow Israelites. Do not place a foreigner over you, one who is not an Israelite. 16 The king, moreover, must not acquire great numbers of horses for himself or make the people return to Egypt to get more of them, for the Lord has told you, “You are not to go back that way again.” 17 He must not take many wives, or his heart will be led astray. He must not accumulate large amounts of silver and gold.
18 When he takes the throne of his kingdom, he is to write for himself on a scroll a copy of this law, taken from that of the Levitical priests. 19 It is to be with him, and he is to read it all the days of his life so that he may learn to revere the Lord his God and follow carefully all the words of this law and these decrees 20 and not consider himself better than his fellow Israelites and turn from the law to the right or to the left…(NIV version)
Imagine if all nations today held their appointed heads of state to such strict moral standards. 

Look towards God, not Man

The most important aspect of God’s instructions to Moses on governing a nation was in who he (and the entire nation) were to look towards for daily guidance and instruction. While He instructed Moses on what laws to follow, who to appoint to certain positions of responsibility, God’s first and foremost instruction (command) was to not depend upon man and what he could do in his own power. Moses was to look towards God. Because, regardless of the design, this divine government would fail to work without the heart of the people leaning on God.