The Tribe of Hobab
I would guess that not a great many of you in this audience regularly read around in the early books of the Old Testament just before you fall asleep at night, but you may still remember from the days of Sunday School that there were 12 tribes of Israel, with such exotic names as Zebulun and Issachar, Naphtali and Manasseh. Even Bible scholars have a hard time figuring out who was in and who was out, so I thought you might be willing to entertain the idea, from my sermon title, that there was also a tribe of Hobab. But the truth is, there wasn’t, and the title is only a figure of speech I have taken from a little Old Testament story involving Moses and his father-in-law….a story I will use to suggest that through the centuries this particular relative of Moses has had a whole tribe of psycho-logical descendants, a metaphorical tribe of Hobab which includes some of you, and without whom the world would be a much gloomier place.
I have to remind you that nothing much in the first few books of Hebrew scripture is as simple as we were told in Sunday School, and that reading it can be very confusing at times. For example, the story from which I will try to make a couple of useful points this morning comes from the book of Numbers, where the father-in-law of Moses is called Hobab, but there seem to be conflicting traditions about his name. In two other places he is called Jethro (Ex. 3:1; 18:11), and in still another place he is called Reuel (Ex. 2:18). In one book he is called a Midianite (Numb.10), but in another he is called a Kenite (Judg.4). Different sources were pulled together by editors to create the Old Testament, and this probably accounts for the confusion. We no longer care much, unless we happen to be textual scholars and want to know how the Bible was put together, so I will identify the father-in-law of Moses as Hobab, and go on from there.
You may have noticed, if you do any reading in the Old Testament, that it rarely gets very personal in the style of modern books. We have no idea what Moses looked like, or whether he and his father-in-law got along and liked each other, although it would make much more vivid reading if the authors had been interested in such things. Or perhaps they were interested but simply had no idea whether Moses was tall or short, handsome or homely, since by the time they put the writings together that had all long since been forgotten. What had been preserved for them was an interesting story about the great Jewish leader and his father-in-law which I’d like to tell after we back up a bit and set the stage for it.
The Hebrew people have made their famous exodus from slavery in Egypt, and are camped at Mount Sinai where tradition says they received the great commandments through Moses, and heard details about how to organize their communal life as they travel towards the Promised Land….once Canaan, then Palestine, now the land of Israel. Under-standably, they are nervous about crossing the Sinai desert, where some tribes lived who were hostile to them, and where there was a woeful shortage of water and food. Moses’ father-in-law apparently knows this bleak desert country well, so Moses asks if he’d be willing to guide them.
Now if you are a good Bible student, or if you’ve seen Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments lately, in a re-run, you might wonder why Moses and his company would need a human guide at all. One of the legends about their great escape is that God himself guided them, with a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. A cloud hangs over their tabernacle, and when it moves, they move. When it stops, theyt stop to make camp. Whether it stays for a day or a month they do not move until it moves. Now obviously, in this version of the story, a human guide would be superfluous. God does all the work; no need for a desert scout. So why in our text this morning do we have Moses asking for help? The explanation for the discrepancy is that different traditions about that trip through the Sinai have been woven together, some of them playing up the miraculous, others using natural explanations to show things taking place just as they might today. This opposite way of telling stories had happened before. You may remember that two reasons are given about how the fleeing Israelites escaped across the Red or the Reed Sea. One explanation is supernatural: Moses holds up a rod, stretches out his hand, and the waters divide. That’s the one the famous movie uses, because it’s such a stunning sight to see the waters separate and pile up in a wall on either side of an open walkway. People love miracles, so that’s the favorite Biblical explanation. But there’s another one which makes the event much more natural: a strong east wind blows all night, dries out the swampy land, and makes it possible for the Jews to walk through while the pursuing enemy chariots bog down.
So, in our story this morning, Moses is represented as relying not on a magical cloud that knows when to stop and start, but on an old-timer who knows the country. And with some knowledge of human nature, Moses appeals first of all to Hobab’s self-interest. He says something like this: “Dad, we’re headed for the land we’ve been promised; if you’ll come along to show us how to get through this awful country, we’ll treat you right when we get there. What do you say?” It isn’t surprising that Moses should start like this, because we are told repeatedly, and we see plenty of proof, that people are basically self-centered. If we want them to do something we have to make them believe it will be to their advantage. I’ve read those convoluted arguments in philosophy that even when people are good to the point of sacrifice, they are still doing it because it makes them feel better to have sacrificed, and therefore that it, too, is self-serving. If so, some things that please us are better for social harmony than some other things that please us, and I choose to call the first unselfish.
What should worry us far more than word-games about what is self-serving and what isn’t, is the awesome pressure society exerts to make us selfish in the worst sense. We have a headstart on being self-centered anyway. I do not share the romantic notion that little babies come trailing clouds of divinity when they enter life. They are an endearing bundle of purely selfish instincts, and only with great love and patient labor do we teach them how to manage those instincts so as to get along with other people. But our work is hard because clever hucksters will assault them constantly to make them forget everything else but what makes them feel good. I once gave an assignment to students to locate every advertisement they could find in magazines and newspapers and on television that appeal to our basic selfishness….and for a change, instead of complaining how hard it was, they came in staggering under the load of more proof than they had imagined.
It wouldn’t be fair, by the way, to excuse religion from the same kinds of hucksterism. Preaching often becomes a form of salesmanship: give us your money and your supporting presence, and we will offer peace of mind, new success in social and business relationships, plus a mansion in the life beyond….all for the price of a decent pledge. And that, of course, is a grotesque distortion of Christian faith. I believe that to look at life as Christ did can bring incredible joy, but it is a joy dependent on another experience first. At the heart of Christianity, as its central symbol, there is and always has been a cross. And a cross means disappointment, sacrifice, suffering, and occasional times of lonely darkness because one is faithful to a commitment. The joy — and no other compares with it — is found on the other side of that. People whose principal interest in a church is summed up by asking, “What does your church have to offer?” — who seek a church life only to find a support group, or get help with their children, or improve their chances of finding a mate may get what they are looking for but the mystery of Christian fulfillment lies be-yond all those things.
So, to get back to our friend Hobab, Moses counted first on his being as selfish as most people and invited him first to go along for greed’s sake. After all, Moses and his people understood a little something about selfish-ness: they were about to take over a country that didn’t belong to them. I ran across a prayer the other day by a Scot who had come to Canada and found it occupied by others. “O Lord,” he said, “we approach thee this morning in an attitude of prayer and likewise of complaint. When we came to Canada we expected to find a land flowing with milk and honey but instead we find a land peopled with the ungodly Irish. O Lord, in thy mercy, drive them to the uttermost parts of Canada, make them hewers of wood and drawers of water, give them no places as magistrates, policemen, or rulers among thy people….But if ye have any favors to bestow or any good land to give away, give it to thine own peculiar people, the Scots….” So in words reminiscent of the conquering of the American West, Moses says to Hobab, “We’re going to get rich, and if you guide us through hostile and unfamiliar territory, we’ll cut you in.”
But for some reason, he had misunderstood his man. The appeal fell on deaf ears. Hobab said, “No thanks. I’m going back to my own country and my own people.” So Moses took another look at his father-in-law, and changed his strategy. Instead of promising a reward he said, “Wait a minute. We need you! You can serve as our eyes in this wilderness. Please don’t leave us” — and that appeal worked. My main point this morning is that we too often overlook this side of human nature. People want to be useful. They need to feel needed….and they respond.
I knew personally some of the people who went down to Selma, Alabama years ago to march during the civil rights fever. They couldn’t afford the trip, they already had their own rights and need not have cared, but they thought they were needed. Any reform movement you care to name will have some corruption at its hart, some shabby motives and some kooky behavior in a few of its disciples, but if you get close enough you are always amazed at the numnber of people who seem to have nothing to gain personally, but who give time and energy because they think’s it’s right, because they feel needed. One of the big Detroit automobile companies hired a motivational research expert once to find out why so many people were buying small foreign cars. The expert spoke to one man who had bought a Volkswagen and asked him why. “That’s easy,” the owner of the bug said. “I felt it needed me!”
Well, Moses appealed to Hobab’s need to be needed….and there is in fact a whole tribe of such people. A great minister, George Macdonald, once said: “Nothing makes a person strong like a cry for help>” You’ve had that proved in your own life. You walk down a street so tired you’re wishing with all your heart you were home in an easy chair, and suddenly there’s a cry, there’s been an accident, somebody is hurt, and you don’t even remember how tired you were until it’s all over. Or a mother is exhausted, tells her friends there’s nothing left of her, and then her child falls sick and needs her. Night and day, week after week, she stands by and draws on reserves of strength and will she had not even dreamed of. We can do tehings because we feel needed that we would never do for extra money.
And finally, in this miniature little drama from the Bible, Moses appealed to a sense of community. “We’ll do this together.” We like that, and if it’s risky we know it may pay even greater dividends of friendship and enlargement of spirit. I stood one night in Royal Albert Hall in London and applauded Winston Churchill until my hands were beet red and painful, but it was as much a sense of our shared danger and the great cause of British-American unity as it was the charisma of the man.
We have sometimes failed, even in churches, to challenge people enough. The ultimate statement of the life of Christ is that at the heart of the world lies mystery, darkness and heartbreak….and that our task is to make it bearable and to point to the light on the far side of difficult times. That’s just an abstract theological statement, I know, but good theology always translates itself….and here are a couple translations:
Phil Kelley, a Franciscan Brother stationed in New Jersey, was working with Puerto Rican migrant workers who had come to pick tomatoes for Campbell’s Soup, vegetables for Bird’s Eye, and just about every blueberry you’ve ever eaten. Many of the workers missed their island home terribly and every December the 200 Puerto Rican families in the parish would gather to put $5 in the lottery pot — about a day’s pay for a fruitpicker then — and write their family name on a slip of paper. Then someone would be blindfolded and draw the name of the family that would get to go home for two glorious weeks on the island. Father Kelley remembers how a man named Walter Jansen was retiring one December after forty years with the canning company, factory foreman for the last twenty-five. He had loved the people he worked with, and they had returned his love.
“Why don’t you come to the drawing?” Walter suggested to Father Kelley. “I’ll introduce you to everyone.” Father Kelley says, “I can still see the paper streamers strung from the rafters under the roof. I can still see on the wall the travel posters of Puerto Rico.” By three o’clock each family had parted with five dollars, and after some fun and food and games, Father Kelley was asked to draw the name of the lucky family. “On went the blindfold,” he says, “and I was led to the drum. I reached in, sorted out a handful of entries, and finally settled on one. I took off the blindfold and read the slip of paper: Walter Jansen.. The cheers were deafening. Everyone crowded around the winner, congratulating and hugging him. While the commotion continued down on the floor, I casually reached back into the drum and drew out a handful of slips. Each one, in different handwriting, carried the same name — Walter Jansen.” Poor people, with their own eager hopes, giving up their own dreams for a time, out of love.
And one more proof of what it is that conquers selfishness. The old man in the hospital bed was all but obliterated by the intravenous tubes and bottles, the gadgets and machines which kept him alive but humiliated him at the same time. Under all that electronic and mechanical wizardry he was lost, and he was lonely. One of the nurses who came and went heard him say faintly one evening when no one else was in the room, “Will someone please touch me?” So she sat down beside the bed and held his hand and talked to him as long as she could, and when she went away she asked the others to do the same. Call her a daughter in the tribe of Hobab, one whom money does not buy but love compels. Or call her, if you prefer, a priestess of the cross. By which I mean to say simply that love is what the cross means. And one thing more: that you and I can be its trans-lators…. … in a home, in an office, in a factory, in a hospital. Our presence in this place is a promise that we will try!
Somewhere and somehow, on one day or many of this week, we will be needed. Help us watch for the moment, and respond….by His will in whose name we worshipped this day. Amen.