Biblical Leadership Lessons from Dr. Erica Brown

Reviewed Book: Dr. Erica Brown, Leadership in the Wilderness: Authority and Anarchy in the Book of Numbers  (Jerusalem, Israel: Maggid Books, 2013)


Leadership. Unfortunately, there currently seems to be a lack of this most valuable trait in the Jewish community and the world at large. Our social media loving world has become exponentially democratized and thus harder to lead, to the point where politicians solicit any and all opinions before they act. Frustratingly, we live in a time when there are so many issues that face our community, and consequently we desperately need strong leaders. It seems that with the rise of the individual, leadership structures seem doomed to failure.

This lack of communal leadership is the issue that Dr. Erica Brown has come to write about in a fascinating and insightful look at Sefer Bamidbar. In Leadership in the Wilderness: Authority and Anarchy in the Book of Numbers, Brown analyzes leadership through a synthesis of both secular and religious sources, at times waxing philosophical on the issue of leadership. She begins by defining the idea of wilderness as a metaphor for the existential isolation experienced by the Israelites, an idea that understandably runs as a current through Brown’s entire book. Brown posits that wilderness can refer to both a physical wildness and a psychological wilderness. For forty years, the Jewish people wandered in a literal wilderness, and for those forty years they were also removed from the rest of society, not taking part in the geopolitics of the day. In this way they were seemingly written out of the ostensibly “important” affairs of the day, as perceived by the other nations at that time, when in fact they were taking part in one the most important journeys in human civilization. Likewise, modern day individuals may find it necessary at times to isolate themselves in a mental wilderness in order to enter a more transcendent state of mind. The Jews of the wilderness, however, differed in that they were able to entirely concentrate their attention on the transcendent, without the distractions of physical or political necessities. Living in this type of wilderness was necessary for the successful development of the Jewish nation. Historically, because of the way in which the wilderness isolated the fledgling Jewish nation, it allowed for the Jewish people to foster a relationship with the Almighty.

Brown shows, however, that there is a downside to the wilderness as well: leadership structures can become extremely fragile in the wilderness due to the stresses of the environment. Strong leadership is crucial in the wilderness, because it is a place where, “there must be hard and fast laws that are clear, repeated, and understood by every member of the camp.”[i] Wilderness, as a place of destruction and decay, is correctly characterized by Dr. Brown as a place where the breakdown of authority is imminent almost from the outset. This is due to the environmental factors that, while giving one the ability to free themselves from human constraint and connect with God, also bear the danger of releasing a person from moral constraint when confronted with a vacuum of established civilization. This view pertains even in present day popular culture, such as in the show Breaking Bad, wherein the downward moral slide of Walter White, one of the show’s main characters, begins in the desert.

The part of Brown’s book I found most interesting is her analysis of the breakdown of authority in Sefer Bamidbar as the result of events such as the Israelite’s agitation for meat and the infamous rebellion of Korah, since I find a leader’s ability to confront challenges to be the clearest barometer of said leader’s ability. Dr. Brown points out that the tranquil ideal of leadership, “could only be sustained if the Israelites maintained trust in their leader through the material hardships of the wilderness.” However, she writes, “They could not.”[ii]  She extracts lessons from Bamidbar on leadership which are relevant to any leader today, noting the profundity of the Hebrew Bible’s inclusion of the Jewish people’s complaints into the sacred scripture. Such an inclusion beckons us to understand how these complaints were dealt with. For example, Dr. Brown posits that Moses, unlike Samuel,[iii] never tries to defend himself to the nation. While this may seem like an act of sacrifice for the people, it may also have contributed to Moses’ resentment of leading such a stiff-necked people.[iv]

Another lesson Brown draws from the wilderness stories is that a leader needs to separate criticism of his or her leadership from personal attacks. Brown points out that in the incident of the people’s cry for meat, Moses takes their complaint as a personal affront to his leadership, and thus requests that God kill him.[v] This misstep in Moses’ leadership is helpful for us to determine how we would like to see our own leaders act. Strong leaders need to be able to take the tough questions without feeling personally offended.  Brown explains how leaders have to learn how to, as we would colloquially say, “roll with the punches.” Brown, in recognizing some of Moses’ triumphs and failures as a leader, affords us insight into the full spectrum of what it means to lead.

Knowing how to “roll with the punches” is something which does not come easily to Moses, but he shows himself to be a leader with the ability to grow, nowhere more clearly than in the rebellion of Korah. Failed followership is the way in which Dr. Brown conceptualizes the rebellion of Korah. By failing to follow properly, and by demanding total equality in his conception of holiness as power, Korah threatens to destabilize the entire Israelite enterprise.

Moses, in a feat of apt perception, sees the seductive appeal of Korah to the Israelites, and though Korah stresses “equality,” Moses understands that Korah merely wishes to empower himself. Moses first humbles himself, literally falling on his face upon learning of the revolt, counteracting the people’s perception of his aloofness and preventing a further escalation of the conflict. Next, Moses sets up a test using the incense to discredit Korah in public. Moses also warns the community to keep away from the rebels, further distancing Korah from his base of support. These steps were part of Moses’ brilliantly crafted scheme to delegitimize Korah’s rebellion. Brown writes, “Moses was able to choose trust over invulnerability, conflict over harmony, clarity over certainty, accountability over popularity, and results over status…. he was willing to sacrifice position and status, if necessary, to achieve his leadership goal.”[vi]  Dr. Brown points out that this is the moment where we see Moses’ growth as a leader in the face of overwhelming outright opposition to his personal leadership, whereas when the people complained about the lack of meat in the wilderness, it was apparent that Moses was crippled at the perceived slight of the people against him.

Though I found the book refreshing, at times it was difficult to see connections between different ideas and stories— I would have liked to see a more cohesive and systematic presentation of the leadership of Moses. Written in essay form, the book jumps from topic to topic, and the reader may become lost in the bevy of topics discussed. Brown also engages in psychological analysis, such as her analysis of Moses’ motivations for internalizing the complaints of the Israelites. Though I found this instance useful, the method itself is generally one that readers might not find compelling. Though this is true in virtually all interpretations, definitive psychoanalysis of long dead figures poses a great risk because of the open-ended nature of the material. Despite these very minor critiques, the book is a highly enjoyable read and provides insight into the nature of biblical leadership as personified by Moses, who through Dr. Brown’s eyes, can teach us quite a bit about modern leadership.

Josh Fitterman is a junior at YC and is majoring in History.

[i] Dr. Erica Brown, Leadership in the Wilderness: Authority and Anarchy in the Book of Numbers (Toby Press, 2013), 39.

[ii]Ibid, 45

[iii] Shmuel I, 12.

[iv] This is evident in the breakdown by the incident with the rock, manifest both in Moses’ use of force rather than dialogue, and in his labeling of the people as morim or rebels. See: Brown 114

[v] “ I cannot carry all this people by my self, for it is too much for me. If you would deal thus with me, kill me rather, I beg You, and let me see no more of my wretchedness.” (Bamid. 11:14-1

[vi]Brown 147.