The Numbers:13 Project
Is it not enough that you brought us from a land flowing with milk and honey to have us die in the wilderness, that you would also lord it over us? Numbers 16:13
At some point or another, every hero fails. For those who admire the hero, and more so for those who follow the hero, the mark of a free mind is the ability to accept the failure without rejecting the person.
If the expectation has been infallibility, the fall can come hard. History is filled with personalities who promised the moon and could not deliver the next meal – the expectations they raised were dashed and with them their reputations. Bernie Madoff, Sammy Sosa, Tammy Fay Bakker, Elizabeth Holmes…in every field of endeavor “too good to be true” turned out to be too true to be good. The hearts of followers too invested to consider the necessary human flaws in their heroes can be shattered beyond repair.
On the other hand, a willingness to acknowledge those flaws and still embrace the person and their admirable qualities is the basis of surviving disappointment. Anyone who has ever been married can tell you how important it is cultivate love that does not rely on perfection. Anyone who has been divorced can tell you what happens when expectation is more important than acceptance. (Both statements offered without judgment.)
But there is another possibility when a hero fails. It is to deny the failure in order to maintain the heroic stature. If you’d like my definition of a cult (well, even if you wouldn’t here it comes), it is the elevation of a leader above their failures. In faith communities, whether established religions or groups clustered around a charismatic leader, when devotees are asked to put common sense second to trust, the hero supplants the heroic idea. A person becomes the repository of hope, which means hope is supplanted by the repository.
Tragically, it is most often (though not always) sexual abuse that is the mark of failure, and the continuing participation of victims in the abuse that perpetuates it. Before you read that last sentence as blaming the victim, let me acknowledge the power of the leader to intimidate the victim and, in many cases, even to persuade the victim that the fault lies in their own shortcomings. Without the power to frustrate the good judgment of victims, the cult leader cannot function. Indeed, once a victim speaks out, the end of the cult is at hand.
But it is not always sexual abuse that places the hero above the idea. Sometimes it is the would-be hero’s ability to make the follower feel special just for knowing something no one else knows.
The verse that prompts this short essay comes in the midst of a rebellion against Moses’ leadership. The words are not spoken by the challenger, but by followers of the challenger. Even if you are a casual reader of the Bible, you know that the phrase “land [of] milk and honey” does not describe Egypt, rather the Promised Land. The rebels, who are themselves former slaves and less than a year into their liberation, have inverted the rhetoric of promise and turned the desire of their leader to “lord over us” onto Moses. A return to Egypt would result at best in re-enslavement; it would never get near milk and honey, and the leader of the rebellion would not last a day after the return. But the rebels’ minds were not free; they put common sense second to trust.
It’s not just a Biblical phenomenon. To my astonishment (and I hope the astonishment of a clear majority), some number of Americans are repeating these ancient (and perpetual) mistakes.
The America from which we emerged into the twenty-first century was not a land flowing with milk and honey. To be sure, some people – most of them white and Christian – saw a consistently upward trajectory of income and opportunity that took off with the Reconstruction and the Industrial Revolution. Perhaps it even peaked as the twentieth century closed. The leader who wants to go back there by suggesting it would make America great again has specialized in distracting from the promises unfulfilled to those privileged folks who are white and Christian.
So when he encourages them to look at leaders who are claiming their several rights of citizenship and “send them back” – whether it is to the place of their family’s origin or to that former America where they “knew their place” – he is asking yet another time for his followers to put common sense second to trust. Regrettably, some of them gleefully do so, condemning them for representing progress and then lording it over us.
In the Bible, the ground swallowed the rebels. These days, I am just hoping for a landslide.