What Sports Can Teach Us About Moses, God & The Israelites

by Micah Sperling, ‘AB 16

Community Building Intern

Some coaches are like Moses and some are like Joshua. The first category, the Moses guys, are the ones who you bring in when your franchise needs a total rebuild; the ones who can take a 2-14 team without a franchise quarterback and take them to 9-7 a couple seasons later without any superstar signings. They’re the Gary Kubiaks, the David Moyeses and the Stan van Gundys of the world. They’re excellent coaches but not guys you would turn to to get your team a title.

Then there are the Joshuas. Some examples are Nick Saban, Rex Ryan, Jose Mourinho and (and I’m sorry, Lakers and Bulls fans) Phil Jackson. They’re the ones you bring in after the Moses coach to take your team from good to elite.

The fact that I’m even making this point (besides showing that I’m weirdly obsessed with both sports and reading way too many modern analogies into Torah stories) shows that there must be somewhere in the text where the difference between these two types comes up. And indeed there is! In Exodus 3:10, God says to Moses, “I am sending you to Pharaoh to bring my people the Israelites out of Egypt.” He’s basically saying, “I’m giving you a 1-15 team without a franchise quarterback and severely lacking at the skill positions. Go get them to 9-7.” Moses doesn’t get to lead the team—the Israelites—to the promised land of Canaan (or a championship, for that matter) because God recognizes what so many team owners and general managers don’t—that Moses is the right guy for one part of the job, but not for finishing it off.

Putting a Moses into a Joshua role—or vice-versa—can have severely limiting effects on a franchise going forward. Phil Jackson’s first year with the Knicks has been, by most accounts, an unmitigated disaster. Nobody expected this team to win a title, but most pundits thought that they’d be hovering around the 8th seed in the East. Nobody anticipated that they’d be setting records for futility. But that’s the exact danger of bringing a Joshua into a Moses situation. Jackson might be the best coach in the history of sports at turning a group of good players he inherited into championship squads. On each of those teams, he had a superstar; each team had a solid supporting cast. The Knicks probably figured they needed a Joshua to come coach them. The difference is that, while Jackson has proven his unique ability to get a group of good-but-not-elite role players to play above their level around a superstar (or two), he’s never shown that he can take a below-average group and make them simply good. That’s what the Knicks needed for the next, say, two years before they fire whatever Moses coach (George Karl, maybe?) that they chose to use and bring in Jackson to bring the team a title.

The David Moyes disaster at Manchester United shows what happens when the opposite comes true. Moyes spent 11 years managing an Everton team that initially fluctuated wildly between the top and bottom of the league before settling as a solidly upper-mid-table team. For a side that never had a superstar, Moyes was the perfect manager. He was able to get a group of below-average to just-above-average players to play as a significantly above-average unit. Then Manchester United came calling. Should Moyes have been given another year to learn how to manage a team made up of only superstars rather than a team that didn’t have any? Sure. But that’s not the point. He didn’t succeed right away because the definition of success at United was so different. He approached the United team very much like it was Everton in 2009. It was the only way he knew how to coach. Soccer fans saw what happened next.

It sounds silly to say, but Moses is a Moses coach. In our most recent jUChicago meeting, my fellow Community Building interns and I spent the bulk of our time arguing about why Moses is not allowed to lead the Israelites into the Promised Land. Is he being punished? Is it because he’s not cut out to be a leader? I’d argue that the explanation has a lot to do with God being a really, really good general manager. Moses took the 1-15 Israelites from slavery to the edge of their own state. He coached them with a dedication that the Bengals’ Marvin Lewis would admire and carried them to the edge of the promised land—the verge of the playoffs. Unlike the Bengals administration, though, God realized that Moses wasn’t the guy to win a playoff game. He gave Moses an audition to prove that he had turned into Gregg Popovich (the incident with hitting a rock to bring forth water). Moses didn’t pass this test, but we can’t read him as a failure. He did exactly what he’d been hired to do. He made the Israelites a playoff team. It was time to step aside and let someone else win them the ring.