Moses and the Promised Land: No Happy Ending?
[Preached in Harmony Hill Presbyterian Church on Sunday 8th March 2020]
Deuteronomy 34, the account of the death of Moses, can be much too easily read as one of the Bible’s low-points. We expect a movie-screen happily-ever-after, where our beloved prophet receives a material reward for some four decades of determined leadership. But, alas, no; we read, instead, that this Bible hero dies on the very edge of the Promised Land.
When feeling disappointed, that vivid picture of Moses — far above the plains, encircled by all that he will never possess — speaks to our experience. As we come to the text with our own circumstances, we can read into this event a metaphor for unfulfilment. We can use that as an honest place to set out from in Deut. 34; but then let the chapter challenge your perspective and show you the more that is life in the light of God. We should experience a shift in vision, however subtle, when reading the Bible; but we also have to start somewhere.
As we rejoin Moses in the cool shadow of Mount Nebo, bear in mind that these verses are the final words not only in the book of Deuteronomy but also in the first five-book instalment of the Hebrew Bible; so their stand-out position within the canon underlines their importance.
Before we look at how this chapter speaks to us, we have to set the scene. Moses has just pronounced a benediction over the tribes of Israel, and the time has come for him to leave the people of God in the hands of Joshua. Moses’ final act as leader is to remind the Israelites who they are, their core identity: ‘a people saved by the Lord.’ They had wandered in the wilderness under the care of God, and they now stand on the precipice of the Promised Land.
Farewells imparted, a successor nominated, Moses embarks on that final ascent up Mount Nebo. Loose pebbles crackle under his feet and that homeward call to eternal rest beckons. Picture yourself there; build up a sketch of what this place is like. Visualise this mountain where God would appear to the prophet one final time for a late encounter between friends.
Old Mount Sinai feels like a lifetime away, looks a stone tablet in the distance. God only knows what anxieties and excitements attend Moses as altitude rinses the earthy red out of the desert and leaves it bleach in the sun. With one last effort of the will, a determined Moses presses on to reach the top and mercifully the terrain levels gently onto a cheerful summit.
There he sees a world of detail: the tall trees down in the City of Palms, the streaks of weathered rock over Gilead, the plummeting depths of the Jericho Valley. This is the Promised Land; surely this is what all those weary decades in the wilderness were all about. Not so much. It was never about the Promised Land; because God never intended it as the permanent possession of the Israelites. Back in Leviticus 25, where God explains how the exiles were to live in this land, he states, and I quote from the ESV, “The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine. For you are strangers and sojourners with me.” God forbade his people to sell off parcels of land on a permanent basis. He knows that we like to hold onto our creature comforts, even at the expense of new depths of relationship with him.
We turn our own desires and plans, however noble, into a kind of artificial Promised Land; looking to some far-off ambition of our own, we miss the work of God in front of us. It’s time to recover a present-centred perspective. God, like a jazz pianist, can take our present set of circumstances and improvise a work of art. He listens for a snatch of melody and his cosmic hands do the rest. God can take raw material from our lives and fashion a sacred encounter.
Another question beckons. What is the emotional state of God in this chapter? Do you reckon that God mourns over Moses as Jesus later wept over Lazarus? Is he just a dispassionate undertaker; or is God a fellow mourner who stands in solidarity with his heartbroken people?
Moses, until his last, could see clearly in the literal sense; but he had clear spiritual vision too. At a hundred and twenty, ‘his eyes were not weak’ — those eyes that munched on the detail of the landscape in front of him as if it were manna from heaven. God continues to nourish our souls with wholesome bread, but he only serves it hot from the oven. He only serves it fresh, with an invitation to know him in the present. The Host invites us to his Table. By the time we arrive at the physical description of Moses, the chapter truly has descended into the personal. Within this epic of historical events, within this tale of a chosen community, we have a portrait of a prophet ‘whom the Lord knew face to face.’ Moses was a man who encountered God not as an abstraction or a proposition but in the concrete fabric of his life.
Back in those dark times of slavery in Egypt, the Children of Israel laboured hard under Pharaoh. As they sweated over his little vanity projects, ‘their cry for help,’ the Bible tells us, ‘went up to God.’ Full of compassion, God set in motion his plan to set them free. Deep in the wilderness, he reached out in relationship to an old shepherd; Moses was the one to lead the people out of captivity. Even there, in the wilderness, God spoke from the flames and there was hope. Moses even showed the oppressor how to be free, thousands of years before Nelson Mandela would write, and I quote, ‘the oppressor must be liberated just as surely as the oppressed.’ I wonder how the Exodus would have read had Pharaoh and his warriors pursued Israel in a spirit of reconciliation, if they had beaten their spears into pruning hooks and cast aside their weapons by the shore of the Reed Sea to learn war no more. As it happened, the yoke of oppression laid a more stubborn claim over the oppressor than the oppressed. For the Israelites, however, the bond of love between Moses and the Lord would be remembered for the role it played in their liberation, itself a prelude to the journey ahead.
And so, as we bid farewell to Moses, and as the sun sets over the plains of Moab, we look to the Promised Land — beyond the Promised Land — and see the journey before us. We drink in for a final time the sheer beauty of it all, a beauty that was never ours to possess. “I have let you see it with your eyes, but you will not cross over into it.” But our hope in life is neither to escape the wilderness, nor to conquer the Promised Land. Rather we find our hope in God as we look to the resurrection of Christ for our transformation. God’s perfect love drives out fear and loneliness, even here in this ‘imperfect’ life. Know that whatever wilderness you face, whatever Promised Land you have to leave untraveled, we have a companion in God who never fails. We have a saviour in God who, in time, gives us new life and makes us complete.
Matthew Allen is a regular contributor to Left Side Up.