“Talk is cheap.” “Walk the walk.” “Play full out.” These are modern vernacular for the words from Paul to the church at Thessalonica when he says, “So deeply do we care for you that we are determined to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves” (I Thess. 2:8). One of my favorite proverbs along those lines is, “What you do speaks so loud I can’t hear what you say.” In a similar vein, James 1:22 tells us to “be doers of the word and not hearers only.” All of these words of wisdom point toward the qualities of integrity and intimacy necessary for faithful and fulfilled living. Are our actions congruent with our words and the values we profess? I love the impertinent question often quoted by former President Jimmy Carter, which is now the basis for a contemporary Christian song, “If you were arrested for being a Christian would there be enough evidence to convict you?” When I’m brave enough, I ask that while looking in the mirror.
The Hebrew text for October 23 (Deut. 34:1-12) contains the last words of Deuteronomy and is therefore the conclusion of the entire Pentateuch. We are at the end of the Exodus journey and the transition of leadership from Moses to his successor, Joshua. The story relates Moses’ death on Mt. Nebo. From that vantage point Moses was at long last able to check a big item off his Bucket List and see with his own eyes the land God has promised to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
There are lots of interesting facets to this story, and I’ve chosen three to reflect on:
- God says to Moses (vs. 4-5), “’I have let you see it [the Promised Land], but you shall not cross over there.’ Then Moses, the servant of the Lord, died there in the land of Moab, at the Lord’s command.”
- “Moses was one hundred twenty years old when he died; his sight was unimpaired and his vigor had not abated” (v. 7)
- “Never since has there arisen a prophet in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face” (v. 10).
1) Why is Moses forbidden to enter the Promised Land? If he is the greatest prophet ever in the history of Israel, why not let him achieve the ultimate goal for which he’s given his life? To draw on another cliché, we might say, “There’s no I in Team.” Sports teams and nations, communities, families – all win as a team and lose as a team. It’s not just Moses; none of the Hebrews who left Egypt were permitted to enter the Promised Land because of their unfaithfulness. (For more on that see the reflections on the Golden Calf, complaining, greed over the Manna from heaven, etc. that I posted on Exodus texts on Sept. 7 & 13). It wasn’t because Moses refused to stop and ask for directions that it took the Hebrews forty years to make the 200-300 mile trip from Egypt to Jericho. They had a heavenly GPS (aka a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night) to guide their journey. It took four decades because God was waiting for the original crowd to expire so God could get a fresh start with Caleb and Joshua and a new generation. (See Numbers 13:20-21 for Yahweh’s decree that none of those who “have tested me these ten times and have not obeyed my voice, shall see the land that I swore to give to their ancestors.”)
I find it helpful to note here that big dreams and goals often take longer than a lifetime and more persistence and leadership than one person or generation can provide. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. made that point powerfully on the night before he was assassinated. In the final great speech he gave on April 3, 1968 in Memphis, Dr. King used this Biblical imagery to say he was blessed to have seen the Promised Land. Even though he personally might not get there he was sure others would.
Even Jesus needed faithful followers to carry on the work of establishing the reign of God. He commissioned his followers to “make disciples of all nations” (Matt. 28:19). He also promised the disciples, “You will do even greater things than I have done” (John 14:12).
Do we have dreams and visions today that are bigger than ourselves that stretch far beyond the horizons of our finite mortality? A friend posted this simple but profound truth on Facebook the other day in the form of two circles side by side but separate from each other, one larger than the other. In the larger circle are the words, “Where the Magic Happens.” In the smaller one, “Your comfort zone.”
A recent New York Times op/ed piece by David Brooks, reflecting on the tremendous innovative talents of the late Steve Jobs, made the same point about dreamers and visionaries. Brooks said we made fantastic innovative leaps in multiple areas of society in the first 70 years of the 20th century, but very few in the last 40 years. In my grandparents’ lifetimes America went from horse and buggy to landing on the moon; from outhouses to air conditioned homes and cars. Life expectancy increased from 47 to 77 years; communication technology moved from telegraph to telephone to television.
But in the last forty years, other than the explosion in information technology, there have been very few dramatic, life-changing advances. Brooks quotes several authors, including Peter Thiel, who says, “we travel at the same speeds we did a half-century ago. We rely on the same basic energy sources [which are still poisoning us and our planet, I might add]. Warren Buffett made a $49 billion investment in 2009. It was in a railroad that carries coal.” We have not cured or even seriously researched ways to prevent cancer. Many of us are in denial about the environmental crisis. Our cities and schools and, most embarrassingly, our churches are as segregated as ever. The wars on poverty and drugs have been dismal failures. The great American Dream of home ownership has turned into a foreclosure nightmare. When it comes to for the least of our sisters and brothers, our health care system is among the worst in the industrialized world. Any wonder we are seeing protestors taking to the streets of every American city?
2) We desperately need dreamers and visionaries who are willing to commit their whole being to causes that transcend themselves and their mortality. That brings us to verse 7 and Moses’ vitality. For those who think their retirement years are an excuse to ignore the responsibilities of Christian discipleship, reread Deuteronomy 34:7. “Moses was 120 years old when he died; his sight was unimpaired and his vigor had not abated.” That last phrase is the fun part of that verse. The Hebrew for “vigor not abating” means Moses did not need Viagra. He was fertile, productive, and able to create new life? Are we? Or have we pawned our dreams for self-interest and survival? And don’t get hung up on the numbers game in that verse. No one really knows what these triple digit age numbers in the Hebrew texts mean. Did Medicare really pay the maternity bills for Abraham and Sarah? Was Methuselah really over 900 years old? Probably not according to our calendar calculations. The point is not Guinness World Records for aging. The point is that these people lived productive lives until they died, and the challenge is for us to do the same. What shall we do with those extra 30 years of life expectancy we now have to help create a better world for those that our Joshuas and Janets will lead into the future?
3) Moses’ vigor and vitality leads to the claim in verse 10 that “Never since has there arisen a prophet in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face.” This may be one of those hyperbolic claims one often hears at funeral homes. The ones that make me look in the casket to see if we’re talking about the same fallible human being I knew the deceased to be. A good case can be made for Moses being the number 1 prophet. Without Moses’ leadership, the Exodus, the formative event of Israel’s history might never have happened. Moses is the George Washington of Israel, the Father of his country. Without him the Judeo-Christian saga would have been a very short documentary instead of the on-going epic that shaped the course of human history.
I would argue that Moses’ influence and his vitality to the end of his life came from the passion and total commitment he put into his role in God’s drama of salvation history. He gave his people and us not just God’s word but his own self. Does that mean he was infallible or perfect? Of course not. Remember he once murdered an Egyptian when he allowed his passion to consume his better judgment (Exodus 2). Moses was a fugitive from Egyptian justice when God recruited him via a burning bush (Ex. 3). So don’t think we can use our own fallibility as an excuse for not responding to God’s call. It won’t wash.
Then we have this strange phrase that the Lord knew Moses “face to face.” Back in Exodus 33 Moses is told specifically that he cannot see God’s face because no mortal can do so and live. How do we resolve such a seeming contradiction? Most biblical problems, including this one, are created by interpreting the texts too literally. Because we often return the favor of Genesis and create God in our own image, we picture God like us, in anthropomorphic terms. But according to Jesus, “God is spirit” (John 4:24) and “No one has seen God” (John 1:18).
This text in Deuteronomy does not mean Moses saw God up close and personal and had an opportunity to snap a picture of Yahweh on his iPhone. It does mean he had face time with God, intimacy, closeness. That’s the spiritual connection that inspired and empowered Moses to faithfully lead an unruly band of stiff-necked, rebellious pilgrims from slavery and death to new life in the Promised Land.
We can have that same intimate, vigorous, passionate relationship with God too if we are willing to do the Holy Hokey Pokey and put our whole selves in.