Perhaps teaching Dostoevsky to my English majors and minors recently has sent me down this path, but looking at this week’s Old Testament reading reminds me that, when one takes a step back from particular books of the Bible and tries to take the whole collection of sacred Scripture as authoritative, an immensely complex picture arises. (As I’ve noted more than once, I find readings of the Bible that take the extremes as themselves inspired more compelling than those that try to grind down what seems an inherent plurality in favor of a less-compelling “harmonized” reading.) Abraham is the exemplar of faithfulness, but he’s also so fearful and self-serving as to pimp his wife out not to one but to two separate men of power in two separate episodes. And in some places, his place as paragon of faithfulness derives not from striking out for Canaan but for being willing and ready to murder his own son. King David is a man after God’s own heart and one who will attempt to manipulate God into saving the son of Bathsheba, the one conceived in the course of his murderous plot, with ostentatious public mourning, only to cut the mourning off instantly and to pull one of his wives into bed to replace the lost child within a verse or two of his son’s dying. His last words to Solomon (conceived perhaps minutes after his elder brother’s death) are the strange mix of a holy man’s vision for constructing a temple worthy of YHWH and a gangster’s final hit list.
Moses is no different from the men who are in some ways his forerunner and his successor in the imagination of Israel: he’s a terrorist assassin rejected by the Hebrews because they cannot trust a murderer to save their lives, and he’s a man so plagued by his own insignificance that YHWH must appoint a mouthpiece to speak for him. He’s the singular figure for a generation of Israel’s pre-history, and he’s barred most violently from taking any part at all in the generation where Joshua must loom large. He’s the most humble man who ever lived and one barred from entering the land promised to the humblest of nations. And perhaps most importantly, he’s an inescapably particular human character, one whose wrath and whose reserve are undeniable; and he’s a figure whose individuality fairly often gets subsumed into the grand story of God. It’s just as sensible to talk about Moses as a novel character, with all of the self-awareness and self-deception that the great figures of literature exhibit, as it is to write about the life of Israel in the Land as the Post-Mosaic period, to treat the man as himself a historical period.
And since the gospel of Matthew especially takes pains to frame Jesus as himself participating in that larger-than-life Moses reality (he escapes the child-killing wrath of an evil king, emerges out of Egypt, preaches five long sermons just as there are five books of Moses, ends the book of Matthew atop a mountain, and follows a man named Joseph as the male lead in the book) but does not allow even Jesus to colonize the peculiarity of Moses (unless you consider “take this cup from me” to be on a par with “who am I to go to Pharaoh,” which I don’t), the death of Moses can and must remain the Hebrew shepherd’s peculiar story. The fact of the matter is that, unlike Jesus, who is with his followers always (it says so at the end of Matthew), Moses can never join the people in Canaan. His part in the story must always be a sort of prelude, not one that lacks the power to define and inspire future experience but nonetheless not paradigmatic for Israel’s life as Israel. When the Jews (and Jesus and the Church) have moments when Moses is clearly their (our) paradigm, those must be moments when we look forward to something that Moses never could experience, namely to be welcomed in to the place of rest.
Moses, who in turn could and did turn away the wrath of YHWH against the idolatrous Hebrews and take up his own sword to cut them down in their idolatry, can never fully be us. His loneliness on that mountain, knowing that the story of Israel would really begin only after the story of Moses came to a definitive ending, was the loneliness of the clear eye, not one that takes death as the “natural” diminution of human powers but that grieves the unspeakable horror of a God who will save a nation only after the singular figure of the nation’s pre-history is dead and gone. His sight on that mountain will never be ours because our own vision of the future can and must be a hopeful one, never discounting the possibility that the coming of the Kingdom might reach its consummation in this moment. Or the next. Or the next. Only the hope of the resurrection can keep Moses from becoming (or remaining) a tragic figure, whose fate at the dark decree of the divine is never to enter in. Only the resurrection will let any of us escape just that tragedy.
May our prayers to the God of faith and hope and love some day find us alongside Moses in the rest of God.