Moses: A man for troubled times

by | May 4, 2018

The age-old story of Moses and his exclusion from the Promised Land, just when the new world appeared so unbearably close, offers a potent symbol for our chaotic times.

The age-old story of Moses and his exclusion from the Promised Land, just when the new world appeared so unbearably close, offers a potent symbol for our chaotic times.

Here was my chief complaint: After 40 years leading a fractious, complaining mob across the desert, Moses was left high and dry by the Almighty, within sight but out of reach of the Promised Land. I am not raking over the hard, baked earth of dry theology. The timeless Moses is forever a modern man.

For years I had been bargaining for a different outcome for Moses, who was denied his due by divine decree and untimely death, as if my own spirit were at stake. But fairness is such a human concept.

Indeed, the symbol of a promise unfulfilled, an indecent insult to that fairness, has been a potent one for me personally. I am chastened by my need for fairness and wary of its shadow side: righteousness and entitlement. But still, Moses has been reaching out lately, imploring me to go beyond the surface narrative.

I am not religious. I baulk at using the term ‘God’, though it stubbornly persists in my language and awareness. I first started paying attention to Moses when one of my teachers, Julie Hannon, at the Four Winds Society told the story of the parting of the Red Sea from a mythological perspective. The key tenet of that particular class was that destiny is fluid, multidimensional, and mastery of these arts is a quest whose work is never quite done.

This Moses didn’t sit idly on the shore, staff rooted into the ground, waiting for divine intervention. This Moses waded in, up to his calves, then his knees and deeper still. Behind him waited an expectant throng. The lapping waters reached his chest and throat and still no movement. Brinkmanship might require daring, but this was something more – the courage of faith transcended, in one further step into the deepening waters, by the grace of absolute surrender. Only then did the Red Sea part.

H ere was my chief complaint: After 40 years leading a fractious, complaining mob across the desert, Moses was left high and dry by the Almighty, within sight but out of reach of the Promised Land. I am not raking over the hard, baked earth of dry theology. The timeless Moses is forever a modern man.

For years I had been bargaining for a different outcome for Moses, who was denied his due by divine decree and untimely death, as if my own spirit were at stake. But fairness is such a human concept.

Indeed, the symbol of a promise unfulfilled, an indecent insult to that fairness, has been a potent one for me personally. I am chastened by my need for fairness and wary of its shadow side: righteousness and entitlement. But still, Moses has been reaching out lately, imploring me to go beyond the surface narrative.

I am not religious. I baulk at using the term ‘God’, though it stubbornly persists in my language and awareness. I first started paying attention to Moses when one of my teachers at the Four Winds Society, Julie Hannon, told the story of the parting of the Red Sea from a mythological perspective. The key tenet of that particular class was that destiny is fluid, multidimensional, and mastery of these arts is a quest whose work is never quite done.

This Moses didn’t sit idly on the shore, staff rooted into the ground, waiting for divine intervention. This Moses waded in, up to his calves, then his knees and deeper still. Behind him waited an expectant throng. The lapping waters reached his chest and throat and still no movement. Brinkmanship might require daring, but this was something more – the courage of faith transcended, in one further step into the deepening waters, by the grace of absolute surrender. Only then did the Red Sea part.

From that point on, Moses was no longer a salutary fable of Old Testament – or Torah – blood and thunder. He was the archetypal Wise Man passing initiation tests on behalf of a people.

Moses has returned to me lately, just when I had found myself grounded, unable to move and paralysed with indecision. I was trying to avoid chaos when chaos was inevitable. Chaos is the path.

Maybe I am guilty of embellishing the myth. But new times might call for new stories, or old stories born again.

The accepted reason for Moses being denied entry to the Promised Land – an act of disobedience against God – is another projection of a human paradigm: the crime-and-punishment model as a debasement of divine justice. This is where the literal and mythological clash; where the chaos of competing worldviews can obscure the new order breaking through.

Yet it is the very humanness of Moses that offers a portal into the mythological landscape.

As remarkable as he was, Moses was human right down to his battered sandals. Moses committed human sins, loads of them. He argued with God. He took credit for God’s work. He doubted God. He got angry with the men and women over whom he had been given stewardship. Moses was so human, in fact, that his litany of transgressions makes for comforting reading when I am grappling with my own intransigence, my own wilfulness and insistence on my way of things.

I love the image of Moses as cussed and argumentative, with bones and skin as old as the ancient ground on which he walks. He is my kind of advocate, one willing to question unquestioned authority, who rejects passivity in favour of engaging with inscrutable forces; who is beaten up – but not beaten – by fate in the pursuit of destiny.

Forty years is a long time in either symbolic or literal language. This ‘Moshe’ bears a heavy freight in the shadowlands between doubt and faith.

He speaks to me at those times when platitudes and spiritual correctness leave me cold and angry. When I have grown wary of my personal desert, its frequent mirages, and the pursuit of an unreachable horizon.

This is my Moshe. Moshe is me and Moshe is us.

From that point on, Moses was no longer a salutary fable of Old Testament – or Torah – blood and thunder. He was the archetypal Wise Man passing initiation tests on behalf of a people.

Moses has returned to me lately, just when I had found myself grounded, unable to move and paralysed with indecision. I was trying to avoid chaos when chaos was inevitable. Chaos is the path.

Maybe I am guilty of embellishing the myth. But new times might call for new stories, or old stories born again.

The accepted reason for Moses being denied entry to the Promised Land – an act of disobedience against God – is another projection of a human paradigm: the crime-and-punishment model as a debasement of divine justice. This is where the literal and mythological clash; where the chaos of competing worldviews can obscure the new order breaking through.

Yet it is the very humanness of Moses that offers a portal into the mythological landscape.

As remarkable as he was, Moses was human right down to his battered sandals. Moses committed human sins, loads of them. He argued with God. He took credit for God’s work. He doubted God. He got angry with the men and women over whom he had been given stewardship. Moses was so human, in fact, that his litany of transgressions makes for comforting reading when I am grappling with my own intransigence, my own wilfulness and insistence on my way of things.

I love the image of Moses as cussed and argumentative, with bones and skin as old as the ancient ground on which he walks. He is my kind of advocate, one willing to question unquestioned authority, who rejects passivity in favour of engaging with inscrutable forces; who is beaten up – but not beaten – by fate in the pursuit of destiny.

Forty years is a long time in either symbolic or literal language. This ‘Moshe’ bears a heavy freight in the shadowlands between doubt and faith.

He speaks to me at those times when platitudes and spiritual correctness leave me cold and angry. When I have grown wary of my personal desert, its frequent mirages, and the pursuit of an unreachable horizon.

This is my Moshe. Moshe is me and Moshe is us.

So I wondered what might have Moses been thinking as he met death at Mount Nebo, while that fractious mob he had guided during that long vigil across the desert entered the Promised Land without him.

I had to go back first to see what kind of command could awaken in Moses a desire to see such an arduous task through to unlikely completion.

Here we come to the story of the God’s appearance to Moses at the burning bush – the “bush that burns and is yet not consumed” – and the instruction to seek the Israelites’ freedom from Egyptian slavery. Moses denies he is the man for the job five times. He takes particular issue with his lack of eloquence; he’s hardly a leader of men if he cannot summon the oratory skills to articulate a vision that Moses himself does not understand.

It seems at the outset Moses has no idea of what he is capable, why he has been chosen to be the rough-tongued messenger of divine will: a prophet. Yet he still embarks on the mission, with a tortuous road ahead.

His gift is a burden, and the burden a gift.

Now I love language and I love stories. Stories live and breathe and are owned by no one, not least the author. They reach into the universal language of the heart and are born anew in each recognition of familiar but hidden truths.

So as a mere story, the burning bush speaks to me as spiritual purification – the fire that doesn’t consume, yet alights the spirit. It reminds me of the epiphany or satori moment that sets in train a spiritual awakening. We are enflamed by the glorious possibility, a transcendent vision of our true nature, and in that moment nothing else exists and it is inconceivable that it cannot last forever. We have thus been initiated.

If only we knew. Or, in fact, better we didn’t. A prophet is a messenger – he doesn’t necessarily know the way. Implicit in initiation is beginning. The burning bush has been left behind, but remains seared into consciousness. The seductions of identifying with the original vision, to take ownership of divine voice and authority, are now subject to a slow burn across a parched landscape.

One of my greatest misunderstandings has been to associate the vision with an expectancy of its realization. I stand with Moses on the borders of the Promised Land, so near yet so far.

We are enflamed by the glorious possibility, a transcendent vision of our true nature, and in that moment nothing else exists and it is inconceivable that it cannot last forever. We have thus been initiated.

I t’s worth noting that the Hebrews under Moses’ charge didn’t change. Newly released across the frontier of the Promised Land and into Canaan, they took their arguments with them. If they built temples there, it was only to institutionalise faith; to keep God and chaos and mystery at a knowable distance.

My Moses was bigger than that. I like to think that he died with God on his lips and a yearning in his heart.

Better to die of longing than to step foot in that land and find the very promise that had sustained him since his vision at the burning bush had never been truly shared by the people, much less realized.

In that sense, the greatest honour he could have been afforded was to allow the dream to remain unquenched on his lips but desperately alive in his heart.

Such a feeling can move mountains. Such a feeling can lead a man across the wasteland.

I found myself casting off the smothering embrace of fatalism as I realized Moses had not been forsaken at all. The promise was intact. But through some spiritual osmosis, my mood continued to lift inexplicably. By standing by Moses’ side and staring into the Promised Land until the ground underneath me began to shift, I had surrendered something – or perhaps it had surrendered me.

I had spent so much of my life feeling unworthy to enter any kind of promised land. I had presumed that the price of the desert crossing was too great; that I lacked the necessary discipline, humility and strength. Yet what I had surrendered was not what I had feared.

Too deeply inculcated in Western culture’s foundational shame – Original Sin – without having ever been exposed to a religious upbringing, I feared at some visceral level that if you took the sinner away, there would be no one left.

I suspect this fear lurks in all sorts of hidden corners of the psyche, its only resolution the bestowal of grace. I had been waiting to be given permission to enter the Promised Land. If I was spiritually obedient enough, then maybe the gates would open.

It was a well-told lie.

Too deeply inculcated in Western culture’s foundational shame – Original Sin – I feared at some visceral level that if you took the sinner away, there would be no one left.

In those strange lands between doubt and faith, feverishly looking for waymarkers where there were none, I was not alone. Moses was a map-maker across the desert, charting the territory. When the old world is dying and the new yet to be born, Moses helped me see that there was no point looking for reference points when I hadn’t yet created them.

Nothing external could be guaranteed – not the shape, form or texture of the new world, much less the direction – if the new world was being born inside me. Destiny was the path on which I walked, step by step, any which way I turned.

Moses didn’t need to enter Canaan. Just as I had mistakenly believed I was waiting for God, when it was God waiting for me. Moses was already home. That’s the story that had been begging to be told.

Moses beckons me to look past the desert’s greatest mirage. The Promised Land is not over there. The new world, this state of grace, is real and never more than a breath away. The surrender is to our Original Virtue, restored.

The Promised Land is me and you. The Promised Land is us.

He whispered it urgently, gently, lovingly, in eulogy and celebration. Surely others will hear the call, too, and follow the waymarkers we are erecting. The Promised Land is here. The Promised Land is here. Hallelujah. The Promised Land is here.

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