Moses’ 120th Birthday

Deuteronomy 31:1-30

By Lore Segal

Published October 07, 2005, issue of October 07, 2005.
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On his 120th birthday, Moses addresses the Israelite people encamped outside Jericho: I don’t walk as well as I used to, he tells them. (Elsewhere we learn that his powers are divinely undiminished, but we had better be willing to accept two truths for the price of one in life as well as in story.) And he says, you are about to cross to the other side of Jordan, and I’m not coming with you.

The Bible has taken us along on the long trek from Ur via Haran to Canaan, first as strangers in the land and now — after a 400-year digression as slaves in Egypt and a calamitous 40-year march across the wilderness — as conquerors and inheritors of God’s promise. And we have known Moses since his birth, through his adoption, self-exile and marriage; his introduction to God in the fiery bush and reluctant acceptance of his mission; his tremendous tussle, as God’s spokesman and agent, with the might of Egypt. We witnessed the difficulties of his leadership of a rebellious, needy, impatient people who angered God again and again and preferred a golden calf that could be danced around inside the camp, to the strenuous worship of a god of laws and words, up on the mountaintop hidden behind smoke, thunder and trumpets.

Are we appalled and grieved for Moses? Don’t we want God to change His mind? God has been Moses’ friend — his personal friend — has spoken to him face to face, advised and encouraged him in his despair and exhaustion, and now He won’t let him enter the land! We don’t understand or won’t believe that the infraction — whatever it was — at the Waters of Meribah deserves this finality. It is, like the Akedah, one of the biblical stories with which the imagination does not want to make its peace, a metaphor with which we never stop quarreling. When Martin Luther King made a rhetorical parallel between Moses and himself — didn’t we think he was overreaching until they shot him dead and it was true: The good and faithful servant does not get to inherit the reward in his own person.

It may be good practice having to accommodate small pairs of mutually exclusive truths: Moses has two big ones for us — the two familiar, and mutually exclusive, predictions of Israel’s fate and future. The first says, Joshua will take you across Jordan, and don’t worry, God will be with you and will decimate your enemies again as He has done in the past. Prediction two says, because you will do wrong again as you have done in the past, God will remove Himself from you and your enemies will decimate you. God demands that Moses write this down as a song for the children of Israel who know the history and for the unborn children who must be told. God wants a written witness: Don’t tell Me I didn’t tell you.

Shall we also grieve for God who is addicted to His hope for us and must suffer the terrible foreknowledge of our bad behavior and the consequences with which He is going to punish us? God seems, periodically, to renew Himself in the knowledge that we are evil. In the act of creating the world He kept noticing how good everything was, and then Cain showed mankind to be fratricidal. Cain’s descendant, Enoch, peopled the world’s cities with tents and tools and music and murder and everything got so bad, God decided to start over and drowned us all and found what He must have foreknown, that drowning did us no good, didn’t improve us in the least. As He Himself put it, “The imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth.” The descendants of Noah after the flood turned out to be as bad as Noah’s ancestors before the flood. And now here we are, about to inherit Canaan, whose native nations are so bad that they deserve to be thrown out of the land by a new generation of Israelites guaranteed, God knows, to be as bad as the generation that was so bad God buried it six feet under the sands of the wilderness. Twelve of one and a dozen of the other. Might as well put that rainbow back up.

Lore Segal is a novelist, translator and essayist. Her latest children’s book is “More Mole Stories and Little Gopher, Too” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux).

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