The Promised Land
Everyone knows the story of Moses parting the Red Sea and receiving the Ten Commandments, but Moses’ greatest moment came at the end of his life, standing at the gateway to the Promised Land. Here was the culmination of his life’s work. But God cancelled Moses’ grand entrance and big parade on the grounds that he was a hothead. His bones lie buried just short of the finish line.
I would have had a few choice words for God about this. But rather than shaking his fist at heaven, Moses gushed praise like water from a rock. I am stunned. If Moses can be full of praise in the face of such a divine insult, maybe I too can find a way to make peace with a God who keeps ruining my happy endings.
Moses’ response may be found in Deuteronomy 4:32-40 and summarized in three words: revelation, recognition and response.
Revelation (4:32-38). “God has revealed himself to us!” says Moses. He is visible in history. We heard his voice at Sinai. Most of all, we have seen God in the fire: the burning bush, the pillar by day, and the blaze of Sinai.
French mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal carried around a note sewn inside his coat that was discovered when he died. It read: “The year of grace 1654. Monday, 23 November. From about half past ten in the evening to half past midnight: FIRE. God of Abraham. God of Isaac. God of Jacob, not of philosophers and scholars. Certainty, certainty, heartfelt, joy, peace.”
Pascal wrote brilliantly about questions of human existence but the foundation of his faith was worn in secret inside his coat. There are no words for the fire.
Recognition (4:39). Here I have a complaint: God’s fire is a match that will not strike. Revelation is ambiguous. Creation is a question mark. Yet somehow, for Moses, creation was an exclamation point, declaring the glory of God.
Driving down the road, my kids will sometimes spot a deer. “See it?” they ask excitedly. “Where? Where?” I ask. “Up there! Above that big rock!” I still do not see, but I keep looking. Finally, I spot it. Fire!
I want to see the deer but when it comes to God, I am not so sure. Fire burns. Safer not to look and complain that God is playing “Where’s Waldo?” with me.
Response (4:40). Moses tells the people to obey God and be blessed. Whence this wild theory? Did not Moses’ failure to enter the Promised Land prove it false? And if Moses cannot enter the Promised Land because he is too sinful, what hope is there for anyone?
Here lies the secret of Moses’ contentment and the way to escape a lifetime of miserable whining. In his failure to enter the Promised Land, Moses joined his ancestors, who also died in faith, without receiving the promise. Like Abraham, Moses confessed that he was a stranger and exile on earth, looking for a city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God (Hebrews 11).
God-lovers have always come to realize that the promised land is not the conclusion of their story, but the beginning of God’s new one, what Jesus called the Kingdom of God. This Kingdom is not of this world but it is most definitely in it.
I suspect that the reason Moses was not upset about not entering the Promised Land is that he already had.