The Last of Deuteronomy
You may view the land from a distance, but you may not enter it – the land that I am giving to the Israelite people. Deuteronomy 32:52
I try not to be too theological in these columns, which may be a peculiar decision since I am writing about the text of the Bible. When I do write about God, I try to avoid defending, justifying, or apologizing. First of all, God does not need me as an advocate and, more important, I am filled with more questions than answers.
But here we are, closing in on the end of the Five Books of Moses, and I can’t help but feel a sort of desperation on everybody’s part. The Israelites are tired of forty years of wandering, thirty-nine of which were without anything remarkable enough to warrant even a mention. Moses must be exhausted, having spent three different lifetimes as three different people – prince, shepherd, nomadic chieftain. And as for God? The word I most often imagine is “exasperated.” After all, nothing ever works out as God wants. That’s a terrible record for the Master of the Universe. And when you are God, you can’t quit, even if it seems to us like sometimes God is AWOL.
That leaves us, the readers, who have struggled with this collection of stories, laws, and instructions from the first chapter of Joshua (the next episode after Deuteronomy) until today. The pious among us continue to ask, “what does God want of me/us?” The impious among us roll our eyes and eat bacon cheeseburgers on Yom Kippur. And in between you can find most of us.
This denial of appeal at the eleventh hour strikes a lot of folks as enormously cruel. Moses is being denied his moment of achievement for what seems like a trivial reason against the backdrop of devoted service. He struck a rock instead of speaking to it. For goodness sakes, he took his life in his hands and overcame a speech impediment to go head-to-head with Pharaoh and then, on nothing but faith, led his people on an unexpected forty-year sojourn filled with everything from divine revelation to attacking marauders to seditious rebellion. Shouldn’t he have gotten a break?
A songwriter named Julie Gold wrote an inspired piece of music more than 35 years ago that was, before too long, recorded by Bette Midler. It was called “From a Distance,” and it won a Grammy award some five years later. The song is beautiful in its description of the long view of our world, so much so that among its many iterations was being the soundtrack for a joint American-Russian space mission. The chorus includes the repeated phrase, “God is watching us from a distance.”
I think part of the appeal of the song to people of all persuasions (except, maybe, avowed atheists) is the notion that the harmony and peace we all yearn for is visible…as long as you don’t look too closely. The fact is that everything in our lives looks a little better from a distance. Fruit. History. Skin. Childrearing. 2020. Better from a distance.
I suspect that it is natural for believers and those who want to believe to hope that God will be present in the details of their lives. (Never mind if that’s where the devil allegedly resides.) I have a friend who made a wish – actually a very silly one – that he used to “test” God and, when it came true, he turned his spiritual life around, including embracing a different faith tradition than the one in which he was raised. I am confident in affirming that God had nothing to do with the moment, which was entirely incidental and insignificant, almost as foolish as praying that your buttered toast will land dry-side down when you drop it. It meant something to him and gave his unmoored life a sense of purpose. But if God was indeed watching him close-up when this happened, I suspect that there was a metaphoric cosmic face-plant.
Instead, I choose to believe that this last lesson to Moses is actually the fulfillment of his one personal prayer forty years earlier. “Show yourself in all your glory,” younger Moses says at the very beginning of this forty-year trek. God insists that no one may see that glory and live. What God is, who God is, may not be seen up close. The fulfillment of that prayer can only come at a distance.
And what does Moses see? He does not necessarily view the Promised Land. Instead, he views the promise of the land. In that moment of fulfillment, Moses sees through God’s eyes and knows the glory of the potential of creation. Throughout this long saga from Eden to Mount Nebo, every time God has entered the story, something has gone awry. But what keeps the Holy One coming back is viewing the land(scape) from a distance. Moses does not need to visit the land for his prayer to be answered.
Sorry to be so theological, but I felt that sometimes I have been so granular in expressing myself for these many years that this once I could indulge my own belief, that which has sustained me for a long time. From a distance.