The Last of Deuteronomy
Meanwhile, we stayed on in the valley near Beth-Peor Deuteronomy 3:29
There is not a lot of traveling to distant destinations during the days of the pandemic. I never had quite the wanderlust of others in my family, but I am discovering that knowing I can’t vacation elsewhere makes me desire it more.
Therefore, I am taking delight in the way some of my Facebook friends are passing the time by posting photographs of the places they have visited. Some of the pictures are just tourist shots, easily identifiable. Others are framed or cropped in such a way that they are more mysterious.
The one consistency among them is that they represent happy memories. So far, no one has posted “quaint little café in rural village where I got food poisoning” or “back of pickpocket running away after stealing my wallet.” I have wonderful shots of the Judean desert, the Danube and Buckingham Palace, but none of Kharkov in Soviet days, where happiness seemed in short supply generally.
I am sure that there are people whose recollections of all those places and more are different than mine. Someone fell and broke a bone in the desert, dropped a camera into the river and got drenched in a downpour in London. And I am certain that sometime, someone had a romantic encounter in Kharkov. They should live and be well.
Personal associations are not the only ones prompted by geographic locations. Places like Kilimanjaro, Seville and Wrigley Field carry with them cultural references shared by people who have never visited (Hemingway, Barber of, best ballpark in America). And sometimes, the references are lost due to time or changing circumstances. Mt. Megiddo (in Hebrew “Har Megiddo”) was home to 27 different cities before it became synonymous with a prophesied cataclysmic battle (Armageddon).
So when Moses reminds the Israelites that they “stayed in the valley near Beth-Peor,” the modern reader of the Bible – especially the casual reader of the Bible – probably shrugs and moves on to the next chapter. But Beth-Peor resonated with the assembled Israelites in a different way and carried that resonance deep into the Jewish imagination through the rest of the Bible and into later times.
Beth-Peor (“House of Peor”) was the home of the Moabites, and their god was the infamous Baal. From the Bible’s perspective, the Moabites were licentious, dedicated to unspeakable acts of abuse performed as worship. In fact, the Talmud and its commentators are explicit that Moabite religion included the exposure and penetration of various intimate orifices in the name of Baal. Camping out in the valley near Beth-Peor was a fraught activity, saturated with both fear and titillation as Moses and the leadership tried to maintain a separation from the locals.
It reminds me of visiting Israel in 1970 and meeting my local teenage peers who responded to the information that I came from Chicago with, “Al Capone! Ack-ack-ack-ack-ack!” And no, I explained, my father was not a gangster.
There are places in the United States known in their current circumstances very differently than the events and contexts of their previous history. Tulsa, Selma, and Ocala resonate with a history much larger than acknowledged today. Seattle and Silicon Valley have reputations that were unimaginable 50 years ago. And though natural beauty exists independent of human labels, Yellowstone, Yosemite, and Petrified Forest are lifted up by their designation as national parks thanks to the imagination of President Teddy Roosevelt and those who followed.
We are blessed to live in a time when so many media are available to take us on journeys we might otherwise never experience. Though each has its limitations, collectively they enhance each other to give a fuller picture of what it means to be in a distant and unfamiliar place. But we shouldn’t lose sight of the stories that have meaning to individual travelers, to history and to the experiences of those from a different time than ours.
They should inspire us to want to visit, even in our imaginations, and to do so not only across physical distance, but through the many layers of memory that are preserved in time.