By Jared Warner
Willow Creek Friends Church
October 29, 2023
Deuteronomy 34:1–12 (ESV)
1 Then Moses went up from the plains of Moab to Mount Nebo, to the top of Pisgah, which is opposite Jericho. And the Lord showed him all the land, Gilead as far as Dan, 2 all Naphtali, the land of Ephraim and Manasseh, all the land of Judah as far as the western sea, 3 the Negeb, and the Plain, that is, the Valley of Jericho the city of palm trees, as far as Zoar. 4 And the Lord said to him, “This is the land of which I swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, ‘I will give it to your offspring.’ I have let you see it with your eyes, but you shall not go over there.” 5 So Moses the servant of the Lord died there in the land of Moab, according to the word of the Lord, 6 and he buried him in the valley in the land of Moab opposite Beth-peor; but no one knows the place of his burial to this day. 7 Moses was 120 years old when he died. His eye was undimmed, and his vigor unabated. 8 And the people of Israel wept for Moses in the plains of Moab thirty days. Then the days of weeping and mourning for Moses were ended. 9 And Joshua the son of Nun was full of the spirit of wisdom, for Moses had laid his hands on him. So the people of Israel obeyed him and did as the Lord had commanded Moses. 10 And there has not arisen a prophet since in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face, 11 none like him for all the signs and the wonders that the Lord sent him to do in the land of Egypt, to Pharaoh and to all his servants and to all his land, 12 and for all the mighty power and all the great deeds of terror that Moses did in the sight of all Israel.
The past few weeks we have joined the tribes of Israel on their journey to the land God had promised them. We have walked not just through the Exodus but from the very beginning of the history of Israel. But in the most recent weeks we have joined them in their desert wonderings and camped with them at Sinai.
The trip from Egypt to Sinai took a few months. After Moses plead for the lives of Israel after the incident with the golden calf, God commanded them to walk in the desert again. And this second leg of the journey took them to the borders of the Promised land.
This trip only took a few months. They saw the land, they longed for the land, it was indeed a land that was filled with agricultural riches. A place where their families could thrive. They stood on the borders looking in, their hearts yearned for the richness of the land, yet they were afraid.
They peered into the land, they sent delegations into the land to gather intel, and these men came back to give a report. Twelve men were sent. A representative from each of the tribes, and each of these men returned with a report of the riches, but ten of the twelve were weary. These then men reported that there were giants in the land.
It has taken many years of reading and study for me to understand the consequences of this negative report. Ten out of the twelve were afraid because of the giants; two had faith. We do not often dwell on this. We simply accept that they were afraid and then God takes them back into the wilderness for forty years and that is that. But why?
This is one of those areas within scripture that becomes unclear. People get nervous when we admit this. We like to claim that scripture is infallible, and by saying this we accept certain things. Usually, we accept that every word is literal, that there is no human creativity, and that if we do not understand something we should not ask questions. The infallibility of scripture is a human construct, and something that scripture does not fully support. Scripture is authoritative, it is inspired, it is good for teaching, encouraging, directing, and rebuking. But there are areas within scripture that often leaves us asking for more. And one of those is why being afraid of giants would result in forty years of wandering through a desert.
We often look at scripture as being linear and literal. And when we do this, we often miss the original intent of them. Just like the ten commandments were originally understood as the ten words or lessons, not legislative law. Many of the stories within scripture, although true, were written not for mere informational purposes, but to facilitate the transmission of wisdom. For wisdom to be transmitted from one generation to another, and for the accumulation of greater wisdom, we cannot merely pass on information, instead we need to teach and encourage the emerging generations to ask questions and to seek answers.
This brings us back to the giants. The giants, or the men of renown, were the warrior kings of the ancient world. Pharaoh was one of those giants among men. In much of the ancient world the people would regard the leaders of a nation as being the offspring of the gods, and because of this they the ultimate representative of the unseen realm. When those ten spies reported to Moses that there were giants in the land, they were openly telling Moses and all of Israel that they identified with the worldview of the nations of the world. This is again revisiting the very same issue that Aaron encountered at Sinai when the people demanded the construction of the golden calf.
God pronounced judgement on the people at this point. No one within that generation would be allowed to enter the land promised to their forefathers, except for two, Caleb and Joshua. Caleb and Joshua were the two among the twelve that, upon entering the land, believed Yahweh could overcome the powers of the world.
Forty years. I am now forty-four years old. A great deal can happen in forty years. In the United States we would have gone through ten election cycles in that amount of time, which could result in the election of at least five new presidents. The world would have watched the Olympic games ten times. The world cup of soccer would have visited ten nations within the world. And probably the most important thing is that an entirely new generation would have moved into established adulthood. In forty years, the people that walked out of Egypt would have raised their children, and watched as their grandchildren were born and become adults themselves.
Much has changed between my grandfather’s coming of age and that of myself. And much more has changed since I became an adult and what will occur during the lifetime of my grandson. My grandfather was an adult when the first telephone company began service in rural Kansas. When I reached the age, my grandfather was at that time, we had the internet and were carrying phones with us wherever we went. By the time my son reached the age I was at that time, the technology that I once viewed as cutting edge was so common that it is seen as a necessity instead of a luxury.
The first generation walked out of Egypt. That generation did not know Yahweh, they did not understand what it meant to be the people of God, and they were not a nation. They traveled to Sinai where God spoke to them from the clouds above the mountain, and He called them to himself and gave them the wisdom by which he wanted them to develop their society. Shortly after hearing that voice and affirming their dedication to His ways, they turned and returned to the old ways, the ways of slavery in Egypt.
That brough judgement down to the camp. Those that chose to remain faithful to the old ways perished or were separated from the emerging nation. All that remained when Moses rose and walked away from Sinai were those that made a profession of faith in Yahweh. They were still the same people that walked out of Egypt, but they were beginning the transformation into the people of God. Each story within the book of the Exodus cycles through a similar theme. Each cycle moves from faith to despair, from despair to confrontation, and from confrontation to repentance. The same story cycles and cycles, at times it appears that they are repeating the story verbatim, and at other times we get a different twist, like a golden calf and giants. But with each cycle, the people slowly become something different. They become a people, a nation. They slowly move away from the old ways that once held them in the bonds of slavery and they emerge as Israel, a holy nation.
Now after forty years, they return to the border of the land that was promised to their ancestors. And God calls Moses to climb up to a high place to see a panorama stretched out before him. God called Moses to leave the plain of Moab and walked up Mt Nebo to the top of Pisgah.
There God shows Moses the width and breadth of this land promised to his great ancestor. He confirms to Moses that He is a God that fulfills His promises.
In that moment Moses knew that his work was complete. All that God had given to him to accomplish was fulfilled. He had spent forty years living in the house of one of earth’s giants. He had spent forty years learning to listen to God as he tended his father-in-law’s livestock. And now he had spent forty years teaching and leading the tribes of Israel. After one hundred and twenty years, they are a people, they are a nation, they are no longer devoted to the gods and the kingdoms of the world. The old ways have passed, and a new beginning is about to emerge.
Something new is about to emerge, but Moses cannot be part of it.
Moses looks over the land. He sees what will become of Dan, Ephraim, Manasseh. He sees Judah all the way to the Mediterranean Sea. He knows that this is what he has spent the past eighty years preparing for, and it is right there before his eyes. He can smell the blossoms that will eventually be transformed into the anticipated honey. He can hear the bellows of livestock that will produce the milk they have yearned for, and yet he cannot enter. He stands on the precipice of that mountain as if he is trapped inside a mime’s invisible box. He cannot enter.
We might find this to be extreme. We know God to be a God of mercy and grace. He had mercy on the children of Israel even when they blatantly rejected the lessons God had given when they worshiped the representation of El at the base of Sinai. Yet, he will not let Moses, the man that knew the Lord face to face, into the land.
Moses stands there at the age of one hundred and twenty. He stands with his vigor unabated and his eyesight as good as it was when his curiosity urged him to examine the bush that burned but was not consumed. Moses at one hundred and twenty would make me look like a bum. He was vigorous, healthy, and in some renderings of this passage the translation would say he had all his teeth. I say this because this is not literal, it is using common word play to express his vitality. Today we do the same, we use idioms and slang that in a thousand years, people will look back and question why active and healthy individuals are described as being sick when they accomplish a remarkable feat of athleticism.
Moses has not diminished in strength or status. He has consistently held the respect of the people. He has accomplished the task set before him. He has taken a chaotic group of slaves and transformed them into a nation. A nation with culture, structure, and identity. Moses is the man!
And that is the problem. That is the very reason why Moses cannot move outside of his invisible box. He can peer over the edge and see what will be, but he cannot enter.
The ancient world view was filled with gods and giants. The region is filled with empires that rise to power, led by men who people believe to be spawned from the loins of the gods. Pharaoh was the god king. Gilgamesh was the defeater of giants and the bull of heaven. Zeus defeated Kronos. These epic poems of ancient origin depict humans conquering or controlling nature and the forces behind nature. They declare that their leaders can manipulate and control the gods.
Moses could be seen in the same light by the people. Moses prayed and God’s wrath was quelched. Moses struck the rock and a river of water poured out. Bread came down from heaven after Moses told the people it would. Moses could be seen as one of those human giants, a demigod, a man of renown. And there were moments when Moses did not prevent the people from seeing him in this manner.
When Israel was wondering through the wilderness of Zin, they were without water, and they complained. Moses entered the tent of meeting carrying the complaints of the people to God in prayer. God heard the cries of the people and told Moses that he would bring water out of the rocks for the people and their livestock to drink. Moses left the tent, and in his frustration with the people, he said, “Hear now, you rebels: shall we bring water for you out of this rock?” And he proceeded to strike the rock twice.
We might not see this as being sinful, because Moses seemingly did the very thing God asked him to do. But Moses took credit for the miracle; he allowed the people to believe that he, Moses, brought the water. He conformed to the ways of the world and took credit for something God provided. And he did this because it allowed him to have better control over the people. In their minds, Moses can bring water, and Moses can take it away. He has the power.
Even Moses, the law giver, was influenced by the ways of the world. Moses was part of that generation that could not move into the emerging nation because he, like the rest of the first generation of Israel, still possessed a world view that allowed for giants of men.
Moses brought them to the border. He was able to gaze upon hope fulfilled, but he was not able to lead them further. The next steps were designated for another, Joshua.
I sat in reflection on this passage. I mourned with Israel. I mourned for Moses. This shows just how vital a community truly is. Moses was an amazing man, but even this man was not enough. All too often we want to be and do everything. We want to be perfect mothers. We want to bake cookies for our children, so they are fresh when the kids get home from school, and we want to hold down a full-time career. We want to climb the corporate ladder to the very top and still be the dad that coaches little league. We want to assist our aging parents, while babysitting our grandchildren. We want to do everything.
We do not have enough strength in ourselves to be and do it all. Our society lies to us when they set that expectation. Even Moses, that great man, could not do it all. He could not take the nation into the land. He was the leader in the desert. He was the one to teach them and guide them as they initially took hold of the wisdom of God. But Moses would be out of context once they entered the land.
We want to be everything, but when we accept that we cannot, we expect those around us to provide our desires. We struggle so we want to elect leaders that will give us what we do not or cannot have on our own. We want a king to fight our battles for us. We want the giants among men. We make our leaders into idols, and we make our nations into idols. The promises of our political class of people are empty, they cannot do what they say without compromises, and even then, it will not be exactly what we desired. Moses was a great man. People looked up to him. And because of his unique position they could easily begin to worship him.
Moses stood overlooking the land that would be. He could see hope fulfilled. The slaves had become a nation and they returned to the land of promise. I imagine he did this with tears in his eyes, of both joy and sorrow. Many were lost in the desert. People he had loved and encouraged. People he argued with and people he lifted into leadership. But he also had tears of joy because he could now see that all that struggle was not in vain. Hope was just over the ridge.
I imagine the scene. I feel the scene because I have lived this. I have looked upon the face of a child and realized that I did not know how to be a father. And I have examined the face of a grandchild and realized that God does provide, fulfill hope, and answer prayers.
Moses looked over the land, he sat down, closed his eyes, and he slipped into God’s embrace. He let go and allowed the next generation to take the reins. Joshua son of Nun, full of the spirit of wisdom stood before Israel, he stood where Moses once stood. He knew he was not the great law giver, and he never would be. He knew he did not have the knowledge of the strength to be everything. Yet God told him to rise and go into the land of hope. “Be strong and courageous,” God told him, and move forward.
We live in a culture and community, with giants of humanity. We live in a community among those that are impoverished. We live in a community of strength and weakness, of hope and despair, of fear and confidence. Where are we within this community? Are we using the wisdom that God has given us to bring hope to the hopeless, humility to the arrogant? Confidence to the timid, and challenge to the boastful? Are we encouraging those around us to remember God, and to honor that of God in all people? Moses was unable to go into that land, because even that great man missed the mark. Yet even in his sin, he knew the mercy and grace of his God. Will we be people that will do the same? Will we prepare those in our care, those within our community to look beyond into the bright future with hope? Will we become hope fulfilled?
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