People of the Book – Moses
According to Jewish tradition, the first five books of the Bible, called the Torah or Pentateuch, were authored by Moses, the leader of the Israelites during the Exodus experience out of Egypt. While modern biblical scholarship (including the interpretation of Pope Benedict) would seek to engage the texts with a greater appreciation for their historicity and likely development from multiple traditions, the figure of Moses continues to be a central one for all three monotheistic faiths in the West. He is mentioned in the New Testament more frequently than any other Hebrew prophet, and so undoubtedly provides spiritual fodder for Christians on a number of fronts.
Due to a mistranslation of the Hebrew word “k-r-n,” Michelangelo famously depicted Moses with horns, instead of “radiant-faced,” in the mammoth sculpture he created for San Pietro in Vincoli in Rome. Regardless of the mistake, it is clear that something unique emanated from within Moses’ being, which luminously altered his countenance and was palpable to all those he met after his revelatory encounter with God on Sinai where he received the Ten Commandments. That moment, like so many in Moses’ life, has provided a lens through which Christians can reflect upon their own situations and contexts, as well as on their relationship with Jesus Christ, presented in Matthew’s Gospel primarily as the “New Moses.”
First, Moses as the central protagonist in the Exodus account serves as the template for all spiritual liberation, when God as the Easter Vigil puts it, “first saved our fathers: [when he] freed the people of Israel from their slavery, and led them dry-shod through the sea.” How often does the Lord do the same for us through the raging waters of seemingly hopeless despair and spiritual turmoil? And yet it is never through boastful rivalry or self-aggrandizement that this is accomplished and appropriated into our lives, but rather only in radical dependence upon him who has been the rock of ages and that flaming pillar seen “in the watch-fires of a hundred circling camps.” The Talmudic sages tell the tale of God rebuking the exultations of the Israelites upon the death of the Pharaoh’s forces under the crashing walls of water so dramatically portrayed in the movies. Yahweh, demanding an ever-broadening perspective as always, asks: “How can you celebrate and sing hymns of thanksgiving when my children the Egyptians are drowning?”
Second, the Israelites, like us, are scandalously quick to forget the countless blessings the Lord has bestowed on them. Moses is barely up the mountain before they are in revelry and prostrating themselves in front of the golden calf, exhibiting the ubiquitous human tendency to worship anything other than the God who loves and welcomes us. St. Ignatius of Loyola once said the most abominable human failing and the root of every sin is ingratitude. Really the flip side to pride, ingratitude estranges us not only from God’s friendship, but also from an authentic review and assessment of our own personal history and interior life that has any integrity whatsoever. We bracket the immeasurable and incomparable goodness of the gifts given to us (including existence itself), only to grumble along with the Israelites, “Were there no graves in Egypt, that you brought us into this wilderness to die? Why did you do this to us? Why even bring us out of Egypt?” (Ex 14:11). Moses’ response serves as a summons and challenge to our far too myopic focus, “Fear not! Stand your ground and you will see the victory the Lord will win for you today.”
Lastly, when the Israelites are overrun (because of their own actions) by poisonous serpents in the desert, God instructs Moses to mount a bronze replica of the snake on a pole and hold it aloft, promising “Whoever has been bitten and looks on it will be healed” (Num 21:8). In John’s Gospel we see the relationship between this event and God’s climactic restoration of all creation poisoned by the venomous fangs of sin, hatred and death. The Christ himself claims, “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so too must the Son of Man be lifted on high, so that whoever entrusts oneself to him may have eternal life” (Jn 3:15). When he is raised on the cross, Jesus draws humanity, with all of its imperfections and frailty, to himself to be made finally and definitively whole.
Moses, who first encountered and heard the name of YHWH (“I am whom am” – the tetragrammaton) from the fire of the burning bush, ends his life like so many other prophets, on a note of tragedy. He is granted by God the privilege of seeing the Promised Land of Canaan, but is not permitted to enter into it. He peacefully accepts this fact, blesses the people that have consistently frustrated and yet followed him according to the will of the Lord, and dies after feasting his eyes on the fulfillment of the covenant God made generations before with Abraham, his life a service to the mystery made manifest in that burning yet flourishing desert bramble which sanctified the ground on which he first encountered it.
Michael M. Canaris of Collingswood is an administrator at Fairfield University’s Center for Faith and Public Life and is on the faculty for the Department of Philosophy, Theology, and Religious Studies at Sacred Heart University.