Why Moses Did Not Enter the Promised Land
Yesterday in church we finished our sequential reading of the story of Moses with the account of his death and burial just on the edge of the Promised Land. [Deuteronomy 34: 1-12] This passage presents one of the most puzzling moments in all of scripture. Moses was called by God as the prophet who would gather the Israelites and lead them out of bondage in Egypt in a great journey that has become known as the Exodus. For forty years Moses led an often recalcitrant group of people in the wilderness. As they approach the entry into Canaan (what we would call Palestine) we learn that Joshua, not Moses, will be the one to lead them across the Jordan River into the new land of freedom.
What’s puzzling about this passage is what God says to Moses as he lies dying:
Yahweh said to Moses, "This is the land of which I swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, saying, `I will give it to your descendants'; I have let you see it with your eyes, but you shall not cross over there." [Deuteronomy 34.4]
Generations of Jews and Christians have wondered and argued about this passage. Why would God let Moses lead the Israelites through the wilderness and then not allow him to cross over? For some, the answer to that question involves divine displeasure at an earlier act of disobedience by Moses. In Numbers 20 (where God is about to provide water from the rock for the thirsty wandering Israelites), God tells Moses to order the rock to produce water. Instead, Moses strikes the rock twice. This refusal to invoke water from the rock was seen by one textual tradition as the cause of Moses’s exclusion from the Promised Land.
To blame Moses’s exclusion from the Promised Land on a single act of disobedience in a lifetime of faithful service seems to project the image of a God who is stubborn, vengeful, and obsessed with triviality. As we think about the God whom we know in word, sacrament, and life experience, are there other explanations that make sense?
One explanation might involve recalling how different Moses and Joshua were. Moses was a prophetic visionary, one who gathered a community out of oppressed nomads in an imperial culture. The leadership he exercised was prophetic, inspirational gathering leadership. The skills he exhibited served Yahweh well during the initial stages of Israel’s journey from slavery to freedom. But when the Israelites found themselves ready for the entry into Canaan, they needed a different kind of leader. Joshua, the successor to Moses, was essentially a military figure, a general. He was skilled at strategy and tactics. One way, then, to understand God’s words to Moses is to see them as a transitional moment in the entire process of divine deliverance. Moses had served his purpose. It was time for a new leader to take the next steps.
Another way would be to think of what it means to be a person of faith. As God’s followers, we (like Moses) live always in a mode of expectation and hope. We expect, we hope, that God’s promises will be fulfilled. We live and act in trust that the works we have seen begun in our lifetimes will be completed in God’s time and on God’s terms. We expect and hope those things, but each of us will die without achieving absolute certainty about them. That was certainly true for Moses—he glimpsed the Promised Land but did not enter it—and it is true for us. Christian faith is not about certainty. It is about hope and trust. That is why God has given us a community—each other—as a source of support and encouragement along the way. We are always called to live in the light of the promise. Sometimes living hopefully gets difficult. We have each other to hold us up, to show us the Promised Land, to remind us when we flag or fall that all will finally be well.
What do we hope for? Moses hoped for a land. You and I hope for some other things. My favorite collect in the church year, the Collect for the Sixth Sunday of Easter, puts our hope in the following words:
O God, you have prepared for those who love you such good things as surpass our understanding: Pour into our hearts such love towards you, that we, loving you in all things and above all things, may obtain your promises, which exceed all that we can desire; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.