After 40 years of leading God's people in the desert, it may seem harsh that Moses was not allowed to enter the Promised Land. The final scene in Deuteronomy makes it clear that glory does not belong to the one who serves, but to the One who provides.
The Doulos podcast explores servant leadership in an Orthodox Christian context.
Hollie Benton 0:04
You're listening to Doulos, a podcast of the Ephesus School Network. Doulos offers a scriptural daily bread for God's household and explores servant leadership as an Orthodox Christian. I'm Hollie Benton, your host and executive director for the Orthodox Christian Leadership Initiative. I'm joined by co host Father Timothy Lowe, former Rector at the Tantur Ecumenical Institute in Jerusalem. So good afternoon, and hello there, Father Timothy!
Fr. Timothy Lowe 0:30
Good afternoon, Hollie. Nice to be with you again.
Hollie Benton 0:32
You as well Father. Father Timothy, last week we held the annual leadership conference at St. Vladimir's Seminary with the theme, Money - The Gospel Changes Everything. Through the course of those presentations and conversations, it's clear that whatever we think we own or have earned, is truly provided only through God's mercy. It's a gift. And our small part is whether we are faithful to the responsibility of stewarding it well for others. If there's one thing for certain, we can't take it with us when we're gone and return to the earth. Today, we're going to be taking a look at the end of the life of Moses. It's like the end of a dynasty where the Lord takes him to the top of the mountain. The Lord shows him all of the land. It's the land that the Lord has been promising for 40 years while Moses led the not-so-faithful Israelites around in the desert. Moses can see the land, he can smell it, it's right there. And yet Moses is kept from entering this promised land. It seems a bit harsh. What's the context of this last chapter in Deuteronomy, Father Timothy?
Fr. Timothy Lowe 1:41
Well, Hollie, one of the reasons I wanted to do this is a few weeks back, we had the intro to the story of Moses, and no one gets more ink in the Bible than Moses, let's just say that out. So, a prominent figure, birth story, miraculous saving, pretends he's the hero and kill someone, flees for his life. And then the wilderness, he's beaten down and a lowly shepherd, and then stumbles upon a vision, and then told to do something where he absolutely doesn't want to do, so he's a very complex, very fascinating, and I encourage our readers really to slog through Exodus. And we know the whole story is a cyclical disaster. It's a bad soap opera. When I come up on a soap opera, I hit the click, change the channel, move on, because it just beats at you, beats at you. And I want the readers to understand that this is systematic, and this is the intent, so that when you get to the chapter, at some point, it should have sunk in the cycle of endless rebellion, complaint, whining over big things, small things, faithlessness, in comes judgment from God, and then the threat of destruction, and then intercession, and then apparent mercy. And the story continues and restarts again. This is the cycle. So Moses has not had a pleasant life by any suburban standards, to say the least. And so it's fascinating when we come to the end to see how the writer ends his life. It's unique. There is nothing like it in the entire scripture. This is what we're going to look at the final teaching and intent, how is the author trying to hit home what he wants to say. And then of course, we start with Joshua, as you will see, and the reading that you give us is so fascinating. People need to read it just to hear it. They don't have to try to figure it out, just to be beat up by it. Repetition, repetition, repetition, complaint. So let's see where it goes.
Hollie Benton 3:37
Alright, so here are those last few verses from the last chapter of Deuteronomy. "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 descendants. I have let you see it with your eyes, but you shall not go over there. So Moses, the servant of the Lord died there in the land of Moab, according to the Word of the Lord, and He buried him in the valley and the land of Moab. Opposite Beth-pe'or, but no man knows the place of his burial to this day. Moses was 120 years old when he died. His eye was not dim, nor his natural force abated. And the people of Israel wept for Moses in the plains of Moab 30 days, then the days of weeping and mourning for Moses were ended." After this passage, we hear that Moses lays hands upon Joshua for Israel to follow and obey as the Lord commands. He becomes the next mouthpiece or servant of the Lord. At the same time and the closing of Deuteronomy we also hear how there was no other prophet since in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face. If anyone would have God's favor, Moses seems to be at the top of the list and yet even more Moses is kept from entering the land that was promised to the descendants. In reading this passage, I can't help but think that Christians today are motivated by the promise of heaven, our Promised Land, when our loved ones die, we comfort ourselves and one another that they are in a better place, assuming that they're in Heaven with the Lord. But in the story of Moses, who was not able to enter the Promised Land, I'd like to consider that the real thing of value is the faithfulness of the Lord who is true to His promise. The Lord promises, "I will give it to your descendants, the land promised to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob." When it comes to servant leadership, the motif of this podcast, the servant as leader, the slave of God, I'm inclined to think it's not about the prize of heaven for which the doulos tou theou strives, but the life lived in service to the Lord's commandment, so that there is hope for the next generation, a prize for the next generation, hope in the promised land for those who are obedient and live according to that same hope. So Father Timothy, could you just say a bit more about the hope of the promise and the Lord's faithfulness, that contrasts with Moses and his service, to that promise, even though he doesn't get to realize the full manifestation of that promise?
Fr. Timothy Lowe 6:28
Well, I'm glad you started with the notion of promise because it has a constant thread from Genesis starting with the promise given to Abraham. We're not told the reason, but it is a covenant, it is a contract, it is a signed completed deal, it must happen. Okay. And that is the thing that pushes the story forward despite anything that happens. Now this specific thing, Hollie, happens, quite interesting. We know that at times God is fed up and the whole Noah story and he starts again, he's fed up again, and so on so forth. At a certain point, usually Moses is the one getting frustrated with the people and just can't take it anymore. But there comes a point in the story that God is, "I can't deal with these people anymore. I'm gonna get rid of them." And then Moses, "I'm gonna start with you all over again," like he did in the Genesis story. Now, what is interesting, and people just probably miss it, is that Moses calls God to task and says, No, you made a promise, you made a covenant. You can't get out of this, whether we like it or not, okay, the idea of covenant is that we are stuck.
God is stuck, we are stuck. And therefore, Moses says, No, you can't. And that means God has to start again for himself. I mean, it just shows it projects a human frustration in the story. But the way it does, it is quite interesting, because it's a role reversal, right? The message of that is, God is faithful, in spite of us, in spite of us, whether we or not, He will be faithful. This is a central biblical point, it goes to the New Testament, right? For example, if the Jews, he will turn to the Gentiles. In other words, he will have a people unto Himself, who will hear His voice and respond and serve. That's a huge issue in the New Testament as well, but you see it here. It is the thing that carries the story, and gives hope.. Yes, as you mentioned, it is incredibly harsh. Moses who's labored 40 years brought them to the point is teased, with the end and what all of this was about, and is not allowed to enter. And if you read closely, the story of what we humans would say was Moses's ticky-tacky little sin, and the story of the waters of Meribah, where he just for a moment speaks for himself and in his own name, and to display this power, but he does it for himself and not for the glory of God. And God smacks him. So my point is not to ever be so cock-sure. You mentioned that we want to go to heaven, you know, and we want the promise and we want eternal security. And some of us came from that Protestant tradition that guaranteed it, if you did certain things, and therefore you knew for sure you're going to have it and then when our loved ones die, as you say, Oh, we're sure they're going to heaven, even though based on what, on our judgment? our assessment of their life? You see, and that's why this sobriety, this, not just this cold shower, but this hurricane - we're expecting here in Florida and then to come up to South Carolina. This hurricane of deluge is to smarten us up because that is the only hope, to be brought to our knees. Why? Because we know constantly in the Bible and, and in the Biblical story of the wilderness, all about arrogance and faithlessness and looking somewhere else, because we're not satisfied with what God is providing through his servant Moses. This is the ultimate warning that Moses, and the writer praises him that there was never like anyone Moses, whom God talked face to face, and so on and so forth. And yet, no, he only got to glimpse. Now clearly, we know the New Testament writers pick up on this, about the kingdom of heaven. You know, I like that statement Christ makes about John the Baptist, praises him the greatest born of woman, but he who is least in the kingdom is greater than John. See? Again, the comparison of the lesser and the greater. And it's always the Kingdom of Heaven. And we know ultimately that for those of us that have spent a lot of time in the "Promised Land," okay, he-he-he, because we know, it is one of the worst places on the face of the earth in terms of anger and hatred and divisiveness, and so on and so forth, and religious strife and an inability. I remember my wife once wrote a short story about blowing up the Old City and getting rid of the Temple Mount area, the Dome of the Rock, the Holy Sepulchre, and just turning it into a garden, and your only ticket in there was to live peacefully and enjoy the garden, it's an image of Eden paradise. So, what motivates us? What pushes us and this is where we need to really look deeply. Because always, always, I'm convinced if the Bible is accurate, it's self interest. Look at all the major personalities - Old Testament, New Testament, personified in the end in Peter, self interest, James and John, right, left hand of the Lord when he comes into (his kingdom.) Self-interest, it's there lurking, and it's best to just acknowledge it. Now, at the end of the day, it's what do we do? Are we being faithful? Is it the kingdom of heaven that motivates us? eternal life? Let's just hear and be faithful. And Moses is a final warning about that. Moses is the image of the old. God has to start again, because the old is impossible. So as you say, it's the next generation. And that's for me is always the tease, right? One of our beloved professors, Fr. Paul Tarazi, talks about No, we're not writing for the present generation, because the present generation is hopeless. He bases that on all of the exegesis of the biblical story. And I actually tend to agree with his point, because every time we look at the present, we just see hopelessness. Anytime we open the news, I don't watch news, because I'm already on the edge of despair. Do I need deluged with it again, about the state of things? I say that from the luxury of my nice suburban house and in retirement, my wife still supporting me. So you know, I have good on both sides. Right? Just, you know, making a little joke, but still, even there, I'm not fleeing to the border, because I don't want to fight in a war I don't believe in, I'm not facing another climate disaster as in Pakistan or soon to be Tampa Bay. No, no, no. Again, the warnings, the teaching, the focus ultimately has to be, God is faithful. He's done his part. So let us, let us seek to understand and just be faithful. And as you say, we let the chips fall because at the end of the day, we are dust. I just read recently from Jeremiah the following, "Thus says the Lord Yahweh. Cursed is the man who trusts in man. And of course we know the Hebrew word for man is A'dam, dust, places his strength in flesh as opposed to Yahweh, and his heart turns away. It says they shall be like a thicket in the desert, and shall not see what relief comes. They shall live in the parched places in the wilderness, in an uninhabited land of salt." But we are constantly tempted by wanting to trust in our own human abilities, human power, our weapons, our technology, whatever you see, because we simply think in terms of DNA survival. So that is the temptation and even Moses is a warning. The most beloved. Now, Moses gets his reward. But when God wants him to have it, and what I like about this is that God buries him at his own command. And he makes the point that Moses was not ill. He didn't die of old age, he was still vigorous, good eyesight, it makes this point. So it was just simply closing the chapter. There's no celebrations, there's no parades. There's no endless coverage of, we just saw with Queen Elizabeth II and world leaders gathering, and there is no one like Moses. And yet no, he is not the focus. He was just a servant. Let's move on. And now we have to read Joshua, and see where it takes us. Counterintuitive to what we think because it is not about the greatness the servant of the Lord will never be viewed as great. And if we treat them as that, then we're missing the point. Only the Lord God. Period.
Hollie Benton 16:01
Yeah. And even in this story, Moses doesn't get the last word; the Lord gets the last word. Moses doesn't even argue like he does at the very beginning with God. At this point, he's finally learned, his mouth is shut. And I love how the passage makes it clear that he wasn't old and decrepit. He still had natural vigor and could have hoisted himself down the hill and over into the promised land. He saw it clearly. But no, not even Moses gets the last word of his own story. He just plays that role so perfectly. That's brilliant.
Fr. Timothy Lowe 16:36
It's absolutely brilliant. And therefore, it was never about Moses. It's about the people, their suffering, their slavery, God sending Moses down to help deliver them. It's again, I know it's hard. I know it's impossible. Today, I don't know why, I'm just in a grouchy mood. Sometimes you wake up grouchy, and you don't want to be grouchy, but you're going to be grouchy all day and it's just the way it is, without figuring it out. But at the end of the day, it's not about me and my grouchiness and my ticky tacky little world here. No, it's about the Lord. And as difficult as that is, I will come, I will be hopefully faithful. When I die, someone else will come. I remember my last parish before I retired, I had to bury the oldest priest who had been there for 30 or 40 years, and I didn't replace him, he had retired and a couple more had come, but he was still around. And in people's memory, he was the one they remembered. They didn't remember those that came after him, because they just came and went quickly after a few years, so it was always this priest. And so when we buried him, and that was it. Did anyone ever go to his grave? His wife had pre-deceased him and no, he was gone. And that sounds cruel. On one hand, okay, he's forgotten. But he was just the servant. And now let's move on. We are servants. This is our place, let us be faithful. And we will return to the dust. So yes.
Hollie Benton 18:02
Thank you, Fr. Timothy.
Fr. Timothy Lowe 18:04
Hollie Benton 18:05
A good message today for those of us who would like to secure our own destinies and dynasties to remember that it's not about us.
Fr. Timothy Lowe 18:14
That's the human saga, right? Whether it's on a national basis or state by state, you know, sending immigrants from one state to another. All this silliness of the human being.
Hollie Benton 18:27
Yeah, Moses doesn't even get a tombstone, no place of remembrance. Like it's forgotten. No one knows where he's buried. That's the end.
Fr. Timothy Lowe 18:35
And that's the intent. He is not a reference. So I've given my wife very clear instructions about my death. There shall be no tombstone. Now, she's gonna do what she's got to do. See, I'm assuming that I'm going to go first, see, like who am I?
Hollie Benton 18:54
Yeah, at the end of the day, Father Timothy, it's still not about you.
Fr. Timothy Lowe 19:00
Hollie Benton 19:00
All right. Thank you, Father.
Fr. Timothy Lowe 19:02
Transcribed by https://otter.ai