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Gospel of the Pentateuch, 18 - THE DEATH OF MOSES

By Charles Kingsley


      (First Sunday after Trinity.)

      DEUT. xxxiv. 5, 6. 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 a valley in the land of Moab, over against Beth-peor; but no man knoweth of his sepulchre unto this day.

      Some might regret that the last three chapters of Deuteronomy are not read among our Sunday lessons. There was not, however, room for them; and I do not doubt that those who chose our lessons knew better than I what chapters they ought to choose. We may, however, read them for ourselves, not only in the daily lessons, but as often as we choose. And well worth reading they are.

      For I know of no stronger proof of the truth of the book of Deuteronomy, and of the whole Pentateuch, than its ending so differently from what we should have expected, or indeed wished. If things went in this world, as they do in novels and fables, according to man's notion of what is right and good, then Moses and his history would have had a very different ending.

      And if the story of Moses had been of man's invention, we should have heard--I think, from what we know of the fables, 'myths' as they call them now, which nations have invented about themselves, and their own early history, we may guess fairly what we should have heard--how Moses brought the Jews into the land of Canaan, and established his laws, and reigned over them, and died in honour and great glory--if he died at all, and was not taken up into the skies, and changed into a star, or into a god; and how he was buried with great pomp; and how his sepulchre did remain among the Jews until that day; and probably how men worshipped at it, and miracles were worked at it, and so forth.

      Also, we should have heard how, as soon as the Israelites came into the land of Canaan, they began forthwith to serve the Lord with all their heart and soul, as they never did afterwards, and to keep Moses' law, while it was yet fresh in their minds, more exactly than ever they did afterwards; and in short, we should have had one of those stories of a 'golden age,' a 'good old time,' a pattern-time of early purity and devotion, of which nations and Churches, of all tongues and all creeds, have been so ready to dream in their own case; and which they have used, not altogether ill, to rebuke vice in their own day, by saying, 'Look how perfect your forefathers were. Look how you, their unworthy children, have fallen from their faith and their virtue.'

      This, I think, is what we should have been told if the Pentateuch had been the invention of man. This is exactly what we are NOT told; but, on the contrary, the very opposite.

      What we are told is disappointing, sad, gloomy, full of dark fears and warnings about what the Jews will be and what they will have to endure. But it is far more true to human nature, and to the facts which we see in the world about us, than any story of a good old time would have been.

      They are still wandering in the land of Moab, when the time draws near when Moses must die. He is a hundred and twenty years old, but hale and vigorous still. His eye is not dim, nor his natural force abated. But the Lord has told him that his death is near. He gives the command of the army of Israel to Joshua the son of Nun, and then he speaks his last words.

      Songs they are, dark and rugged, like all the higher Hebrew poetry; but, like it, full of the very Spirit of God--the Spirit of wisdom and understanding, the Spirit of faith and of the fear of the Lord.

      There are three of these songs which seem to belong to those last days of his.

      The Prayer of Moses the man of God--which is our 90th Psalm, our burial Psalm. We all know the sadness of that Psalm; its weariness, as of one who had laboured long, and would fain be at rest; its confession of man's frailty--fading away suddenly like the grass; its confession of God's strength, God from everlasting, before the mountains were brought forth; its eternal gospel of hope and comfort, that the strength of God takes pity on the weakness of man, 'Lord, thou hast been our refuge, from one generation to another.'

      Then comes the Song of the Rock--the song of which (it seems) the Lord said to him, 'Write this song, and teach it the children of Israel, that it may be a witness for me against them.'

      And so Moses writes; and seemingly before all the congregation of Israel, according to the custom of those times, he chants his death- song, the Song of the Rock. It is such a song as we should expect from him. God is the Rock. He was thinking, it may be, of the everlasting rocks of Sinai, where God had appeared to him of old. But God is the true, everlasting Rock, on which all things rest; the Eternal, the Self-existent, the I Am, whom he was sent to preach to men. But he is a good and righteous God likewise. His work is perfect. 'A God of truth, and without iniquity, just and right is he.'

      In him Moses can trust, but not in the children of Israel; they are a perverse and crooked generation, who have waxen fat and kicked. God has done all for them, but they will not obey him. Even in the wilderness they have worshipped strange gods, and sacrificed to devils, not to God; and so they will do after Moses is gone; and then on them will come all the curses of which he has so often warned them. 'The sword without, and terror within, shall destroy both the young man and the virgin, the suckling also with the man of gray hairs. O that they were wise, that they understood this, that they would consider their latter end! How should one chase a thousand; and two put ten thousand to flight?' What a people they might be, and what a future there is before them, if they would but be true to God! But they will not. And so Moses' death-song, like his life's wish, ends in disappointment and sadness, and dread of the evils which are coming upon his beloved countrymen.

      Lastly, he blesses them, tribe by tribe, in strange and grand words, such as dying men utter, who, looking earnestly across the dark river of death, see further than they ever saw amid the cares and temptations of life. And he blesses them. He will say nothing of them but good. He will speak not of what they will be, but of what they ought to be and can be. But not in their own strength--only in the strength of God. Man is to be nothing to the last; and God is all in all.

      'There is none like unto the God of Jeshurun, who rideth upon the heaven in thy help, and in his excellency on the sky. The eternal God is thy refuge, and underneath are the everlasting arms.

      'Happy art thou, O Israel: who is like unto thee, O people saved by the Lord, the shield of thy help and who is the sword of thy excellency! and thine enemies shall be found liars unto thee; and thou shalt tread upon their high places.'

      Those are the last words of Moses. Then he goes up into the mountain top, never to return; and the children of Israel are left alone with God and their own souls, to obey and prosper, or disobey and die.

      The time of their schooling is past, and their schoolmaster is gone for ever. They are no more to be under a human tutor. They are come to man's estate and man's responsibility, and they are to work out their own fortunes by their own deeds, like every other soul of man.

      For Moses himself must not enter into the promised land. In spite of all his faith, his courage, his endurance, his patriotism, he has sinned against God, and he must be punished; and punished, too, in kind--in the very thing which he will feel most deeply, in being shut out from the very happiness on which he has set his heart all along.

      He who has brought the Jews to the edge of the promised land must not have the honour and glory of taking them into it. He must have no honour and glory. That must be God's alone. Man must be nothing, and God all in all. Moses must die in faith, not having received the promises, as many another saint of God has died.

      And why? To teach him and the Jews and us that man IS nothing, and God is all in all.

      Moses had given way to the very temptation which would beset such a man. He had spoken unadvisedly with his lips, and said, 'Hear now, ye rebels, or ye fools, must WE bring you water out of this rock?' WE, and not God. He had claimed for himself the power and glory of working miracles. The miracles, he thought for a moment, were his, and not God's. And it may be that this was not the only time that he had so sinned. He may naturally have thought that he had some special power and influence with God. But be that as it may, the Jews were trained to believe that the miracles were God's, God's immediate work, and not performed by the wisdom or sanctity or supernatural power of any saint or prophet whatsoever. Let the Jews once learn to give the honour and glory to Moses, and not to God, and the whole of their strange education went for nothing. Instead of worshipping God they would begin to worship saints. Instead of trusting in God, they would begin to trust in men; whether on earth or in heaven matters not. If Moses was to have the honour and glory, the Jews would surely grow into a superstitious, saint- worshipping, miracle-mongering people, and come to ruin and slavery thereby. They were to fear God and nought else. To trust in God and nought else.

      So Moses must vanish out of their sight, sadly and mysteriously. All they know of him is, that he is punished for a sin which he committed long ago, as you and I may be. All they know of his death and burial is, that his body was not left foully to the birds of the air and the beasts of the field; for the Lord buried him. They know not how, and did not need to know. And we need not know. Enough for them and for us to know that no dishonour was done to the grand old man; that as he died far away on the lonely mountain top without a child to close his eyes, his last look fixed upon the good land and large which lay spread out below, of entering which he had been dreaming for forty--it may be for more than forty--years. Enough for us to know that the kindly earth received his body again into her bosom, and that the true Moses--the immortal spirit of the man-- returned to God who created him, and inspired him, and sustained him to be perhaps the greatest man--save One who was more than man--who ever trod this earth.

      So our human feelings, like those of the Jews, are satisfied. But Moses is not to be worshipped by them or by us; no splendid temple is to rise over his bones; no lamps are to burn, or priest to chant round his shrine; no miracles are to be worked by his relics; no man is to invoke his patronage and intercession in their prayers. The people whom he has brought out of Egypt are to be free--free from the slavery of the body, free from the more degrading slavery of the soul.

      And so they go on over Jordan to fulfil their strange destiny, to fight their way into the promised land, to root out the Canaanite tribes, whose iniquity was full, whose sins had made them a nuisance not to be suffered on the earth of God. But do they go to establish a golden age; to become a perfect people?

      Nothing less. To become, according to the book of Judges, just what Moses foretold--an ignorant, selfish, often profligate and disorderly people, doing each what is right in his own eyes, falling continually into idolatry, civil war, and slavery to the heathens round about. Nothing more shows the truth of this history than its humility, its continual confession of sin, its readiness to confess the ugly truth that the Jews are a foolish, ignorant, unmanageable, lawless, sensual race, stiffnecked and rebellious, always resisting the Holy Spirit. The immense difference between the Old Testament history and that of all other nations is, that it is a history not of their virtues, but of their sins; and a history, on the other hand, of God's punishments and mercies. God in the Old Testament is all, and the Jews are nothing; and one may say that it differs from all other histories in this, that it is not a history of the Jews themselves at all, but a history of God's dealings with them.

      If any man chooses to explain that, by saying that the story was all invented by priests and prophets afterwards, to rebuke the people for falling into idolatry, he must have his fancy. Thought is free- -for the present, at least--though it is written that for every idle word that men speak, they shall give account at the day of judgment. But one question I must ask, and I am sure that British common sense and British honesty will ask it too: If these prophets were really good men, fearing God, and wishing to make their countrymen fear him likewise, would it not have been a rather strange way of showing that they feared God to tell their countrymen a set of fables and lies? Good men are not in the habit of telling lies now, and never have been; for no lie is of the truth, or can possibly help the truth in any way; and all liars have their portion in the lake which burneth with fire and brimstone. And that such men as the prophets of whom we read in the Old Testament did not know that, and therefore invented this history, or invented anything else, is a thing incredible and absurd.

      Here we have the Old Testament, an infinitely good book, giving us infinitely good advice and good news, and news too concerning God-- God's laws, God's providence, God's dealings, such as we get nowhere else. And shall we believe that this infinitely good book is founded upon falsehood? or that the good men who wrote it could fancy it necessary to stoop to falsehood, and take the devil's tools wherewith to do God's work? That they may have been imperfectly informed on some points there is no doubt; for the Bible tells us that they were men of like passions with ourselves, and they may not always have been true to the Spirit of God who was teaching them, even as we are not, though he teaches us. They only knew in part and prophesied in part; and now that which is perfect is come, that which is in part is done away; the mystery of Christ was not revealed to them as it has been to us by the holy apostles and prophets of the new dispensation, of which St. Paul says, comparing it with the knowledge which the old Jews had when the gospel came, That the glory of the law had no glory, by reason of the more excellent glory of the gospel. They may, I say, have made slight errors in unimportant matters, though it is far more probable that those errors have crept into the text, as the Scriptures were copied again and again through many centuries by different scribes, of whose perfect good sense and honesty we cannot be certain. But who that really values his Bible cares for them any more than he cares for the spots on the sun which he can find through a telescope? The sun still shines, and gives light to the whole earth, and the Bible still shines, and gives light to every soul of man who will read it in reverence and faith. But that the prophets ever invented, or ever dared to tamper with truth, is a thing not to be believed of men whose writings are plainly, by their own meaning and end, inspired by the Holy Spirit of God.

      One more reason--and a reason which to me is unanswerable--for believing, like our forefathers, that the Old Testament is true. The Old Testament, as well as the New, tells us of the 'noble acts' of the Lord--of certain gracious and merciful and just things which the Lord did to the children of Israel. But if that be not true, what follows? That God has not done the noble acts which men thought he had, and therefore that God is not as noble as men thought he was; that men have actually fancied for themselves a better God than the God who exists already.

      Absurd.

      Absurd, truly; and if you choose to call it by a harder name still, you have a right to do so.

      Do not you think that God must be better, not worse; more generous, not less; more condescending, not less; more just, not less; more helpful, not less, than man can fancy or describe? Are not the riches of Christ unsearchable, and the mercies of the Lord boundless? Is he not able and willing to do exceeding abundantly beyond all that we can ask or think? Did not even St. Paul say that he only knew in part and prophesied in part? And must it not be true of the whole Bible what the beloved apostle St. John says of his own Gospel, 'And there are many other things which Jesus did, the which if they should be written every one, I suppose that even the world itself could not contain the books that should be written?'

      Bear that in mind, remembering always that the God of the Old Testament is the God of the New likewise; and whenever you read, either in the Old or New Testament, of the noble acts of the Lord, say boldly, as millions of hearts have said already, when the good news of the Bible came to them, 'This is so beautiful that it must be true. The Spirit of God in the Bible, and the judgment of the Church in all ages, bears witness with my spirit that this is true. So ought God to have done, and therefore surely so hath God done. Shall not the Judge of all the earth do RIGHT?'

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