church bell from below

No Other Foundation

Reflections from Fr. Lawrence Farley

The difficulty in understanding the words and life of Moses is that we have a literary embarrassment of riches.  There is almost too much material to absorb—or varying the image, the mountain is almost too big to bring within focus.  How does one begin to understand such a towering figure?

In an essay on Hamlet, C.S. Lewis attempted to deal with a similar literary dilemma, in that there were many discordant views about what the play Hamlet was really about.  Lewis’ conclusion?  The key to understanding Hamlet and all the apparent contradictions swirling about his character is to understand that Hamlet was “a man who has been given a task by a ghost”.  Once that was acknowledged, all the other supposedly contradictory bits about the apparent puzzle fell into place (from Lewis’ Hamlet: The Prince or the Poem?)  I would suggest that the best way to understand the many aspects of the life of Moses is to see that he was a man who was given a task by God that he never asked for and never wanted.

His story begins with a man who perhaps traumatically discovered who he really was.  Raised as a part of the extended Egyptian royal family, he discovered that he was in fact a part of the very extended Hebrew family—the family then enslaved and oppressed by his own Egyptian people.  With all the proverbial zeal of youth, he decided he would begin to fix the problem of Egyptian oppression by striking an Egyptian taskmaster who was beating a fellow Hebrew—with the unintended result that the taskmaster died.  When the deed became known, Moses panicked and fled, leaving his old tainted Egyptian lineage and life, and taking refuge in the deserts of Midian.  There he married one of the local girls, settled down to raise a family, and get on with this life.  Ancient analysts might have told him that he was repressing his guilt and anger by trying to forget his past.  Whatever.  His Egyptian exploits had proven a spectacular failure.  He decided that Israel would just have to accept that Egypt was the invincible superpower of the day and cope with their sorry lot.  Israel’s suffering, he might have said, was not my problem.  Midian here I come.

Repressed guilt or not, God found him, and tasked him with returning to his native Egypt and demanding that Pharaoh allow the Hebrews to leave the country.  Moses’ protest that he was not politically savvy or rhetorically eloquent was countered by Yahweh’s reply that his brother Aaron was more eloquent than he was and could speak on his behalf.

Moses was not stupid.  He did not want that job, and tried his best to refuse it.  He realized that, humanly speaking, Yahweh’s plan was impossible.  Any sensible person would have stayed in Midian, raised his family, and died in obscurity and with honour.  But Moses was not sensible.  He was called.

So it was that he very reluctantly returned to Egypt.  From then on, regardless of how hopeless the prospect of success appeared, Moses soldiered on.  Whether it was the plagues of Egypt spread over many months, or the violent and rude confrontations with Pharaoh, the superpower of his day, or the final face-off at the Red Sea, or the challenges of bringing thousands of people down the Sinai peninsula with their crying babies and bleating flocks, or Israel’s spectacular volte-face at the foot of Sinai with the golden calf, or the many challenges to his authority, Moses hung in there.  At the burning bush when he came face to face with Yahweh, Moses had said “yes” to Him, and he never wavered from that original commitment.

There were temptations, of course.  The journey from Egypt to Canaan via Sinai was supposed to be fairly straightforward, the work of a few months, not of forty years.  Moses did not count on Israel’s timidity and reluctance to invade Canaan—or God’s sentencing them to wander in the wilderness until that entire wretched generation had died off.  Many times the people were ready to stone him.  Moses was frustrated by their constant rebellion, their incessant griping ingratitude, and their seeming inability to learn any lesson.

Once Moses complained bitterly to Yahweh that the job He had given him was too much for him:   “Why have You been so hard on Your servant?  And why have I not found favour in Your sight, that You have laid the burden of all this people on me?  Was it I who conceived all this people?  Was it I who gave them birth that You should say to me, ‘Carry them in your bosom as a nurse carries a nursing infant, to the land which You swore to their fathers’?” (Numbers 11:11-12).  Or in less stately words:  “What did I ever do to You that You are saddling me with all these people?  They’re not my children that I should have to protect them—they’re Yours!”  Yet despite all this, when the sun dawned each day, it found Moses faithful to Yahweh and ready to guide His people.

There was a time, admittedly, when Israel’s rebellion caused him to strike out angrily, to promote his authority, and to push himself forward at the expense of Yahweh’s honour.  (The whole sad tale is told in Numbers 20).  That rebellion resulted in God denying him the honour of leading Israel into the Promised Land.  Instead, he would view that land, but die outside it, on the mountains of Moab.  Moses paid his debt to Yahweh in this age.  I believe that this was God’s mercy:  God demanded the payment of Moses’ debt in this age that Moses might have his full reward in the age to come.  But of course this is a guess.  All we know for sure is that by God’s judgment Moses did not enter the land God gave to His people, but died alone and was buried on one of Moab’s mountains.

Moses was necessary to Israel’s survival.  Just as one cannot cut through the jungles of Africa without a guide, or scale a Himalayan mountain without a guide, so Israel could not find their way to freedom without a guide—and Moses was that guide.  He was called the meekest man on earth (Numbers 12:3) because he preferred submitting to God’s will to doing his own will.  Doing his own will would’ve left him happily in Midian with wife and children, dying cheerfully and unknown to history.  God’s will drew him from Midian to Egypt and then to Sinai and then to an unknown grave on the mountains of Moab.  When Moses married in Midian, he doubtless thought he would be remembered by his children and grandchildren, and then by no one else.  But because he consented to be God’s guide to His people, he is remembered by all of us.  The final lesson?  If God calls, be sure to answer.

This has special significance for those called to serve God as priests. I often tell my young men who are considering ordination that if they feel they could possibly do something other than be a priest, they should do that instead.  Priesthood is something one should only do if one feels a divine compulsion upon the heart and a still small voice saying, “Woe is me if I do not preach the Gospel!” (compare 1 Corinthians 9:16).  Not—I hasten to add—that the priestly office is a guarantee of misery.  I have always served under bishops who have been kind to me, and I am blessed to be in the best parish in the world.  But the challenges that come from attacks of the Enemy and the heartbreaks that are the common lot of pastors mean that priests are best prepared for their tasks if they feel they have no choice but to put on the cassock and bear the cross.  Priests are called by God out of the burning bush, and like Moses are sent to be guides for their people as they trudge together through the wilderness of this age on their way to the Promised Land.

 Note: for more about Moses, see my book Walking with Moses.

Fr. Lawrence Farley

About Fr. Lawrence Farley

Fr. Lawrence serves as pastor of St. Herman's Orthodox Church in Langley, BC. He is also author of the Orthodox Bible Companion Series along with a number of other publications.