Deuteronomy 34:1-12 – the 19th Sunday of Ordinary Time – for October 23, 2011
“Never since has there arisen a prophet in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face-to-face.” (Deuteronomy 34:10)
Moses is arguably the most important figure in the Old Testament.
We named a cat after him. Mostly as a joke, but with a teaspoon of seriousness. We are currently owned by four animals: Jynx, Madison, Hannah and Moses (elder to younger). Years ago, cats Jynx and Madison were upset when we introduced a puppy—Hannah—into the mix. Suddenly a fur ball of enthusiasm pestered the two mature cats. They were intimidated. Demoralized. Harassed in their own home.
My lovely, brilliant wife posed a solution.
“Let’s get a kitten,” she purred.
A faculty colleague bred Tonkinese for a hobby. This professor claimed they was friendly, adaptable and yet had assertive characteristics.
“Getting a Tonkinese will help Jynx and Madison. Hannah won’t be able to scare three cats,” my wife said.
Let’s take a moment. First, this “conversation” took place years ago. In the haze of veterinarian bills and endless trips to the pet store, I may not recall exact words. But I’ve captured the essence of her argument. Second, regardless of her statement’s veracity, don’t seek logic in it. There wasn’t any. She wanted a kitten.
We dubbed him Moses, after the one who led the Israelites into freedom. Who promised a land of milk and honey for his enslaved people. Who shared, even during the worst times, a dream of home. Would not our Moses lead his fellow felines to a new era? We brought the bundle of friendliness and four sharp claws into our house. We released him onto the kitchen floor.
Jynx and Madison cowered in a nearby corner. Watching. Hoping.
Hannah, all legs and sloppy tongue and awkward lunges, dashed toward Moses: ready to play, ready to chase, ready to rumble . . .
Moses faced the incoming puppy. The Tonkinese tail went erect. Fur puffed out. His shockingly nasty howl sent chills along my spine.
Then Moses relaxed. Puppy and kitty sniffed each other and began playing. I’m not kidding. Moses went from jungle cat to best buds with Hannah in the swish of a tail. Now, years later, Moses—who randomly brings murdered squirrels inside for display purposes, taunts neighborhood mutts and scares the professional crap out of the vet with screeches and razor claws—has one true friend . . . Hannah.
We failed. Big disappointment. Though tolerance now prevails, there are times when old Madison and older Jynx will cower in a corner. Watching? Hoping? How long, O Israel? Sigh.
The Bible’s Moses knew disappointment. The Israelites he guided through the wilderness were a cranky crowd. Brother Aaron championed the despicable golden calf. The Lord God Almighty, who handpicked Moses for the lead-‘em-to-freedom job, could be a fickle boss. Aflame one moment, slippery as liquid the next.
Was his greatest disappointment never seeing the Promised Land? In the last gasps of the Torah, Moses wends up a mountain called Nebo and gazes toward a landscape of dreams, so close and yet so far. He looks with “unimpaired” sight, but will never stride alongside its rivers, will never drink fresh milk from animals raised on the land, will never sweeten a meal with honey from fields bursting with spring blossoms.
There are few other places in scripture that carry the emotional wallop of Deuteronomy’s closing verses. Perhaps David’s lament over the death of his son Absalom? Perhaps Mary Magdalene at the tomb when convinced Jesus is the gardener? You likely have your own soul-searching favorites.
I have been on Nebos in my life, where I witnessed versions of “Gilead as far as Dan, all Nephtali, the land of Ephraim and Manasseh . . .“ Hiking into the Grand Canyon, the “inverted mountain,” stunned me. In the depths of the canyon, I was continuously surrounded by views drawing the eye not just upward but outward, toward fantastical horizons. I felt cradled within an ancient, river-carved holy palm. But for every step taken in that sublime ditch, I was aware of what I would never see. Never walk on. Never touch.
I saw and could not see.
The child plucked from a basket in the Nile who led his people out of slavery—“never since has there arisen a prophet in Israel like Moses”—never sauntered into Israel. Isn’t it like that for all of us? Even the very best of us, even Jesus, pass along a divine dream to the next generation. All of us traverse holy ground, and none of us will ever truly see the fullness of a promised land.
We named a cat Moses. Silly. We set ourselves up for disappointment! Moses swaggers in from the outside a hundred times a day, and nearly always seeks Hannah. They’ve grown old together. They touch noses. Sometimes cuddle. I watch, remembering the kitty and the puppy.
In scripture, Moses saw a future, dreamed a promise. From the heights or the depths, it’s a promise that keeps us sauntering through a place where the “signs and wonders” of a loving God beckon.