Our readings from the Hebrew Bible this season after Pentecost have been dominated by a promise. When God called Abram and Sarai to follow him, God promised them that he would give them the land that God would show them, and that God would make of their descendants a mighty nation. As we have read the story this summer and fall, we have seen that the fulfillment of those promises has been deferred. At Abraham’s death, he had two sons, Isaac and Ishmael, and the only land he legally owned was the burial plot he had purchased for his wife Sarai.
The promises remained just that, promises, for generations. Jacob and his sons and families ended their lives in Egypt, having fled famine and found refuge in that foreign land. Later, the Israelites fled Egypt, making their way to Sinai, where the received the 10 Commandments. But the hopes of that generation to enter and possess the promised land, the land flowing with milk and honey were also dashed, as they were condemned, because of their unfaithfulness, what the text likes to call their “stiff-necked-ness” to die in the desert.
Now forty years have past and the Israelites are camped on the banks of the Jordan River, all that separates them from receiving the promise God had made them. Of that first generation only Moses, their leader since Egypt, survives. Even the words God uses here remind us of God’s words to Abram in Genesis 12—“Go from your country to the land that I will show you,” God said to Abram. Now, God shows Moses the whole land and tells him that this is the land that had been promised to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Still, just as the book of Genesis ended with Jacob and his descendants in Egypt, not in the promised land, so Deuteronomy, the Pentateuch, the first five books of Hebrew Scripture, ends with the Israelites still awaiting the fulfillment of the promise.
For us as Americans, this story evokes another prophet, another promise unfulfilled. For it was this story that Martin Luther King Jr referenced in his last speech, given the night before he was assassinated. We will commemorate that speech, we will remember the 50th anniversary of King’s assassination in a little over five months. He may have been to the mountaintop, he may have seen the promised land, but it seems we are no closer to reaching it now than we were fifty years ago, and perhaps further away now than ever from that hope of a nation where racism no longer reigns, where African-Americans can find the same level of success and achievement as whites.
That’s an important, perhaps the most important way this story connects with our lives and world. But it’s not the only one. I would like to draw your attention to another theme in the story and that is the relationship between Moses and God. Here, we are told that God knew Moses face to face. We have seen details of the intimate relationship the two shared. We have seen Moses appeal to God on behalf of the Israelites, we have seen him ask to see God’s glory, and instead to be seen God’s backside from the cleft of a rock, while his face was shielded by God’s hand. We have seen his face transformed by his encounter with God, shining.
Now we see something else, although it is obscured by the translation we use. In the report of Moses’ death, our text reads, “He was buried in a valley in the Land of Moab…” The Hebrew actually reads, “he buried him” that is, God buried him. That tender, intimate act, the image of God taking up a shovel and burying God’s beloved and devoted servant is evidence of the intimacy the two shared. It points to God’s care and concern for God’s people.
It also calls to mind other stories. At the very beginning of the Pentateuch, in Genesis, we are shown God’s tender actions in creating human beings, the man out of the dust of the earth, and the woman from the man’s rib. We also see God’s tenderness, care, and protection of the first humans, when after they sinned, God made clothes for them out of animal skins.
We might be turned off by the intimacy and earthiness of this imagery, of the notion that God might create out of the dust of the earth, that God might take up needle and thread, or that God might bury Moses. Such language might seem overly mythological or anthropomorphic, a far cry from the God of the philosophers or of contemporary theology.
But such language can offer us comfort and strengthen our faith. To imagine a God so intimately involved in the lives of those God loves, a God whose concern and care extends to the clothes on our back or the disposition of our final remains, a God who knows us face to face, can be a source of strength when we struggle or stumble.
And it also, I think, helps us reflect in a new way on the story from the gospel, in which a lawyer asks Jesus to prioritize the commandments. Jesus’ response is hardly revolutionary. His words are quotations from Deuteronomy and Leviticus, straight out of Moses’ law. Moreover a contemporary of his, Rabbi Hillel, is remembered to have said in response to a similar question, “What is hateful to you do not do to your neighbor; that is the whole Torah, the rest is commentary; go and learn it.”
We have compartmentalized so much of ourselves, so much of our lives. We place our faith in God in one small sphere of our lives, for Sunday mornings, for example, or for those quiet moments of prayer and meditation. We think of love as an emotion, we talk of falling in or out of love, or we say, we love this or that food, or activity. We are commanded, in Deuteronomy, here in Jesus’ words, to love the Lord our God with all of our heart, soul, and mind—we might say “with all of our selves, with our whole being.” I’m not sure I can even fathom what that might look like for me, what that would be like to love God with all of myself. And then, on top of that, we are commanded to love our neighbor as ourself. Is that even possible?
Here’s where I think the earthy, intimate image of God burying Moses might be of help. For in that very human, incredibly intimate action—I bet most of us are turned off by it, by the idea of the transcendent, immortal, invisible, omniscient, omnipotent, being though of performing that very intimate even offensive act, who of us could imagine, in this day and age, actually burying a loved one with our own hands—in that incredibly intimate action, we see a parable of God’s love for us. Imagine God lowering Godself to care for us so intimately. Imagine that love. If God can love us so powerfully and intimately, how can we not love God with the same intensity, with our whole selves, hearts, minds, and souls. And if God can love us, how can we not love our selves? And how can we not love our neighbors, and the stranger with our whole being, loved, as it is, by God?