Sometimes the last gasp of breath and a borning cry bleed into one: The dying night collides with the full light of day just as God pulls up the curtain on sunrise; poets craft songs that send nations into a wild-eyed embracing of their destiny.
Then Moses went up from the plains of Moab to Mount Nebo, to the top of Pishah, which is opposite Jericho. And the LORD showed him all the land, Gilead as far as Dan, all Naphtali, the land of Ephraim and Manasseh, all the land of Judah as far as the western sea, the Negev, and the Plain, that is, the Valley of Jericho the city of palm trees, as far as Zoar. 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 offspring.’ 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…” (Deuteronomy 34:1-5).
Over the course our four day adventure, our Jordanian coach bus had developed a distinct odor, the kind of scent only a middle school physical education teacher could truly appreciate. Our bus driver, Abu Fadi, remained unflappable as he spun the wheel that sent our bus fishtailing up the switchbacks of western Moab to Mount Nebo.
Deuteronomy tells us that from here God directed Moses’ gaze to a 360-degree panorama of the Promised Land: Gilead (central Jordan), Dan (extreme northern Israel), Naphtali (the Galilee region), Ephraim and Manasseh (the heartland of central Israel), Judah (Jerusalem and Bethlehem), the Western Sea (the Mediterranean), the Negev (extreme southern Israel), Jericho (just below Mount Nebo), and Zoar (extreme southern Jordan).
Here’s the problem: Even on a haze-less day (of which Dr. Wright has encountered two over the course of his 60+ visits to Mount Nebo) one can barely make out the church spires atop the Mount of Olives. The shores of the Mediterranean Sea lie another thirty-five miles to the west.
Which begs the question, “Did this really happen?” A gut-level response to the question might go one of two directions, either, “No, it didn’t. Deuteronomy 34 was a much later addition to the text which was sewn into the Pentateuch (first five books of the Bible) in order to bolster Israel’s later claim on regions they were unable to subdue following Joshua’s crossing of the Jordan River,” or “Of course it did. God created the perfect atmospheric conditions, and changed the topography of the land between Nebo and the Mediterranean, allowing for a momentary glimpse across the entirety of Israel.” Both opinions are certainly plausible, however, I’d like to suggest a third option.
There’s a cemetery behind our school that cradles the bodies of fallen British soldiers from the time of England’s control of Israel (1917-1948). Scattered between the graves that mark captains, privates, and majors rest certain non-military personal. One grave site in particular stands out, “Horatio Spafford”
If you have never heard of Mr. Spafford, you should definitely watch this.
Following the family’s arrival in Jerusalem, Spafford’s daughter Anna served as a Christian missionary to the Arab/Bedouin communities surrounding Israel. With a fervor to spread the Gospel, she spent a significant amount of time across the Jordan as the guest of nomadic shepherds. One night, As daylight began to fade and a week-long stretch of rain finally came to an end, Anna found herself atop Ajlun (a Rift Valley lookout city in Upper Gilead, just north of Mount Nebo) gazing back toward Israel. The mist was gone, the air was remarkably clear, and overwhelmed with the immensity of God’s beauty, Anna noted that she could make out the bend of the Mediteranean against the far horizon.
View Deuteronomy 34 in a larger map
The book of Numbers speaks briefly of Moses’ battle against Og the king of Bashan prior to Israel’s entry into the Promised Land. This mighty king occupied the area surrounding Ajlun. The chapter ends with a brief description of the battle’s outcome, “So they defeated him and his sons and all his people, until he had no survivor left. And they possessed his land” (v. 35). No one knows for sure whether Moses actually visited this site; however, it appears likely the prophet’s forty-year expectation of God carrying the people into Israel would have fueled a curiosity that might have carried him to the top of Ajlun for a sneak peak, giving Moses, perhaps, the same view Anna Spafford enjoyed 3,600 years later.
If this is the case, while Moses’ premonition atop Mount Nebo may not have afforded him (at that time) the opportunity to behold places like the Mediterranean or the city of Dan (though Mount Hermon [which Dan sits at the base of] would be visible from Ajlun), his dying eyes would have been able to draw on these places while atop Nebo, recalling their distant beauty to mind. Atop Mount Nebo, Moses likely stared into the fog, just as I did. Here God reiterated His promise to the people Moses faithfully led for forty years.
But promise is foggy. Paul said it well, “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known” (1 Cor. 13:12). I have no idea what waits for me on the other side of this adventure. It’s foggy. God has promised His presence as I (as we) descend into a treacherous landscape–the highest temperature in all of Asia was recorded in Beth-Shan (just North of Jericho), 129 degrees–but we have no idea what is waiting for us on the other side…or even if we’ll make it. Moses never set foot in the Promised Land. He toiled for the sake of God’s people though prayer and preaching, enduring mutinies and famines, doubt and despiar. I wonder whether there were times when Moses’ resolve to carry on through the “great and terrible wilderness” was fueled solely by his expectation that he would one day own a little plot of land far removed from the cruel taskmasters of Egypt.
With his final breath, Moses stared into the billows of haze stacked like translucent cotton balls above the Jordan River–marring the view of “the land of milk and honey”. He had no idea what fate his beloved kinsmen would meet as they charged into Jericho.
Our futures are hazy; the legacies we are to leave remain shrouded in clouds. Our eyes squint to see beyond the veil and as we do so, the only thing we can make out is a sudden flash: the light of the world like a lighthouse on the Mediterranean coast pointed in the opposite direction. Whatever the case, whether we die on this mountain top or reeeive the strength necessary to descend Nebo and fight our way forward, He beckons us.