These days I’m reading, thinking and writing about Miriam, Moses’ sister. I’ve collected a stack of notes about what scholars have had to say about her. I’m filtering all that through my own interpretations and my feminist heart and trying to write in Miriam’s voice.
Coincidentally, I discovered a collection of sermons and essays by Ellen F. Davis, who is on the faculty of Duke Divinity School. I tracked this book down and ordered it because I read that she loves to preach on the Hebrew Bible. I thought it would make devotional reading for me. But it’s become much more.
Davis has me reconsidering the character of Moses. For many readers of the Bible, Moses is a hero. We associate him with the burning bush, the plagues, the Exodus, the parting of the Red Sea, the golden calf, the Ten Commandments and the Shema, the beautiful Jewish statement of faith: “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One . . . ."
But I’ve always been annoyed by Moses. In my mind, he was an initially hesitant servant, a killer, a cog used by God in the plan to “harden Pharoah’s heart” (what the heck does that mean, anyway?). One minute Moses pleads for the Israelites and in the next complains about them to God, who has made a commitment to save them. Ultimately, after a generation spent in the company of God and his fellow Israelites, Moses gives into his own pride and is not allowed to enter the Promised Land. I confess to seeing Moses as the key figure in a cautionary tale.
But in one of her sermons, Davis speaks of the humility of Moses. She reminds me that the Bible says in Numbers 12:3, “Now the man Moses was utterly unassuming (‘anav me’od), completely humble, more so than any other person on the face of the fertile earth.” She goes on to point out that Moses is humble when he “handles power and conflict" (one example is his response to criticism from Miriam and his brother, Aaron). Davis notes “one instance” when Moses’ humility fails and the consequent punishment. That would be when he seems to take credit for bringing water out of the rocks and God declares that Moses won't enter the Promised Land. But, Davis says, that’s not the whole story. Moses and his people have miles to go, and he will lead them as long as he can.
“We see Moses’ habit of humility renewed and deepened when God disappoints his greatest personal hope, the hope that inspired his whole ministry and kept him going," she writes. "We see how humble Moses keeps faith when God lets him down."
In three more pages, Davis has me rethinking the meaning of Moses. His faith endures even when he has been denied the thing he longed for, worked toward for forty years. I always think that one who endures loss will be rewarded in some way. But in Moses' life, faith endures disappointment, period. Genuine faith outlives disappointment.