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Politics of Scripture

The Politics of Being Replaced—Deuteronomy 34:1-12 (Timothy Simpson)

In Deuteronomy 34, Moses ceases to be the leader of Israel. He is brought to the top of Mount Nebo, to look over the Promised Land. Timothy Simpson highlights six relevant principles that we can learn from this account.

Then Moses went up from the plains of Moab to Mount Nebo, to the top of Pisgah, which is opposite Jericho, and the Lord showed him the whole land: Gilead as far as Dan, 2 all Naphtali, the land of Ephraim and Manasseh, all the land of Judah as far as the Western Sea, 3 the Negeb, and the Plain—that is, the valley of Jericho, the city of palm trees—as far as Zoar. 4 The Lord said to him, “This is the land of which I swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, saying, ‘I will give it to your descendants’; I have let you see it with your eyes, but you shall not cross over there.”

5 Then Moses, the servant of the Lord, died there in the land of Moab, at the Lord’s command. 6 He was buried in a valley in the land of Moab, opposite Beth-peor, but no one knows his burial place to this day. 7 Moses was one hundred twenty years old when he died; his sight was unimpaired and his vigor had not abated. 8 The Israelites wept for Moses in the plains of Moab thirty days; then the period of mourning for Moses was ended.

9 Joshua son of Nun was full of the spirit of wisdom, because Moses had laid his hands on him; and the Israelites obeyed him, doing as the Lord had commanded Moses. 10 Never since has there arisen a prophet in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face. 11 He was unequaled for all the signs and wonders that the Lord sent him to perform in the land of Egypt, against Pharaoh and all his servants and his entire land, 12 and for all the mighty deeds and all the terrifying displays of power that Moses performed in the sight of all Israel.

This text is nicely situated this year: just nine days from the midterm US elections, giving the pastor an opportunity to reflect, not just on leadership changes in the church, but also in society as well. In what follows, I have made a series of observations about the politics of the text, which I think can be used collectively or separately for theological reflection on this Sunday’s OT lection.

1. Nobody is irreplaceable.

The story of the Exodus is virtually unimaginable apart from the character of Moses. Although he was met with skepticism and suspicion early on, over time the community grows to lean on him more and more such that even a relatively brief sabbatical creates a kind of panic at the base of the holy mountain. Yet Moses, according to the narrative, gets a little too comfy in his position, apparently seeing himself as possessing independent power and judgment which could be exercised at his own discretion apart from Yahweh’s direction. Doubtless thinking that he could fix a problem he had seen before, having struck the rock earlier in the story in an attempt to get water for the people, Moses tries that same tactic again, this time without authorization, and thus gets a pink slip. The message to the community—in particular to subsequent Israelites leadership therein—is that there will be no freelancing in positions of authority. Leaders are to work within their prescribed roles and not beyond.

2. Moses leaves leaning into the tape.

To his credit, Moses is presented as working with appropriate vigor right up until the time of his retirement dinner. This will contrast favorably with the behavior of the later King David, who, after winning the kingships of both Israel and Judah, and capturing the city of Jerusalem, spend his time as a voyeur rather than behaving appropriately in fulfilling the duties of his office. Moses’ style will also be reflected by the prophet Samuel. The three parts to Moses’ life articulated here also give the pastor a chance to reflect on the “re-invention of the self” which Moses undergoes not once but twice. At various points in life it can be very helpful to undergo a “course correction” and do something else. Moses did this out of necessity early on in his life, and again later under the influence of a divine call to service. There was no retirement. To me, a person of our own times who exemplifies this way of life has been former President Jimmy Carter. He was a submariner, then a peanut farmer, then a governor and finally the president. After a particularly tough election loss in 1980 to Ronald Reagan, Carter re-invented himself yet again, committing his life to humanitarian endeavors around the world, especially in the area of human rights, a work which he continues to this day despite having turned 90 just last month. With the aging of the baby-boomers, the stewardship of the time and talents of this generation will necessarily be an important resource for the work of political theology for at least the next quarter of a century. As such both pastors and scholars of political theology should give this development, unique in the history of Christianity, appropriate attention.

3. What concord hath Nebo with Graceland?

The third century North African theologian, Tertullian, posed his famous question “What concord hath Athens with Jerusalem?” in order to highlight the great differences between the pagan and Christian worldviews. In my reworking of Tertullian here I’m trying to do something similar in order to explain the importance of the narration of Moses’ death. Unlike many other significant national leaders across the Fertile Crescent, most notably in the pyramids of Egypt, there was never going to be a shrine to Moses built over his tomb. His leadership was always in service to Yahweh and the people and thus was not something to be celebrated permanently in its own right. Political leaders often have a difficult time understanding this. This past week, it was revealed that retiring Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa, who is sitting on nearly $2.5 million in his campaign war chest, has refused several entreaties by other leaders in the Democratic Party to place some of that cash at the disposal of the democrat running to hold Harkin’s seat. His reason? He plans to give the money to found a public policy Institute named after himself to his alma mater, Iowa State University. Apparently, his need for a monument to his legacy outstrips the need of the people to have the policies that he championed while in public life continued in his absence from it. In short, the pharaohs may be dead, but their values live on in the hearts of politicians everywhere. For Moses, there will be no shrine, no institutional legacy bearing his name. His body of work will speak for itself without any further embellishment.

4. The community’s future is more important than the leader’s.

Before the end, God takes Moses up for a panoramic view, not of where he had been and of what he had accomplished, but where the people were going and where he would not follow. On a personal level, that may sound harsh. However,  from the perspective of the community for whom the story is written it is essential: the change in leadership does not mean that the mission of the people is any less urgent than it was on the day they hurriedly left Egypt forty years earlier. The people grieve for thirty days, but then it is time to move on. Nor does the text linger over the achievements or the body of Moses. His significance is duly noted and his death recorded. But the focus was never supposed to be on the leader. It is Yahweh who leads the people and who is the focal point of the community’s life inside and outside of the text. In certain prominent American church traditions there has become, in the last fifty years, the establishment if a kind of dynastic principle in which a successful, charismatic leader hands off their ministry franchise to a child, mostly frequently to a son or sons, as if they were medieval monarchs. Deuteronomy, by contrast, is having nothing of the sort. Moses has sons, but this is a meritocracy and so they will not inherit his position.

5. The community has been cultivating the next generation of leadership.

Moses wasn’t going to last forever so his replacement had to be cultivated over time. This points to a significant problem in Western culture, particularly in America right now, in which civic virtue and public service are among the least emphasized values. Society needs the best possible leadership, but the overwhelming message to young people at this moment is that they need to make a lot of money and to do what they have to avoid the public sector. Society enforces that value by the low pay for civil servants and elected officials, as if the position alone would be thanks enough. The cultural myth is that government workers are growing fat on the people’s nickel, but that is hardly the case. Compensation for government jobs at all levels lags behind compensation in similar positions at private firms. The pay for our national leaders is even more of an issue, since elected officials must maintain a residence in their home state as well a second residence in Washington DC, which is one of the most expensive cities in the world in which to live. Cost-shifting for higher education has only exacerbated the problem of recruitment of public servants, because we have tens of thousands of 22 year-old college grads leaving universities, not just with a diploma, but with a student loan payback coupon booklet delineating the schedule for retiring their $30,000 indebtedness. If Moses tried to recruit Joshua today he would have long since lost the younger man to Google. The anti-government political campaigns cynically funded by corporations constitute a major concern which any serious public theology interested in the next generation has to confront. Pastors should not hesitate to push back against this kind of rhetoric that is hollowing out our pool of young leaders and thus compromising our future.

6. There are no innocent geographic references in scripture.

Finally, it should be noted that this text functions alternately as both judgment and directive to the community regarding the extent of the land about to be possessed on the day the story presents Moses stepping down. That Moses gets buried in the land of Moab perhaps stakes an implicit claim to even that territory, which some modern Zionists believe constitutes the proper, if not yet legal, boundaries of the state of Israel. For later generations, not in possession of the land which Moses here surveys, the reading of this text will function both as a rebuke and a call to action, a reminder of what was given and what was squandered. Of particular note here is the West Bank city of Jericho, which will be the site of Joshua’s first great triumph as leader, and the latest source of vexation for the Israeli settlers who have squatted around it and who want the Palestinians, like the Canaanite inhabitants of the city in the biblical story, removed to make room for Jews. It is easy to forget the concrete claims of the text like this because in the church we have spiritualized them. “The promised land” isn’t a place to which you move your family; its a metaphor for a better situation than we have right now, and thus often gets used as a heavenly reference. But we can’t forget that this is not how everyone reads the text. For some, this text is a deed which authorizes possession and control, which in turn poses a very real threat to the people who live there.

Timothy F. Simpson is Editor Emeritus of Political Theology.

2 thoughts on “The Politics of Being Replaced—Deuteronomy 34:1-12 (Timothy Simpson)

  1. Interesting reflections on the responsibilities of leadership and its trials. Still the taking over of the land of another people is problematic in that it is assumed that somehow it ‘legitimizes’ some historical claim to a particular territory. The spiritual meaning is an interesting interpretation:

    “The promised land” isn’t a place to which you move your family; its a
    metaphor for a better situation than we have right now, and thus often
    gets used as a heavenly reference. But we can’t forget that this is not
    how everyone reads the text. For some, this text is a deed which
    authorizes possession and control, which in turn poses a very real
    threat to the people who live there.”

    And I must wonder whether we too often assume that the presence in Scriptures of a particular action ‘legitimizes’ the action when in fact it challenges the reader to discern the consequences that follow. That this same territory that has presumably been ‘captured and conquered’ is still in turmoil after more than two millennia speaks volumes. And throughout history, it has been the would-be-conqueror who has in fact been absorbed by the presumably ‘conquered’… Still, there is much to ponder here.

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