Friday, September 17, 2010

Easier, Closer Than We Think

Now what I am commanding you today is not too difficult for you or beyond your reach. It is not up in heaven… Nor is it beyond the sea… No, the word is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart so you may obey it. (Deuteronomy 30.11-14)

Moses: The Movie

Moses, as rendered by Charlton Heston in The Ten Commandments, is a movie icon on par with Vivien Leigh’s Scarlett O’Hara and Henry Fonda’s Tom Joad. After seeing the film version, reading (or re-reading) the original is slanted by the portrayal. In Heston’s case, Moses becomes a handsome athlete with chiseled features who matures into a white-haired patriarch with flowing beard and vigor to spare—an American idol. Recently revisiting Deuteronomy inspires me to imagine another movie. In my mind, Moses: The Movie isn’t half as grandiose as Cecil B. DeMille’s 1956 Technicolor extravaganza. It’s like the sterling, black-and-white literary adaptations MGM produced in the 1930’s: a tightly focused account of small lives swept up by history, graced by the irony of its improbable hero and heavily laced with sentimentality. The cast is peopled with top-notch character actors who orbit an insecure fugitive pitted against a God Who curiously selects him to lead a slave rebellion that turns into a freedom march lasting four decades. Both protagonists are prickly types with mercurial tempers and stubborn wills. Yet common love for the masses dependent on them welds God and Moses together despite their mutual frustrations and quarrels.

My movie opens in Deuteronomy and flashes back to the Exodus episodes. Moses is a smallish man, rail-thin, with a hollowed-out face and leathery skin cured dark brown by the desert sun—more Gandhi than Heston. His two aides, Caleb and Joshua, brace him while he preaches to the vast crowd assembled for his last sermon. A string-heavy score slowly mounts. Traces of a childhood stammer remain in carefully articulated sentences punctuated by long pauses so those in earshot can relay his words to listeners out of range. Although many miss the conviction in his voice, his message strikes home. With the Land of Promise just over the horizon, Moses reminds them how far they’ve come and encourages them to move ahead. Still, his theme surprises them. He’s explaining the interplay between trusting God’s promises and obeying His commands. Nobody understands this better than he. Impulsive disobedience stole his opportunity to see God’s promise realized. Moses makes his life a cautionary fable. Its moral: “Do as I say, not as I’ve done.” Having ended his bittersweet recollection, the movie closes on an uplifting note. The music soars. Crowd shots reveal confident reactions to Moses’s climactic speech:

Now what I am commanding you today is not too difficult for you or beyond your reach. It is not up in heaven, so that you have to ask, “Who will ascend into heaven to get it and proclaim it to us so we may obey it?” Nor is it beyond the sea, so that you have to ask, “Who will cross the sea to get it and proclaim it to us so we may obey it?” No, the word is very near you; it is in your mouth and your heart so you may obey it. (Deuteronomy 30.11-14)

Dispersed and Banished

Opinions on Deuteronomy’s origins vary. Some scholars hold it’s a fairly accurate transcription of Moses’s words recorded during his lifetime or shortly thereafter. Based on style and content, some date it centuries later, during Israel’s exile in Babylon. Still others believe it may have been written in Moses’s time and then heavily revised to resonate with exiled readers. In any case, it’s fascinating how often Moses glimpses beyond Israel’s imminent triumph to foresee its future as an uprooted nation. The passage above specifically applies to this fate. Chapter 30 begins with Moses urging the people to take his directives “to heart wherever the LORD your God disperses you among the nations.” Verse four elaborates, “Even if you have been banished to the most distant land under the heavens, from there the LORD your God will gather you and bring you back.” This context adds important meaning to verses 11-14, when Moses says his instruction “is not too difficult for you or beyond your reach.”

Naturally, once Israel settles in its new country, obeying Moses’s commands will pose few problems. In all likelihood, they’ll be adopted as the law of the land. But Moses is determined to make Israel understand what he tells it to do aren’t manmade rules the nation must conform to. They’re divine principles the people must obey in good times and bad, when they’re safe inside their borders and when they’re blown in every direction like seeds in the wind. “Regardless how hard life gets, obedience is not too hard,” he tells them. “No matter how far from home you’re forced to go, God’s principles are never beyond reach. There’s no need to wait for messages from on high, no cause to look for exotic messengers who sail the seas to teach you. Even though you’re dispersed and banished—one among many who don’t share your beliefs, cast out of the place you love—the word is very near you. It’s in your mouth and heart so you may obey it.”

Making Easy Hard

This passage was very famous among ancient Jews and Christians, so much so Paul uses it to launch his now-famous salvation formula: “If you confess with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” (Romans 10.9) But Moses’s original gets very little play these days, raising suspicions it’s overlooked by not jibing with our modern aptitude for making easy hard. If it’s not overly abstract and complex, we write it off. That’s why so many of us misconstrue trust and obedience to be absurdly daunting and elusive, even irrelevant, in our convoluted world. Yet that’s Moses’s point. The power to believe—to govern our lives by belief—is easier, closer than we think. We can’t help talking about it. Our conversations overflow with questions about justice and compassion. We can’t stop searching for right answers. Trusting God’s wisdom comes so naturally to us we have to unlearn it first and then relearn it. No epiphanies are required. Whatever our challenges, wherever life takes us, God’s principles are never too difficult or beyond our reach. If we pay attention to what we instinctively say and believe—instead of what we think we know or what others profess to know—we’ll discover it’s as simple as Moses taught. We need only obey.

We make trust and obedience harder than they really are.


claire said...

Your linking Moses/Deuteronomy to the exile to Babylon is fascinating. Your describing Moses physically as a sort of Gandhi feels sooo true!

I followed you all the way down your post till you got to No ephiphanies are required. And I thought, oh..., epiphanies are so nice...

We need only obey, you write. Yes, but first maybe I need to dig down the rubble and weeds and trash that has piled up above my conscience. Because if I have brushed aside for decades the word placed in my mouth and heart, I need to retrieve it, brush it up, scrub it, hose it, etc etc.

I like this post, Tim. Thank you.

Tim said...

epiphanies are so nice...

I couldn't agree more, Claire! (S-F began with one, you know...) Yet I find so many people who know the Word and unlearned It, waiting for a cosmic event to restart their journey. And I think many of them get frustrated that one hasn't come, never realizing it's already come. It's been there all the while, in their hearts and mouths. (Of course, one could argue this realization is an epiphany of its own.)

I love your metaphor for digging out the buried Word. It's so apt. I wish I'd heard it before writing this. What depth it would have added!

Thank you, amie!