The Rev. Irina Dubinski

The Life of Moses

According to the major faith traditions of the world, what are the main rules of life that must be in place for any civilization to function? The Golden Rule, of course: “the first and great commandment, and the second is like unto it”. Today, we are using the older form of Anglican liturgy, in which it is customary to recite these words at the beginning of the service. But do you remember how those words found their way into our rite? Yes, we tend to recall them as the words of Jesus summarizing the Ten Commandments; but in fact, in saying this, he too, is quoting the 19th chapter of Leviticus:

“You shall not bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD.”

In Leviticus, these words are written as part of God’s message to Moses. Moses is among the biblical characters to whom Sunday schools and religion classes introduce us first. Our Deuteronomy reading describes Moses as

“unequaled for all the signs and wonders that the LORD sent him to perform... and for all the mighty deeds and all the terrifying displays of power. Moses was one hundred twenty years old when he died; his sight was unimpaired and his vigor had not abated. Never since has there arisen a prophet in Israel like Moses.”

Moses was, of course, a legendary figure, probably based on a historical Jewish leader. According to the Rabbinical tradition, he was born in Egypt in 1391 BC; other scholars place his birth a couple centuries earlier. Nearly murdered as an infant when the Pharaoh decided to curb the growth of his Hebrew population, Moses was rescued from the river into which he was placed in a desperate attempt to save his life, and then grew up in the royal circles, until the incident in which he murdered an Egyptian slave-master. This caused him to flee into Midian: referring either to the northwest Arabian Peninsula on the shore of the Red Sea, or the settlement of the Midianite people (the descendants of Abraham through his second wife). There, Moses’ leadership and prophetic career began with the sighting of the burning bush, continued through the plagues, and culminated with the reception of the 10 commandments on Mount Sinai at the start of Exodus. Subsequently, after 40 years of wandering in the desert (a journey that should have taken only a few weeks!) Moses dies.

Quite a journey, isn’t it? Moses the great patriarch; Moses, who has had such a direct encounter with God that his face acquired a radiance which blinded his people. Do you think Moses never bore a grudge in his life, loved every neighbour as himself, and always offered perfect worship to the Lord? Maybe the romanticised Moses of our Sunday school did. But there must be a reason why the historical Moses of Deuteronomy is denied entry to the land of his ancestors, Canaan; why he is granted only a glimpse into the Promised Land from Mount Nebo before his death.

Let’s keep this contrast in mind, as I introduce you to two other famous portrayals of Moses. The first sits on top of the Tomb of Julius II in Rome, as sculpted by Michelangelo in 1513-1516. A surprising antithesis to the Sunday school prophet, this Moses is a savage, pagan half-beast, complete with two horns, a full-body length beard, and a protruding jaw -- and yet, he exudes a great sense of calm, and has notably beautiful hands. In him, Michelangelo represents the human struggle to control the passions -- our rage, and tumult, and contempt -- by the sheer force of the will, no doubt revealing the state of his heart, coming towards the end of his own life.

The second Moses is found in the patristic literature. The “Life of Moses” is a spiritual work written by the 4th century bishop Gregory of Nyssa (Cappadocia, modern day Turkey). Together with his elder brother Basil and a friend, also Gregory, the three theologians were known as the Cappadocian Fathers. Gregory worked to bridge the Greek mentality with the Jewish roots of the Christian faith, and advance the doctrine of the Trinity. The “Life of Moses” presents the exposition of Exodus as a journey: a journey of the human soul through the wilderness and temptations of the earthly life, towards its perfection and full revelation of the presence of God in eternal life.

In the earthly life, however, the cloud of Mount Sinai, the pillar of cloud leading the Israelites, the dense fog upon the mountain of Transfiguration, and the cloud that hovered above Jordan at Jesus’ baptism all remind us that God is incomprehensible and invisible to the created faculties of intellect and vision. Nonetheless, Gregory of Nissa assures us that God has made him/herself somewhat knowable to us through what he calls our “spiritual senses”, which arise out of our communion with the Holy Spirit. Therefore, God is not a philosophical idea or a code of moral conduct, but a living and relational being, who gives him/herself to us without setting any limits on our knowledge. Always remaining greater than anything we can ask or imagine, yet continually rewarding us with the joys of spiritual discoveries, and anticipation of having more to learn.

And that’s what all of the portrayals of Moses that I mentioned teach us. The Moses of the Torah, of Gregory of Nyssa and Michelangelo, remind us that spiritual life is a state of dynamic growth, not static perfection. That the two greatest commandments are neither merely the standards of conduct enabling us to coexist in a civilized society, nor simply the means to an end in earning eternal life in heaven. Instead, Jesus’ summary of the Law, taken out of Moses’ message in Leviticus, is what prepares our hearts to meet God in the Cloud of Unknowing. To truly love oneself and one’s neighbor means to love God -- to appreciate fully the splendour of His/her creation, including that which continually occurs within each person, moment by moment. Thanks be to God.

Michelangelo's Moses