The View from the Mountain
Photo credit: Pok Rie
Readings: Deuteronomy 34:1-12, Secrets of Heaven (portions) #5757, #1413, #566 (see below)
See also on Youtube at https://youtu.be/osMDs3Sbdxw
Today we come to the end of Moses’ journey. The children of Israel are close to the promised land, and Moses climbs a mountain in order to get an unimpeded view. He can see the sweep of the entire land before him.
And in one sense, this is a sad story. Moses will not get to step foot in the promised land. This is because of an incident in Numbers 20, a time when God was displeased with Moses and enacted this particular consequence. And in another way, it is a perfect time for a transition in leadership. Joshua has already been designated by the Lord to be Moses’ successor, and Moses has commissioned him in the presence of the people. A new leader to take them forth into a new land. It is implied in the text that it was God’s own self who buried Moses; a tender and intimate gesture.(1) The people grieved for thirty days, and Moses remains the greatest prophet of the Jewish tradition.
We’ve been following the Israelites on their journey toward the promised land for six weeks now. This seems like a good time to talk a little bit about the promised land and what it represents in the Swedenborgian worldview. For Swedenborg, all things in the Bible represent an aspect of our own interior, spiritual landscape. These representations have levels of meaning; levels that through their connected significance, work to bind us to each other, to heaven and ultimately, to the Lord. So, therefore, most things in the bible will have a personal or individual meaning, a communal meaning, a heavenly or spiritual meaning and then finally, a meaning relating to God’s self.
And so it is with the notion of “land,” and specifically, the promised land. The Israelites spent a long time heading towards that “land” that was promised to them, a holy land, a land of milk and honey. When we think about what “land” means to us, there are several things that come to mind. Land is something we walk upon, Something that we enter into, that has boundaries, that gives shape and form to our journeys, a place where we might make a home, a place that might inform our character, a space we inhabit as we live our lives.
Moses climbed the mountain and the Lord “showed him the whole land.” and said “this is the land I promised on oath to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob….I will give it to your descendants. I have let you see it with your eyes…” The land is both promise and destination.
And it is in this metaphorical and poetic, yet concrete, sense that Swedenborg talks about what “promised land” means in these stories. In a personal way, the land represents the potential of our spiritual journey, the internal space to which we are heading, our angelic shape that is revealed through the process of regeneration. In a communal way, the land represents the earthly communities that we all seek, that shape and guide our journeys. In a concrete way, this means the church, or whatever spiritual community in which we gather. In a more mystical way, it means the Lord’s kingdom, the embodiment of justice and love in all human community in this world. Now, on a spiritual level, the land represents heaven; the ultimate formative community, the force that shapes us into angels, the destination of our soul, the place where we will find active and peaceful belonging. And finally, in an ultimate way, the land represents the Lord, elemental love and wisdom, from whom all these subsequent levels flow, and not just in a top down way, but as a loving vibrant pulse of life from the inside. (2)
This multi-level promise and opportunity of “the promised land” is the way that God shows up for us, the divine intentionality that God has for us and our lives. The Journey that the children of Israel have taken in these past weeks, represents aspects of our ongoing journey in relationship to God’s intentionality, a path away from that which enslaves our thinking and our feeling, and towards the promise of the land: a spiritually mature selfhood, beloved and just earthly community, supportive heavenly community, and a resilient connection to our God.
But, I found one little addition to all this talk about land that seems to take it even further. Swedenborg mentions that the “land” as it is when Moses is looking out over it in our text today, is different from calling it the “ground.” As we heard in our reading, the land is the church or the regenerate person who is still yet to exist, while the ground is when that reality comes into being. And that really resonates for me. When we see the land, when we think of the land, or even of *our* land, we think of it in a broad sweep, but the ground, the ground is something we touch and interact with. We put our hands in the ground, we work the ground, when we speak of someone being in touch with their own life and selfhood, we call them “grounded.” If we are going to live our lives in the land, if we want to inhabit the land, inhabit the generative opportunities that God is giving us, we have to have a relationship to the ground, to the everyday details and relationships and structures of our lives. To bring the reality of God’s intentionality into being, we are going to have to get to know the ground, till it and plant it, water it and nurture it. In Swedenborgian terms, the process of becoming an angel, or regenerating, is pictured in seeing land become ground, or seeing faith growing through love. (3)
And I find this a really useful way to picture the difference between vision and actuality. There are times when we need to be inspired by a grand vision, to know that there is somewhere purposeful and hopeful in the direction that we are heading. And then there are the times when we just need to get to work to make that vision happen. The children of Israel were not going to be able to inhabit the promised land by staying up on that mountain. They were going to have to come down to the ground and engage with the realities of inhabiting that land. And they would find plenty of challenges ahead for them.
And this is why Moses will often signify divine truth (4). It is the purpose of truth to show us what is possible, to show us the land, but knowing the truth alone won’t make the land our home, won’t make it so we know the ground, won’t make the ground fertile. Only embodied, active love guided by truth can do that.
Sometimes, maybe even each day, there will be part of us up on that mountain. We need those big picture moments. Moses was the vision, he saw the way out of slavery, he connected the people with God and translated God’s vision of the new land for them. He gave shape and reality to the covenant. But it wasn’t his job to oversee their transition from wanting to find the land to becoming grounded in their own home/space. And so another part of us will need to scrabble down that mountain, cross into the land and get busy tending the ground so that it can bear nourishment, so that it can be a home to us, so that it can be a place where our choices do some good, where our heavenly natures can start coming into being.
So, this really is a sad poignant story. A great man passed and the people mourned. Sometimes we would prefer to stay up on the mountain, stay in the anticipation of God’s kingdom. But, Moses’ death also marks the next important part of the journey: turning the land into the ground. We need to be able to see and appreciate God’s divine intention for us, and then we need to be able make it our own. To turn hope into love, truth into justice at the ground level where it makes a difference in people’s lives.
1 Then Moses climbed Mount Nebo from the plains of Moab to the top of Pisgah, across from Jericho. There the LORD showed him the whole land—from Gilead to Dan, 2 all of Naphtali, the territory of Ephraim and Manasseh, all the land of Judah as far as the Mediterranean Sea, 3 the Negev and the whole region from the Valley of Jericho, the City of Palms, as far as Zoar. 4 Then the LORD said to him, “This is the land I promised on oath to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob when I said, ‘I will give it to your descendants.’ I have let you see it with your eyes, but you will not cross over into it.” 5 And Moses the servant of the LORD died there in Moab, as the LORD had said. 6 He buried him in Moab, in the valley opposite Beth Peor, but to this day no one knows where his grave is. 7 Moses was a hundred and twenty years old when he died, yet his eyes were not weak nor his strength gone. 8 The Israelites grieved for Moses in the plains of Moab thirty days, until the time of weeping and mourning was over. 9 Now Joshua son of Nun was filled with the spirit of wisdom because Moses had laid his hands on him. So the Israelites listened to him and did what the LORD had commanded Moses. 10 Since then, no prophet has risen in Israel like Moses, whom the LORD knew face to face, 11 who did all those signs and wonders the LORD sent him to do in Egypt—to Pharaoh and to all his officials and to his whole land. 12 For no one has ever shown the mighty power or performed the awesome deeds that Moses did in the sight of all Israel.
Secrets of Heaven #5757, #1413, #566
5757 'The land of Canaan' has various meanings, and this is because it is the kind of thing that includes very many meanings. It means the Lord's kingdom and it means the Church, as a consequence of which it also means the member of the Church, for a person is a Church. Having these meanings that land also means the celestial element of the Church, which is the good of love, and the spiritual element of it too, which is the truth of faith; and so on….
1413…Because it represented the Lord's kingdom, it also represented and symbolized spiritual and heavenly qualities of the Lord's kingdom and, here, of the Lord himself.
566…in the Word a careful distinction is made between ground (humus) and land or earth (terra)…when 'land' or earth' occurs in the Word it frequently means where the Church or some aspect of the Church does not exist, as in Chapter 1 [of Genesis] where the word 'land' alone is used, because the Church or regenerate person did not as yet exist. Not until Chapter 2 is the word 'ground' used because the Church has by now come into being.
Hiding in the Cleft
Artwork by Aurelia Sullivan
Readings: Exodus 33:12-23, Secrets of Heaven #10579:9
So, I need to be completely honest with you this week. I’m feeling conflicted about this text. I’m owning it, it’s my own stuff. Because, I’d always remembered this text out of context, just the final section about seeing God’s glory, about Moses being put in a cleft of the rock and seeing God’s back as God passes by. And I had always interpreted in kind warm, safe, protective way, like when for a little child the whole world is just their parent’s legs and their face is so far away, and that it was more about Moses safety than anything else.
But, it takes on a different cast when seen in the context of the whole story. It seems a little more withholding, a bit more about God enacting a boundary, and that’s different than I remembered. So, we find ourselves in chapter 33 today, very close to where we left off last week. The children of Israel had made and worshiped the golden calf. Moses then comes down from the mountain enraged, and throws down the tablets on which the ten commandments were written and they break into pieces, a heartbreaking picture of a covenant in shambles. There are excuses made and punishments enacted. When Moses returns to the Lord, the Lord says that Moses and the Israelites are to continue the journey but that God will send an angel as God’s proxy to lead them. This feels like a blow, and the people mourn God’s actual presence with them. They are now starting to truly understand how they have damaged the covenant.
So Moses once again tries to advocate for the children of Israel. He petitions God with an insistence that God’s presence remain with the people, and God eventually acquiesces. But Moses goes even further, and desires to see God’s glory. He is intent that things should return to as they were before the golden calf. God even agrees to this and says: I will cause all my goodness to pass in front of you and I will proclaim my name, the Lord, in your presence. This is in a sense, a complete reset, recalling the other time, the first time, that the Lord proclaimed God’s name, I AM, in Moses’ presence, all the way back at the burning bush. But, God also adds this final word: “But you cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live.”
Turning now to our Swedenborgian interpretation, we are brought, as always, to a recognition that these interactions are a picture of our own internal processes. Swedenborg speaks of a rock being our faith, and a cleft in that rock being our experience of obscurity. That God’s face represents Divine Truth, but in those obscure and uncertain times when we are focused on external things, when we are unwilling to ground ourselves in the practice of goodness and love, when we are unwilling to open ourselves up to the divine goodness constantly flowing into us from God, wherever we cannot assist Divine Goodness to rise up to meet Divine Truth, this is when we cannot see God’s face, because God’s essential nature will always be Divine Truth given soul and life by Divine Good. (1) And if we can’t connect with that, we can’t see it.
And so that doesn’t make me feel any better about the way I used to understand this text either. It is still a picture of not being in connection with God, and less so a picture of God’s protection and care.
Or is it?
Because the very next thing that God says is: “Chisel out two stone tablets like the first ones, and I will write on them the words that were on the first tablets that you broke.” The very next things that God does is to re-establish the covenant. Once Moses does this, he bows to the ground and says: Lord, if I have found favor in your eyes, then let the Lord go with us. Although this is a stiff-necked people, forgive our wickedness and our sins and take us as your inheritance.” And God replies: I am making a covenant with you. Before all your people, I will do wonders never before done in any nation in all the world. The people you live among will see how awesome is the work that I, the Lord, will do for you.” (Exodus 34:1-10)
Well, that certainly is enthusiastic on the part of God! I don’t know about you, and it’s not a good look, I admit, but I know I personally tend to be a little more tentative when repairing a relationship. I’m maybe not going to proclaim how amazing it is going to be when it is already failed before. But God is all in. And I’m realizing of course, that God is always all in, but that it is us that need to learn how to be ready for that.
Because, I hadn’t realized until I ventured well past our lectionary reading for today, that until Moses said “forgive our wickedness” there had actually been no apology, well at least not one that didn’t seem mired in excuses, and triangulation, and defensiveness. Restoration is a process, and God showed up to that process in a way that inspired the children of Israel to repent, that little by little inspired them to do the self-examination that was required for them to be able to re-enter the covenant.
Sometimes when we have done something wrong, knowingly or unknowingly, it does feel like we are thrown into a cleft of a rock. It feels uncomfortable and pokey. And repentance and self-examination isn’t easy. God knows this. If seeing God’s back is all we can manage at that time, that is all we will see, if we need a hand covering over the intensity of God’s glory and God’s call, it will be there for us. But the trajectory is always to get to the renewal of the covenant. We are not supposed to get cozy in the cleft. The cleft and God’s hand is protecting us in the moment, modulating whatever of Divine Truth we can understand, accept and absorb, but ultimately the goal is to stand up on the rock of our faith. To stand up on our own two feet so that we can then choose to bow down with a full knowledge of our shortcomings and a real desire to make restitution.
Knowing as we do, that the literal sense of the bible tells the story of God from a human point of view, when we wish to show up half-heartedly and tentatively to the covenant, then it may seem that God does so as well. We receive what we make space for, and God won’t force us to accept God’s presence unwillingly. But God is patient. There are times we need a holding pattern, and so God holds us. Which I guess does seem like protection and nurture after all. We just can’t see God’s face because God leading us out of the cleft and into the covenant. And thank goodness someone can see what is coming.
In the words of Father Thomas Keating: God is not just with us, not just beside us, not just under us, not just over us, but within us, at the deepest level, and in our inmost being, a step beyond the true self.
(1) Emmanuel Swedenborg, Secrets of Heaven #10579 and #10582
12 Moses said to the LORD, “You have been telling me, ‘Lead these people,’ but you have not let me know whom you will send with me. You have said, ‘I know you by name and you have found favor with me.’ 13 If you are pleased with me, teach me your ways so I may know you and continue to find favor with you. Remember that this nation is your people.” 14 The LORD replied, “My Presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.” 15 Then Moses said to him, “If your Presence does not go with us, do not send us up from here. 16 How will anyone know that you are pleased with me and with your people unless you go with us? What else will distinguish me and your people from all the other people on the face of the earth?” 17 And the LORD said to Moses, “I will do the very thing you have asked, because I am pleased with you and I know you by name.” 18 Then Moses said, “Now show me your glory.” 19 And the LORD said, “I will cause all my goodness to pass in front of you, and I will proclaim my name, the LORD, in your presence. I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion. 20 But,” he said, “you cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live.” 21 Then the LORD said, “There is a place near me where you may stand on a rock. 22 When my glory passes by, I will put you in a cleft in the rock and cover you with my hand until I have passed by. 23 Then I will remove my hand and you will see my back; but my face must not be seen.”
Secrets of Heaven #10579:9
Anyone can understand what 'Jehovah's face' serves to mean in these places, namely the Divine and everything which is an attribute of the Divine. Thus His 'face' serves to mean mercy, peace, and every kind of good, but in the universal sense Divine Truth since Divine Truth encompasses every kind of good. Both among people in the world and among angels in heaven Divine Good is embodied within Divine Truth; without it Divine Good does not exist, for truth is the receiver of good, thus also of mercy and peace. From this it now follows that where Divine Good does not exist within Divine Truth, neither does Jehovah's face. It also follows that where evil exists within falsity the Divine is not seen. This is what Jehovah's hiding His face and turning it away is used to mean…
These are your gods
Photo credit: Jan Koetsier
Readings: Exodus 32:1-14, Secrets of Heaven #8869 (see below)
See also on Youtube https://youtu.be/waekQgQylT0
We continue today in our journey with the children of Israel in the wilderness, and seeing how their challenges can be metaphorically applied to our own internal challenges. What we missed last week was the transmission of the ten commandments. Having reached Mount Sinai, Moses ascends the mountain and communes with God, receiving God’s instructions for the life of the Israelites and their journey in covenant together, a people and their God.
However, Moses takes a fair bit of time up there on the mountain with God. If you check out the book of Exodus chapters 20-32, you will find that God has much much more to say to Moses than just the ten commandments. Chapter 24 v18 tells us that it was forty days and forty nights. In our time of constant contact and communication with each other, is it possible for us to imagine what it would have been be like to not hear from Moses, their leader, for well over a month? The Israelites start to get impatient, and we hear what happened in our text today. They commission (or though some translations would argue that they coerce) Aaron to melt down their jewelry into an image of a golden calf, and they begin to worship that calf and indulge in inappropriate behavior.
God, of course, is annoyed. We need only imagine how we feel when someone has reneged on a promise to us for this reaction to make some sense. It feels like a betrayal. We feel wounded and disappointed and angry. However, this is the point where we pause to recognize that the bible is a human story about God, and is not the final word on God’s nature. *We* would feel wounded, disappointed and angry. God is pure love and wisdom and sees things in an eternal way. Swedenborg tells us that…..”the Word speaks of Jehovah’s reacting in that kind of way because the sense of the letter consists of ideas of things as [humanity] sees them.” (1) We project our human feelings on to God, we move away from God and interpret that distance as anger. We cannot fathom the complexity of the simultaneous existence of love and judgment and transmute this into God having to be convinced of mercy. And that is a fascinating discussion, but it will need to be for another day, because I have a different direction that I wish to explore. But suffice it to say, God would never actually have to be convinced not to smite us. That’s not how God works.
What I would like to talk about today might seems like a very small issue in the original Hebrew, but I think it leads to some very interesting implications for our own lives.
In the very first verse of our text, the people come to Aaron and say “Come make us gods who will go before us.” The word translated as “gods” here is elohim, which is both the generic plural for “gods” and the singular for the God of Israel. So it could also be translated as “Come make us a god…” To quote from a commentary: “The reader must weigh whether, as biblical scholar Rolf Jacobson offers, the text is “referring to a false god other than the Lord or to a false image of the Lord.” (2)
In other words, were the children of Israel asking for a completely false god (ie another god) to worship or a false *image* of the one true God to worship? What was the sin here: worshiping a statue in the shape of a calf and believing it was a god, or making the statement that this statue is the shape of God?
This question takes on even more gravitas when we extrapolate the story to our own lives. We are invited to think about our own false idols, false gods that we worship. But as indicated by this interesting translation dilemma, there are two ways we can look at it.
The first is to ask, what is it that we are worshipping *instead* of God? What is it that we are making more important than God? And to answer this question, we can look simply to how we are spending our time, we can ask what occupies our thoughts? Where is the bulk of our energy going, physically and emotionally? What does our life worship? Security, wealth, superiority, reputation, control, body image, ideology…how much time and energy are we devoting to these things? These can all become false gods to us when we sacrifice the best parts of ourselves to them, when we bow down to them above all.
The second question however is, what image might we be projecting onto God so that we might worship that image while pretending that we are worshiping God? What image are we fashioning out of our own self-intelligence, our own selfish agenda, and lifting up as a picture of who God is and what God wants? The current administration’s preoccupation with the appearance of strength might be one example of the way this plays out. Do we fashion for ourselves a strongman God, an angry and judgmental God, so that we might be able to justify playing strongman ourselves, being angry and judgmental ourselves? Remember, the Israelites did not just go from a pious worship from the one true God to a pious worship of an image of a calf. They used the occasion to justify behaviors that they knew the Lord would not support. To quote author Anne Lamott: You can safely assume you have created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.”
I think it can be argued that the second practice, worshiping a god that we have created in our own image, is the greater blasphemy. It is one thing to worship something other than God, to replace God with something that we find more important, consciously or unconsciously. It is another level of dissembling to lie to oneself and others about who God is, to make and perpetuate a false image of God to serve our own purposes. One could say this has a lot of similarity to another commandment: taking the Lord’s name in vain.
Our Swedenborg reading makes clear this process is worshipping that which comes from the self. We human beings are so very susceptible to this common failing, so much so that it is immortalized in our fairytales: Mirror Mirror on the Wall, who’s the greatest of them all? We look into the reflection that we are pretending is God and of course this god says: You my Queen, You my King. You are the greatest of them all, the most devoted, and the most devout, a warrior for our cause. And we are satisfied. But it is, of course, an illusion. Just as much as the angry God in this story, the one where God’s mercy needs to be explained as the brainchild of human being. Many times, we are looking at God through a veil of our own construction.
Swedenborg writes further:
Nor do those truths have the Lord within them which are taken from the Word, in particular from the sense of the letter there, and interpreted in favour of personal dominion and personal gain. In themselves these are truths because they come from the Word yet they are not truths because they are interpreted wrongly. (3)
The story of the golden calf is a very human story. And it is also a warning. Particularly in times of challenge and uncertainty, we crave certainty, and the surety of our rightness, and the easiest way to get that is to just make a god ourselves, and to make a god *out* of ourselves. But this is not what the life of the spirit calls us to. It calls us to a difficult practice of patience and trust and openness, one that will reveal to us our shortcomings but will also lead us to a land that will be our home. This is what our God ultimately looks like: one who leads and loves. Amen.
1 When the people saw that Moses was so long in coming down from the mountain, they gathered around Aaron and said, “Come, make us gods who will go before us. As for this fellow Moses who brought us up out of Egypt, we don’t know what has happened to him.” 2 Aaron answered them, “Take off the gold earrings that your wives, your sons and your daughters are wearing, and bring them to me.” 3 So all the people took off their earrings and brought them to Aaron. 4 He took what they handed him and made it into an idol cast in the shape of a calf, fashioning it with a tool. Then they said, “These are your gods, Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt.” 5 When Aaron saw this, he built an altar in front of the calf and announced, “Tomorrow there will be a festival to the LORD.” 6 So the next day the people rose early and sacrificed burnt offerings and presented fellowship offerings. Afterward they sat down to eat and drink and got up to indulge in revelry. 7 Then the LORD said to Moses, “Go down, because your people, whom you brought up out of Egypt, have become corrupt. 8 They have been quick to turn away from what I commanded them and have made themselves an idol cast in the shape of a calf. They have bowed down to it and sacrificed to it and have said, ‘These are your gods, Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt.’ 9 “I have seen these people,” the LORD said to Moses, “and they are a stiff-necked people. 10 Now leave me alone so that my anger may burn against them and that I may destroy them. Then I will make you into a great nation.” 11 But Moses sought the favor of the LORD his God. “LORD,” he said, “why should your anger burn against your people, whom you brought out of Egypt with great power and a mighty hand? 12 Why should the Egyptians say, ‘It was with evil intent that he brought them out, to kill them in the mountains and to wipe them off the face of the earth’? Turn from your fierce anger; relent and do not bring disaster on your people. 13 Remember your servants Abraham, Isaac and Israel, to whom you swore by your own self: ‘I will make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and I will give your descendants all this land I promised them, and it will be their inheritance forever.’ ” 14 Then the LORD relented and did not bring on his people the disaster he had threatened.
Secrets of Heaven #8869
'You shall not make for yourself a graven image' means no product of self-intelligence. This is clear from the meaning of 'a graven image' as that which does not come from the Lord but from a person's self. A product of one's own understanding is meant by 'a graven image', and a product of one's own will by 'a molded image'. Having either kind as a god or venerating it is loving all that comes from self more than anything else….These are 'the makers of graven images', and the images themselves are what they hatch from their own understanding and will, and wish to be venerated as things that are Divine.