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.