Does Moses foreshadow Christ AND each of us?
I’m still here at age 75, which is a peculiar feeling at times, given how many people die before reaching that age. But the bottom line is that God has not checked me out of this life yet, nor have I been sinful or confused enough to deliberately check myself out. What, each of us may wonder at times, is God waiting for?
Now, for some reason this puts me in mind of Moses who, even as a “type of Christ”, had a long, tumultuous and imperfect life here on earth. In Deuteronomy chapter 34, we learn that Moses died at age 120 (after leading the Jewish people through the wilderness for 40 years). Moses talked directly with God, but he was not allowed to enter the Promised Land. He was permitted only to view it from afar. Why?
The reason was that Moses had not perfectly fulfilled God’s will, most particularly in the provision of water to his thirsty people, at which time he grew angry and did not follow God’s precise instructions. In discussing this, we remember of course that Christ had not come to pay our debts and pour out on us the fulness of his Divine life. In any case, Moses’ imperfection and its results are specifically recounted in Numbers 20:10-13.
Here we are told how Moses—the single greatest figure under the Old Covenant—came to be excluded from the Promised Land. This suggests something that I believe I see elsewhere in Scripture as well, namely that Moses is not only a type of Christ for us as we read the Scriptures forward to their fulfillment, but he is also a type of each of us—namely, an imperfect man who struggled to grow into perfect trust in and dependence on God’s love and grace.
Typically I read all of Scripture at the rate of about one chapter of one book per night, and then when I have finished, I begin reading it all over again after a short break. (By the way, I find the following prayer—which is not original with me—to be a great way to start: “Lord, may I know you better and love you more through the reading of this Sacred Scripture.”) Anyway, I become newly conscious of different aspects of the story of our salvation with each new reading. It does not take a genius to recognize that God’s Word is inexhaustible to our finite minds, but insights that I never had before seem to present themselves each time around.
One does not, of course, impose such insights on others as “the correct understanding” of the text. The Church can do this is particular instances—at least in excluding false understandings—but we cannot. Instead we leave room (albeit carefully) for what the Holy Spirit wishes to inspire in us here and now as we read. And we are free (albeit carefully) to share our own insights with others, subject always to the correction of the Church, and always open to the value of the insights into the text that others may share with us.
The growth of Moses as a man
What I noticed this time around—and what I hope sheds some light on today’s topic—is that Moses had to grow constantly in his own understanding of and trust in God. This insight arose initially in reading Exodus chapters 3-12. When God first called to Moses from the burning bush to enlist Moses into the mission of leading the Jews out of Egypt, the exchange between them went something like this:
God: Pharoah is oppressing my people. Come, I will send you to Pharaoh to bring them out of Egypt. (Exodus 3:7-10)
Moses: Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring them out of Egypt? (3:11)
God: I will be with you. (3:12)
Moses: But if I come to the people, and they ask who sent me, what shall I say? (3:13)
God: I AM WHO I AM. Say to this people: I AM has sent me to you. The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. I will bring you out of Egypt where you are so badly treated. And you will explain this to the elders and then go to the King of Egypt. Although he will resist you, I will compel him. (3:14-22)
Moses: But they will never believe me. (4:1)
God: Here are some amazing signs you can show them so that they will believe, especially things that you can do with your staff. (4:2-9)
Moses: But I am not eloquent; I am slow of speech and tongue. (4:10)
God: Who has made man’s mouth? Now therefore go and I will be with your mouth and teach you what you shall speak. (4:11-12)
Moses: Please send someone else! (4:13)
God (now angry): Is there not Aaron? He can speak well. You shall speak to him and put the words in his mouth, and I will be with your mouth and with his mouth and will teach you both what to do. Go! And do not forget the staff! (4:14-16)
If this is not a prototypical account of our own uneasiness with God’s commissions, I do not know what is. Moreover, if we flash forward to the plagues God sends upon Egypt through the agency of Moses and Aaron, we may well see more of this same halting growth of Moses in his relationship with and reliance on God.
Let us consider the plagues in order, starting with plagues one through five (Exodus chapters 7, 8 and the beginning of 9):
- To bring on the plague of water turned to blood, God instructed Moses to tell Aaron to extend his staff over Egypt’s waters.
- For the plague of frogs, again God told Moses to tell Aaron to stretch out his hand.
- For the gnats, once again: Say to Aaron, “stretch out your staff…”
- For the flies, Pharoah is told what the plague will be and then God brings it about with no “trigger” action from Moses or Aaron.
- For the death of Egypt’s livestock, it is the same. The plague is foretold and again God brings it about with no intermediary human “trigger”.
For the first five plagues, then, we have Moses and Aaron working together in delivering the messages to Pharoah, but it is either Aaron who makes the sign that initiates the plague or there is only an announcement but no symbolic trigger. Moses is still, in some sense, leaning on Aaron. Perhaps this indicates that he has not fully grown into this new relationship with God and with God’s power.
Then we come to the sixth plague (also recounted in chapter 9):
- For the plague of boils, God tells both Moses and Aaron to take up handfuls of soot, but says “let Moses throw them into the air”.
Is it too much to suggest that this sounds like a parent saying to Aaron, the older brother by three years: “Now let’s give little Moses a chance”?
But things become quite different for the last four plagues, which are recounted in chapters 9 through 12:
- For the plague of hail, there is no mention of Aaron. Moses is given much to say to Pharoah, and Moses is told to “Stretch out your hand toward heaven that there may be hail in all the land of Egypt.” Pharaoh realizes his mistake, and begs Moses and Aaron to intercede; but it is Moses who stretches out his hands to the Lord to stop the hail.
- For the plague of locusts, both Moses and Aaron are sent to Pharaoh, but it is Moses who stretches out his staff to initiate the locust onslaught, just as it is Moses who responds to Pharaoh’s appeal by asking the Lord to bring the plague to its end.
- For the plague of darkness, it is once again Moses who stretches his hand toward heaven to trigger the darkness, and now it is Moses alone with whom Pharaoh pleads.
- For the final plague, the death of the firstborn, it is Moses alone (as far as the text reveals) to whom God explains the death of the firstborn and how Israel is to be protected by the blood of the Lamb, and it is Moses who issues the saving instructions to the people.
Later, as I have already mentioned, Moses seems to continue to grow in his significant yet imperfect trust in God—if, in fact, it is reasonable to read the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Old Testament, the Mosaic books) in this way. We recall that on the occasion of the apostasy of Aaron and Israel in the matter of the golden calf, when Moses descends from the mountain where he has been receiving God’s commandments, he angrily dashes the stone tablets to the ground and shatters them, so that they have to be made anew. But at the same time, he pleads with God for his people. Then, in the incident that seems to have kept him out of the Promised Land, Moses again behaves in anger, referring (it seems) to God and himself as “we”, and resorting to a dramatic use of his staff in striking the rock to produce a flow of water, when God had told him simply to call it forth with his voice.
Of course, I have no special insight into the full meaning of all these texts which, in any case, do not even begin to be exhausted by any additional insight in reading them this time around. But Moses is the pre-eminent Old Testament figure, and I like to think that he is not only a type of Christ but a type of ourselves, as we struggle to discern God’s will, only to discern it and do it imperfectly, even confusing it sometimes with feelings and impulses that are not from God at all. I think we can also see in God’s refusal to allow Moses to enter the Promised Land a sign of the existence of purgatory, where each of us may undergo, not an ultimate loss, but a final purification before we come face to face with God. For in our weakness, we can only struggle to love Him more perfectly day by day.
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Posted by: johnk64 -
Apr. 22, 2023 9:41 PM ET USA
That Moses was not allowed into the Promised Land, for what I read as a moment of impatience and lack of trust frankly scares me. Moses was a faithful prophet and gave so much. When I look at all my more than momentary lapses, it gives me pause to say the least. I don't agree with the "God will understand" sentiment. At the same time, I can only trust that God's mercy is great.