Joseph and Moses (III)
Joseph’s achievement – as the rejected savior of his brethren – was to “save much folk alive” from a devastating famine, in accord with the providence of God. But what they were being saved for, that Joseph shows little sign of knowing or seeking to know. If Israel has a distinctive vocation, it is not one that Joseph set forward. Whatever future there may be for the promise of God to Abraham, he apparently leaves in the hands of providence. Ironically, Joseph’s administrative rescue of his family from famine ultimately brings their descendants into bondage and oppression from which they must be extricated by divine intervention.
It is Moses whom God calls to be the mediator of this divine intervention; and yet Moses’ work goes far beyond merely reversing the ill effects of Joseph’s earlier rescue. The great work of Moses is to found a nation with an identity and purpose that was nothing else than the service of God as “a kingdom of priests, and an holy nation”, in holiness and righteousness. What is a nation for? The comfort and safety that Joseph brought it? Wealth or empire like Egypt? Or something other and greater than these? Thanks to the mediation of Moses, Israel knows that it does not exist simply for itself: it exists for the sake of God, and of the world. That is a teaching that resonates through Christian history, from the religious and political vision of Bede for the English people, through the sacral kingships of Christendom, and even in the American republic. It’s a thought that finds an echo in the prayer for “our Country”: “that through obedience to thy law, we may show forth thy praise among the nations of the earth”.
Through Moses’ mediation God delivers Israel from bondage in Egypt; unites Israel to himself (as a bridegroom to a bride) in the covenant at Mount Sinai; gives them a law to guide their life as a nation in the ways of holiness, justice, and mercy; and has Israel build a Tabernacle in accord with God’s commands wherein he bestows his abiding presence among his people. Freedom from oppression is not the goal, but a grace; an opportunity to serve God in rational freedom, consciously willing his will and purpose; a God who is intimately present to us.
In all this, the greatness of Moses as a leader is proved in crisis more than once, as he guides his people still slavish in their outlook through the wilderness to the promised land. He must deal with self-destructive rebellions born of despair and fear. When the people commit apostasy, in the worshipping of the golden calf, he must put his own life on the line before the Lord, in interceding for them and obtaining the renewal of the covenant they have so grievously broken.
Yet there we reach the limits of Moses’ achievement. God had called Moses to bring Israel out of Egypt unto Canaan, “unto a land flowing with milk and honey” – but Moses is allowed by God only to see it from afar, from the heights of mount
Nebo: it is his lieutenant, Joshua, who will lead them across Jordan. Along with the wilderness generation who rebelled against him, Moses is barred from entering the promised land. The reasons for this are obscure. But what seems to be at work is the limits of the covenant mediated by Moses. To put it bluntly, it can show us what we should do, and what we are made for – we can see the promised land from afar – but it does not give us the power to realize what it requires, it does not take us through Jordan into the land of promise. That must be left to Joshua – a name which is rendered in the Greek of the New Testament as “Jesus”. St. John puts it this way: “the law came through Moses, but grace and truth through Jesus Christ”.
The “new testament” – another word for “covenant” – is not tacked on to the old, but emerges out of it, as the resolution of the tensions present in it from the beginning, and its definitive fulfilment. How this is so we shall consider in the final essay next week.
You may read Parts 1 & 2 of this essay below:
The public domain painting is entitled “Joseph’s Bloody Coat Brought to Jacob” by Diego Velazquez . This essay was published in the St. John’s Parish Paper for Sunday, March 14, 2021. If you have questions or topics for a featured story, please send them to Rector Gavin Dunbar.