In Moses’ Footsteps: Glimpses of the “Promised Land”

Khamsin sandstorm
A khamsin sandstorm (NASA)

The good news from my travel agent was that she could get an excellent price on a home-bound flight from Cairo by booking on Royal Jordanian Airlines to Amman, and then catch its recently-inaugurated service to Tel Aviv where I’d connect with another airline for the trans-Atlantic leg. The bad news, she said, was that it would mean a ten-hour stopover in Amman and transfer between airports. But to me that was pure opportunity. This new service between Jordan and Israel was possible because of a historic peace treaty signed three and a half years earlier, in 1994, meaning that I could get one of the first boarding passes with “Tel Aviv” printed in Arabic; a souvenir of Middle East peacemaking too good to miss. Better yet, Amman is an easy 30 kilometre drive from Mount Nebo where God is said to have shown Moses the “promised land” that his tribes were supposed to conquer. Ten hours would be enough to immerse myself in some historical context for that continuing quarrel over ancestral land which was taking me to Cairo in the first place. Since I’d have to transfer between airports anyway I would rent a car and go tread the legendary footsteps of Moses.

The more worrying challenge was that in Amman, not long before, agents of Israel’s “Institute for Intelligence and Special Operations” (the Mossad) had made an unsuccessful assassination attempt on the political head of the Palestinian “Islamic Resistance Movement” (Hamas) and got arrested carrying the forged passports that they’d used to enter Jordan as Canadian tourists. So here I was, about to arrive in Amman, showing a Canadian passport, and explaining that I was just going to rent a car for a few hours and then fly straight out to Israel. Under the circumstances, the prospect of explaining myself to Jordanian immigration officials was, to say the least, potentially awkward. Happily, colleagues in Cairo knew the head of security at Queen Alia airport and assured me that there would be no problem. The only remaining unwelcome development arose on the day of my flight when visibility was reduced across the region by a springtime khamsin desert sandstorm.

Mount Nebo is part of a long ridge that rises about 815 metres (2,700 feet) above the biblical “plains of Moab”. A Franciscan monastery now occupies the traditional spot for Moses’ revelation and I suppose I should have been interested, but the gaggle of buses and milling tourists were utterly unappealing. My aim was to experience Mount Nebo as Moses might have done, three millennia earlier. So, driving straight past, I found a spot where, as far as I could see through the dusty air, the top should be just as high and the view about the same. Who knows the exact point on a ridge where an individual may have climbed more than 3,500 years ago, especially if he died there with God as the only witness.(*)

Trudging up the stony slope toward a haze-shrouded summit I tried to imagine Moses: worn down by the strain of leading a dozen unruly tribes through forty tumultuous years of wandering; feeling the weight of age; disappointed in knowing that he would not live to reach the goal. Small red flowers scattered over the hillside reminded me of the poppies that symbolize remembrance at our war memorials. Might Moses have thought about those who had died on the journey, fulfilling the divine judgment that this generation had to pass away before the next could set foot in the “promised land”? At the top, just as I had expected, there was nothing to see but sandy haze. Resting on a smooth rock I lit a leisurely pipe-full of tobacco to meditate on disappointment.

And then, as if a dusty gauze curtain was being drawn back almost imperceptibly, the haze began to thin, revealing tantalizing distant hints of green that gradually solidified into lush vegetation flanking the Jordan River and surrounding the ancient town of Jericho; a scene little changed in more than three thousand years. Was it like that for Moses? Did he climb wearily up this hill, sit down here to reflect on disappointment and then, slowly and dramatically, see the goal revealed as if by the hand of the consummate cosmic showman?

I don’t know about you, but I’ve had some of those “Moses moments” over the years: keeping the faith while plodding steadily upward, wondering if a journey was worth it, reaching an anti-climactic summit, reflecting wearily and then, wondrously and dramatically, being uplifted by the inscrutable unveiling of a dimly imagined goal. Sitting here on this January day I can’t help but wonder what misty destinations might be unveiled during the journey through 2019. It’s an uplifting prospect.

Happy New Year!

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(*) The original story, written in the 8th Century BCE, reads: “Then Moses went up from the plains of Moab to Mount Nebo, to the top of Pisgah, which is across from Jericho. And the Lord showed him all the land of Gilead as far as Dan, all Naphtali and the land of Ephraim and Manasseh, all the land of Judah as far as the Western Sea, the South, and the plain of the Valley of Jericho, the city of palm trees, as far as Zoar. Then the Lord said to him, “This is the land of which I swore to give Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, saying, ‘I will give it to your descendants.’ I have caused you to see it with your eyes, but you shall not cross over there.” So Moses the servant of the Lord died there in the land of Moab, according to the word of the Lord. And He buried him in a valley in the land of Moab, opposite Beth Peor; but no one knows his grave to this day.” (from the 34th chapter of “Deuteronomy”)