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  • Writer's picturePaul G. Chandler

A VISUAL MEDITATION - “Seeing Life from Mt Nebo”

Updated: May 18

By Paul G. Chandler - October 29, 2023.

James Tissot, "Moses Sees From Afar," c. 1896-1902, Gouache on board

One of the readings for this weekend in the Church is from the very end of the book of Deuteronomy, where it says; Then the LORD said to [Moses], : "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.’" This is how the first five books of the Bible, of the life of Moses (or Musa), end.

The last chapter of the book of Deuteronomy, which is of course the last book of what is known as the Pentateuch (“Five Books” of Moses – Torah or Tawrat ), opens with a graphic visual 3D tour of the land as far as the eye can see. If you have been to the top of Mt Nebo, in today’s Kingdom of Jordan, at 4000 feet up (1220 m), one is provided a spectacular view. This is what was in front of Moses. It is a view that compels a sense of longing.

That view from Mt. Nebo was what Moses lived, hoped and wished for. God had been faithful to Moses, saying; “I have let you see it with your eyes…” but… and this perhaps is one of the most difficult “buts” in the Biblical story; “but you will not cross over into it.”

The great 19th century French painter James Tissot, has a marvelous painting that really captures the emotion that Moses must have felt. The painting is found today in the Jewish Museum in New York City. Tissot spent the last part of his life traveling through the Middle East and painting what he felt were the most important Biblical stories within the culture that they took place.

In this painting, Tissot shows Moses, standing on Mt. Nebo, looking out over the land that he has journeyed toward. If you look long and hard at the painting, one is able to glimpse the emotion he was experiencing when learning that he will not be entering into it.

It reminds me of those words from that 4th century Cappadocian bishop, Gregory of Nyssa, in what is Turkey today, in his book “The Life of Moses.” He wrote, “The knowledge of God is a mountain steep indeed, and difficult to climb.” We often climb with effort to the “top,” only to see a vision that may seem inaccessible.

It is possible to look out from “Mt. Nebo” and see a “landscape” different than the one envisaged. And there are many who, standing upon their own “high mountain tops,” see just that. The land Moses looked out over was filled with both promise and peril. Many people find themselves standing metaphorically on “Mt. Nebo."

However, while the view from “Mt. Nebo” might not be what they wish it to be, we must remember that it is also the beginning of a whole new adventure. For in the future, while it will not be without difficulty, God’s presence is guaranteed. It is in the future where God’s promises are realized. The future is always God’s time. Hence, when looking out from Mt. Nebo, the view can be interpreted as opportunity, because God goes before us taking us from where we are to where we need to be. This is what the Psalmist meant when he wrote, “Blessed are those who have set their hearts on pilgrimage.”

Mt. Nebo reminds us that what we see is not necessarily what we get - but that what we are promised is the opportunity to see as we have never seen before. Maybe this is what the Scottish writer Robert Louis Stevenson meant when he referred to the view from the peak of Mt. Nebo as the “the best observatory.” It can be the window into a beautiful vision of God’s character and way of working in our world, in spite of any obstacle.

A future with God is so extraordinary that it exceeds our imagination. It is God who promises us all spiritual light, to see into what is, what can be and ought to be.

I remember the experience of the hobbit named Samwise, in JRR Tolkien’s marvelous trilogy titled “The Lord of the Rings.” When he, Samwise, and Frodo, another hobbit, were overwhelmed and despairing. Then, Samwise sees a single star shimmering within the dark clouds over their land, named Mordor. Looking at the star, Tolkien writes, “The beauty of it smote [Samwise’s] heart, as he looked up out of that forsaken land, and hope returned to him. For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty forever beyond its reach.”

It takes a special kind of sight, to see the things that will be and are able to be, because of God - and be sustained by that vision, in the midst of whatever the present circumstances are. It is this type of vision that guided and sustained Moses, and that brought him to the mountaintop of Mt. Nebo. Few of us can orchestrate the movements of our lives. There is a sense that the nature of faith is that life is lived in its incompleteness. But each of us is given an invitation to be part of that holy pilgrimage, that takes us from the crest of Mt. Nebo into the valleys, the highways, and the byways of life’s journey, until we reach our destination, which is the full and beautiful embrace of God.

Artwork: James Tissot, "Moses Sees From Afar," c. 1896-1902, Gouache on board


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