What is the Bible? Part 33: Moses Gets It On
Yesterday we read the Bible from some higher altitudes, looking for arcs and patterns and shifts and stories that can most easily be spotted when you read it in big chunks, looking at entire books.
Today, let’s switch gears and read it at a much lower altitude, focusing in on one word, a word from the book of Deuteronomy chapter 34. Moses, the writer tells us
was a hundred and twenty years old when he died, yet his eyes were not weak nor his strength gone.
A fairly straight forward verse, correct? Moses was old…and then he died. What else is there to say?
Actually quite a bit. Read it again. Notice anything unusual yet?
How about that phrase nor his strength gone?
Moses has just died, correct? Which is the ultimate in your strength going, right? So why does the writer want us to know that Moses died but his strength hadn’t gone?
The word strength here in Hebrew is the word leho and it occurs once in the Bible. It literally means moisture or freshness.
One translation reads
nor had his natural force abated
while another reads
he still had his vigor
while the JPS Torah Commentary notes that Ibn Ezra understood the verse to mean
he had not become wrinkled.
(Please tell me you’re smiling by this point…)
Natural force hadn’t abated?
He hadn’t become wrinkled?
What does the writer want us to know about Moses?
That’s right, friends, Moses was the great leader of the Hebrews, the liberator who led them out of bondage, the man who defied Pharaoh and lived to tell about it, the one who courageously led the Israelites through endless struggles and trials in the wilderness, the Moses who climbed Mt. Sinai to meet with God, the towering figure of the Hebrew scriptures-he may have died…
but he could still get it up, even at the end.
No Viagra for this guy.
Just so you know.
Leho, to make sure we’re all clear here, is a euphemism for sexual potency.
That’s what the storyteller here wants us to know about Moses at the time of his death.
This raises several points. (Haha.)
First, when someone is bored reading the Bible they’re inevitably missing all the interesting bits going on just below the surface. Let me say that another way: The Bible is endlessly fascinating with all its nuance and subtlety and euphemisms. They never seem to end, this verse being an excellent example. Why would the writer here feel the need to let us know about Moses’s libido?
Well the Bible, especially the first parts, is about a tribe, right? A tribe who brought the world so many revolutionary ideas that we often take for granted their contributions because these ideas are now so basic to how we understand reality. This tribe had a sense that they were called to be a new kind of tribe in the world, a tribe that would show the world the redeeming love of God. And how do you build a tribe? Several ways, but chiefly through having kids. And how do you make babies? …Exactly! That’s why there are all those boring genealogies throughout the Bible-the weren’t boring to the those who wrote and first read them, they were major props to people who did their part to carry on the legacy. Moses was true to his tribe, the writer wants us to know, doing his part to carry on the legacy. He was up for it. (I couldn’t resist.)
Second, in my observation, a lot of the people who talk the most about how important and central and necessary the Bible is seem to skip over, gloss, and censor the most interesting parts. This is a dangerous, explicit, foul, honest, strange, paradoxical, inspiring book reflecting real people in real places at real times trying to make sense of suffering and redemption and calling and love and a thousand of things that we’re all still talking about today.
The Bible is wild.
Jesus makes mud with his spit and wipes it on a dude’s eyes and a large crowd in his hometown want to kill him and Moses can still have an erection and David dances naked in public and the disciples run into people who are possessed by demons and in the city of Ephesus and tens of thousands of people want Paul executed and the prophet Jeremiah essentially says to God you seduced me and then left me while Jesus’s great-great-great-great-great grandmother dressed up like a prostitute to get her father-in-law to have sex with her.
The idea that this book would somehow be associated with oppressive morality or judgmental, narrow minded religious institutions or repressive systems of control is baffling. How did this book ever come to be seen by so many people as boring?
I tell you about Moses and his moisture because I want you to see this book in a new way, with a sense of adventure and surprise and a smile on your face because it’s that unexpected and interesting. But beyond that, I want you to see the humanity of these stories, the funky unexpected twists and turns like the one here in Moses’s obituary. I want you to enjoy this library for the compelling stories that it tells, stories filled with people a lot like you and I.
Third, I’m endlessly disturbed with how many people have a love/hate/but mostly confused relationship with the Bible. What I’ve noticed over time when I ask questions is that this love/hate relationship is rooted in a belief that the Bible is God’s way of showing you what you’re doing wrong.
I don’t see it like that. (Which I’m guessing you probably know by now.)
To me, it’s about discovery and exploration and the freedom to question and doubt and wrestle and laugh and entertain all sorts of possibilities. These books reflect real people getting really pissed off at God and trying to find language for their euphoric experiences of joy and love and wrestling with the evil in the world and the suffering that can easily crush our hearts and the freedom we have to do really, really evil and destructive things to each other.
It’s about the possibility that something transformative really did happen in human history through a Jewish man named Jesus that changed everything and that we’re surrounded by signs of this new creation, hints and glimpses and glances and tastes of a whole new world bursting forth right here in the midst of this one.
All that, from one word.
I hope your vigor hasn’t abated.
What is the Bible?
Part 34: Do What to Our Whats?
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