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The Sisyphean Life of Moses


Moving between Deuteronomy 34 and Jude 9, this week’s Adult Bible Study Guide focuses on the drama surrounding Moses’s death and resurrection. In providing reasons for Moses being denied entrance into the Promised Land and for his lonely death, it also relies on Ellen White’s commentary on the story in Patriarchs and Prophets. As I read the prophet on the patriarch, I found an existential funk descend, a beautifully muddy mix of lifework and meaninglessness, the tensions between individual and the community.

White writes:

In solitude Moses reviewed his life of vicissitudes and hardships since he turned from courtly honors and from a prospective kingdom in Egypt, to cast in his lot with God’s chosen people. He called to mind those long years in the desert with the flocks of Jethro, the appearance of the Angel in the burning bush, and his own call to deliver Israel. Again he beheld the mighty miracles of God’s power displayed in behalf of the chosen people, and His long-suffering mercy during the years of their wandering and rebellion. Notwithstanding all that God had wrought for them, notwithstanding his own prayers and labors, only two of all the adults in the vast army that left Egypt had been found so faithful that they could enter the Promised Land. As Moses reviewed the result of his labors, his life of trial and sacrifice seemed to have been almost in vain.” (471-72)

There is a Sisyphean quality to Moses’s story and not only because the meaning of each character’s “lifework" is connected to a rock. Both great leaders relied on a special relationship to the divine and their own wits to outsmart other humans and out-argue God. Both were also responsible for the deaths of other humans, en masse and through a personal single act of violence. A moral thread runs through each story: existence means obedience to the divine, justice, and dutiful labor. Of course, the parallels are not perfect, but both escape death, and the theme of the final act in each story focuses on the ultimate meaning of their actions. The Sabbath School lesson exclaims: “Poor Moses! Having come so far, having gone through so much, only to be left out of the fulfillment of the promise made to Abram many centuries earlier . . .” And poor hero Sisyphus! He tied up death so he could escape hell, but the unintended consequence that no humans were dying at all caused the gods to doom him to his own pointless end.

In The Myth of Sisyphus, Albert Camus writes that he “is the absurd hero.” Reflecting on the meaning of the Sisyphean rock eternally rolling back down, Camus elaborates:

At the very end of his long effort measured by skyless space and time without depth, the purpose is achieved. Then Sisyphus watches the stone rush down in a few moments toward that lower world whence he will have to push it up again toward the summit. He goes back down to the plain.

It is during that return, that pause, that Sisyphus interests me. A face that toils so close to stones is already stone itself! I see that man going back down with a heavy yet measured step toward the torment of which he will never know the end. That hour like a breathing-space which returns as surely as his suffering, that is the hour of consciousness. At each of those moments when he leaves the heights and gradually sinks toward the lairs of the gods, he is superior to his fate. He is stronger than his rock. (23)

I think of Michelangelo’s Moses (c. 1513-1516), a tension-rich masterpiece of rock hard muscles, soft clothes and hair, light rays of divine enlightenment and an almost superhuman prophetic stare, all in Carrara marble. Moses is a giant—in this version he’s over eight feet tall, seated! He’s stronger than everyone except his partner and fate-decider, YHWH.

In The Cambridge Introduction to Emmanuel Levinas, Michael Morgan discusses the ethics-focused philosopher’s insights into Moses’s encounter with the divine and the meaning of humans created imago Dei.

He writes:

Levinas also turns to the biblical text. He interprets "being in the image of God" as meaning "to find oneself in his trace." The trace of God is in the face of the other person; hence, to find oneself, to find who one is, is to respond to that face. Then, Levinas turns to Exodus 33, the God who has passed by is forever absent, never present. He always has passed by, the trace of God leaves behind is in the face of the other person. To draw close to God, then, is to respond to the face of the other person. (149)

I always love the image of Moses so enlightened by that moment on the mountain that he has to hide the light radiating from his visage. His community could see the divine in his face. But he tried not to let that go to his head. Moses did care for the common good. Perhaps the greatest lawgiver, he translated the power of his connection to the divine into an attempt to order human life toward justice, public healthiness, and spiritual relationships.

Although a deus ex machina ending gets tacked on the Moses story, there is an underlying tragic thread that weaves throughout his journey. He climbed to the top of the mountain and saw the face of God; a leader of multitudes, he dies alone. Moses and Sisyphus wander and climb, carrying the burden of humanity—consciousness connected so close to the divine, and yet so far away.


Alexander Carpenter is executive editor elect of Spectrum

Title image: Michelangelo’s Moses (c. 1513-1516). Photo by Jörg Bittner UnnaCC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons


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