The heat is blistering, but he is no stranger to the flame. As he brings down the hammer, it occurs to him exactly how good it feels to be working with his hands again. The task will not be an easy one. With every swing, the untamed metal curves only slightly closer to the shape he envisions. Still, he plans to see the job through, to hide the wonder that now garbs his face. He recalls how he was once seduced by a similar marvel of light. Wonders, he has found, need observers―people with lives so crushingly bland as to make every little miracle glorious. He was like that, once, long ago. Without pausing his work, he allows himself to remember.
* * *
He had been tending to the flock, but a single lamb had run away and gotten itself lost. He had followed after it, refusing to give up on even a single sheep. Naive as he was, it is no surprise that he turned to stare at the miracle that appeared before him: a bush, ablaze in the desert, and yet never consumed by its own fire. The bush had found an observer, and it called out.
“Moses, Moses!” it tempted him.
“Here I am!” he answered, reaching out to feel the fire, to test its heat.
“Come no closer!” the bush commanded. “A miracle to observe is not a miracle to feel. I am no mere bush, but your God, and the God of your forefathers, and the God of your people. I have heard their suffering, and so now I am sending you to lead them. Free them from Pharaoh and lead them to the Promised Land. The way will be hard, but I will grant you victory over those who will oppose you. You will be My speaker, My vessel, My chosen, and the greatest among My people for now and for all time to come.”
Moses covered his face, although back then it was himself whom he considered unworthy. “You must want someone else. I am unremarkable.”
“Then I will give you wonders of your own: staff into snake, health into affliction, and water into blood.”
“But why me? I can hardly even speak.”
“I’ll send your brother; he will speak for you.”
“Even still, I don’t even know Your name.”
At this, the bush flared up, as if in anger. “You want to know My name? You want a word with which to pin down the divine? Know this: I will be what I will be. That is enough, for now.”
“One day, Moses, you will know My names, you will know them all, you will know Me better than any mortal ever has or ever will. And on that day, you will regret this conversation. But now, enough delay. Go!”
* * *
And so began Moses’s quest, all those years ago. Now, as he hammers his metal into shape to cover his face once more, he notices how little he had appreciated the three answers he had received, the three gifts he had been given―miracles to dazzle and not destroy; Aaron, a born orator when given something to say; and his ignorance of the holy names, the inability to articulate the divine into what he wished. In time, all of these gifts would be lost, or at least superseded; he knows he will miss this last one the most. To be promised something only to be forbidden from using it can be a curse. Though it has yet to happen, he is the greatest prophet who ever lived. Past, present, and future have become one to him, and so he calls up the end of his journey as easily as he had its beginning.
* * *
“God, I have only begun to see Your wonders,” Moses will say. “Let me cross the Jordan, walk the land. God, oh God, mighty, merciful, favoring, slow to—”
“Enough, Moses, enough.” God will respond. “If I let you continue, I’ll be compelled by what you ask. That simply can’t happen. Don’t bring this up again. You will see the land, but only Joshua may enter it, may conquer it. I’m sorry, Moses, but I taught you long ago: a miracle to observe is not a miracle to feel.”
“Why? You keep telling me I can’t, but You won’t tell me why! All these years, all these trials, haven’t I served You faithfully? One small mistake, and now You refuse me both entrance and explanation?”
“You have answered your own question, Moses. You made a mistake. You hit the rock I explicitly told you to speak to. You disobeyed Me. That’s why.”
“I don’t believe You, not fully. That can’t be it. You know, Joshua has his own theory. He believes it was a test: You wanted to see if I could lead by convincing the people to act on their own. When I hit the rock, You decided I was only capable of commanding from afar, that I had become distant from the people, too close to the divine, incapable of leading from amongst them.”
“He’s not far off. You have taught him well, you know. You should take comfort in that. He deserves a chance at leading the people, too.”
“Joshua has more than earned his succession. That’s not the question here. It’s a matter of when. Let me finish the job You gave me when I was first called. Didn’t You Yourself tell me I would free them and deliver them?”
“You have freed. Joshua will deliver.”
“It’s a cruel thing, You know: to force a man to watch his mantle slip from him, in his lifetime. What You did in the end to Aaron―he deserved better than that.”
“And what is it that I did to him?”
“You made him climb that mountain in front of everyone. Once we were on top, You made me strip him of the priesthood, everything he had worked for, so he could watch me hand it to Eleazar before he died. That’s not a fit way to treat a human being.”
At this, God seemed to laugh. “Moses, that was no punishment. While he still lived, he saw his son continue his responsibilities. He was glad to see a continuation of his legacy. I don’t see why you refuse to feel the same way.”
“Legacy? Forty years of herding stubborn and entitled people through a patch of sand is hardly an inheritance. All the times I stood up for them―yet now it’s my turn, and none of them will speak for me.”
“They’ll mourn you, Moses. They’ll remember you, your wonders, your law. Does that bring you no comfort?”
“Perhaps it would have, once, but not anymore,” Moses will say. “I suppose I’m ready. Do what You must.”
Hearing these words, God will utter some secret word, and beyond that even Moses cannot see.
* * *
Moses contemplates how bitter his end will be, and he is not quite surprised. He has and will grow so bitter and aloof, features that stare up at him from the mask he now molds. It was not always this way. He recalls a time of joy and exuberance, when he still reveled in the triumphs of his people. But that all changed, with just one battle. And so, closing his eyes, he lets himself remember once again.
* * *
“Moses, we did it!” Joshua exclaimed. “Did you see me out there, leading the people? Destroying Amalek?”
“I saw you,” Moses said bitterly. “But this was no victory. We let them get away. We were supposed to wipe them out entirely.”
“We will. This time, they got the jump on us. They attacked us from the back and hit the weakest first. When it’s us who has the drop on them, they won’t stand a chance.”
“Don’t you see? That’s exactly it! They hit us where it hurt. They showed the world that even after the Exodus, we can still be killed. They lost, but the damage they did is irreversible. Now, every nation we meet will think they have a chance against us. This was only the beginning.”
“The way was always going to be hard, Moses. But we have God on our side. In the end, we will prevail.”
“You don’t understand! We were meant to be immortal, untouchable, and divine! They saw us as weak, old, and pathetic. They saw us―they saw me―frail, debilitated, useless. I … I was never supposed to be so old, Joshua.”
For a moment, Joshua was at a loss. “Moses, you… we wouldn’t be anywhere without you. You’ve saved our lives more times than I can count. And now you led us to victory, yet again.”
“No, you led them to victory. I just stood there with my arms up like a doddering fool.”
“You were praying! It was only when your hands were up that we were winning. That was you.”
“All I had to do was hold up my arms, and even that I couldn’t do on my own. My arms were shaking, feeble. I needed Aaron and Hur, and a rock to sit on. Once, I was their infallible leader. Now, I’m just another dead weight for our enemies to prey on.”
“Moses, it’s not weak to rely on those around you occasionally. Remember Jethro? Delegation isn’t all bad.”
“Maybe for you. But I was supposed to be more, to be flawless, the greatest prophet who ever lived. I failed. You couldn’t understand.”
Joshua just stared at Moses, then. “People care about you, Moses. Don’t take that for granted. Keep pushing us away, and eventually we’ll stop coming back.” Receiving no response, Joshua scoffed and walked away.
Moses, busy with self-pity, felt no remorse.
* * *
Recalling Joshua’s words, Moses stops swinging his hammer for a moment. But only a moment. As he brings up his hammer once again, he reminds himself how right he knows he will be. For vindication, he turns in prophecy to the future once more.
* * *
They will decide to replace him. Not all of them, but enough. Korah himself won’t be particularly special. There had always been dissidents; what made them revolutionaries were the factions that supported them. And this crowd, Moses will know, had been looking for someone to support for some time. They’ll feed his ego until he is nothing more than a mouthpiece for their objections, and Moses will be forced to address them.
“Moses!” Korah will accuse, holding out his incense. “You’ve led these people long enough. When you brought us out of Egypt with all your signs, we believed in you. We trusted you. And yet, since that time, all we have done is wander this desert. We have stumbled from war to war, plague to plague, hardship to hardship. We have been deprived of the necessities and comforts we knew in Egypt. But every time we try to reason with you, you turn around and blame us. You call us unworthy complainers. It seems you cannot or will not take us to the land of milk and honey you promised. Perhaps you once were God’s emissary, but clearly you are no longer. It’s time for a new leader. Will you give over your power, or will this escalate?”
“Very well,” Moses will reply gravely. “You want to know if I still hold God’s favor. You want to believe in signs instead of people. I’ll show you a new sign, and you can decide what to think of it.”
At this, Moses will stretch out his arm, if only to prove he can. The earth itself will respond, opening to swallow Korah and his supporters before they even manage to scream. Their words will be lost in the sand, just as a solitary Egyptian’s had been before them. And, while the divine flame subsumes Korah’s incense bearers, Moses will address the now terrified congregation once again.
“This was not your first transgression, nor will it be your last. It does, however, mark the last time I will stand up to God on your behalf. You thought you’d be better off without me interceding between you and the divine and that our wanderings were my fault. Ridiculous as these claims are, I’ll tell you the most absurd thing about this mutiny: the notion that my position is an enviable one. That any one of you would be so stupid as to want to lead this rabble, to know God face to face…” Moses shakes his head. “Appreciate your normality. Some of us are not so lucky.”
* * *
Moses, considering this future moment, swings with renewed ferocity, though he is not really surprised. He understands the desire to change one’s relationship to God. He, too, longs for the mystery of the divine, the nebulousness of heaven in which true glory resides. For him, it is too late. He has heard God’s names; he has seen the back of God’s head. Ignoring his empathy, he turns to the recent memory of the first time they tried to replace him.
* * *
This time, it had been his fault. He had stayed too long atop the mountain, forgetting how to be among humans. He knew vaguely what they had done; even still, he was surprised by what he saw.
“Aaron!” Moses called out. “What have you done?”
“Please, don’t be angry. I tried to dissuade them, but they demanded a god. I cast their riches into the fire, and this is what came out.”
“They may have demanded a god, but you shouldn’t have given them one. What have they done to you to warrant this evil you brought upon them?”
“Please, you know these people. You know their capacity for wickedness and stubbornness. I tried, really.”
“Yes, I know them. I know they must be controlled―they can’t be trusted on their own. It’s fitting that they make an idol of cattle. Clearly, you did not try hard enough.”
“They need you, Moses. You left, and they were lost. They needed you, I needed you, but you weren’t here.”
“I was bringing them revelation! Don’t shift this blame. This was your mistake, and you’re going to fix it.”
“Go, gather the Levites, anyone who didn’t worship this thing, and have them kill anyone who did.”
“Moses, I can’t … I can’t kill our own.”
“You already have! You need to do this, Aaron. I’m going back up to the mountain.”
“You’re going back?! Moses, we need you to fix this! We need you here! The answer to the people’s problems is with the people, not on an untouchable mountain with some unknowable and wrathful God.”
“That’s exactly where our salvation is. I’m going to go beg for more mercy, and I’m going to solidify the law.”
“Solidify the law?”
“These people need to be controlled. I won’t be around forever, and clearly you’re not up to the task. And because they seem incapable of serving a God without an emissary two feet in front of them, I’ll distill the faith into a solid, unflinching book that will control them forever.”
“Is that really what God wanted, what all this is about? You led us through this wasteland, left us to our sin, all so you could get some tool of enforcement? That’s not the God I know. My God would want us to cherish the law, to study it and live by it, not begrudgingly accept it as a lesser of two evils.”
Just then, Joshua, who had been trailing behind Moses down the mountain, reached them.
“Listen to that shouting!” he observed. “It sounds like there’s a war.”
“No Joshua, there is no war. But, mark my words, there will be.”
* * *
Now, as Moses crafts his disguise, he finds it almost funny. They will have their metal face for God after all. It is almost finished now, having taken on the shape Moses had in mind. He pauses to consider if he should really go through with this decision. Maybe they all were right: his Master, his brother, and his heir. Maybe the people just need to see his face, to know that he cares, that God cares. He puts down his hammer and stares mournfully at the reflection of his face on the surface of the face he has fabricated. But then he looks to the future a final time, and he reminds himself of the people’s other looming failure.
* * *
They will demand spies to report on the land before the people settle it. And when they become rebellious after what they hear, it will once again be up to Moses to pick up the pieces. Though it will feel familiar and perhaps even vain, he will push these emotions aside to intercede before God against the wrath they will incur.
“Oh God, God of our ancestors, Abraham Isaac, and Jacob―please have mercy on Your people this day, and spare them from Your vengeance.”
“Spare Me the routine, Moses. Don’t you ever tire of this cycle? The sins, the plagues, the penitence, and the mercy? How long will this go on?”
“As long as You let it, I suppose.”
“A fair point. Maybe I should change course, wipe them out, and make a better nation from only you.”
“If You kill them now, the Egyptians will think You failed to deliver them. You’ll let Egypt win.”
“What do I care what the Egyptians think? I have saved the Israelites, shown them wonders, and disciplined them time and time again. Yet they continue to err, to doubt and disobey. It’s as if they despise Me.”
“Aren’t You above that? You promised Your mercy was eternal, and You are not one to break Your word.”
“Don’t forget, I’m all-knowing. I can tell that you agree with everything I’ve said in this exchange, but you continue to defend them. Why?”
Moses will pause. “You’re right. I can’t honestly disagree with Your conclusions. I have felt all the same grievances with the people that You have. But that’s not all I’ve received from You.”
“God, oh God―mighty, merciful, favoring, slow to anger, abundant in kindness and truth, favorable to thousands―forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin, but not pardoning unto the fourth generation―I call on You with the thirteen attributes. Forgive them.”
“Oh, very well. But I still have one condition.”
“And that is?”
“They don’t want to enter the land. So be it. They will continue to wander until this stubborn generation dies out, and a new, more agreeable one replaces them.”
“You mean … You mean they’ll die out here? They’ll never reach the Promised Land?”
“But then… what was the point of it all? The Exodus, the signs, the journey? When You first called me, it was for a two-part process: redemption and deliverance.”
“The process has changed.”
“You knew this would happen! Everything I’ve gone through has been in vain!”
“Not entirely. The people will enter the land, just not these people.”
“My purpose is void. You’re all-knowing, all-powerful! Why did You let this happen?”
“I answered your question long ago, when we first met. I will be what I will be.”
“That’s all? It truly was for nothing, then.”
“So what will you do now?”
“What can I do? I will continue, as I always have. I’m not sure I know why, but I will do what I must.”
* * *
With this foreknowledge, his mind is finally made up. As he brings the still-scorching mask to his face, the metal burns him. He screams, but only briefly: it is not his first encounter with divine fire. The face he has made himself is locked in perpetual repugnance. The eyes are narrow, slanted. The nostrils are flared, and small horns emerge from the forehead. From now on, the people will only see the back of his true head. Satisfied, he begins down the mountain.
At the base, Joshua and Aaron speak in hushed tones. They look up at the figure who descends.
“Moses?” Aaron calls out. “Come talk to us. We’re worried about you.”
“And the people,” Joshua adds, “the ones who have seen your shining face―they’re afraid of you.”
“Good,” replies Moses. “These people need to remember what it is to be afraid.”