‘This time it is different,’ said Joshua, hotly, ‘this time they are ready. Yes, I know all about last time. I was there, remember? It was ME they did not believe. It was MY huge bunch of grapes they ignored, choosing instead the endless dust-dry manna.’
‘Yours and Caleb’s,’ said Moses, mildly. Joshua made an impatient gesture. Moses sighed. That was Joshua’s weakness, and his strength too.
Joshua headed back to plain facts. ’Last time they were afraid. Last time they listened to old men.’ He said it with breath-taking conviction, as though unaware that he was talking to one of the oldest living Israelites, ‘This time really IS different. This time they are ready to go. This time, just you are holding them back.’
And Moses knew it was true. And suddenly and with utter certainty he knew that he could not cross that river into that Promised Land, however big the bunches of grapes.
‘You are right, Joshua, I fear that Land – oh no, not what you are thinking,’ and he did not know how disparagingly he said that, and there was no Aaron to tell him. ‘I fear that moving there we will lose, we will forget, oh that there will not be the closeness to Yahweh.’
He looked at the hurt and utter incomprehension on Joshua’s face. Joshua, unbelievably resilient, fired back, ‘But we will take the Ark and the Tent with us! Yahweh will come too.’
Moses was silent for a long time. He sat looking at a small bush in the scrub land. In the end, a sense of awe started to creep over Joshua, compelling him back to respect for this exasperating old man.
Moses sat facing facts. The people had left Egypt for the Land, and he could not explain even to his lieutenant, and much less to the rest of them, how afraid he was that the soft living in the land would gradually come to make them preoccupied with huge bunches of grapes, and milk, and honey, and they would begin to seek these things alone, and not ask what they cost in terms of misplaced priorities. Moses himself could not continue to hold out against the certainties which Joshua saw, not only in this matter of going into the Land, but in any other of the now almost daily clashes between them. Nor would it be in any way right for Moses himself to cross the river and live in the Land. To do so would be, for him, death of the worst kind. He needed an explanation that Joshua could in some way understand.
‘I have sinned, Joshua,’ he said, ‘I have sinned, and Yahweh forbids me to cross into the Land. You will have to lead the people there – you will have to take over from me.’ Joshua looked stunned, and, having put it into words, Moses felt cold to the core. ‘We will celebrate one final Passover, and then …’
Moses ate the feast in one big group with his children and grand-children, and one great-grandchild, little Miriam, a dead-ringer for her great great aunt, who asked the question, ‘Tell me, great-grandfather, why are we eating this lamb?’ Moses launched into the story. Miriam would remember, and would tell her own grand-children, how the old man’s eyes sparkled as he told of the apparent impossibility of getting out of Egypt at all, then escape and then of the sickening discovery they were being followed, of the fording of the Reed Sea, of his sister dancing, and of manna and judges, and quail. ‘And you will remember this night, too,’ he ended, ‘How once again you eat with everything packed up around you, and with hope and with fear in your hearts, knowing that tomorrow you set off for the far, far on the side of a great river, starting a new adventure with Yahweh.’ That she remembered.
She did not remember, of course, how, when she had fallen asleep among the packages, he had sat gazing at her, until her father came, and lifted her sleeping up to his shoulder. She had not seen and could not have interpreted the half-pitying, half–guilty expressions on the faces of her parents. It was years later that she heard from others how the old man, with a face as blank as weathered wilderness rock, blessed his family one by one, and then each tribe in turn as they came past him.
It was only when he was sure he could no longer be seen Moses sat down and pulled his cloak over his head and wept: for the dangers his people would face, and for the loss of the privilege of leading them, and for utter loneliness.
In the evening his people camped in a place they had never seen before, and Joshua went from group to group talking of the hopes for the future until something of his certainty became part of their thoughts.
The Israelites comforted each other with words and with small kindnesses, but there was nobody to console or strengthen the old man sitting beside the small fire in the wilderness.