The Transfiguration of Our Lord · Deuteronomy 34:1-12 · February 14, 2010
By Travis Scholl
None of the gospels tell us what mountain Jesus climbed with Peter, James, and John to be transfigured. But I’d like to think it was Mount Nebo, despite the fact that the geography makes it virtually impossible. I’d like to think that from its mountaintop, the three disciples could have seen the same thing Moses saw: “Gilead as far as Dan, all Naphtali, the land of Ephraim and Manasseh, all the land of Judah as far as the Western Sea, the Negeb, and the Plain—that is, the valley of Jericho, the city of palm trees—as far as Zoar” (w. lb-3). To survey the whole land of promise, what a sight!
But it was a bittersweet sight, for Moses anyway, to see a home he would not enter, to know God would fulfill the promise only after he was dead and gone. “I have let you see it with your eyes,” God says, “but you shall not cross over there” (v. 4). His long life of wondrous deeds, the burning bush, the exodus, Sinai, and the wilderness notwithstanding, could Moses have ever heard words more bittersweet than this? And these are the last recorded words he ever hears from the One he “knew face to face” (v. 10). Was his death as bittersweet? Only Moses knows.
The same bittersweetness pervades the Gospel reading of the Transfiguration. Only this time the sight isn’t what you can see on the horizon, but the dazzling glory that stands at the mountain’s top (Lk 9:29). It is a glory so dazzling, it would seem to raise Moses from the dead and bring Elijah down from his fiery chariot. Or so it must have seemed to the favored three. In a flash, the glory is gone. Peter’s famous utterance drips with the same bittersweetness Moses must have felt on Nebo. But it is quickly overcome with terror (Lk 9:34). By the time they get down the mountain, their utter silence makes them as good as Moses was dead.
Moses’s death brings an end to his five books, and the end of the Pentateuch too leaves a bittersweet taste in the mouth. “The ending defers the fulfillment of the promise; it gives to the Pentateuch the character of an unfinished symphony. The promise is left suspended and the people are dispirited and fearful (31:6). The future is not simply filled with delights; it is fraught with danger. And the danger comes, not just from the Canaanites, but from the inner recesses of their own hearts (31:20-29).”¹ A promise deferred, people dispirited, the future fraught with danger—sound too familiar? I don’t know about the “delights” part, but the rest hits awfully close to home, awfully close to the heart. The ground we survey from this mountaintop is Lenten ground, and the symphony is painfully unfinished.
Deuteronomy hints at hope with the hearty endorsement of Joshua in verse 9, and it would be another Yeshua who would descend the mountain to fulfill his Father’s promise. Jesus too saw God face to face, but he saw him with “the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth” (Jn 1:14). Jesus’s eyes have a trinitarian lens. And so, Luke’s Gospel will soon remind us that Jesus will “set his face to go to Jerusalem” (9:51). Luke’s Jesus (and ours) would not remain content to look his own Father in the face without thinking of the humankind who would be left behind if he would not come down the mountain to go where Moses could not, to go where no other human being could go.
There is an elegant eschatology at work here at the end of Deuteronomy, at Luke’s mount of Transfiguration, and at the juxtaposition of both these texts in today’s liturgy. Indeed, we are hearing an unfinished symphony still playing itself out. We know how the story ends. But the promise still somehow feels suspended, awaiting its future. We can see the whole land before us. But it is not yet our home. And it is at this in-between space of delight and danger, bitter and sweet, that hope finds its home in our hearts.
And there is no surer hope than in the promise of God. “His sight was unimpaired and his vigor had not abated,” Deuteronomy tells us of Moses at 120 years old (v. 7). If we would but have his clear eyes and vigorous strength to see what God still has yet to do in our midst.
¹ Terence E. Fretheim, The Pentateuch (Nashville: Abingdon, 1996), 54