Perhaps it is just perversity, my wanting to commence this year’s meetings on a tragic note. But for some reason, as I spent the summer scouring the library for appropriate readings, the death of Moses has been preying on my mind. The Bible has very little to say about Moses’ untimely exit from this world – untimely not because of his age (he was 120, after all) but because he was so close to arriving at the Promised Land. The relevant verse in my King James edition is shockingly perfunctory. It reads: ‘So Moses the servant of the Lord died there in the land of Moab, according to the word of the Lord’ (Deuteronomy 34:5). Nothing more. He dies, end of story. Yet this is precisely why the matter is so vexing. It is the omission of critical detail that makes one go endlessly round in circles of interpretive speculation. Of course, this is the point of Biblical economy. The spur to the writing of Mishnahs, Midrashes and  Talmuds. But still!

We know from earlier passages in the same book, and also from passages in Numbers, that Moses was barred from entering the Promised Land because he sinned against God. Unthinkingly, I’ve always assumed that Moses’ transgression lay in his breaking of the Torah scrolls — a violent act committed after he discovered the Israelites worshipping the golden calf. But maybe too much Charlton Heston has seeped into my unconscious. In fact, Moses’ sin was that he showed impatience and anger when confronted with the drought that God conjured in the 37th year of the Israelites’ desert wanderings to test their faith – especially that of the second generation who had never known slavery in Egypt, nor once witnessed the sublimity of God’s powers. Moses then sinned again, when serving as the instrument of the Lord’s miraculous provision of water, approaching his role as mediator with such self-regard that many Israelites took the miracle to be of his own authoring.

Now there is tragedy enough in Moses being denied entry to the land God promised his people. Far, far worse, though, is that Moses was made to expire at its very threshold, with its mountains, valleys and seas in plain and gorgeous view, its milk and honey just beyond his grasp, so close that if he reached out he might almost taste them. Sweeping a divine, cloud-sleeved arm across the skies, God showed Moses, secure in his lofty perch on mount Nebo, ‘all the Land of Gilead, unto Dan. And all Naphtali, and the land of Ephraim, and Manesseh, and all the land of Judah, unto the utmost sea. And the south, and the plain of the valley of Jericho, the city of palm trees, unto Zoar’ (Deu 34:1-3). And he told him: ‘This is the land which I sware unto Abraham, unto Isaac, and unto Jacob, saying, I will give it unto thy seed: I have caused you to see it with thine eyes, but thou shalt not go over thither.’ (Deu 34:4) It is a moment of singular joy and shattering disappointment rolled into one, of hopes invited and dashed in combined force: of blinding wonder and desperate confusion. Yet the very next line reads, and so Moses died (see above…)

Tantalisingly absent from the official record are the tortures Moses must have undergone upon being granted this glorious preview, glimpsed, what is more, from the perspective of angels. What thoughts beset his mind as he sat upon his high rock, surveying what he would never own?  Was his heart heavy with remorse? Or did his joy on behalf of his people occlude his personal despair? Did his pride stand corrected by punishment? Or did it stand in the way of his asking forgiveness of God? Was Moses so cowed that he dared not hope for an eleventh hour reprieve? But if he did entertain the notion that God might after all spare him, even fleetingly, and perhaps only within a place in his soul he could barely admit acknowledging, what case could he make for himself?

You can imagine how excited I was, therefore, to stumble across a Babylonian folktale in a book translated by the Arabic scholar Yona Sabar, that addresses many of these speculative questions. Significantly, the tale features a most loquacious and fallible Moses — a Moses who begs for his life, pleads his worthiness, and punches out an eye of the angel of death come to snatch his soul. This folkloric Moses is neither humble servant nor wise elder. He is proud, defiant, unrepentant. Above all, he wants desperately to live.

The story is meant to educate. Its lesson is that no person can have hope for himself against death — even one who is equal to Moses. For God loved Moses above all other men. He spoke directly to Moses, without engaging angels to communicate his words, and he showed himself to Moses, aflame with a desire to communicate His Law to his chosen people. The privileged position that Moses occupied in God’s heart is routinely interpreted in Christianity as a pre-figuring of God’s relationship with Christ. And yet, as the folktale reminds us, even one as beloved as Moses has to die.

The tale begins with Moses putting on the blue sack-cloth that mourners wear and rolling himself in ashes as he prepares to die. But then he makes one last attempt at beseeching God. He begs to be turned into a humble bird who can fly away to the four corners of the world, surviving by pecking at nothings, or a sheep who will feed unnoticed on grass in the mountains and fields. He says if God turns him into a fish who swims in the sea he will not desire any food or drink just so that he may not taste death. ‘Enough of so much beseeching,’  says God, ‘because thou must die’. But Moses cannot stop himself. He appeals to heaven and earth to ask for mercy for him, but the heaven and earth say that they too are doomed to eventually perish. Ditto for the mountains and hills. Ditto for the sun, moon and stars. When Moses eventually sees that he has no advocate to fight off Sammael, the angel of death, he sits down and writes thirteen scrolls of Torah. He gives one scroll each to the Twelve Tribes of Israel, while the thirteenth scroll he conceals in the ark of the covenant for the days to come.

Now Moses is ready to give himself up to his fate. But when God orders Gabriel to take Moses’ soul, Gabriel protests he dare not, for Moses is equal to sixty Israelites. Michael finds he cannot approach Moses, ‘for his virtue is great’. And Zagzagal also demurs, saying, ‘he is my disciple and I am his teacher – how dare I touch him?’ Even Sammael, who has been rubbing his hands in anticipation of delivering Moses’ soul, is given pause by the divine illumination resting on Moses’ countenance. Glimpsing this fear, an emboldened Moses fights back. ‘You are powerless against me, for I have as many virtues as all the creatures of the world together’, he tells Sammael.  He lists his various miracles and wonders. He boasts of his ‘face to face’ encounters with the Creator of the world, and the fact that he snatched the Torah from angels and brought it to earth, slayed Sihon and Og in battle, and defeated the giant Anak, all of which causes Sammael to return to God full of shame. God is furious and instantly dispatches Sammael to his task once again. This time the angel of death draws his sword against Moses. But Moses grabs God’s staff and punches the angel in his eye, blinding it, before falling to his knees and preying to God for mercy.

At this point the tone of the story suddenly softens. God descends ‘in his own glory’ with an escort of angels to take Moses’ soul himself. Gabriel places a silk mat under Moses, Michael lays a silk sheet over him, and Zagzagal puts a silk pillow under his head. Moses is told to fold his hands over his chest, stretch out his legs, and close his eyes, which he does, and then God addresses his soul directly, saying ‘O my daughter….please come out of this body and do not delay.’ Note that this is a request not a command.

But Moses’ soul not only delays, she inveigles. She sits down and she weeps, pleading:

Thou has favoured me by creating me and placing me in the body of this righteous, innocent, holy and pure man. And all his life even a fly did not rest upon it. How canst Thou deprive me of it and take me out of it? What other refuge and dwelling like it can I find?’

God would have to have had a heart of stone to not be moved by this appeal. He promises the soul that he will take her up with him and place her on his throne of glory if she will but quit Moses’ body. But the rebellious soul says she would find more joy remaining in Moses than in residing among angels. God is left with no choice but to perform the deed himself. In an scene redolent with God’s love for Moses, the folktale has him bend over Moses and take his soul ‘with the kiss of His mouth.’  This is how much God loves mankind! More: the next scene has God weeping and lamenting Moses’ loss. And the angels also lamented. And the sun and moon and heavenly spheres lamented, saying ‘Whence will arise another prophet like Moses?’ At the story’s end, the angel Metatron attempts to console God: ‘Moses is thine whether dead of alive and his soul remains with Thee. Why, then, doest Thou grieve so much?’

Every time I read this story I am moved by it. Even writing about it now moves me, and for reasons I am all too aware of. My own father, you see, (and what was Moses, if not the archetypal father figure?) is fast approaching death. He turns 87 next month, but he is barely present. He’s a will-o-the wisp, slip and slight. A shrunken and shadowy form, slow-moving, quiescent and fading fast. Like Moses, he is terrified of dying. He wants to live. To endure. He will content himself to be a bird pecking at the nothings of dissolving memory, or a sheep grazing on shreds of parched grasses, so lightly as to leave no mark. Even a fish, one moment here, another not; like quicksilver. But he cannot face being altogether extinguished. This is the cargo I brought to my reading groups’s inaugural meeting this week, even as I kept it out of view, safely stowed in my deepest holds so that I could refill the spaces above it with brighter responses to Moses’ plight.

As it turned out, my group found the tale wonderfully affirming, especially as it attests to the intimacy that exists between God and man. Everyone revelled in the ‘kiss of his mouth’ as a kind of ecstasy at being reunited with one’s maker. And everyone remarked on the unexpected gendering of Moses’ soul — a feature that one group member, Otis, cast light on when he explained that the Hebrew noun for spirit, Shekinah, is female. Otis spent three years in Israel trying to be an orthodox Jew, so I can rely on him to illuminate such minutae. He did not persist in his attempts with orthodoxy, however, which was a good thing, according to him, because it led him to embrace a broader conception of spirituality than one faith alone could encompass.

The most exuberant response came from Clive. Clive was brought up Catholic but he converted to Anglicanism as an adult. Like many members of my reading group, he is a respecter of all faiths. This week Clive delighted in the notion that the soul possesses a dignity of its own. ‘The soul has a separate identity,’ he exclaimed. ‘She, and I love the idea that  we might all own an inner female self, is not Moses!’ The story therefore addresses the state of man, he said. It affirms that we have our allocated time and that is all. When that time is up, when the bell goes, God is insistent: will boat number 9 please come in. No bargaining is admitted, even as the soul immortal begs and weeps; for not even a soul pure enough to sit on God’s throne can sway matters.

Thinking back on Clive’s response, on the fundamental reassurance he took away from the folktale, I remember that twice in the story, Moses lies down and prepares himself for death. There is ceremony in his actions, consonant with the idea of dying a Good Death. He lies down, stretches out, crosses his arms over his chest. And he makes sure to complete the work he was put on earth to do, by furiously writing out the scrolls. I wonder if these unremarkable moments in the story hold a message for my father, and others like him, in that beneath the strum und drang stirred up by fear and given expression through mighty angels pleading and weeping, through souls rebelling, and God himself grieving, is the quiet message of acceptance.