Then Moses climbed Mount Nebo from the plains of Moab to the top of Pisgah, across from Jericho…Then the Lord said to him, “This is the land I promised on oath to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob when I said, ‘I will give it to your descendants.’ I have let you see it with your eyes, but you will not cross over into it. And Moses died there in Moab, as the Lord had said… Moses was a hundred and twenty years old, yet his eyes were not weak nor his strength gone.
Mountain High, Canaan Deep
A saxophone was ringing in my ears. I looked around me. Horizontally speaking, I was on target, about twenty yards from what looked like the tents of the prophet Moses. But I was still vertically challenged. I found myself about ten yards up in a cypress tree.
Even in his last days on earth, Moses’ hearing was acute enough so that my arrival did not go unnoticed. “Hark,” I heard him say to those gathered around him. “What man yonder hath said, ‘Oooch, ouch, oooch!’”
His warriors soon gathered around my tree, waving spears and shouting for me to descend. My finely-made leather pouch was hanging me up, but eventually I managed to clamber down.
“Tell Moses it is I, his old friend Awshalim, returned to pay my respects after his long pilgrimage in the desert.” The aged Moses lay under another cypress, reclined upon a soft mat surrounded by many cushions. A circular shade-cloth had been erected to protect him from the sun’s heat. Off to the right, I could see the land fall away, sloping into a green valley through which a river ran, the Jordan certainly.
“Awshalim? That is impossible. You were lost among those the witch sent away at Mount Horeb forty years ago. Show yourself then, that I might judge who you are!” His men hustled me forward, calling me a spy of the Canaanites, begging Moses to let them kill me. It was a tough spot. Moses gazed into my eyes and I into his.
“But it is you! And you have not changed at all, Awshalim! Are you an ally of that ghost-witch after all, come for final revenge? How can you appear thus after all these years? Who are you really, whom I first met by the shores of the Nile at Pi-Ramses eighty years ago?”
“I am not your enemy, Moses, nor do I know whom the woman we both remember really was. I promise I will tell you my secrets, though it may be difficult to believe. First, though, pray recount your experiences, lo these forty years. And tell your warriors to unhand me.”
He did, and as his men reluctantly retreated, a faraway look came over him.
“Then sit down beside me, my old friend. Let me remember as best I can. First there was the construction of the Tabernacle, in which the Lord God agreed to live among us. Can you imagine how delighted we all were? I went to see Him on a regular basis in those days. There was so much to attend to, recording the new laws, taking a census of all the males, appointing judges. Of course, no one wanted to be a judge – each one had to deal with at least 42,000 people. The case loads were huge. Eighteen-hour days. ‘My wife looked at another man.’ ‘My husband every night is drinking fig wine. My husband is too intimate with our sheep.’ It was endless.
“Eventually, we set out for the Promised Land. Wherever the cloud of God went, we followed. When it stopped, we made camp. But the people were always murmuring against God. Three million murmuring Jews make a lot of noise, believe me. So Yaweh punished us with fire, which helped. Later, after more murmuring, He afflicted us with fiery flying serpents and thousands more died. But I prayed to Yaweh and He said for us to make our own fiery serpents and put them on poles, then if a snake bit you, you just looked at the pole and you’d be healed. So that worked out fine.
“But you can imagine how stressful all this was to me. Around this time, I myself complained to Yaweh about carrying the weight of so much murmuring. He had me gather all the elders and said he would send us meat, which we hadn’t had for two years. We already had manna – did I tell you about the manna? – it came down like little coriander seeds. We had to pick them out of the sand one by one in the hot sun. Then we’d make it into bread as best we could. Verily, to this day, I can’t stand coriander. Anyway, the Lord promised meat, and the next day millions of quail came flying in, three feet off the ground. All you had to do was grab them. Such a feast we had, all three million of us. But Yaweh knew there were thousands of us who were still dreaming of going back to Egypt. He always knoweth our hearts, so He became greatly wroth again. The next day, a plague struck and 14,700 died.
“Well, life goes on. We got to Hazeroth and my sister Miriam and Aaron were upset that I’d married a Cushite woman – don’t ask, that’s another story – so God struck Miriam with leprosy, which taught her a lesson. Next, let me see, next we headed for the desert of Paran, and from there we sent out the Twelve Spies to reconnoiter Canaan. Joshua and Caleb came back and told us of a land of milk and honey. But the other ten reported the land was filled with terrifying giants we could never overcome. Such deceitfulness! And who believed such a thing? Everyone! For forty years I lived in Midian, which is not so far away, and never saw a single giant. But all Israel believed these ten men and refused to go into the Promised Land. You can imagine Yaweh’s reaction. I never saw such wrothfulness. He was ready to destroy all Israel in a single blow, but I told Him Ramses would say, ‘See? Yaweh can’t finish what he started.’ So God said wait, let me think about it. That’s the wonderful thing about Yaweh. He has a temper, but sometimes He is very slow to anger. He finally backed off total destruction and simply asked us to wander through the desert for another 38 years. You know, so the unbelievers would die off. So finally here we are, no worse for the wear, ready to enter the Promised Land.”
Moses sighed and gazed off across the Jordan. It appeared the Bible, then, was fairly accurate. And Moses looked in pretty good shape for 120. I wondered if he was still doing the push-ups. “So, will you be crossing over Jordan pretty soon?” I asked innocently.
“The others will. I’m not allowed to. Something about me striking a boulder when I was supposed to talk to it. With Yaweh, you have to watch every step. But I have no regrets. It’s enough to see the land. We shall conquer it all, from Gilead to Dan, from Judah to the Valley of Jericho, all the way to the Great Sea. And utterly destroy anyone who stands in our way. After all, God is on our side!”
Moses looked affectionately at me and took my hand. “Awshalim! Remember when all we had was that little boat, and then you put me on a camel headed for Midian 80 years ago?”
“Yes I do, Moses, like it was yesterday.”
“Maybe, for you, it really was yesterday,” Moses said, looking strangely at me. I tried to redirect his attention. “So how are things in Midian? You must have had a joyous reunion with your relatives there, who protected you those long years. How are they?”
“Not so good. I forgot to tell you. The Lord had us go down there and utterly destroy them. I felt terrible about it, but you don’t argue with Yaweh.”
“You killed everyone?”
“Some of them begged to be slaves and were spared. We can always use the help.”
“It’s a good thing Suhad didn’t show up,” I said, taking a chance on angering him. He seemed unconcerned.
“Oh, I’m sure Yaweh dealt with her long ago. What was she babbling about anyway? How far do you think we would have gotten with some female deity leading us? If she had left the Egyptians’ first-born dead, would we have been chased into the sea? Of course not. Even now, several times we have been attacked. When the Canaanite king of Arad heard we were coming down the main road, his army attacked us. Three million perfectly friendly Jews. Why would he do such a thing? Suhad would probably raise our dead enemies up so they could throw their spears at us again! But the Lord listened to our pleas, and we completely destroyed them and their towns. A lot of them probably worshipped Ba’al. So we exterminated them.”
“But couldn’t you…”
“No, you can’t reason with Canaanites. They only respect strength. Or rather, they used to. Look, there’s Egypt, there’s your country Assyria, everyone has an army. What are you going to do, pin flowers on their spears? Now, Awshalim, explain yourself. How do come and go as you do? How do you remain so young.”
“I’m not that young, Moses. I’m 280 years old.”
“Amazing. You don’t look a day over 150.”
“Thank you. But there’s more. You see, I’m not really from Assyria. I’m a visitor from the future.”
“You mean, like next week?”
“No, 3,700 years in the future.”
“Imagine that. Will wonders never cease.”
“I was sent here to find out why men make war. In the future, you see, even after humans found the way to produce far more than everyone needed, food, shelter, clothing, we still could not live as one family. We continued fighting. And often it was over which god was true and which was false.”
“Well, there’s only one God, my friend from the future, even ten thousand years from now.”
“So you say. Yet no one after you and the Israelites here in the desert – you’re all very famous, by the way – ever came so close to Him. After your time, God never ‘lived’ with people again. No one ever saw him. He has remained invisible for nearly 4,000 years. But it gets worse, Moses.”
“Well, we’ve had this thing called science for about 700 years. It allows us to move about at amazing speeds, to fly, even to the moon and the planets. We can illuminate our cities without any fire. We can see and talk to each other instantly from anywhere on the earth. I can’t begin to explain how powerful it is. I mean, it’s what permitted me to come here and meet you. But we can also study the past very carefully, measure how old rocks are, and we’re pretty sure, well…I don’t quite know how to say this…”
“Well, we can’t find any evidence that you ever really existed, or that your Exodus ever took place. The story seems to have been written about 600 years after this time, when a great temple in Jerusalem was thrown down by your enemies, and the Jews were taken into captivity in Babylon.”
“You mean a group of priests just sat down and made up characters like me and Aaron and Joshua and the whole Egyptian captivity and our escape across the desert so it would be similar to what happened to them in Babylon?”
“It looks like that, yes.”
“Well, that’s depressing.”
“Exodus was written to argue that God is always perfect, but that the Jews are a stubborn people who need to be punished.”
Moses shrugged. “I could have told you that. Anyway, here I am in front of your eyes. What do you say to that?”
“You do seem real.”
“You’re the one that seems unreal. A man who travels through time? You expect me to believe that?”
“I see your point. But I know I’m real.”
“As do I.”
“So we’re stuck then,” I said. “But the Grolnathians expect a report from me.”
“The Grolnathians. They’re beings who came from outer space to our world to save us from our own destructiveness.”
“What’s outer space?”
“It’s, it’s…way up there,” I said, pointing up.
“You don’t believe I’m real, but you believe in creatures who come from ‘up there?’”
“Well, I’ve seen them. They’re, uh, fibrous. They look sort of like…like papyrus, actually.”
Moses smiled sympathetically. “Look, it was very nice seeing you again, Awshalim, or whatever your name is. I’m getting ready to die now, so if you’ll excuse me…”
“But wait, Moses. I have to make a report. Before you die, tell me, why is there so much war?”
“What can I tell you? Because men fight. Goats and rams butt their heads together. Big fish eat little fish. The strong destroy the weak. This is the way of all things.”
“But why is your Yaweh so cruel? Why do you destroy your enemies utterly?”
“Awshalim, some things do not change. If a man does not know fear, he becomes lazy and prey to stronger men. Fear of the Lord, my friend, is the beginning of knowledge. Then from this, the Lord teacheth us righteousness and cleanliness and maybe compassion. Perhaps future generations will make peace better we can. But in these times, our enemies wish every one of us dead. And so we return that wish unto them.”
“But your myth of the Jews as a Chosen People will have repercussions, Moses. It could be argued that their sense of superiority is what will cause them to unwisely resist the dictates of a powerful empire one millennium from now, The Empire From The Land Which When Viewed From Space Looks Like A Long Boot. They will destroy your greatest temple, and you will be dispersed into a wandering that makes your forty years in the desert seem like a weekend at the beach. Then will come another time, Moses, a terrible time when your God will not answer the Jews in their greatest distress, a time when twice the three million Jews you have gathered here will be turned into smoke. It’s tragic, it’s pathetic. For millennia, your people will meditate on how Yaweh mercilessly destroyed your ancient enemies, then 3,000 year later it will be done unto you.”
Moses looked at me skeptically, as he would a child attempting prophecy. Finally he asked, “And how many will remain living?”
“About the same number, another six million.”
“That sounds acceptable.”
“You would sacrifice six million? But these Jews will not be sinful. They will be complete innocents.”
“As was Abraham’s son. But Abraham was ready with his knife.”
“In that story, Yaweh shows mercy. In mine, for the Six Million, there is none.”
“Really? But then, who can understand the ways of God?”
“This is madness, Moses!”
The prophet jumped to his feet. “But this whole world is madness! We have feelings that overwhelm us! What do we do then? Have you never been terrified of death, Awshalim? Has no woman ever broken your heart? Have you never needed forgiveness? In all your years have you never had a child so sick that you feared for its life? And when that child recovered has not your heart been filled with such joy that you sought to express your gratitude? These are ineradicable instincts in us all!”
“Yes, but emotions are just that. They don’t prove…”
“Have you ever been a slave, Awshalim? Plunged into darkness and pain, your body worked to the bone, without a shred of hope? Have you felt the taskmaster’s whip? Have thugs raped your loving wife before your very eyes? Or have you heard the terrified cries of your children as they are ripped out of your arms to be destroyed?
“We must all cry out for help sometimes. We must serve some figure of power and mercy! One who might help us in time of trouble.
“But what if He doesn’t?”
“Well, that’s a great mystery. But even when we are forsaken, our eyes turn again upwards, our hearts seek salvation.”
“Again, Moses, that’s just a human emotion. We did the same thing to our parents when we were little kids when we didn’t get candy. But then this guy who is supposed to be watching out for us but sometimes doesn’t– He tells us to exterminate a city full of people who don’t happen to acknowledge Him? My parents never expected that from me!”
“Awshalim, wake up and smell the coffins! Religious conflict and violence are how societies develop. Humans are what they are. You thought this science of yours could give you more control and lead to a peaceful world, but there was only worse war and destruction. You had your attempts at feminism, but whenever women took power they proved as ruthless as men. Power itself is the problem. Power and fear of power. Against these forces we are all victims. In times of great calamity we all need Yaweh. Take that Richard Dawkins fellow, for instance – would not even he cry out for deliverance if truly demonic forces fell upon him and made him their accursed plaything? Let the mystical arise within your heart. Otherwise, Legion Ayers, all is dust and fire and death!”
I stood there speechless. Legion Ayers? Feminism? Richard Dawkins? I was stunned. He knew who I was. And a lot more. He must have known all along!
“I’m a cosmic artifact, Legion, a beloved father-figure imbued with such meaning that I exist in a realm between myth and reality. Archeologists cannot erase me. Where there is cruelty and slavery, the story of Exodus gives hope to the oppressed. I am sorry for all the slaughter. Who knows, maybe Yaweh didn’t tell me to destroy my enemies utterly. Maybe the blood-lust was on me, on us all. We were escaped slaves. We Hebrews are very primitive people. We don’t know the world is round and spinning about the sun. We have no tear gas, no Tasers. Exterminating our enemies is normal. It has gone on for a long time.”
I was reeling. “Where am I?” I mumbled.
“Well, you fool around with time-travel, you never know where you might wind up,” Moses said soothingly, patting me on the back, then seating himself back down next to me. “You look upset. How about a nice piece of manna and a cup of wine?”
“Do you have any fig wine?”
“Fig wine is nice with a little buttered manna.”
“I’ll give it a try.”
Moses clapped his hands and an aide rushed up to serve us. I tried to stay grounded in whatever sense of reality was left to me. “So when is Joshua crossing the Jordan?” I asked.
“Next Monday. I’m actually happy not to join him. He’s going to be utterly destroying a lot of people over the next few months. I’ve seen quite enough of that. Plus he has to divide the waters of the Jordan to get everyone across. Another pain in the neck.”
“I suppose so.”
We chatted briefly about the weather and possible spots for an Israeli capital, as I sipped his wine. Finally, Moses brushed some manna crumbs of his robe and said,
“Look, Legion, I don’t want to rush you, but I really do need to die today. I was supposed to pass on last week, but every day Joshua is asking me questions: military strategy, moral issues, what to say to God, what not to say…but it’s been wonderful seeing you today, we’ve had a very nice closure here…”
“I understand Moses. I’ll take my leave,” I said, getting up from the cushions. “Give my regards to Yaweh.”
“I certainly will. Go in peace, whatever that is.”
I headed down the hillside toward the Jordan, looking for a place to Withdraw back to my own time. A thin veil of clouds had come across the sun, cooling the day and easing the bright glare from the arid landscape. To one side of the road there stood a cluster of fig trees, and I felt drawn into its coolness. I knew my journey was near its end, and that I’d have to manage to explain to my boss Quantum Regnum and the Grolnathians what I had learned, but I was still dream-walking. Had there actually been an Exodus? Where had I really been, in a parallel universe of my own making? Were all these characters figments of my imagination? Figments? The image of fig mint ice cream arose in my mind. Figs, figure, fig yogurt? I had to snap out of it.
That was when the shadow passed across my eyes and once more Suhad, in all her youthful glory, stood close beside me, deep in that glade of fig trees.
“Legion Ayers, we meet again,” she breathed softly. I realized this was the final mystery which, like a ripe fig, needed unpeeling.
“No, never peel a fig, Legion, all the vitamins are in the skin.”
“Vitamins? How do you know about vitamins?”
“I sort of invented them, I guess. But let us not speak of technicalities. I long to be close to you again, my time-traveler. Come to me – this may be our last chance.”
Fear and desire throbbed in equal measure through my veins. “Go with the desire, lose the fear,” she whispered, drawing closer and caressing me beneath my desert robe, drawing little circles on my chest. “Let’s play the eternal game again, my sweet. My headache is gone.” I heard a roll of thunder move across the sky in the distance.
“Not unless you tell me who you are! You move islands and raise the dead. You transport thousands of souls across the planet. I’m not just a handsome face, Suhad. Real intimacy requires sharing and honesty.”
She giggled and the sound of her laughter inflamed me even more. “So 21st century you are! You’re supposed to be a detective, Legion. Can’t you figure it out? Who could stand against Yaweh and countermand Him? Only the Yang of Yin! Divinity is not monolithic! I am God’s better half!”
“I had sex with God’s wife?”
“God’s ‘wife?’ Please! Show some respect. I’m the Goddess. But don’t worry, He and I have an open relationship.” Again, the sound of rolling thunder, closer now. Suhad had moved her hand lower, tangling her fingers in the curls that adorn my nether regions. A perfume beyond description engulfed my senses.
“Open? Are you…sure?” I asked. Then a great flash of lightning, an audible crack, and rain came pelting down, accompanied the next roar of thunder.
Suhad looked up at the roiling clouds. “Oh, buzz off, Honey,” she cried. “You know there’s nobody for me but you. Let me have a little fun sometimes. You certainly have yours!”
“You mean besides Mary, there were…?
“Thousands, Legion. He’s very active.”
I moved my left hand to grasp the lower joint of my right pinkie. One twist and I’d be hurtling back through time-space to the 26th century. She slapped my hand away before it got there.
“Don’t panic, Legion. I can manage Him.” And indeed, the rain now began to lighten. She looked up again. “You can stay and watch if you like. I know you like to watch.” The rumbling in the sky now took on a sullen, vaguely submissive tone. I remained frozen, in more ways than one. “Try to imagine it’s just the two of us, Leggie,” she whispered. He won’t cause any trouble.” Her otherworldly fragrance was overwhelming my senses again, re-awakening my passion. I looked down. The softest green blanket of verdant grass had appeared at our feet. Suhad pulled me down onto it and then into another experience that can only be called divine. At the final moment, as together we mounted the highest summits of passion, came a huge flash in the sky, a great crash, and rain began pelting down.
“OK, cool it big guy,” Suhad cried out, panting.
“So that’s what rain is?”
“Yes, He does it all the time. Even when I’m not around. He always says, ‘Well, I see everything I hath made and behold, it’s very good.’ He’s so male! ”
The rain dribbled to a stop and we lay quietly for a while, then I asked her, “So you and the Lord are like what, Greek gods inserting yourselves into human affairs in, uh, various ways?”
“No, the Greeks gods are myths. There’s just one Divinity.”
“Ever think of having kids?”
“Are you kidding? Who do you think you are?”
I didn’t want to. Everything was already strange enough.
“So can you tell me why there’s so much suffering?”
“He’s like a four year-old sometimes. Loves to knock things down, break all his toys.”
“That would be us?”
“Yes, unfortunately. I do what I can, as you’ve seen. I’ll be glad when this Exodus is over and we can cut a lower profile.”
“Can’t you bring peace to the world?”
“No, contrary to popular opinion, we’re not all-powerful. But we do what we can. Do you have any idea how many volcanic eruptions we’ve cooled down? And all the lightning, all over the world. How often does anyone get hit? Then there’s gravity, can’t be too strong or you’d never get out of bed, can’t be too light or you’d all fly off the planet. It’s overwhelming sometimes. That’s why I need little getaways like today. I do appreciate it, Future-Man.”
“You can say that again. Anyway, just another 3,500 years until the Grolnathians come and then we get some real time off.”
“You mean you’re only responsible for Earth?”
“Isn’t that enough? Who am I, Superwoman?”
“To me you are.”
“You’re a sweetie, Leggie. Now run along back to the 26th century. Your work here is done.”
“Give my regards to Yaweh. Don’t let Him push you around.”
“Him? Never.” I looked up at the murky sky and tried to smile at Whoever was up there, but it came out somewhere between a grimace and a smirk. Big thunder crash. I pecked a goodbye kiss on Suhad’s cheek and as I twisted my right pinkie, I felt my legs go out from under me as I fell backwards into the Trans-temporal Zone, a silvery-grey nothingness filled with pink noise, a nowhere-place that always smells vaguely of buttered popcorn.
After an indeterminable period the mist cleared and, still reclining, I felt sand again beneath my body, but I gradually recognized it as a beach I love to go to on the northern tip of Long Island. It was early morning, and the sun was lighting a brilliant, sparkling path across the Atlantic before my eyes. A fresh sea breeze whipped the tall grasses in the dunes behind me. An orange fusion-powered commutercraft flashed down the coast at nearly the speed of sound, just above the waves, affirming I had arrived back in 2560. But how was I going to explain it all to Quantum Regnum and the Grolnathians? Would they think I was making it all up? And if it was true that God and his carefree wife Suhad were off duty now, where had they gone to? And if the big-bang theory was really correct, and the light we receive from the stars came from 13 billion years ago, where are those stars now? And where was Lilac and Water Lily and Feral O’Farrell? Did the recordings of Mozart in the cyberstores now feature drum tracks and Nigerian contraltos? And why, when you lie in a hot bath, do little bubbles form on your legs? You brush them away and back they come. That’s so weird. But most of all, how was I going to report the findings of my Mosaic investigations? I felt overwhelmed. Then I realized there was a manila envelope lying on the sand next to me. Inside was a 38-page document. It was titled:
“Results of Investigation Into Certain Legendary Egyptian Events, c. 1250 B.C.”
Legion Ayers, Senior Officer, Trans-temporal Corrections Agency
I saw a green Post-it attached to the envelope, on which was written the words,
“Mail it in.”
So I did.