The Staff of God

  By  Jo Anzalone 1993 (The last thoughts of Moses)



(...a tissue paper painting I did back in the mid-70's)




One deep breath...
       not many left.
I feel them counting down.
       Weakness rises slowly up my  legs.
           is down there in the valley
                     where the new breed marches toward the Promised Land.
A sigh escapes my lips.
Not in regret
                   but more remembrance.
Long years of....of...
   with the massed encampment far below.


How familiar,
                    not only to my eyes,
    but familiar, now, to all the deeps inside my soul.
Black tent upon black tent,
     a wide black border,
                                  a frame,
                                             a setting
    for the startling courtyard white.
               shadows in the sand.


            ah! what a time of work and joy and giving
   as together we built the shadow in the sand;
And I was happy with that gathering and doing.
My heart was at its fullest in those days.
        Community and purpose
                                           filled the very air
   and murmuring was forgotten in the wonder of it all.
                      A happy time.
Our white and red and blue and purple shadow in the sand.
      they never really...understood;
      they never really...saw beyond.
The shadow became for them the substance...
                                                                 all there is...
       all they think they need.
The shadow's pattern,
                               the REALITY,
                                                     was shown alone to me...
    a glory overwhelming and supreme.
The sight, the Presence of the real soaked into my very pores...
                           and yet I still...
                                                  I still...
    did not uphold the holiness of God.
I beheld the pattern-
                              and they-
                                            they have its shadow in the sand.
      blessed art thou, O Israel,
          for this Great Reality you do not even grasp
  is become your Shield and Helper,
                                       and your Glorious Sword.

Go onward, Israel, over Jordan...
          Let My people go.
                                            MY people...
Yes, Lord,...I hear You
                                  and I understand.
It is my turn,
                   my turn
                               to let Your people...
    without me
                     over Jordan.
It,   strangely,
                     is not hard
                                    or sad.
I have my river now to cross,
                                          its water-sound rising in my ears.
A river more real than Jordan-
                                            and beyond-
                                                              the Courts of God.


My knees.....ah!
        Standing is too much...
                                          hands slip slowly down the staff,
          settling my bones gently in the sand.
Ah, yes!
            Again I understand, my Lord...
   I, also, am a shadow of my real self,
                     a shadow in the sand.
I feel a sudden...
                         closing in...
                                          around myself.
The world is fading, is
                                 almost gone.
All I can see
                                         my staff,
                                                      across my lap
                                                          in both my hands.


My staff...
               my last, my one possession-
   yet a thing not truly all.
Old friend, my heart and mind brim full with more than 80 years
              of your presence in my hands.
The world fades...
                          and of all earthly things
                                     only you have come to Nebo for this end.
In a thousand scenes you flash across my inner eye.
Were you ever
           in the beginning, yes,
                     perhaps---then---you were just a staff.
    We had a bad beginning, you and I.
If I turn you...
                           yes, there it is...
     dark and faded with the years.
Egyptian blood.
Oh, God,
             I was so strong,
                                   so full of my own self...
                                                                     so proud.
And I would deliver Israel all alone.
   So I swung you in an arc,
                                        a muscle-powered, self-sufficient arc...
   and buried the Egyptian in the sand.
           you went with me to Sinai's depths,
   that great passage in my life from all that Egypt had been to me... me...
               staggering blindly on toward the unknown.
So clearly
             I remember
   a time my strength had gone, and you, as now,
                   lay across my weak-kneed lap.
My eyes gazed back wearily along my path...
    and there your presence was-
         a row of sandy holes beside my every step.
I smiled with cracking lips, for seeing that
                                                            I felt
                                                                                 less alone.


                         and when I met her, you were in my hands.
I was so tired,
                    almost asleep,
                                        when seven sisters were driven from the well.
But sudden strength flowed in my arms-
       again you arced through desert air...
              the shepherds ran
                                       and she
                                                  was there.
Where? Ah, yes, there,
            I carved Gershom and Eliezer into your wood...
Sons of Moses, son of Amram...
                                            all the way to Levi,
                                                                        son of Jacob,
                                                                           son of Isaac,
                                                                              son of Abraham.


So, bearing in your wood, the names of all my fathers,
    You and I passed 40 years among the sheep.
There is
                                     where my hand is used to grasping,
   and darkness from the years of sweaty hands.
Nicks and scrapes...
                            gouges from the rocks-
                                        I k now each one-
                                              each with a story of its own.
And, still, you were but
                                    a staff.


Then a day...
            a day foreknown and appointed...
               a day when bushes burned and ground was holy...
   that day came upon me wherein God asked,
"What is that in your hand?"
     And I, through chattering teeth, replied,
                                                               "A staff."

It was were...then...
   "a" staff.
But that was the end.
                                You met our future as a snake.
God said to take you by the tail.
     By the TAIL, can you imagine!!
                                        By the tail...
   where all the hand and arm are open to the turning, seeking fangs!
Never have I reached for you with such faintness in my heart!
   But a fear of...greater things...than snakes
       drove my trembling hand to obey.
Then you became a staff again,
             the tide of fear receding in my breast.
But you were changed...
                                   as I was changed...
   and you had been put into my hands anew.
The carven names, the scrapes, the sweat, the blood---
             all were there
                                 yet you were new to me
                                                                    as God said,
"Take THIS staff into your hands wherewith you shall do signs."



Back to Egypt
    my sandy footsteps now accompanied by family-laden donkey hooves--
           and, once again,
                                   your row of holes.
          all was different...
                  for in my reluctant yes to the Call...
      you had become "the staff of God."

  One man,
               one staff,
                            was God's intention...but...
I divided  the Call...
                             two men
                                          one mission...


So Aaron came to meet us,
     and, as God had said, we performed  staff-signs before the people...
One staff,
              the staff of God,
                                      sometimes...most times...
   in my hands
                    but some in Aaron's.
Only one
             staff  OF GOD.



I remember your echoing thud as we crossed Pharaoh's marble floor...
    so different from the almost silent sigh of sand
            of your making holes in Sinai.
Then Aaron threw you with a clatter to that floor
   and you became once more a snake--
           swallowing alive Egyptian staff-snakes.
The first time I spoke forth, "Let my people go!"
                 I held you, at God's direction, in my hands.
I raised you in Pharaoh's presence and struck great Nile's water
                            turning it to blood.
Aaron held you over all Egypt's other waters
        and they, too, grew red with blood.
Twice more stretched forth by Aaron...
         frogs upon the land...
                  and dust transformed to gnats.
I held you to the sapphire sky...
             hail and lightning flashed down to the ground.
        the Lord commanded
                                      and I stretched you over Egypt in my hand
   until the east wind brought locusts with the dawn.



       bursting with triumphant freedom,
  once more your sanded holes dogged my steps
            as out from Goshen we strode...
                                                          our faces to the morning sun.
Too soon the triumph fluttered frozen to the ground
    as chariot sounds drew near behind.
Once more...the east wind in the night.
Once more...the waters yielded in obedience,
                       not in blood to convict--
                       but in withdrawal to save.

The passage done,
Once more...I stretched you forth at God's command.
Once more...Egyptians buried in my sight...
                    buried in water, not in sand...
                    buried by God, and not by me.

A brief rejoicing...
                          all too brief...
   then the people's anger, fear, and hate.
Would they even stone me?
           What was I to do?
Calmness and authority spoke in divine command,
   "Take in your hand the staff wherewith you struck the Nile...."
Of all the staff commands
    Here, before the rock at Horeb,
         He chose THAT one!    Why?
But I knew it was again...the water.
                                        blood water...
                                             parted water...
                                                                   and now...
                                                  water from Himself.
To convict, to save, now to sustain.



             would it ever come?
You seemed a stone-carved staff and not a slender almond rod.
My old arms vibrated with the strain
   as trickling paths of sweat ran down my spine.
My knees began to shake...
                                      my shoulders cried in pain.
I must!     I must!
                          I simply, simply  MUST!
The sweat is in my eyes!
                                    I cannot see the valley!
          Where is Joshua now?
My shoulders!
                    I can no longer stand the strain.
I'll lower you...for just...a little while...
                                                          just...a little while.
Oh, God...NO!
                     The screams and yells!
     I must hold you up!    I must!
                                                   I must!
Oh, God...I can no longer do it...
                     Lord...I can no longer DO it!
What's this
                 this grip upon my arms
                                                  this sudden strength
   both right and left?
I am compassed 'round with muscles freed!
Around each wrist a lifting and a holding strength!
Oh, my God, I thank You...
                                       God, thank You for these men...
                                                                        these hands...
                                                                             this strength...
      when mine was gone.
Oh, Joshua...fight on!
                                Fight on!


         that day of awesome choice
                                                 when the people spoke a curse
   upon themselves...
"If we had only perished in this desert!"
      The Lord,
                               granted their request.
I never thought,
                       not once my mind conceived...
   they'd turn away...
                                              from the open gate.
A day of choice for me as well.
God offered Abraham's inheritance for myself...
I could not...
                   I could not...
                                                   let the people go...
   let them go without me...into desolation...
                                                               into death.
So near,
           so very near,
                              the Promised now.
         so very near the long-sought, wide-open gate.


I could have gone in then at God's free invitation.
The people had turned from me,
                                             disowned my leadership.
     my heart ever knew
                                  I could not let them die alone.
                                      Would not let them die alone.
And so the gate swung shut
   with clang so loud it echoed for a generation across the sands.
I simply could not BELIEVE that we were turning back!
        How could this be?
The joy of Tabernacle building seemed so far away...
                                                                            long gone.


A mighty clang...
                        then Korah...
                                           the censers...
                                                             and the plague.
Next...God's command to rid Himself of Israel's 'plaint.
        Twelve staffs...
                              one from each ancestral tribe.
I brought you forth,
                             O staff of Levi,
                                    and carved Aaron's name across your tip.
I smiled...
               it was the only unmarked spot...
                      my father-son line filled up all the length.
Fitting, it was, that "Aaron" be graved upon you, too,
   for he wielded you well in Pharaoh's courts...
         and brothers matter...not only fathers and sons.
And, so, you--for that time--became "Aaron's staff"...
          a symbol of the house of Levi...
    as I placed you in the Tent of Testimony.
The next day...
                     bud and blossoms...
         as a staff cut 40 years gone by throbbed full with life...
              the staff not merely of Aaron...or Moses...or Levi...
The staff...OF GOD!



The Lord commanded you be replaced before the Ark...
   "kept as a sign to the rebellious"
Oh, prophetic words!
How could I forget so soon...
                                         so SOON!
Israel forgot the lesson of the staff...
   shouting and cursing anew when water was gone.
And I...
           I, too,...
                                 "as a sign to the rebellious...
                                                                         as a sign"
    and I, in my pride and anger...
My brother and I, facedown, before the glory of the Lord...
          in His Presence...
                                    hearing His command...
                                                       HIS command...
"Take the staff...and speak...SPEAK to the rock!"
  I gathered myself from before the Lord
         and took that almond-bearing staff...
               that staff still filled with mystical God-life,
   and I shouted to the crowd in such bitterness of heart
       my spirit shrank and closed up tight.
How quick and full the anger!
Did I hate them that the gate had closed...
                                                            for them...
         and also for...
                                    because of them?
Could I no longer bear the litany of complaint...
                  the unending dissatisfaction in their souls?
I was buried alive...
                                                  under their monstrous mount
    of murmurings.
Something in me snapped.


"Listen, you rebels," I snarled in disgust, "must WE, Aaron and I,
           bring you water from this rock? Must WE!!!"
Somewhere between the Tabernacle and the Rock
   I dropped the Lord off in the sand.
"Speak!" He'd ordered...
                                 but my ears...
                                                      my mind...
    were overwhelmed with rage.
How DARE they!
    How DARE they do this yet AGAIN!!
My eyes were red with my own blood...all I could see
   gripped white-knuckled in my hand.
                                                       The staff!
                                                             Always the staff!
"Strike the Nile!"
                         "Part the sea!"
                                               "Strike the rock!"
Strike the rock...
                               strike the rock...
    in blind and furious anger...
                                            STRIKE THE ROCK!
With green leaves crushing between my fingers,
     I swung you with a fury that long-dead Egyptian had never known.
     Once was not enough to drain my anger...
             and again I swung...smashing almonds...
                                                 smashing flowers...
      against the innocent rock.
A sudden gush of water struck me in the face;
   My God!
      Awareness of my deed!
Falling prostrate...lips buried in the sands, I cried,
   Oh, God!  Oh...GOD!
                 " a sign to the rebellious."


I had taken "the sign"...
     crushed mystical fruit against the rock...
                  crushed divine life upon the rock...
   that Rock wherein lay divine provision.
I had forgotten God...
                               forgotten His word...
             had acted in anger as though I were He...
                  as though Aaron and I
                                                   in ourselves
                                                                    by ourselves
       could provide life from within the Rock.
I had not honored God as holy in the sight of Israel.
      across the sands
                            there came that echoing clang
           as MY gate to the Promised Land swung shut...
                                        swung shut because of me...alone.
Oh, Adam...I understand, at last, your pain!



The Lord, not asking your return before His Ark,
         desired all these long years since
               your presence in my hands
    so never would I forget
                                      the cost
                  of abusing great authority.
This callus here upon my palm...
                                              from a sharp stub
   where on the rock I crushed a blooming shoot.
A million times you've made your sandy hole beside my step...
   and every one accompanied by that stub's prick
        'til it was worn and rounded with the years.
My heart is ever grateful for reminding pain...
     The full cup given me by the Lord...
                   it has never spilled again.
And now, old companion, we are come to Nebo's heights
   and I have no strength to lift you from my lap.
Aaron and Hur...
                        gone more years than I can count.
The gate is open wide--
                                the grasshoppers dead--
                                                                  the warriors grown.
Let My people go
                         over Jordan.
                                          Let My people go.
Yes, Lord...
                  I do let Your people go.
My with You only and alone.
No fighting for an earthly home...
Let Your servant...
The waters rise above my head...soft as angel wings...
     The staff...was it...a shadow, too?
The staff of God...
                           the only marker...
                                                    for my grave.