The Death of Moses

“The Death of Moses” (1878)

Moses, who spake with God as with his friend,

And ruled his people with the twofold power

Of wisdom that can dare and still be meek,

Was writing his last word, the sacred name

Unutterable of that Eternal Will

Which was and is and evermore shall be.

Yet was his task not finished, for the flock

Needed its shepherd and the life-taught sage

Leaves no successor; but to chosen men,

The rescuers and guides of Israel,

A death was given called the Death of Grace,

Which freed them from the burden of the flesh

But left them rulers of the multitude

And loved companions of the lonely. This

Was God’s last gift to Moses, this the hour

When soul must part from self and be but soul.


God spake to Gabriel, the messenger

Of mildest death that draws the parting life

Gently, as when a little rosy child

Lifts up its lips from off the bowl of milk

And so draws forth a curl that dipped its gold

In the soft white—thus Gabriel draws the soul.

“Go bring the soul of Moses unto me!”

And the awe-stricken angel answered, “Lord,

How shall I dare to take his life who lives

Sole of his kind, not to be likened once

In all the generations of the earth?”


Then God called Michaël, him of pensive brow

Snow-vest and flaming sword, who knows and acts:

“Go bring the spirit of Moses unto me!”

But Michaël with such grief as angels feel,

Loving the mortals whom they succour, pled:

“Almighty, spare me; it was I who taught

Thy servant Moses; he is part of me

As I of thy deep secrets, knowing them.”


Then God called Zamaël, the terrible,

The angel of fierce death, of agony

That comes in battle and in pestilence

Remorseless, sudden or with lingering throes.

And Zamaël, his raiment and broad wings

Blood-tinctured, the dark lustre of his eyes

Shrouding the red, fell like the gathering night

Before the prophet. But that radiance

Won from the heavenly presence in the mount

Gleamed on the prophet’s brow and dazzling pierced

Its conscious opposite: the angel turned

His murky gaze aloof and inly said:

“An angel this, deathless to angel’s stroke.”


But Moses felt the subtly nearing dark:—

“Who art thou? and what wilt thou?” Zamaël then:

“I am God’s reaper; through the fields of life

I gather ripened and unripened souls

Both willing and unwilling. And I come

Now to reap thee.” But Moses cried,

Firm as a seer who waits the trusted sign:

“Reap thou the fruitless plant and common herb—

Not him who from the womb was sanctified

To teach the law of purity and love.”

And Zamaël baffled from his errand fled.


But Moses, pausing, in the air serene

Heard now that mystic whisper, far yet near,

The all-penetrating Voice, that said to him,

“Moses, the hour is come and thou must die.”

“Lord, I obey; but thou rememberest

How thou, Ineffable, didst take me once

Within thy orb of light untouched by death.”

Then the voice answered, “Be no more afraid:

With me shall be thy death and burial.”

So Moses waited, ready now to die.


And the Lord came, invisible as a thought,

Three angels gleaming on his secret track,

Prince Michaël, Zamaël, Gabriel, charged to guard

The soul-forsaken body as it fell

And bear it to the hidden sepulchre

Denied for ever to the search of man.

And the Voice said to Moses: “Close thine eyes.”

He closed them. “Lay thine hand upon thine heart,

And draw thy feet together.” He obeyed.

And the Lord said, “O spirit! child of mine!

A hundred years and twenty thou hast dwelt

Within this tabernacle wrought of clay.

This is the end: come forth and flee to heaven.”


But the grieved soul with plaintive pleading cried,

“I love this body with a clinging love:

The courage fails me, Lord, to part from it.”


“O child, come forth! for thou shalt dwell with me

About the immortal throne where seraphs joy

In growing vision and in growing love.”


Yet hesitating, fluttering, like the bird

With young wing weak and dubious, the soul

Stayed. But behold! upon the death-dewed lips

A kiss descended, pure, unspeakable—

The bodiless Love without embracing Love

That lingered in the body, drew it forth

With heavenly strength and carried it to heaven.


But now beneath the sky the watchers all,

Angels that keep the homes of Israel

Or on high purpose wander o’er the world

Leading the Gentiles, felt a dark eclipse:

The greatest ruler among men was gone.

And from the westward sea was heard a wail,

A dirge as from the isles of Javanim,

Crying, “Who now is left upon the earth

Like him to teach the right and smite the wrong?”

And from the East, far o’er the Syrian waste,

Came slowlier, sadlier, the answering dirge:

“No prophet like him lives or shall arise

In Israel or the world for evermore.”


But Israel waited, looking toward the mount,

Till with the deepening eve the elders came

Saying, “His burial is hid with God.

We stood far off and saw the angels lift

His corpse aloft until they seemed a star

That burnt itself away within the sky.”


The people answered with mute orphaned gaze

Looking for what had vanished evermore.

Then through the gloom without them and within

The spirit’s shaping light, mysterious speech,

Invisible Will wrought clear in sculptured sound,

The thought-begotten daughter of the voice,

Thrilled on their listening sense: “He has no tomb.

He dwells not with you dead, but lives as Law.”


George Eliot (1819-1880) was the pen name of Mary Ann Evans, one of most celebrated novelists of the Victorian era. Raised in a devout evangelical Anglican family, Eliot renounced her faith in adulthood, but continued to write extensively on religious themes, including meditations on Biblical characters.


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