After the time when dark first became distinct from light, earth carved away from water and man sculpted from mud where the two met and then his woman fabulously formed straight from him by the magic of God’s own hand, beyond the days the original growth of all and a flooding away of the darkened hearts of the earth and a solid skylit promise, dove-messengered so the transmission came through clear to man’s ears that such would never befall again: No worries. I’m on it. You’re mine. Write it down somewhere you’ll look at it, man and woman bundled back into that God-forget like a favorite blanket and had a good long time of it in those days, marked by deaths along the way. Even after, some got shaken awake like Abram, but it took stunts—like God’s I double-dare you to drop the knife on that boy Isaac, the only legitimate boy you ever gonna have, and this boy a long-time comin’ for you—for them to truly shake off drugsleeped lives, deathwalking, and see through to that mountainlike God or one of his smaller just as solid messengers standing there, SOS armwaving, a voice blazing, Hey! Man! Lookahere!
Even after the time God had made the final promise with Abraham, who through that hunting trip almost gone wrong lost his alias and gained a name, where God had to tell him straight, I don’t wish the death of your son, but y’all have got such a deep streak of dumbass in you that you can’t pay attention to me for more than one suck of breath if I’m not standing right here, upping the ante. So when you forget, you got to go back and remember stuff like this so y’all know I’m here even then. Get a tattoo of it if you need to.
After that, after Abraham and Isaac and a casualty list of more men and women born and dead, it came time for Jacob to be awakened, to find his own name changed to Israel, to become a nation of God born through his very own self. Jacob, like Abraham, had his own favored son past his lovemaking prime. He loved that boy Joseph more than all his others. So much that he created a coat of explosive colors, woven like the blues, a down-and-dirty beauty seductive even to a passion-peddling pimp, threads of Ben-Hur, old-Hollywood Biblical proportions. And that boy wore it like a peacock, strutting before his brothers and telling them of his strange dreams of sheaves and harvest and how it meant they would all eventually find themselves at his feet. A waking nightmare to them. They called him Dreamer and plotted a way to end him when Jacob sent Joseph tagging along to find them, tending Dad’s sheep out in the wilds. Saw him coming from afar and had time to premeditate it. Judah—in charge since the firstborn Reuben was off getting some from his father’s kept woman (who’d end up being Reuben’s only piece of inheritance)—said to his brothers, What will we gain if we kill our brother and cover up his blood? Come, let’s sell him to the Ishmaelites and not lay our hands on him. After all, he is our brother, our own flesh and blood.
They had all looked up from where they crouched eating their evening meal as Judah said it, and all watched a caravan of those mysterious Midianites coming from Gilead, camels loaded with spices and the famed healing balm from no other geography but that one, and myrrh, on their way to do commerce down in Egypt. All of those brothers heard and saw at the same time what was proposed, and all yepped along in favor of that opportunity walking right in from the horizon, camelbacked, served up like dessert or creamy boobs in two heaping scoops.
So they waylaid their youngest brother and handed him over to the Midianite merchants and made a little pocketroll in the exchange. But they kept that coat. No telling what kind of fight would have broken out over it if Reuben hadn’t shown up, manspent now and thus clearheaded, crying, “What the hell have you boys done?” rending his garments from his body like his daddy’s concubine’s nails had done down his back, clawing for dear life. The life in both cases had to be sleight of hand before Father Jacob, but it seemed more demanding that Reuben mask the issue of his missing baby brother right now. So he asserted himself as firstborn again, with righteous indignation like an adrenaline-rush, grabbed that coat and told one of them to hold a goat still while he slit its throat and they all watched its blood pump from that neckvein all over the desert floor until that goat’s babylike head flopped over and the bahhing gurgled to quiet. Then Reuben stooped with that coat in his fists, but hesitated—even with all that desperation to do what had to be done coursing through him now—because that coat was Brilliance, singing promises of what it could do for him like a Gospel chorus. In that momentary silence, all those failed brothers heard its music. But Reuben did it. Wiped that coat haphazard and frantic through that goat’s blood, which Reuben couldn’t know by his doing would forever symbolize for mankind an act of pure deception, no matter his better motives.
And it worked. They all returned to Jacob and said nothing preemptive, Reuben leading them and holding the coat out before him as if a word of greeting. And Jacob made that coat answer, hearing blues riffs cut apart by those long streaks of blood, seeing that it had to be something wild and unhuman that had ended Joseph, his blessed favorite. He tore his own garments, trying to escape all covering, perhaps rend free of the pain of his own skin clothing him; and though all his sons and daughters came to comfort him, he refused any consolation. No, he said, in mourning will I go down to the grave to my son. So his father wept for him.
But that is not the last verse to this telling. It is a one-sentence Meanwhile . . . Lone-Ranger cutaway black-and-white, relaying that those Midianites sold Joseph down in Egypt to Potiphar, one of Pharaoh’s officials, the captain of the guard. It could only be in footnote to all man’s history to know those merchants of this deed to be named for their forefathers, Median and Medan, who, like Ishmael—that Moby-Dicked child of a common serving-wench named Hagar, who herself was promised by God: Your boy will be a wild donkey of a man. His hand will be against everyone and everyone’s hand against him, and he will live in hostility toward all his brothers—were both sons of Abraham. No son like the late-born blessed promise named Isaac, who would father Jacob a.k.a. Israel, thus siring all God’s chosen, but also not the true firstborn yet illegitimate son Ishmael, who suffered a promise that, mouthed out, sounded a hell of a lot more like cursing. But still, Median and Medan were brothers to them, though no drastic God-mention making them worthy of their own chapter headings in history’s Good Book, none of their own felt-board Sunday-school lessons for the ages. But it did make their own seed all great-great grandsons of Abraham together that infamous day in the wilds of the desert. Reuben and hog-tied Joseph and the rest of Jacob’s conspiring bunch of shepherd sons. The dusky, sand-dirtied mysterious Midianite brokers trucking it down to Egypt long-lost brothers of theirs too, whether they ever reckoned it so or not.
After the dark-faced Midianite brokers had bartered their deal for Joseph down in Egypt a famine had come upon the land of Jacob and the conniving boys left to him. In desperation they sought refuge in Egypt and found that the runt Joseph had earned favor and glory with Pharaoh, serving his God and his strange dreams and saving Egypt from famine in the process. Pharaoh put him in charge of the nation’s storehouse, which is how his brothers found him. Those brothers feared what would happen to them as a result of their little brother and his bloodwiped, goatstained coat once again. Their father, stupefied, wept over this favored son once more, lost but now found. Joseph showed them all mercy, and Pharaoh loved Joseph, so he and his lived and died and made others like themselves in that land and God prospered them all for a good while.
Then a new king, who did not know about Joseph, came to power in Egypt. He said to his people, Look here. These folks are going to overrun us in our own land. We got to deal shrewdly with them, or they’ll keep multiplying, and then if war breaks out, they’ll band together with our enemies and be our undoing.
So Jacob’s people, Joseph’s people, had slave masters put over them to oppress them with forced labor there on the banks of the Nile. But the more they were segregated and forced to do the work that no Egyptian wanted to, the more they multiplied and spread. The Egyptians came to look on them with dread then and worked them not just hard but ruthless. The Israelites slaved in brick and mortar and fieldwork and still they became more of themselves.
The new Pharaoh said, See what I’m telling you? They’re like cockroaches. Or rats. You try to get rid of them by squeezing down and somehow they thrive in the corners, in the dark. What did our daddies always tell us? Don’t go messing with a bunch of fuckin’ dirty shepherds. That’s who they are! We got to do something!
So this king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, the enslaved women who aided in the bloody births, When you got a Hebrew woman hiked up on the delivery stool, if you see it’s a boy I want you to reach on in and end it quick. If it’s a girl up in there, you can let it live. But the midwives feared Jacob’s and Joseph’s fleshless god more than that king, and they let the boys live too. Then the king summoned them and asked them, Did I not make myself clear? What part of kill those boys did you not understand? But they had their stories straight. The midwives answered him, kneeling, Hebrew women are not like Egyptian women. They are common, but vigorous, and pop them out before we can even get there. Their heads still lowered, smiling as they added, My lord. So God was kind to the midwives and their people increased and became even more numerous. And he even gave those midwives families of their own.
After that, Pharaoh decided to go public with a full-scale media blitz to his own people and the Hebrews: Hear ye! Hear ye! Every newborn Hebrew baby you see, I command you to throw into the Nile. If it’s a girl, you can let it live. Walking the halls of his palace at night, muttering Goddamn, I got other things to tend to, into the warm desert air.
Under this condition was a baby boy born to a Levite woman and a man of the house of Levi, the child of Jacob cum Israel that would father the house of priests, the keepers of whatever Good Word they could remember God speaking to them. The Levite woman reckoned her baby a mighty fine child and kept him out of sight for three months. But when he got too big to stash out of the way, she decided to follow the letter of Pharaoh’s law instead of the spirit. She got a basket of papyrus and coated it in thick black tar and pitch, hoping that would keep it seaworthy. Then she placed her fine child in it and put it among the reeds along the bank of the Nile. She could not push him out into it. The woman turned her back, a sob catching in her throat, telling the baby’s sister to stand at a distance and see what happened to him.
Then Pharaoh’s daughter herself came down to the Nile to cleanse and saw the basket among the reeds and sent her slave girl to fetch it to her. She opened up the basket and saw the baby there, crying, and she felt sorry for him. This is one of the Hebrew babies, she said, his little fingers wrapped around one of hers.
The baby’s sister approached in attempted nonchalance and asked Pharaoh’s daughter, You want me to go get a Hebrew woman to nurse that baby for you? Pharaoh’s daughter turned her head and regarded the girl, waited a few moments, deciding, and told her, Yes, go.
The girl went and said Hurry up, Mama, and took the Levite woman to the princess of Egypt. Here’s one, the girl said. Pharaoh’s daughter said to the baby’s mother, Take this baby and nurse him for me and I’ll pay you for it. So his mother took him and nursed him as if she were merely a hired breast, but she knew better, and she whispered to the little boy who he really was as she nourished him. We may be slaves here, son, but God whispers our names, calling us. Somewhere else we hope. When he grew older and it was time to wean him she cried inside at having to take him to Pharaoh’s daughter, who was going to raise him as her own son. But this way he’s alive, and he’s close, and he’ll be raised as royalty of Egypt who knows the difference. Pharaoh’s daughter thanked her for her work, and she took the boy and named him only then. Moses, she thought, is a good name, an Egyptian name that means is born. But she thought she was being clever and important and thought that it meant in Hebrew draw out, though the Hebrew word only sounded similar. Even so, she had unwittingly been midwife to Moses’s second birth, drawing him out of that dead and slackened water by the shore.
One day, after Moses had grown strong in the house of Pharaoh but wise by the remembered words of his own kin as had his ancestor Joseph, he went out to where his own people were and watched them at their slaving toil. He saw the slickened, sunbathed arm of an Egyptian rise and fall onto the back of a Hebrew, one of his own. Anger flamed before his vision and he glanced this way and that to be sure of no witness, and then he killed the Egyptian and scalloped hand over hand of sand away from the earth and used it to blanket the man’s murdered form. The next day he went out again and saw two of his own heaving and at odds with each other. He asked the one he deemed to be at fault, Why are you hitting your fellow Hebrew?
The man wiped blood from his mouth and said, Who the hell do you think you are to judge me? Are you going to off me like you did that Egyptian? Now Moses sweated from something other than the day’s heat. He didn’t know how, but he knew what he had done had become known. He feared for his very life, and indeed Pharaoh had found out and sought it. But Moses fled from that fertile delta of the Nile and his squatter’s royal digs and from his own true family into a region where no one would think to look, for it was dry and scarred into desolate emptiness. His feet did not stop until he had crossed well inside its borders, on across the hardpacked ground under the lifeless banner of sky that signaled the nowhere geography of Midian. So unlike his forefather Joseph who had been carried into Egypt by his unknown Midianite kinfolk, Moses had generations later sought out the barren land settled by those forgotten sons of Abraham, just as oblivious that he was tied to them in any direct flow of blood.
He needed a drink, so he sat down by a well. Along came seven women to draw water and fill the troughs for their father’s flock. Some shepherds of that land came and tried to drive them away from the water, the life of that place in the heat of the day, but Moses rallied himself from fatigue and came to their rescue and watered their flocks himself, daring these foreign men to stop him. The girls told their father that an Egyptian had saved them, and while not quite correct, Moses let it ride and came to stay with the man, who was a priest of Midian, called by the name of Reuel, which means friend of God. Reuel gave one of those rescued daughters to Moses in marriage and now he was tied back Faulkner-style to his own unremembered people, lost blood, and the two had a son. Moses followed the practice of his adoptive Egyptian mother and named the boy something that mimicked a Hebrew word, Gershom, which means an alien there, since Moses found himself an alien in a foreign land. The father named drawn out and the boy named an alien there, the mention of their given names together telling an unfinished story, suggesting some purpose still lurked close.
Another cutaway Meanwhile . . . and then back to this telling. The pharaoh who sought Moses’s life but did not know of Joseph and his past saving graces enjoyed a long, long life. But he finally succumbed into the sands. The Israelites had been groaning in their slavery for a good long while and their cry went up to God. He heard their cries and remembered that promise he’d made to Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob. And it was about by-God time to do something.
Now Joseph was out minding the flock of his father-in-law, the friend of God, tending common stock just as Isaac’s boys had been doing when Joseph came to find them, just as David would be doing later before he became a king, just as the shepherds who would be keeping watch o’er their flocks by night. A profession that always announced you hadn’t amounted to much of anything. Moses took the flock to the far side of the desert, deeper into the nothingness of Midian. It doesn’t say why. Maybe fear that pharaoh was still pursuing, maybe to find the gift of water on the farther desert shore. He found only a mountain there called Horeb, which in the Hebrew tongue intensified the meaning of desert and desolation. Moses wound his way up a broken rockslid pass, hoping perhaps to find something to feed them nearer the summit or at least a view of a worthy destination. That was one thing he seemed to now wonder if he’d ever find.
Low on its apron he did see something. Hot and dry and barren as it was a scrubby clot of brush made its life there and was burning at the heart of its branches, fire popping and licking its way outward. Tending flocks, he was accustomed to thunderheads piling out of nowhere, lightning striking whatever it could find standing highest off the ground, a shepherd’s worst fear next to the wolf. No clouds above for him to trail, though. (That would come later, the cloud by day and fire by night.) Seems hot enough out here for stuff to bust into flames, Moses thought. This dead heat ain’t nothing like back in Egypt, where all of us got that cool, green breeze off the big water of the Nile. Won’t be surprised if these sheep start going off like Roman Candles here in a minute too. He kept watch over that brush. Now he thought there was a little strangeness to it, because though that little stripe of flame had come a good rolling burn now, the bush had not diminished at all when by Moses’s watch it should be no more than a burnt patch on the desert floor, with itself being just so much parched kindling waiting to go up in smoke. So Moses thought, I will go over and see this strange sight—why the bush does not burn up.
It’s what the Lord was waiting for. When he saw that Moses had gone over to look, He could not have been looking for faith or righteousness but maybe the barest curiosity that now drove Moses off the tired fleeing and passing the time he’d been calling life, here in this noplace, for so long. God called to him from within the bush then, Moses! Moses! because He’d learned these human folks only responded after a lot of yelling and waving of hands.
And Moses said, Here I am, head turned sideways quizzically like a dog now, inching closer to the fire.
Don’t come no closer, God said, unless you want to be incinerated. Best take off those nappy sandals because this dust you stand on is now been made holy. But Moses didn’t get it, was still sliding up on that bush until God added, I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, and then Moses felt his scrotum retreat up into his body like a pulled window shade as it will when a man is truly fearful in an instant, properly unhinged from the world. At this Moses hid his face, because he’d been raised with enough sense to not look right at God. And he remembered that murdered Egyptian then. He hadn’t thought about that in such a long time, but now it felt present tense, and he was pretty sure he was going to pay for it.
It was like God read his mind. Yeah, I’ve seen how miserable my people in Egypt are because of their slavery, and I’m concerned. So I’ve come down to do something about it. (All Moses heard there, though, was his conscience that he called the voice of God, saying, Who the hell did you think you were to go killing one Egyptian? What did you think you were going to make right by doing that? Is yours the hand of God?) I’m going to bring them up out of there, God said, in both senses of the phrase, mind you, into a good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey. But there ain’t no Big Rock Candy Mountain there. You’re standing on the only one of those y’all ever gonna have, out here in the middle of nowhere. Because otherwise y’all are going to get confused and think it’s the land itself and your own favored race that somehow makes you great. And that’s a pile, a stinking load. And then God said, like the fire-spouting Wizard of Oz, Now, go. I am sending you to that wicked one of the West to bring my people the Israelites out of Egypt.
But Moses’s conscience was still a shameful flame within him, and what passes in the Good Book for Moses’s humility God knew right then as a falseness to hide his cowardice and arrogance. Who am I, Moses said in his best Aw-shucks, little-ol’-me voice, that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out of Egypt? Standing there before the living, burning God, he was yet afraid of a pharaoh that if he thought half a second about it had to be dead by now, because Moses had been here in Midian forty years, soon to celebrate his eightieth birthday among his alien kinfolk. And he sure thought a lot of himself if he could think an earthly realm as important as Egypt was really worried about a homicide committed forty years ago.
But God was gentler with him than man would be in the same circumstance. I will be with you, He said. The promise that would pervade for all time. And this will be the sign to you that it is I who have sent you: When you have brought the people out of Egypt, all of y’all will worship God on this mountain, here in this dry middling placeless Midian, so you take no credit for getting all those people to some fabulous destination. You will not have arrived. Even when I bring you into that land, you will not have arrived. You better than anybody should know about being lost for a long, long time. Else what are you doing here, trying to pasture sheep and yourself where there is no water? So I’ll bring you here first and give you some good words of advice set in stone so you all don’t get confused about who it is that’s going to bring you into that good, wide land. Lordy, one thing I’ve learned, all y’all do favor confused self-righteousness to straight talking between us.
Moses didn’t hear him yet because that last part God said was so true. It sounded like so much to ask, so dangerous for a fugitive of his age who’d made more of a life for himself than he might have thought he could here. Not half bad. I’ve got a wife and a kid. Why would I want to go off now into the heart of slavery and punishment for what I did so long ago?
Hypothetical question, God, Moses said, arcing a toe carelessly in the holy dirt before him. Let’s say I go to the Israelites and say, The God of your fathers has sent me to you, and they ask me, What name does he go by? Then what am I gonna tell them?
God said to Moses, I am who I am is my name. You can even shorten it. Just tell them I am sent me. Tell them that’s the name I am to be called forever and ever, from now on. Get their elders together and say that I appeared to you and that I have seen how they’ve been abused there. Tell them I’m going to lead them to a sweet, sweet place they can settle down. They will listen to you.
Now God was on a roll and the flame leapt skyward but gave off no smoke because it consumed nothing of the bush. The elders of Israel will listen to you, God said. If anything, to Moses’s eyes, the places it burned seemed to make the branches green and tender. A pleasing cedar smell, like fresh Christmas trees. Then you and them are going to go to the king of Egypt himself and say to him, Let us take a three-day journey into the desert to offer sacrifices to the Lord our God. But he won’t let you do it, not unless a mighty hand compels him. So I’m going to have to strike wonders on his own people, and they’ll know I done it, and he’ll know though he still won’t like it. But after that, he’ll let you go. And his people will be softer. If you ask, they’ll offer you their own valuables to aid you on your journey.
Even with the pure flame and sweet smell and filling words Moses could only see himself in it. All due respect, he said, but what if they don’t believe me. Or listen to me. Or they say The Lord did not appear to you. Just going to end up a case of he said, he said, seems like.
Throw that staff you’re holding on the ground, the Lord said. Moses did so, and when it hit ground the length of it loosened and became the body of a thick snake, the top of the staff hissing and making a lunge at Moses’s outstretched foot, which he yanked back quick. Take it by the tail, God said. When Moses did, it was his shepherd’s hook once more.
Then there’s this, the Lord said. Put your hand in your cloak. Moses did, and he saw the fire retreat as if blown by a wind, and he pulled his hand out and it was rotted through in sloughing, snow-white patches of leprosy. He wretched.
Hold up, God said. Put it back in your cloak. Don’t focus on your hand. Look here. The flame leapt up again, tall against the hazy desert sky, and Moses flinched and drew his hand out for balance. It was restored, like the rest of him. He had the thought that his eighty-year old hand looked better than he was used to seeing it, like it still might have some big thing to do.
If those don’t do it, this will. God said, Take some water from the Nile and pour it on the dry ground. The water you take from the river will become blood there. That hit Moses deep, reminding him of the story his real mother had told him of how he’d been saved. That if she hadn’t stuck him there in the Nile for someone to find, Lord willing, he would have been dead. But he was drawn out, thank God.
And then what had it all amounted to? He’d grown up strong and smart in Pharaoh’s court and he couldn’t come to the aid of one of his own people without violence done to one of his adopted Egyptian people. He lost it all by the next day, when those two fighting Hebrews stood panting and scornful at him. Who made you judge? Who are you to say one damn word here? And those were just Hebrew citizens, no elders.
So Moses said to God, O Lord, I’ve never been good with words. Not in the past or since you’ve been talking to me. I am slow of speech and tongue.
And the Lord made sure Moses felt some of what was truest. The flame shot up high, flew out from the bush on all sides and downward resembling a rocket on the pad cushioned upward on the fiery air behind it. He spoke like a song.
Who gave man his mouth? Who makes him deaf or mute? Who gives him sight or makes him blind? Is it not I, the Lord? And he told him again, softly, the fire making that whole bush green in Moses’s heatblurred vision. Now go. I will help you speak and will teach you what to say.
Yet the past was a god for Moses that had been served so long. Even if he knew he stood before a living truth now, he could not break himself and this cobbled history he’d scrambled for to believe it. So he dropped his head farther, mumbling, O Lord, please send someone else to do it.
The flame leapt out again, but not the same. Hotter, God’s anger against Moses. But He’d been patient with this murderer for eighty years now, and He intended a vast goodness through Moses whether the man could know it now or not. He was going to say, Can’t you see, my boy, that I’ll save you from yourself by saving all these others? But he knew Moses could not hear it, deafened by his choices in the world, left to himself and shepherding in dry and barren places. So He showed him more mercy still.
Fine, God said. You’ve got a brother, don’t you? Aaron the Levite. I know he can talk pretty. He’s already on his way to meet you, and his heart will be glad when he sees you. This is how it’s going to be then. You shall speak to him and put words in his mouth. I will help both of you speak and will teach you what to do. He will speak to the people for you, and it will be as if he were your mouth and as if you were God to him. But take this staff in your hand along, so you can perform my miraculous signs.
So the Lord told Aaron to go into the desert to meet his long-lost brother. Aaron left that day, not knowing how he knew where to go. He met Moses at that mountain of God, there in the middle of nothing, next to a low stripe of brush, and kissed him on both cheeks. The sheep had scattered, fending for themselves. Then Moses told Aaron all the wondrous things the Lord had said to him, and about the miraculous signs he’d have to do. Moses would do it all, but he wondered after that what part of his confidence was tied up with his brother’s help and where God was in it. What would it be like if I’d led these Israelites with just God between them and me? But that would come later, the signs, the bloodshed of Egypt’s children, the wandering in the desert, and the Charlton-Heston parting of the waters. Before he and Aaron turned back to Egypt, Moses took the forefoot of his sandal and looked for a place that holy dust might not be blown away, and he traced an X deep into it, not knowing he’d climb it all the way next time, see the backside of God and descend alive with two tablets of stone, but even right now having the feeling he’d have to come back this way again before it was all said and done.