The Price of Milk and Honey

By Lore Segal

Published June 06, 2007, issue of June 08, 2007.

Among the chosen with whom, in biblical times, the Lord had conversations, Moses was special. “Your brother,” God says to the rebellious Miriam in Numbers, Chapter 12, “is a familiar within my household. With him I speak not in riddles but mouth to mouth.”

In one of these conversations not recorded in any chapter, the Lord said to Moses: “If I had not, after what happened in the Garden, insisted on human mortality, you would have lived to see one American president after another discovering that being leader of the Western World does not enable him or her to will things into happening. Look at Me, the Lord of the world! I can move mountains, manipulate the seasons, part oceans, cause the rains to gather into a flood that wipes My creation off the face of the earth, but human nature turns awry My enterprises of greatest pith and moment. Human nature, as I say in Numbers 15:39, seeks after its own heart and its own eyes. Or as the Brothers Grimm will put it in the story of “The Fisherman and His Wife,” ‘My wife, Ilsebil, wills not what I’d have her will.’

“Human nature is at its worst in the aggregate. There is the ‘crowd’ that is going to keep turning up as a stock character in the plays of William Shakespeare — recalcitrant, ungrateful, cowardly, impatient, self-deceived; half a rumor whips them into a murderous rage. How many times have I had to stop My own people, Israel, from stoning you and your brother Aaron to death?

“Do you remember the time you came crying to me? ‘They’re unbearable!’ you said. ‘Why do I have to carry this people in my arms like so many other people’s babies!’ How often have I reminded them of everything I did for them in Egypt — magic, plagues, waters parted, drowned Egyptians, guiding clouds and columns of light? No human creature can empathize with divine frustration, with the repeated disappointment that has whipped Me into rages from which you have had to talk Me down so as to keep Me from killing the whole lot then and there? ‘What will the other people say?’ you asked Me. ‘Remember Your promise to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob,’ you said.

“Now here you are at the time and in the place to take possession of country I have promised you. You sent an elder from each tribe to spy out the lay of the land before sending in the troops. What are the reports they bring back? Surprise! The pro-Lord faction talks of milk and honey and giant grapes. It takes two males in superb physical condition just to carry them. The Lord’s enemies, meanwhile, talk of giants to whom you are the size of grasshoppers and who will gobble you up. So then My side says, ‘No, no! It’s we who will gobble them!’ You, Moses, will not be here to read Tolstoy’s “War and Peace” where the reporters form the Napoleonic front, like the in-beds in Iraq, send home whatever facts correspond to their politics. What else is new?

“You have stopped me from decimating Israel on the spot? Very well, then I will send them back into the desert on a detour that will wipe this generation out by attrition, (though I do want you to stone anyone desecrating the Sabbath by gathering food on the spot). After 40 years, you will arrive back at this same moment. Don’t send spies. I will make the walls fall at the thunder of My people’s marching feet and the sounding of My trumpet. A new generation will take the land but, as I said in a conversation I had with Myself after the flood, it will be the same old human nature. I will bless them, and they will infuriate Me.”

Lore Segal’s book of stories, “Shakespeare’s Kitchen,” recently was published by The New Press.

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