Moses' Edge of Cultivation


To Reverend Ruth Patterson

I love Kipling’s longer piece, "The Explorer." Although its colonial overtones may jar, we must remember that every work of literature gets located in time and place. And while Kipling shares assumptions from a bygone age, he nonetheless captures one of life’s great experiences: the thrill of uncertainty. Sadly fallen out of common speech, serendipity is, as Merriam Webster defines it., ‘the faculty or phenomenon of finding valuable or agreeable things not sought for.’ This quaint little word is the theme that unites a Bible passage that was on my mind this week, Exodus 3, with good old Rudyard’s writing.

Kipling’s poem starts with a piece of conventional wisdom, ‘There’s no sense in going further - it’s the edge of cultivation.’ The rational thing is to stay within the reassuring bounds of the familiar. Why venture out beyond your comfort zone? At the top of the poem, the speaker takes this retiring attitude to heart. He settles into the rhythms of quiet rural existence, ‘broke my land and sowed my crop,’ and sets himself up long-term, ‘Built my barns and strung my fences in the little border station.’ He is here to stay, or so he thinks.

We see Moses in Exodus 3 going through similar motions. After his dramatic flight from Egypt, the boy from the bulrushes ends up as a shepherd in Midian, finding refuge in this mountainous region of present-day Saudi Arabia. A married man, Moses looks after the family flock for his father-in-law. Verse one delicately paints this pastoral picture before it swiftly pans to quite a different scene, ‘and he led the flock to the backside of the desert, and came to the mountain of God.’ In his wandering, Moses happens upon the site of divine intervention.

And for Kipling’s explorer, too, heavenly mediation will spark off a new journey. He will set out from the world he knows, ‘the foothills where the trails run out and stop,’ and see things of which he could never have dreamed. Like that of Moses, the explorer’s home is closed off, ‘Tucked away,’ from great expanses of an unknown country. However, an unexpected encounter will throw the doors of adventure open. In this respect, God will be the Gandalf to his Bilbo because in all good adventure stories, the quest is one for unlikely heroes. Time to leave the Hobbit hole!

A day that starts like any other can take an astonishing turn. So it is when Moses comes across a bizarre kind of Russian doll: a voice within a flame within a bush. Nature’s laws get inexplicably suspended in this highly particular moment. And even if only from idle curiosity, Moses goes out of his way to investigate. ‘I will now turn aside, and see this great sight, why the bush is not burnt’ (v. 3). Suddenly, an unremarkable corner of the desert gets transformed into sacred ground.

For his part, the explorer’s calling in Kipling looks more like that of the young prophet Samuel, who heard God’s voice in the night (1 Samuel 3). Everything rumbles along as normal, ‘Till a voice, as bad as Conscience, rang interminable changes.’ But though the summons is profoundly affecting for the speaker, the commanding voice, ‘one everlasting Whisper’ like the ‘still small voice’ in 1 Kings 19, exercises quiet authority rather than aggressive dominion. The message it brings, once heard, cannot be unheard. It sets a task that will require an Odyssean voyage of the somewhat reluctant explorer. ‘Something hidden. Go and find it.’

Moses, in turn, has a long road ahead. God sets in motion a new phase of a larger purpose for humanity through him.4es This plan is to push ever outwards what Kipling names ‘the edge of cultivation,’ the boundaries of the world known to the covenant community, starting with a land flowing with milk and honey (v. 8). This is typical of the Bible’s narrative shape. From beginning to end, the people of God are always on the move towards the New Jerusalem of John’s Revelation. Canaan, the Promised Land, is a stop on the way to God’s ultimate haven for humankind, the Kingdom of Heaven.

But why the need for a daunting journey? The Weasley family from Harry Potter can jump in a magical fireplace then teleport instantly to wherever they want. Surely God could bundle us all into some Weasley-style teleporter. Why the need for an arduous trek to the Kingdom of Heaven? Could He not just assume us bodily (that is, ‘rapture us,’ for my Protestant readers!) into the clouds? Kipling suggests an answer. Battling unforgiving landscapes, his explorer questions whether persevering further is even worth it. Again something unanticipated happens; all at once, a strongly felt assurance of God’s presence wells up in him. ‘Then I knew, the while I doubted — knew His Hand was certain o’er me.’

‘Certainly, I will be with thee,’ hears Moses from the burning bush (v. 12). God can only show the people how to depend on Him by setting a fearsome path. And it is indeed an overwhelming road. Ahead of Moses lies a twofold mission: (1) to confront the oppressor and (2) to lead the Exodus. ‘Come now, therefore, and I will send thee unto Pharaoh, that thou mayest bring forth my people the children of Israel out of Egypt’ (v. 10). There can be no return, either for Moses or the Hebrews, to life as before.

In Kipling, as in the Bible, trusting God is the way to great reward. Having traveled far and wide, the weary explorer eventually finds what he is looking for. ‘Got my strength and lost my nightmares. Then I entered on my find.’ That crucial sentence where he makes the discovery is abrupt and short. Its punchy language reflects the suddenness of his prize emerging from the blue. For all he knew, the finish line was a long way off still before it rose gloriously into view. Our explorer has finally made it with many miles of treacherous terrain behind him.

While the story of Moses is also an odyssey in its own right, his people’s journey towards God will continue long after his death. When Moses asks God for his holy name, the response, ‘I AM THAT I AM’ (v. 14), affirms just how vast is the gulf between God and humankind. How to begin making sense of such a name? As mentioned above, Exodus is one movement of the Bible’s overarching story. Not until the incarnation of Jesus Christ is the Kingdom of Heaven at last revealed and the first invitations given. But every journey has to start somewhere.

For both Moses and Kipling’s explorer, it all started with an audacious decision to follow the prompting voice of God into the unknown. And on the far side of the mountains, a sublime vista greets the explorer: ‘unimagined rivers,’ ‘nameless timber,’ ‘illimitable plains.’ He has arrived! As far as his dazzled eyes can see stretches all he could have wished for, and much more. ‘Saul went to look for donkeys, and he found a kingdom by God! / But by God, who sent His Whisper, I had struck the worth of two!’ His exhilaration is palpable in these breathless lines.

But we remember the extraordinary adventures of history not for their impact on one individual but as landmark events in the life of a community. Moses’ mission is not the task of one man alone. The elders of Israel will join him for the pivotal clash in Pharaoh’s court (v. 18). God makes the cause of releasing the Hebrews His concern (v. 21), and vows to bring liberation (v. 20). Shifting ‘the edge of cultivation’ involves change, and any shift in the status quo can threaten vested interests. Thus, God overthrows earthly power to clear the way for His chosen people.

Throughout the rest of Exodus, all unfolds according to plan. And the acknowledgment of God’s hand in history comes to the fore in Kipling too. ‘God took care to hide the country till He judged the people ready.’ Everything happens in due season as God unveils things a little at a time. We remember the words of Jesus, ‘I have yet many things to say unto you, but ye cannot bear them now (John 16:12). And each new revelation, above all the revelation of God in Christ, brings us closer to that ‘Never-never country,’ the Kingdom of Heaven.

The land in which the explorer’s wanderings end is not his private fiefdom but the shared possession of a people. ‘It’s God’s present to our nation.’ The Kingdom of Heaven is God’s presence to my nation, Great Britain; it is God’s gift to all the nations of the world. This brings us back to serendipity. However we might arrange the future, God has paved the path to Heaven with good things for those who love Him. And so the only certainty is blessed uncertainty, the call to join with others as Moses did on a wondrous journey to God.



1/13/2022 7:57:45 PM
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    About Matthew Allen
    Matthew Allen is a writer and musician based in Northern Ireland. He is a graduate of Queen’s University, Belfast, where he studied Theology and Liberal Arts.