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  • Writer's pictureStephen Clingman

The Promised Land

Updated: Apr 7, 2023

The Conclusion to my 2009 book, The Grammar of Identity, was titled "The Nature of the Boundary", and it ended with a brief meditation on the Promised Land, focusing on the figure of Moses, who never got there. The story seemed to contain a lesson for me, and so I include it here as something I believe quite deeply. It seems just as relevant to me now as it did when I first wrote it. This is how it goes.

*. * *

It is in this light, and in this spirit, that I would like to turn to another story: one that has both been—and not yet been—written. It is an alternative story, of Moses who led his people out of Empire, who wandered through the wilderness for forty years, and never entered the Promised Land.

His life is a fitting image of transition, of navigation, and I imagine him making a speech he never made. So there he is, on Mount Nebo, halfway between heaven and earth, gazing over a river, a translation he will never cross. At first—he says to those gathered around him—I was grieved that I would not enter the Promised Land. Now I know that it is my deepest lesson. You, he says, may cross into it; I shall never get there. But take my life as a measure. No one ever enters the Promised Land. When you think you are there you have left it. You have especially left it if anyone in that land is excluded or goes hungry. You cannot possess it. You cannot own it. You can build no fortress there, no ramparts, no wall that will not come down. It is not to be a place of sacrifice. It must be a place that people pass into, and through, and across. If you build the journey into the land, that will be your only and best form of dwelling. It is your only way. In every sense of the word, our place on earth can only be a place of approach.

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