What says the Scripture? "As many as are led by the Spirit of God, they are the sons of God ." (Rom . viii . 14 . ) . . . It is the Spirit who leads them to Sinai and first shows them the law, that their hearts may be broken. It is He who leads them to Calvary, and shows them the cross, that their hearts may be bound up and healed. It is He who leads them to Pisgah, and gives them distant views of the promised land, that their hearts may be cheered. — John Charles Ryle, "Are You an Heir?"

Faith is the Christian's Pisgah. Here he stands Enthroned above the world; and with the eye Of full belief looks through the smiling sky Into the Future, where the Sacred Lands Of Promise . . . are brought nigh, And he beholds their beauty. — Charles Sangster (182-93, known as the "Father of Canadian Poetry"), "Faith"

The wanderings of the Israelites end when Joshua leads them into Canaan after the death of Moses. Before the prophet dies, God commands him to ascend Mount Pisgah and there He grants him a sight of the Promised Land, a glimpse which provides a particularly complex and interesting type:

And Moses went up from the plains of Moab unto the mountain of Nebo, to the top of Pisgah, that is over against Jericho . And the Lord shewed him all the land of Gilead, unto Dan.

And all Napthali, and the land of Ephraim, and Manasseh, and all the land of Judah, unto the utmost sea,

And the south, and the plain of the valley of Jericho, the city of palm trees, unto Zoar.

And the Lord said unto him, This is the land which I sware unto Abraham, saying, I will give it unto thy seed: I have caused thee to see it with thine eyes, but thou shalt not go over thither. (Deuteronomy 34: 1-4)

Since Moses's vision of the Promised Land takes place in a complex situation marked by punishment and reward, success and failure, it is fraught with many potential ironies that authors can either suppress or develop. Like other portions of the Exodus narrative which Victorians applied as types to their own deepest personal and political concerns, the Pisgah sight appears in orthodox christological, extended religious, and completely secularized forms. Its particular significance for the student of Victorian culture lies in the fact that it possesses a complex structure, each of the parts of which can be employed for a different intonation of the basic type.

The Pisgah sight is a coming together, a confrontation, of the human and the divine, the temporal and the eternal, that occurs immediately before the death of the prophet who had given his life to serving God and His chosen people. Therefore it stands simultaneously as the culmination, reward, and punishment for the acts of that life. As the Lord explains to Moses when instructing him to climb the mountain of vision, "Because ye trespassed against me among the children of Israel at the waters of Meribah-Kadesh, in the wilderness of Zin; because ye sanctified me not in the midst of the children of Israel. Yet thou shalt see the land before thee; but thou shalt not go thither unto the land which I give the children of Israel" (Deut. 32:51-2). Like the Rabbis, Christian interpreters explained God's apparently harsh punishment as His means of emphasizing that no man, no matter how powerful or blessed, can ever be above the law of God.

Furthermore, Christian exegetes discovered a complex reference to Christ in this divine action. "Why, after bringing the people out of Egypt, might he not settle them in Canaan?" asked Henry Melvill. "Why, except that Moses was but the representative of the law, and that the law, of itself, can never lead us into heavenly places? The law is as "a schoolmaster, to bring us unto Christ"; it may discipline us during our wanderings in the wilderness; but if, when we reach the Jordan, there were no Joshua, no Jesus — for the names are the same to undertake to be our guide, we could never go over, and possess that good land" ("The Death of Moses," Sermons, London, 1836, II, 185. Succeeding quotations are taken from pp. 186-87). Melvill also argues that God punished Moses as a way of underlining that his earlier action in defying God's instructions and striking the rock a second time was wrong. The first time Moses struck the rock in Horeb and produced water for the wandering Israelites, his action symbolized the fact that law had to strike — crucify — Christ to bring forth the waters of grace and salvation. Thereafter only prayer was necessary, but by becoming impatient and striking the rock, Moses threatened to muddle the divine scheme of salvation and obscure the complex web of significant events God intended to adumbrate it. In addition, says Melvill, since Moses later appears during the transfiguration of Jesus, it was necessary to the prophet's later symbolical value that he should not enter the Promised Land in life.

Finally, according to this great Evangelical Anglican preacher, Moses was granted his Pisgah sight as a means of instructing Christians how to die in God:

We must die on the summit of Pisgah: we must die with our eye upon Bethlehem, upon Gethsemane, upon Calvary. It was not . . . the gloriousness of the Canaanite landscape, which satisfied the dying leader, and nerved him for departure. It was rather his view of the Being by whom that landscape would be trodden, and who would sanctify its scenes by His tears and His blood. And, in like manner when a Christian comes to die, it is not so much by view of . . . the paradise of God . . . that he must look to be comforted: his eye, with that of Moses, must be upon the manger, the garden, and the cross.... O that we may all ... lie down with Moses on Pisgah, to awaken with Moses in paradise. (186-7)

According to Melvill, then, Moses's dying vision on Mt Pisgah serves as a divinely intended prefiguration of the kind of Christian death so frequently urged by Evangelical preachers, tract writers, and poets, for Mt Pisgah stands as a type of the deathbed of the true believer who leaves this life confident in his faith, and Moses's sight from that mountain prefigures the Christian's dying sight of his Saviour .

Evangelical hymns and devotional poetry made such readings of the Pisgah sight commonplace to Victorian worshippers. Thus, "Jerusalem, my happy home" (1801), an anonymous hymn which Palmer includes as number 110 in The Book of Praise (1863), asks,

Why should I shrink from pain and woe,
Or feel at death dismay?
I've Canaan's goodly land in view,
And realms of endless day.

Unlike Melvill, who takes the rather extreme position of assuming that Moses was granted literal visions of the Christian future, this hymn takes Canaan itself in its commonplace acceptation as a type of heaven. Similarly, Isaac Watts's "There is a land of pure delight" (1709) used the parallel between the Promised Land of Israelites and Christians as a basis for making the Pisgah sight a type of the Christian's happy death. Describing the land of pure delight which awaits all believers, Watts explains that "Death, like a narrow sea, divides" it from us and that "timorous mortals" fear to attempt its waters.

O! could we make our doubts remove,
These gloomy doubts that rise,
And see the Canaan that we love
With unbeclouded eyes;
Could we but climb where Moses stood,
And view the landscape o'er;

Not Jordan's stream, nor death's cold flood,
Should fright us from the shore.

Unlike "Jerusalem, my happy home," Watts's hymn only implicitly takes the Pisgah sight as a type of the Christian's hoped-for death; whereas the other hymn asserts that its speaker has "Canaan's goodly land in view," Watts only wishes that we might be in a similar position . Yet another way of creating an implicit type within a hymn appears in Augustus Montague Toplady's "Deathless principle, arise!" (1777). Unlike the two previous examples, Toplady's lines are extensions of the original type, since he employs the secular analogue of the Pisgah sight, which is the prospect, rather than the original literal vision from Mt Pisgah. After describing both "the haven full in view" and the necessity of traveling across water to reach it, he closes his hymn:

Such the prospects that arise
To the dying Christian's eyes;
Such the glorious vista faith
Opens through the shades of death.

These lines, which remind us that the biblical type of the vision from Mt Pisgah can exchange values with the secular prospect or view from a high place, explain part of the complexity of this particular typological image.


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Print version published 1980; web version 1998; last modified 7 March 2001