Monday, September 28, 2015


Mount Nebo, a 11,929-foot massif at the southernmost end of Utah's Wasatch Range, looms over Nephi, Utah, a town thirty miles away from where I grew up.
Its imposing presence is reflected in the number of things named after it: the Nebo Scenic Byway, the Mount Nebo Wilderness, the Nebo Credit Union, and even Nebo School District, source of my excellent education. Utah's main north-south freeway runs right past Mount Nebo, and I've driven that stretch hundreds of times. My husband and one of our sons have climbed Mount Nebo and deemed it a pretty rigorous hike.

Understandably, I was more than ready to meet the archetypal Mount Nebo, a somewhat more stooped 2,680 feet-above-sea-level hump.
Just like many of the Biblical sites in Israel, this one is being cared for by the Franciscans. As I think about it now that I am back home, I wonder how the Jews and Muslims feel about Christian control of this site. Mount Nebo was Moses's last stop on his exceedingly long journey from Egypt to the Promised Land, a series of events that is a significant part of Jewish and Muslim tradition as well as Christian tradition. Some (but not all) members of all three traditions also believe Moses is buried somewhere on this mountain. It is not just a "Christian Holy Place."
However, until the Franciscans came in 1933, there was nothing at this site. Our guide told us that the Franciscans asked King Abdullah for the mountain, and he bought it and gave it to the them. They are responsible for all the work here, so I guess that gives them some rights. 

Pope John Paul II chose Mount Nebo as the place to kick off his pilgrimage to the Holy Land in March 2000. Maybe he was trying to symbolically continue the journey that, for Moses, halted here almost 3300 years ago. Like Moses, he got a pretty good look at the Promised Land from Mount Nebo's summit, but unlike Moses, he got to continue on.
Photo of photo at site
 During his visit, he planted an olive tree as a symbol of peace:
There is also a wonderful statue of Moses that was installed in 2000 and dedicated to Pope John Paul II:
The Latin inscription on the side reads, "One god, father of all, over all."
 This looks like Moses to me:
Seen head-on, the sculpture looks like a book, each strand of Moses's hair and beard a page:
An up-close look at the lower portion shows smaller books, as if on a shelf:
Our guide Isam, a Muslim, enjoyed a friendly conversation with a Franciscan monk. It was quite moving to see these types of interfaith interactions in the Holy Land, a place dominated by religious discord for millenia:
The big tourist draw at Mount Nebo (besides the view) is the Memorial Church of Moses, a Byzantine-era basilica discovered by archaeologists in 1930 and expanded with a few simple additions designed to protect mosaics found there. Unfortunately, it was closed and we didn't get to go inside:
However, the original door to the monastery was on display, a much better representation of what the door of Christ's tomb must have looked like than the little disk we had seen at the Garden Tomb:

We were able to see the most important site on Mount Nebo--the spectacular view:
In his book Walking the Bible, Bruce Feiler writes:

"Nebo is located on a geological seam. Behind us were the central mountains of Jordan, followed by the eastern desert, then the vast deserts of Saudi Arabia and Iraq, like two coattails that never end. In front of us was the precipitous drop-off of the Rift Valley, followed by the Judean hills of central Israel. From our vantage point, we had a complete, 180-degree panorama of the misty infinity of the biblical Promised Land. . . . To the left was the Dead Sea; to the right the huddled lights of Jericho. Jerusalem, in between, was invisible."

Misty infinity. Yeah, I get that.
I just couldn't get over what this must have felt like for Moses, right on the cusp of fulfilling his 40-year dream--literally just feet away--but not allowed to proceed. However, Feiler points out something very interesting:

"God gives [Moses] a private tour of the Promised Land. God moves methodically, starting first with the northern area, around the Sea of Galilee, then to the Mediterranean coast and the Negev. He ends with the area closest to Moses, along the Jordan." [See Deutoronomy 34:1-4.]

Feiler further notes:

"It would be impossible, even on the clearest day or the clearest night, for a person to see everything from Mount Nebo that the text says Moses sees. David Faiman, the physicist from Sdeh Boker [a kibbutz in the Negev], actually did a mathematical calculation to prove that based on the curvature of the earth, the speed of light, and the strength of the human eye, no person could ever see the Galilee, the Mediterranean, or the Negev from Mount Nebo. . . . 

"For Moses . . . the Promised Land is still a dream, and he was no doubt deeply disappointed that he didn't get to achieve it. But at the end, his tragedy is ameliorated by his ability to see what no one else sees. Denied entry, Moses actually gets more. He gets prophetic vision, personally granted to him by God."

Okay, that makes me feel infinitely better.
Moses's epitaph in Deuteronomy 34 is also pretty glorious. Here's the best part:

5 So Moses the servant of the Lord died there in the land of Moab, according to the word of the Lord.

7 And Moses was an hundred and twenty years old when he died; his eye was not dim, nor his natural force abated.

10 And there arose not a prophet since in Israel like unto Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face.

That's quite the tribute.
An interesting memorial stands on the ridge overlooking the valley--an unusual combination of Moses's life-giving staff wrapped with the "brazen serpent" (see an explanation of the Biblical story here) and the cross on which Jesus was crucified. It references this scripture:

 And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up.  (John 3:14)
Verses in Helaman 8 of The Book of Mormon (though not the faith of the sculptor) expand on the idea:

14 And as he lifted up the brazen serpent in the wilderness, even so shall he be lifted up who should come.
15 And as many as should look upon that serpent should live, even so as many as should look upon the Son of God with faith, having a contrite spirit, might live, even unto that life which is eternal.

And here we all are, happy that we had been allowed to make a journey through the Promised Land:
We made one more stop on Mount Nebo at a little museum that shows the history of the archaeological work that has been done here.
This beautiful mosaic floor is the centerpiece of the room:
Well, we had more Places to Go and Things to See, so it was time to head back to our van. We walked past these wonderfully woolly sheep and goats. 
There are definitely some potential blankets on the backs of these beasts:
This is a new breed of sheep for me. He looks like he has a bit of male-pattern balding going on:
This one had her hair done at the local beauty school where the hairdressers are still learning. Hey, Ewe. Don't go back:
Every flock needs a shepherd:
Someone needs to separate the sheep from the goats:

On our way back down to the valley, we passed several bedouin camps. The name "bedouin" means "desert dweller" in Arabic.
Feiler writes:

"The life of the bedouin in the modern Middle East . . . is a study in what it means to exist in the breach between urban and desert environments, and may be as close as contemporary observers come to understanding  what the Israelites must have experienced during their two generations in the wilderness. The bedouin . . . move in tribal groups, search for grazing areas in the desert for their animals, and settle around oases. They're not pure nomads, who wander continually without pattern. Instead they're pastoralists, who move into the desert following the spring rains, when there is more vegetation for their goats, then drift back into settled areas in autumn, when they must rely on stable sources of water."
Mark Twain was not so complimentary in Innocents Abroad:

"[T]he country is infested with fierce Bedouins, whose whole happiness it is, in this life, to cut and stab and mangle and murder unoffending Christians."
I think I'll go with Feiler's comparison of bedouins to the Children of Israel.

A flock of . . . camels?
All that walking around and gazing at the Promised Land made us hungry. Isam took us to a convenience store to get some snacks. This is a pita smeared with hummus and filled with  . . . something. Whatever it was, it was good.


  1. The view from Mt. Nebo in Utah is much better than the Mt. Nebo in Jordan, which I found a bit disappointing, but the historical background of the Jordanian parent is fun. I just think Mt.Hermon or Jebel Musa (Mt. Sinai) would be a better fit for this spot with so much history, than this hill with an indistinct summit.

  2. For me, Mt. Nebo was one of many great places we saw, along with a new understanding of Moses' experience. Great insight from Feiler, and Twain was typically amusing.

  3. This is quite the trek to see another Mt. Nebo--the original!