THERE WERE NO ROSES IN THE TIME OF MOSES
Joshua woke up in the dark with his heart beating wildly. The nightmare had returned to haunt him, as it had done every night for as long as he could remember. It was always the same anxiety and terror. Why did he dream night after night of being stoned by his own people?
He took in a deep breath and tried to slow down his heart, when he heard a noise outside the tent. Was a desert lion roaming the camp? He listened attentively and perceived the sound of steps. The first light of dawn was visible through the seams of the tent. Who was walking outside that early? Joshua rolled out of his camp bed, put on his sandals, and walked silently out of the tent.
There was nobody to be seen, but the silent fields around the camp confirmed Joshua's suspicion. He sharpened his ears, but heard no cry of owls and no sound of crickets. He knew that nature grants total quietness only out the fear caused by human presence.
When Joshua saw a man's silhouette moving up the slope of Mount Sinai, he could not believe his eyes. It was Moses, one of the tribe's elders. Joshua was baffled. Why on earth was Moses climbing the mountain?
He is just an old fool, reflected Joshua. He hesitated for a moment whether to shout at Moses that he should come back, but that would have woken up everybody in the camp. Irritated by Moses' folly, Joshua began to climb the mountain himself, in pursuit of the old man.
The slope was steep and Joshua was soon out of breath. No matter how fast he climbed, Moses seemed to move even faster. Three hours later, when the sun was high in the sky, Joshua stood still and inspected the bushes around him. He was fed up. Where was the old man?
Joshua had lost trace of Moses, but now he was perceiving an intermittent noise, as though someone was trying to light a fire using flint. That had to be Moses, but what on earth was he doing? Joshua advanced towards the noise and found the old man sitting on the ground, holding chisel and hammer in his hands, with a stone tablet between his legs.
“We have to go back,” said Joshua immediately. He was so exhausted by the climb that he had forgotten all politeness. Moses shook his head. “I am not ready yet,” he replied. He set the chisel blade on the stone tablet and hit the chisel head softly with the hammer.
Joshua looked over Moses' shoulder and saw that the old man was carving words on the tablet. “What are you writing?” he inquired. “The law,” answered Moses calmly without stopping his work. “The laws of our tribe.”
Moses' answer did not make any sense to Joshua, who grew even more impatient. “Which laws?” he retorted. Moses shrugged his shoulders as he continued carving letters. “God's laws,” he explained. “I have already told you about them, but you never listen to me.” Despite the reproachful words, Moses' voice was devoid of bitterness.
A cold wind coming from the bushes made Joshua shiver. The situation was making him uncomfortable. The truth was that Joshua had no right to criticize Moses, no authority to tell him what to do or where to go. Embarrassment filled Joshua's heart and he sat down on the ground next to Moses.
“You have worked a lot,” he commented with admiration, looking at the five sentences carved on the stone. “These five laws won't be enough,” countered Moses. “I still have to write another six on a second tablet.” Then he took in a deep breath. “I am tired, Joshua, will you help me? This is why God has sent you here.”
The quicker we get it done, reasoned Joshua, the sooner we can return to the camp. “What do you want me to do?” he asked. Moses finished the last word on the first tablet, handed over chisel and hammer to Joshua, and produced a papyrus from his tunic.
“This is the text of the laws that God has dictated to me,” instructed Moses, giving the papyrus to Joshua. “You will find a second tablet behind those bushes. Carve the six remaining laws on that stone and make sure that you don't forget anything.”
Joshua walked to the nearby bushes, looked behind, and saw that a stone tablet was indeed lying on the ground. He sat down, set one leg to each side of the tablet, and read attentively the text on the papyrus. Was Moses telling the truth? Were those God's eleven commandments to their tribe?
When Joshua lifted chisel and hammer to start carving, he realized that something was wrong with the stone tablet. Surprised, he stood still, set his tools aside, and inspected the problem. A red flower had grown through an interstice in the stone and was opening its petals over the tablet.
It was a long time ago since Joshua had seen flowers, but he was certain that he had never seen one so beautiful. “It has the colour of fire,” he remarked. Should he ask Moses about it? After a brief reflection, Joshua concluded that asking Moses would be of little use and would just delay their descent from the mountain.
During the whole day, Joshua worked under the sun, carving word by word, until he had copied on the tablet the last six commandments from the papyrus. He set his tools on the ground, contemplated his work satisfied, and bent over to smell the flower's perfume. It was a pity that lifting the stone tablet was going to cut off the flower from the ground.
“There are no other flowers in the mountain,” observed Joshua. “This one is unique. If I destroy it, such flowers might never grow again.” At that moment, Moses' voice came through the bushes and brought Joshua back to reality. “I am almost ready!” he shouted back. The sun had begun to close the circle and Joshua had to make a decision.
He retook chisel and hammer and, with extreme care, he enlarged the interstice around the flower's stem. When the opening became wide enough, he lifted the stone tablet and smiled. He had managed to save the red flower. “The effort has been worth it,” said Joshua as he stood up.
Suddenly, the stone tablet broke in two and the smaller piece fell down. It had not resisted the hole that Joshua had made to liberate the flower. Moses called again, urging Joshua to go back. The sun was already low in the horizon. Soon, there would be no light.
“What have I done?” lamented Joshua staring at the piece of tablet on the ground. He bent over and saw that the fragment contained the eleventh commandment: “You shall be tolerant and seek to understand other men.”
He hesitated until he heard Moses shout once more. It was time to go. “I'll leave the broken piece here and throw away the papyrus,” decided Joshua. “For Moses, one law more or less won't make any difference. Besides, nobody is going to pay attention to the other ten commandments anyway.”
The two men descended Mount Sinai in silence, walking side by side. When they arrived at the camp, darkness was complete. Before retiring to his tent with the tablets under his arm, Moses embraced Joshua. “What you have done today lays out the path of the future,” said Moses. “Our people will remember.”
That night, for the first time in his life, Joshua enjoyed a quiet sleep. Instead of having a nightmare, he dreamed of a beautiful red flower. During the next days, he felt remorse about the broken piece of tablet that he had left behind, but he told himself that it was not worth it to climb the mountain again to pick it up. “Since Moses himself has not realized that the eleventh commandment is missing,” concluded Joshua, “it cannot be that important.”