Monday, 3 January 2011

Pisgah-Sight


Moses led the chosen people to the Promised Land which flowed with milk and with honey and must therefore have been a rather sticky place. But God, keeping one eye on the OED, did not allow Moses to enter the Promised Land, only to glimpse it from a high promontory.

I pray thee, let me go over, and see the good land that is beyond Jordan, that goodly mountain, and Lebanon.


But the LORD was wroth with me for your sakes, and would not hear me: and the LORD said unto me, Let it suffice thee; speak no more unto me of this matter.


Get thee up into the top of Pisgah, and lift up thine eyes westward, and northward, and southward, and eastward, and behold it with thine eyes: for thou shalt not go over this Jordan.

And from Moses' misery the English language gained the word Pisgah. A Pisgah-sight is a glimpse of something that can never be obtained. The phrase has been doing steady but slow business for four centuries now. Pisgah is eminently useful when describing window-shopping.

Pisgah's advantage is that either you know about Pisgah and the Old Testament and understand the reference, or you hear syllables - Piss! Gah! - and get some sense of Moses' frustration. One can imagine him up on the mountain top cursing and swearing and wiping the Sinai sand from his feet.

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 Naphtali, 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, unto Isaac, and unto Jacob, 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.

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


And he buried him in a valley in the land of Moab, over against Bethpeor: but no man knoweth of his sepulchre unto this day.

Given that Moses is meant to have written the book of Deuteronomy, that last passage has always troubled the commentators. How, they ask, was Moses able to describe his own death? And what's that unto this day doing if it was written back in the day?

The answer is, of course, that God dictated the book of Deuteronomy to Moses and Moses wrote down the story of his own death with the tears flowing down his face, and probably muttering "Pisgah, pisgah, pisgah!"

The Bible does not record whether the sign was there at the time

For Pisgah the OED cites a reference that refers to the OED's original editor, Sir James Murray who died before his dictionary could be published:

Sir James Murray planned and led to within a Pisgah sight of completion a larger and more scientifically organized work of linguistic reference than Dr. Johnson could have produced.


This is either James Murray or Moses; nobody is sure.

2 comments:

  1. I have NEVER heard of such a thing, despite having in-depth* knowledge of the Land of Holes. I shall commence using it forthwith! Toda raba.

    * in-depth of about 1mm

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  2. I had always thought that the last passage there was written by Joshua. This made sense to me, since he had been Moses' attendant and was the writer of the very next book of the bible.

    The 'unto this day' bit fits in that context as well.

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