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Deuteronomy 34:1-12 – The Death of Moses

Summary

Moses, still full of life at 120 years of age, hears God's promise to Abraham, surveys the promised land, dies, and is buried by God.

Analysis

From the hand of the Priestly writer who compiled the various Pentateuchal traditions into our five books of the law (Genesis through Deuteronomy), the book of Deuteronomy--and indeed, the Pentateuch as a whole--comes to a close with this description of the death of Moses. Each of its four sections requires comment:

1. God shows Moses the promised land (vv. 1-4). Not only does this fulfill God's promise to Moses (3:27, showing Moses the land of Canaan and refusing to let him enter!), Genesis 13:14-17 is also in view. Just as Abram was told to "Raise your eyes now, and look from the place where you are, northward and southward and eastward and westward; for all the land that you see I will give to you and to your offspring forever." So now Moses is shown the whole land in a panoramic view from the north ("Gilead, as far as Dan"), then west (Naphtali), down the spine of the country through Ephraim and Manasseh to Judah and the Negeb in the south, to Jericho and the Dead Sea in the east. In the ancient Near East, such viewings amount to a formal act of taking possession.

2. The death of Moses (vv. 5-8). Though several are designated as "the servant of the LORD" (Abraham, Jacob, Joshua, David, the prophets, and especially the servant in the servant songs of Isaiah), no one receives this tribute as frequently as Moses. Here Moses' faithfulness and ceaseless striving to fulfill the mission with which he had been charged is lifted up, perhaps to offset the troubling refusal to allow him entrance to the goal of his life's work, the reason for which is not given. The passive, "He was buried" (v. 6), is literally, "He [God?!] buried him."

Moses' age at the time of his death (120 years) is probably symbolic; the question is, symbolic of what? Several possibilities have been suggested:

  • Ancient Mesopotamia employed a numerical system based upon the number 60, not 10, so that 120 years (2 x 60) was the only round number available.
  • In Genesis 6:3, God restricts human life spans to 120 years.
  • In the Deuteronomistic History (Joshua-Kings), "forty years" is either a complete generation (Judges 3:11) or the tenure of a great leader (Eli, David, Solomon, or Joash).
  • Stephen's sermon breaks Moses' life into three forty-year periods (Egypt, Midian, the wilderness, see Acts 7:23, 30, 36).

3. Joshua succeeds Moses (v. 9). The transition is important for the continuing story in Joshua; although there, Joshua succeeds Moses at the word of the Lord (Deuteronomy 31:1-8; Joshua 1:1-9), not by the "laying on of hands" as here.

4. Moses' epitaph (vv. 10-12). The translation, "Never since has there arisen a prophet in Israel like Moses" (NRSV; better, "Never again did there arise in Israel a prophet like Moses," NJPS), eases the tension with Deuteronomy 18:18, "I will raise up for them a prophet like you" (compare 18:15). There is no contradiction. Here, Moses is praised as the first in the line of the prophets and for the intimacy of his relationship with God.

Deuteronomy 34:1-12

Moses Dies and Is Buried in the Land of Moab

34Then Moses went up from the plains of Moab to Mount Nebo, to the top of Pisgah, which is opposite Jericho, and the Lord showed him the whole land: Gilead as far as Dan, 2all Naphtali, the land of Ephraim and Manasseh, all the land of Judah as far as the Western Sea, 3the Negeb, and the Plain—that is, the valley of Jericho, the city of palm trees—as far as Zoar. 4The Lord said to him, ‘This is the land of which I swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, saying, “I will give it to your descendants”; I have let you see it with your eyes, but you shall not cross over there.’ 5Then Moses, the servant of the Lord, died there in the land of Moab, at the Lord’s command. 6He was buried in a valley in the land of Moab, opposite Beth-peor, but no one knows his burial place to this day. 7Moses was one hundred and twenty years old when he died; his sight was unimpaired and his vigour had not abated. 8The Israelites wept for Moses in the plains of Moab for thirty days; then the period of mourning for Moses was ended.

9 Joshua son of Nun was full of the spirit of wisdom, because Moses had laid his hands on him; and the Israelites obeyed him, doing as the Lord had commanded Moses.

10 Never since has there arisen a prophet in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face. 11He was unequalled for all the signs and wonders that the Lord sent him to perform in the land of Egypt, against Pharaoh and all his servants and his entire land, 12and for all the mighty deeds and all the terrifying displays of power that Moses performed in the sight of all Israel.

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10 February 2011

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