Commentary on Deuteronomy 34:1-12
For additional lectionary resources on the assigned texts for Reformation Sunday, please see the Craft of Preaching articles.
Many of us are familiar with the debates in our society about the “right to die,” but we don’t spend a lot of time thinking about dying well. My grandmother passed away this spring at the age of ninety-three. She died in her own home, surrounded by nine of her eleven children (the other two had just spent a week with her), as well as her faithful canine companion, Brandy. Her death was not the result of a long, protracted illness or a sudden infection; her body simply decided that it had had enough. When I told my pastor about her, he paused, and then said, “What a good death.” I think he was right.
Not many today, or maybe ever, have the chance to die a good death. But, in this week’s reading from Deuteronomy, Moses was given that gift. In fact, God oversaw Moses’ death, to the point of personally taking care of Moses’ burial. In addition, he was given a rare and remarkable final tribute in the biblical text. Dying a good death, in the context of Deuteronomy, didn’t mean whitewashing Moses’ life, though, or pretending that he was perfect. After all, he was not allowed to enter the Promised Land because of his temper in expelling water from the rock in the wilderness. Dying a good death in Deuteronomy meant celebrating Moses’ very humanity, his leadership and commitment to his community, and his relationship with God, which was striking in its intimacy.
Insights from the Ancient Rabbis
The ancient rabbis, especially in their midrash (commentary on the biblical text), had a lot to say about Moses’ death, as Moses dominates the Torah and is highly esteemed by Jewish tradition. The fact that Moses died “a good death” was meaningful to them; and their work sheds insights on this event that Christians might find useful in their reflection upon Deuteronomy 34:1-12.
God Gave Moses Notice
Moses was informed in advance of his upcoming death (Numbers 27:12, Deuteronomy 31:14, 16, and 32:49-50), thus giving him some time to reflect upon it. Ancient rabbis, who saw significance in every word and in every phrase of the Torah, wondered at this repetition. Why would God have to tell Moses on numerous occasions that he would die and not enter the Promised Land? Would not a single time have sufficed? The rabbis concluded that Moses needed the multiple warnings because he simply wasn’t ready to go; such was his desire to live and see the Promised Land.
Was Moses Afraid to Die?
These rabbis pointed out that early on in Deuteronomy, Moses recalls a time when he said, “O Lord God, you have only begun to show your servant your greatness and your might; what god in heaven or on earth can perform deeds and mighty acts like yours! Let me cross over to see the good land beyond the Jordan, that good hill country and the Lebanon (3:24-25).” While some of the rabbis wondered perhaps if Moses needed to be convinced by God that his time had come, others speculated that Moses was simply afraid of death: “Said the Lord…: ‘For what reason are you [Moses] afraid of death? I have decreed it upon all creatures.'” Moses grew faint when he heard this thing, and at once he went to the great [city of] Hebron. He cried out and summoned Adam from his grave. “Tell me why you sinned in the Garden …You have given your sons over to weeping and wailing!”1
Moses’ Final Blessing
When Moses finally is ready to listen to God’s instruction to ascend the mountain, he takes one last opportunity to speak to his community, the Israelites, offering a rich and beautiful blessing for them. Some of Moses’ best qualities shine through as he offers a very positive, hopeful prayer. Instead of using his last very last words to warn or inspire guilt, Moses extols both God and the Israelites, pointing out again the special relationship between them. “There is none like God, O Jeshurun,” says Moses, “who rides through the heavens to your help, majestic through the skies (Deuteronomy 33:26),” and then, “Happy are you, O Israel! Who is like you, a people saved by the Lord, the shield of your help, and the sword of your triumph! (33:29).”
How Much Could Moses See from the Mountain?
“Then Moses went up from the plains of Moab to Mount Nebo, to the top of Pisgah…, and the Lord showed him the whole land…: Gilead as far as Dan, all Naphtali, the land of Ephraim and Manasseh, all the land of Judah as far as the Western Sea, the Negeb, and the Plain…as far as Zoar (34:1-3).” This is quite a view! The rabbis knew that such a view was probably not possible, even from the top of Pisgah. One commentator suggested that Moses must have in fact been in heaven, or at least pretty close, in order to see all of this. Another commentator thought Moses’ view was such that he was also able to see through time as well as space, being given a glimpse of the future by God.2
The Bible’s Final Tribute to Moses
“Then Moses, the servant of the Lord, died there in the land of Moab, at the Lord’s command. He was buried in a valley in the land of Moab, opposite Beth-peor, but no one knows his burial place to this day (34:5-6).” The Hebrew is probably better translated as “He buried him in the valley…” rather than the passive sense given in the NRSV translation. The idea that God himself would take care of Moses’ burial was astounding to the rabbis, although some had some concerns about God doing this, and suggested that the angels assisted.3 The reason, then, that no one knows where Moses is buried is explained by the fact that God (and/or the angels) took care of it and didn’t tell anyone.4
The Bible’s final tribute to Moses in Deuteronomy 34:10 is remarkable: “Never since has there arisen a prophet in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face.” Not many lives are concluded with such epitaphs. While certainly agreeing with the Bible’s assessment, the rabbis reflected that the final title attributed to Moses, that of prophet, wasn’t enough, for he was in fact much more. He was a lawgiver, a teacher, a philosopher, a general, a king, a sage, a high priest, and an interpreter.5
1Kugel, James, The Bible as It Was (Cambridge, Mass.,: Belknap Press, 1997), citing a passage from the Targumic Tosefta: Alphabetical Acrostic on the Death of Moses, 538.
2Ibid., 541, see especially passages from Sifrei Deuteronomy and Tibat Marqa.
3Ibid.,542, see passages from m. Sotah, and Targum Pseudo-Jonathan.