Commentary on Deuteronomy 34:1-12
This poignant account of Moses’ death takes place at the very end of Deuteronomy, and therefore at the very end of the entire Pentateuch.
After forty years of wandering through the wilderness, the people of Israel are poised to enter the land promised to their ancestors long ago. Because of Moses’ actions in Numbers 20, God forbade him to lead the people into this new land, but God shows Moses the entirety of the land before Moses dies.
Verses 1-3 are filled with geographical locations. While it may be tempting to skip over these names, if we do so, we’d miss two things.
First, we would miss some connections with the larger story. This is the land that had been promised to Abram and his descendants back in Genesis 12. Of course, at that point, the land was not described in any specific way, or even named: it was simply the land that God said “I will show you” (Genesis 12:1). Only after Abram had left his country, his kindred, and his father’s house did God show him the land (Genesis 14:14-15) and name the boundaries of that land (Genesis 15:18-21).
Moses may not be able to see from the Nile to the Euphrates (Genesis 15:18), but he is shown the Promised Land from Dan in the north, to the sea in the west, to Zoar in the south, and in verse 4, God affirms that this is the land that God had sworn to give to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Even the summit where Moses ascends connects with a previous passage: Mount Pigsah is the same location where Balaam was taken by Balak (Numbers 23:14). Balaam was only able to see part of the Israelite camp, but Moses can see the whole sweep of the Promised Land.
The second thing we would miss if we were to skip over the geographical names is the importance of the particularity of place. A physical location matters because we are physical, embodied people, whose feet touch the ground. Even though we live in a time of unprecedented mobility, the particular geographic places where we live and move shape our identities and our lives.
Another key aspect of this passage is the theme of vision and sight. In verse 1, God causes Moses to see the land, and in verse 4, God tells Moses, “I have caused you to see it with your eyes.” Lest we have any concern about Moses’ ability — at the age of one hundred and twenty — to clearly see such a large section of land, we are told that his eyesight was unimpaired (34:7). The chapter also ends by remembering the wonderful things that Moses did “in the eyes of all Israel” (34:12).
This fourfold repetition of sight is noteworthy, especially when in a number of places in the New Testament, sight seems to be downplayed. For example, in John 20:29 Jesus tells Thomas, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” 2 Corinthians 5:7 encourages us to “walk by faith not by sight.” And Hebrews 11:1 defines faith as “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”
Moses has been obedient and has had faith for so long that it must have been a profound gift to have his hopes and convictions confirmed by what he did see. This vision is not only dependent on Moses, however, for both times that the verb is used, it is causative, with God as the subject. God shows Moses; God causes Moses to see. Though we may need to open up our own eyes and look for what God is doing and where God is, we also may need to ask God to show us — to reveal to us — where God is at work.
The announcement of Moses’ death comes at the beginning of verse 5, almost abruptly after God reminds Moses that he will not enter the land he can see. We might wonder if Moses only had a momentary glimpse before he died, or if he was able to linger and drink in the view. We also may wonder about Moses’ feelings at his death: was he, like Simeon in Luke 2, happy to depart in peace? Or, was he frustrated to only see it, and not experience it? The refrain of this passage affirms that long-awaited promises are fulfilled, and the response to that ought to be hope and joy.
But in this there are also notes that must be played in a minor key. Moses dies. The Israelites mourn for him. Even if a good, long life can be celebrated and eulogized, the end of that life marks a loss. Even though Moses is able to see into the land where he has faithfully been leading the Israelites, his time is at an end, and he cannot finish all that he may have hoped. The brief mention of Joshua, who has been identified as Moses’ successor earlier in Deuteronomy 31 and who will take charge in the immediately following book, reminds us that God’s spirit is what remains constant amidst human transitions.
In verse 6 after Moses’ death, the Hebrew reads, “and he buried him in a valley … ” Because Moses is dead, the “he” most likely refers to God. The NRSV translation makes it passive, “he was buried,” but the Hebrew indicates an almost startling intimacy with the imagery of God being the one to bury Moses and lay him to rest. The intimacy is not so startling, however, when we go on to hear in verse 10 that God knew Moses “face-to-face.” Though Moses is also described as unequaled among all the prophets and leaders, it may be that we can imitate Moses in his intimacy with God and be people who similarly seek after God’s face.