The Death of Moses

Michaelangelo_Moses( Lectionary for October 29, 2017)

As the season formerly known as “Ordinary Time,” that very long swatch of Sundays from Pentecost to Advent, the collectors of the lectionary seem to grab for texts that are little heard in the community of faith, and this Deuteronomy piece may be one of those. This text concludes the long book that itself concludes the Torah, or Pentateuch, of the Hebrew Bible, and is thus the last scene of the long drama that began with the creation of the world in Genesis. Much has transpired since that grand vision of YHWH’s work of creation, including a continuous rejection of God by the chosen people, the slavery in Egypt, the escape from bondage, led by God and Moses, the gift of the Torah at Sinai, and finally the arrival at the east bank of the Jordan, poised to enter the land of promise.

The ultimate scene has often been deemed a distinct anticlimax. After Moses, the indefatigable leader of Israel, who has suffered their constant complaining and anger, their continual demands to be allowed to return to slavery, their weeping and crying at lack of pleasant food in the wilderness, is at last led by YHWH up still another mountain, this one Pisgah among the mountains of Moab opposite the city of Jericho and near 1280px-Jordan,_Mount_NEBO,_Memorial_of_Moses_(1)the Dead Sea. From that high place, some 4000’ in elevation above the plain of the Salt Sea, Moses is shown the entire land that YHWH has promised to give to the former Egyptian slaves. He supposedly saw “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 Mediterranean), the Negeb and the Plain, that is the valley of Jericho, the city of palms—as far as Zoar” (Deut.34:1-3).

Though we are later told that Moses’ “sight was unimpaired” at his death at 120, he would have needed Superman vision to have seen all that from the peak of Pisgah. After all, the Mediterranean is at least 60 miles west, while the northern tribe of Dan settled perhaps 75 miles away, and Zoar, if it can be pinpointed, would be some 50 miles south and west. Obviously, the author is not interested in demonstrating Moses’ super vision, but in concluding the Torah with a quick map of the land of Israel that the people are about to inherit and dwell in. Nothing wrong with a little visionary fiction to conclude a great saga!

But that is not quite the end of the tale. One could envision a triumphant Moses rushing down the mountain to lead his people into that promised place, eyes flashing with joy, aged feet lightly dancing a jig as the Jordan is crossed, the people streaming happily behind. But no. YHWH stops Moses in his tracks with a brief but crushing speech. “I have let you see it with your eyes, but you will not cross over there” (Deut.34:4). What? After Moses has survived the strenuous and frustrating trip with the grumbling people all the way through the wilderness, has faced down their terrible calf-building/worshipping at the sacred mountain, has listened in fury to their continuous complaining at him and YHWH about food and water, has even talked YHWH out of killing them all, now YHWH will not allow him to experience the land he has dreamed of for forty agonizing years? It frankly seems cruel. No reason is given here for Moses’ denial of the land. In other places various reasons are given for that denial, but not here. YHWH merely says “you will not cross over there.”

Not only that. Now we are told that “Moses died there in the land of Moab at YHWH’s command” (Deut.34:5). The image is that once it has been revealed to the lawgiver that he will not be going to the land, after he has been given a comprehensive glimpse of it from a great distance, YHWH commands the death of his most faithful servant. I am reminded of the scene from Act 2 of Richard Wagner’s “Die Walküre,” when after the hulking and evil Hunding has killed Siegmund, an enraged Wotan, Siegmund’s mentor, dispatches Hunding with a withering cry of “Geh!” “go” in English. YHWH appears to do the same with Moses, bringing about his death in the obscurity of the Moabite mountains, far from the promised land and far from the people he has led for all those years.

And a further cruelty is that “Moses is buried in a valley in the land of Moab, opposite Beth-peor, but no one knows his burial place to this day” (Deut.34:6). There is no memorial to Moses, no place of lasting tribute for Israel’s greatest prophet and leader. He merely dies, and the people, though they mourn him for thirty days, a possibly fitting tribute, quickly get back to the business of entering the land, now under the leadership of Joshua, Moses’s picked successor. And, yes, we are told that Moses was “unequalled for all the signs and wonders that YHWH sent him to perform…and for all the mighty deeds of power that (he) performed in the eyes of all Israel” (Deut.34:11-12), still there is no lasting place of tribute, no permanent marker of his fabled existence. In a time like ours, when the death of a great figure is marked by solemn services and sealed with significant marbled shrines, it would be simply unthinkable to bury a Moses in an unmarked, unknown, unavailable grave.

Perhaps there is a possible reason for this peculiar anomaly. If we dwell too long on the greatness of the past, if we linger too fondly on the memories of those who have brought us to our current place, we run the risk of lamenting our present weaknesses and shortcomings when they are compared with what we remember as a past of glory and wonder. Remember the dire mistake of the singers of Ps.137 who refused to “sing the song of YHWH in a foreign land.” The result of their unwil044._The_Israelites_Cross_the_Jordan_Riverlingness or inability to adapt to the experience of Babylonian exile was their appalling desire to “bash the Babylonian babies’ heads against rocks.” If we get stuck in some supposed halcyon past, we may be unable to face our present with new leaders and new challenges, and we might seek revenge on those who we think have deprived us of our past.

Moses was a great leader of Israel, perhaps the very greatest of all time, but his death comes in secret and his tomb does not exist. Israel was thereby forced to continue its journey to land and future with a new leader and a new set of challenges, some of which they will meet and some of which they will not. And so it is with us. “New futures bring new duties,” and we have no choice but to live in those new futures, remembering our past but not dwelling on it, but living in the world we have been given. God will be with Joshua as God was with Moses, and God will be with us as well.

(images from Wikimedia Commons)

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