When One Leader Dies: Reflections on Deuteronomy 34:1-12

Lectionary Reflections
October 26, 2014
Deuteronomy 34:1-12

I am sixty-eight years old, and I have seen many a leader die in my lifetime—far too many in terrible circumstances. In 1963, John Kennedy was assassinated by Lee Harvey Oswald (no conspiracy theories, please; the insane man acted alone), and Lyndon Johnson of Texas became president. Though Kennedy had started us down the awful Vietnam road, that road was widened and paved by LBJ, leading to thousands of American deaths and hundreds of thousands of Asian deaths. But, of course, LBJ also inaugurated the War on Poverty, signed the Voting Rights Act, along with numerous other crucial social welfare bills which did nothing less than transform the face of American society. And all this from a congenitally lying and rascally Texan whose first election victories were out-and-out thefts of office. (See Robert Caro's outstanding and exhaustive biography if you have any doubts about these claims.)

Then in 1968, two monstrous assassinations occurred. Bobby Kennedy, the murdered president's brother, was killed in a hotel in Los Angeles by Sirhan Sirhan, snuffing out his own run for the White House. Bobby Kennedy had grown immeasurably as a protector of human rights, especially for African Americans whose poverty and abuse he witnessed first hand in the south and had begun to champion in public forums throughout the country. After his death, the country elected Richard Nixon as its president, who deepened America's involvement in Vietnam, and who in turn six years later resigned the office in disgrace following his own lying attempts to hide from the public his deep involvement in a series of scandals that we know now as Watergate, but which included chicanery and skullduggery of the most pathetic and appalling varieties.

And in that same year, 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in Memphis where he had gone to speak on behalf of the striking garbage workers of that city. For over fifteen years, the Reverend King had been a beacon light for the improvement of the lives of African Americans in the U.S., and he had carried the torch of freedom for all Americans. Few now remember that toward the end of his very short life he had begun to question seriously American involvement in Vietnam, and his outspoken criticisms had gained him the label of Communist and garnered for him a thick file in the offices of J. Edgar Hoover's FBI.

These three murders changed the shape of American life, and more than a few pundits, public commentators, and average citizens imagined that without them the world would spin off its axis and crash into a heap of chaos and discord. To be sure, their deaths did bring about change, and not all of it for the better. Yet, the world spun on, and not always in terrible ways.

So it was with the death of the great Moses. Deuteronomy 34 records his death in several odd ways. Though he was 120 years old, "his sight was unimpaired" (Dt. 34:7), and "his vigor was unabated" (Dt. 34:7). The old boy remained in tip-top shape right to the end, needing neither corrective lenses nor regular workouts to remain fit. After all, YHWH had just showed him from the top of one of the mountains of Moab the entire land of Israel, from Dan to Beersheba (some one hundred miles) and from Jericho to the Mediterranean Sea (some fifty miles). No, Moses needed no glasses at his advanced age! Yet, after all the grumbling of his Israelite travelers, after all the miraculous events of the Sea of Reeds and the wilderness of the Sinai, after he had taken a hurricane of abuse from those ingrates for forty years and more, still, YHWH says, "You shall not cross over there" (Dt. 34:4). This still potent and virile and 20-20 Moses dies on the wrong side of the Jordan River "and no one knows his burial place to this day" (Dt. 34:6).

The author of Deuteronomy inscribes a magnificent encomium to the mighty Moses at the very end of his book: "Never since has there arisen a prophet in Israel like Moses, whom YHWH knew face to face. He was unequaled for all the signs and wonders that YHWH sent him to perform in the land of Egypt, against pharaoh and all his servants and his entire land, and for all the mighty deeds and all the terrifying displays of power that Moses performed in the sight of all Israel" (Dt. 34:10-12). Yet, he dies too soon and is buried in an unmarked grave. All we can do is remember him and his deeds and attempt to do likewise, however little we are finally able to do to emulate him.

But, of course, the story offers hope; the Bible majors in hope. Despite Moses' too early death, and despite our inability to find where he lies, "Joshua was full of the spirit of wisdom, because Moses had laid his hands on him; and the Israelites obeyed him, doing as YHWH had commanded Moses" (Dt. 34:9). Well, not really! As the Israelites enter the land of promise, under the generalship of Joshua, the wise one, deputized by the great Moses, the people in fact do not always do "as YHWH commanded Moses." Aachan lies about some stolen booty (Josh. 7), the tribe of Joseph complains that their portion of the land is too small (Josh. 17), and finally though Joshua demands from them complete devotion to YHWH, he knows too well that they will not be able to do it, despite their loud protestations to the contrary (Josh. 24:19-21). So, where is the hope?