1 Then 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,2 all Naphtali, the land of Ephraim and Manasseh, all the land of Judah as far as the Western Sea,3 the Negeb, and the Plain– that is, the valley of Jericho, the city of palm trees– as far as Zoar.4 The 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.”5 Then Moses, the servant of the LORD, died there in the land of Moab, at the LORD’s command.6 He was buried in a valley in the land of Moab, opposite Beth-peor, but no one knows his burial place to this day.7 Moses was one hundred twenty years old when he died; his sight was unimpaired and his vigor had not abated.8 The Israelites wept for Moses in the plains of Moab 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.11 He was unequaled 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,12 and for all the mighty deeds and all the terrifying displays of power that Moses performed in the sight of all Israel.
Deuteronomy and the Pentateuch end with Moses’ death on Mount Nebo. The five central books to the Jewish understanding of faith traditionally attributed to Moses now have come to an end. Moses’ death has been foreshadowed throughout Deuteronomy and has been attributed to both the disobedience of the people and to Moses and Aaron acting without giving proper praise to God the waters of Meribath-kadesh (see Deuteronomy 32: 48-52). Yet, foreshadowing the death of Moses (even though he is reported to be one hundred twenty years old-which is also a way of referring to people being of a good old age) when he can still see well, is still active and vigorous and not suffering from the illness and impairment of old age is still an unexpected death of one who is so alive. The transition from Moses the teacher and leader has been set in motion through the end of the book but Moses will remain a unique figure for the people of Israel.
Many people focus on the unfairness of Moses being unable to enter the promised land but perhaps there is the possibility of grace here in this moment. George Elliot in his poem “the Death of Moses” can speak of Moses’ death as:
A death was given called the Death of Grace
Which freed them, from the burden of the flesh
But left them rulers of the multitude
And loved companions of the lonely. This
Was God’s last gift to Moses, this the hour
When soul must part from self and be but soul. (Thompson, 2014, p. 195)
From a Christian perspective we, perhaps, too quickly make the jump to resurrection or to Moses being with the God of Israel in heaven, but for the ancient Jewish people resurrection was not a part of their understanding of the blessing and promise of God. Yet, after a life of struggle, of constantly being pulled between the needs of the people and their inability to remain faithful and the dangerous engagement of the LORD with those same people. After Moses again and again would place himself between God and the people and after the people would continually disappoint Moses. Perhaps the ending of a powerful but heavily laden life can truly be laying down one’s burdens to, in the words of an old Vince Gill song, go rest high upon the mountain. Or perhaps from another powerful example that Deanna Thompson lifted up was the example of Martin Luther King, Jr. from his speech to sanitation workers on April 3, 1968-the day before his assassination when King prophetically speaks:
I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now—because I’ve been to the mountaintop. I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would love to live a long life, but I’m not worried about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight that we as a people will get to the promised land. So I’m happy tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the LORD. (Thompson, 2014, p. 245)
Moses, the reluctant leader who in the desert tried to avoid the calling of God would indeed be the one who God would work through in ways that no one else would share. The people began to trust in Moses as a mediator of the presence of the almighty God, as one who would know unknown intimacy with the LORD by being able to speak to God face to face and not die. He would be remembered for wielding God’s power in incredible ways in the land of Egypt and in the journey through the wilderness. Yet, perhaps there is grace in a death that is away from the people in an unknown grave. If the grave was known it is possible, perhaps probable, that people would begin to venerate it in ways that worshipped Moses rather than God. There are certainly times in the book of Judges where people begin to worship the things of the Judge rather than the God who worked through the judge.
Throughout Deuteronomy we realize that the people of Israel’s life is contingent upon the God of Israel who has drawn close to them. Here in this final chapter where Moses dies at the command of the LORD we see the contingency of one drawn so close to God even more clearly. Moses’ position and power derive from his proximity to the LORD who called him at Mount Horeb. No one will know the intimacy of the relationship that Moses does and linked to that connection is also the reality that no one will perform the wonders of the LORD in the same way either. Moses becomes the mediator of the presence of the divine to the people, he becomes the vessel through which the LORD’s power for the preservation (and sometimes the punishment) of the people will pour.
Moses will continue to echo throughout the story of Israel and the church. Others will attempt to carry on the legacy that he began, but even Joshua’s power is here lifted up as derivative of Moses laying on of hands. The absence of the grave will lead to speculations about Moses. By the time of the emergence of the Christian church there was speculation about Moses assumption directly into heaven like Elijah or Enoch. In Mark 9, and parallels, Moses will be present with Elijah on the mount of the Transfiguration talking with Jesus and Jude 9 is either a reference to The Assumption of Moses a Jewish Pseudapigraphal document which we only have one existent 6th century copy of or another tradition of Moses’ assumption which may predate that. Regardless by the first century CE it was common to think of Moses having been assumed bodily into heaven and the absence of a grave becomes evidence to this. Yet for Deuteronomy, this text seems to know of either whispers of a possible gravesite or the search for one and seeks to assure the reader that no one knows of the site to this day.
So we come to the end of this part of the story and to the end of a remarkable life narrated in between the story of the LORD, the God of Israel and the people of Israel. Moses journey with the people has set the stage for the journey they will continue with Joshua.