Moses dies. That’s the basic summary of Deuteronomy 34. God sends Moses up Mount Nebo, which is in present-day Jordan, and has him look over the whole of the land of Israel. The chapter closes with the official hand-off to Joshua and a closing praise of Moses, that no one has arisen in Israel that is his equal.
This chapter marks the close of the Pentateuch, and is likely the work of a later writer than Moses. It is not necessary for Moses to have prophetic knowledge of his death so that he can write it just to preserve the idea of Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch. Others wrote Scripture, it is not problematic for someone other than Moses to record this information.
As the concluding chapter of the Pentateuch, we find the story seemingly at its conclusion. The Pentateuch opens with the creation of the world and the placing of God’s people in a fertile land. Then Adam and Eve are exiled from that land due to sin. The story carries forward to this point, where the people of God stand on the edge of a fertile land with the power of God that blocked a return to Eden opening the Promised Land.
What we see now is that this was not the end of God’s work in the world. It was not His plan to place one nation in one place only, but to use that nation for the sake of the whole of humanity. Israel is a portion of God’s plan, but Jesus is the fulfillment of it.
Let us take Deuteronomy 34:4-5 and place them in focus. Here we see the death of Moses, described as a “servant of YHWH.” He dies, not from old age or battle, but from the judgment of God. (See 34:7). Moses had disobeyed God and this judgment had been pronounced in Numbers 20.
Moses had begun his calling on one mountain, Mt. Sinai, and now his work concludes on Mt. Nebo. His death reflects that no matter how great one is, disobedience still has consequences in the sight of the Lord God.
Practically speaking, here are some thoughts from this chapter:
- There are consequences to disobeying God. Even for the greatest of people, like Moses, direct disobedience is destructive. Those who lead should know better, and are held accountable to knowing better.
- It is worth remembering people who are inspirations to us. However, we must be careful not to make them into objects of worship. This is part of the lesson of the loss of Moses’ body. His remains are somewhere, but it is his legacy that the people were to learn from. They were not to enshrine or elevate his body to a relic.
- We can know that many who are the equal of Moses have come by now. Peter, James, John, Thaddeus, Saul…all spoke to the Lord God face-to-face. This is the glory of the Incarnation. God did not keep Himself separate from His people as in the time of Moses. Instead, through Jesus many spoke with Him face-to-face. We should not disdain the opportunity!
In all, we can celebrate that the God who opened the Red Sea and delivered Israel is still God today.
A couple of nerd points here: Deuteronomy 34:7 should be taken to understand there was no reason for Moses to die yet, at least not naturally. Apparently, God did not put Moses through the issues of declining health—perhaps to allow him to lead the people right up to the last minute. It is also worth noting: sometimes, it takes the passing of one person to allow another to rise in their place to handle the next step.
Moses’ eyes are apparently quite good, if you think he saw details of the land. I think he did. I think God enabled him, in 34:1ff to see the land better than the vantage point was.
Overall, the judgment on Moses reflects that God holds holiness as mandatory. Even the greatest of the human prophets had to deal with the consequences of sin.
Finally, note the connection between Deuteronomy 34 and Jude 9. There is something in this, although some theologians argue about what it means. (Bede, for example, suggests the “body of Moses” in Jude is actually the people of Israel that remained, and Michael is the angel who defended them. Others, whose links I cannot find, suggest a symbolic response to Jude 9 as relating to the Law itself.)