From the hands of the writers and editors who compiled the various Pentateuchal traditions into our five books of the law (Genesis through Deuteronomy), the Book of Deuteronomy–and indeed, the Pentateuch as a whole–comes to a close with this description of the death of Prophet who led Israel out of Egypt to the Promised Land and received the law at Sinai More. Each of its four sections requires comment:
1. God shows Moses the Promised Land (vv. 1-4). Not only does this fulfill God’s promise to Moses (3:27, showing Moses the land of Canaan and refusing to let him enter!), Genesis 13:14-17 is also in view. Just as Abram was told to “Raise your eyes now, and look from the place where you are, northward and southward and eastward and westward; for all the land that you see I will give to you and to your offspring forever.” So now Moses is shown the whole land in a panoramic view from the north (“Gilead, as far as A son of Jacob and tribe of Israel. More”), then west (Naphtali), down the spine of the country through Ephraim and Manasseh to Judah and the Negeb in the south, to Jericho and the Dead Sea in the east. In the ancient Near East, such viewings amount to a formal act of taking possession.
2. The death of Moses (vv. 5-8). Though several are designated as “the The Servant of the Lord is a term applied by Isaiah to the appointed leader who will bring God's justice to all nations. Biblical figures who are also considered servants of the Lord are Moses, David, and sometimes even the nation of Israel itself. The... More” (God promised that Abraham would become the father of a great nation, receive a land, and bring blessing to all nations. More, Jacob, Joshua, David, and especially the servant in the servant songs of Isaiah), no one receives this tribute as frequently as Moses. Here Moses’ faithfulness and ceaseless striving to fulfill the mission with which he had been charged is lifted up, perhaps to offset the troubling refusal to allow him entrance to the goal of his life’s work, the reason for which is not given.
The intimate nature of this scene cannot be overstated. Moses died at the mouth (some translations will euphemistically paraphrase “mouth” with “word,” or even worse, “command,” ) of the Lord. After decades of time spent in impossibly close relationship, God allows Moses to die by a kiss. The passive, “He was buried” (v. 6), is literally, “He [God!] buried him.” Moses will not be able to enter the Promised Land, but that by no means undermines the closest friendship that God has had with a human. The God who freed the Israelites with an outstretched arm, and made a path through the waters, will dig in the earth to bury God’s friend.
Moses’ age at the time of his death (120 years) is probably symbolic; the question is, symbolic of what? Several possibilities have been suggested:
- Ancient Mesopotamia employed a numerical system based upon the number 60, not 10, so that 120 years (2 x 60) was the only round number available.
- In Genesis 6:3, God restricts human life spans to 120 years.
- In the Deuteronomistic History (Joshua-Kings), “40 years” is either a complete generation (Judges 3:11) or the tenure of a great leader (Eli., Second king of Israel, David united the northern and southern kingdoms. More, Solomon, or Joash).
- Stephen’s sermon breaks Moses’ life into three 40-year periods (Egypt, Midian, the wilderness, see Acts 7:23, 30, 36).
3. The successor of Moses, Joshua led the Israelites into Canaan More succeeds Moses (v. 9). The transition is important for the continuing story in Joshua; although there, Joshua succeeds Moses at the word of the Lord (Deuteronomy 31:1-8; Joshua 1:1-9), not by the “laying on of hands” as here.
4. Moses’ epitaph (vv. 10-12). The translation, “Never since has there arisen a prophet in Israel like Moses” (NRSV; better, “Never again did there arise in Israel a prophet like Moses,” New Jewish Publication Society), eases the tension with Deuteronomy 18:18, “I will raise up for them a prophet like you” (compare 18:15). There is no contradiction. Here, Moses is praised as the first in the line of the prophets and for the intimacy of his relationship with God.