After 120 years (assuming the number is literal) of an amazing life, Moses reaches the end. God told him he would die before Israel entered the land, and the time to enter the land is here. He has instructed the people and blessed them and commissioned their new leader, so there is nothing more he needs to say or do with regard to them. His last act is to climb a mountain, survey the target of all he has worked toward over the last four decades of his life, and die. He has served and led and encouraged and rebuked and performed miracles and witnessed incredible things, but now it is over and he is about to meet with God and – unlike other meetings – not return.
Unlike most men, Moses not only knows the time of his death but approaches it in good health. He does not die because he is physically worn out or sick but because of his own sin. He sinned against God in a way God could not leave unpunished so he dies now on the wrong side of the Jordan. His life ends not with the conquest of Canaan but with a survey of it from a distance.
The severity of God’s punishment has plagued him. He recorded in 3:23-29 that he pleaded with God to let him go into the land. Everything that he has been a part of since he saw God in the burning bush has pointed toward the conquest and settlement of Canaan. But God said no – and told him not to bring it up again. So now he faces death with the knowledge that someone else will reach the ultimate goal and there is also absolutely nothing he can do to change it.
It is a unique book that ends with the death of its author. Moses writes Deuteronomy but it is likely that Joshua records his death and writes the final chapter. What is interesting is that Moses has written the whole book knowing it would end this way. He wrote it as a final charge to a people he knew he would not lead into the Promised Land.
As soon as Moses finishes teaching the people his song (32:1-43), God speaks to him and tells him the time of his death has arrived. He tells him to climb the nearby mountain – Mount Nebo (in the Abarim Range) – and look over the land and die. He is to die on a mountain the same way Aaron died – without entering the land.
God rehearses the reason he will not enter the land – because you broke faith with Me in the midst of the sons of Israel at the waters of Meribah-kadesh, in the wilderness of Zin, because you did not treat Me as holy in the midst of the sons of Israel. This explanation at first seems cold and unnecessary – does God really think Moses does not remember why he is not allowed to enter the land (especially since it may have happened within the last year – compare Num 20 with Deut 1:3)? Could God not have simply said it was time to die without going over the reason? Perhaps God says this for the benefit of the reader. He wants to make it clear that Moses is not going in because of sin. He broke faith (same word used for adultery in Num 5:12) with God at Meribah.
The exact sin at Meribah is hard to understand (this is discussed at length in our Deuteronomy Intro notes). The simple facts are that God commanded Moses to speak to a rock to bring forth water, and instead, Moses – out of frustration with the people – struck it twice to make water come out (Num 20:1-13). Immediately after the miracle God told Moses and Aaron, “Because you have not believed Me, to treat Me as holy in the sight of the sons of Israel, therefore you shall not bring this assembly into the land which I have given them.” Somehow they took glory away from God by striking the rock and God could not leave their act unpunished. They ultimately did not believe; thus they were effectively guilty of the same sin committed by the rebellious generation at Kadesh. And like that generation they would perish in the wilderness and not see the Promised Land.
The following commentary on Moses’ punishment from the Intro notes is applicable here:
Moses did not falter at Kadesh – he pleaded with the people to go into the land and conquer it. Moses did not worship the golden calf – he was horrified by Aaron’s disobedience. Moses did not engage in immorality with the Moabite women, he did not complain about a lack of meat, he was not afflicted with the plague of snakes, and he has never complained that God brought them out of Egypt just to let them die. He has stood between the people and God countless times and has continually preached obedience to Israel.
With all of that, however, he will not be the one to lead them into Canaan. For while Moses has been God’s friend, he failed on one occasion to uphold God’s glory – and for that reason God will not allow him to see the fulfillment of his forty years of leadership. He upstaged God in front of the people once in four decades (Num 20:1-13) and will pay for it by dying before he sees the triumph of all he has worked for. He has been exemplary in all things and for all people – but God cannot allow what he did to go unpunished. Nothing is more important to God than His glory, and God will not share His glory with any man; thus the one who sought to share that glory cannot be allowed to lead God’s people into the Promised Land.
God finishes this section by telling Moses that he will see the land at a distance. Moses will not enter but he will see much of it from the mountaintop. This appears to be both God’s gift to Moses as well as a type of legal step whereby a new owner officially looks over the land he is about to take possession of (Lk 14:18 – Gen 13:14-17). The key is that God says he will see it at a distance. Moses will see much but experience nothing.
Before studying the actual details of Moses’ death, it is worthwhile to think about the people and their current state. They know Moses is leaving and will not return. He has not hidden from them that he is going to die before they enter the land. But now the end is actually here. What kind of send-off do they give him as he is about to ascend the mountain?
Josephus – the Jewish historian – actually describes the scene in his Antiquities of the Jews (Book IV, Chapter VIII): When Moses had spoken thus at the end of his life, and had foretold what would befall to every one of their tribes afterward, with the addition of a blessing to them, the multitude fell into tears, insomuch that even the women, by beating their breasts, made manifest the deep concern they had when he was about to die. The children also lamented still more, as not able to contain their grief; and thereby declared, that even at their age they were sensible of his virtue and mighty deeds; and truly there seemed to be a strife betwixt the young and the old, who should most grieve for him. The old grieved, because they knew what a careful protector they were to be deprived of, and so lamented their future state; but the young grieved, not only for that, but also because it so happened that they were to be left by him before they had well tasted of his virtue. The people also repented of what they had said to him in the wilderness when they were angry; and were in grief on those accounts, insomuch that the whole body of the people fell into tears with such bitterness, that it was past the power of words to comfort them in their affliction. Now one may make a guess at the excess of this sorrow and lamentation of the multitude, from what happened to the legislator himself; for although he was always persuaded that he ought not to be cast down at the approach of death, since undergoing it was agreeable to the will of God and the law of nature, yet what the people did so overbore him, that he wept himself. There is no way to know if Josephus’ description is accurate, but it is certainly understandable that the final departure of Moses is emotional. Presumably, Moses composes himself and heads for the mountain.
Moses climbs the mountain as God commands and God shows him all the land. It could be that this description is symbolic. Perhaps Moses sees all that can be seen from the mountain – which is likely a lot – but does not literally see ALL the land. It is impossible from any mountain in Moab to see beyond the mountains of Judah to the Mediterranean (the western sea). The author may mean that what Moses sees is representative of the whole land and so he effectively sees it all.
The other possibility is that God miraculously shows him all the land. This could explain the detail of what he sees listed in verses 1-3. Perhaps God enables him to see more than what is humanly possible as a further gift of mercy to him (similar to how Satan shows Jesus all the kingdoms of the world in Matt 4:8). It would certainly not be outside of Moses’ experience to witness a miracle of God. For a man who is counted as God’s friend and who has seen and performed so many supernatural acts, it is not unreasonable to conjecture that God does something special for him to send him off.
After showing him the land God says, “This is the land which I swore to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, saying, ‘I will give it to your descendants’; I have let you see it with your eyes, but you shall not go over there.” God reassures Moses that his mission is over. He may not be going in but his life has been a success. He has brought the people to the land and God WILL in fact fulfill the covenant He made with the patriarchs. Moses dies knowing he fulfilled the calling God gave Him on Sinai at the burning bush.
This is an incredibly poignant moment. The promise to Abraham is foundational to the identity of Israel (remember that Joseph specifically directed that his bones be brought back to Canaan when the people eventually returned there – Gen 50:24-26) and has been the nation’s desire for over four centuries. It is also the culmination of every event in Moses’ life. God bred and prepared and called him for this. It also fulfills what God told Moses in Exodus 6:2-8 (at an extremely low point in Moses’ life after he returned to Egypt): 2 God spoke further to Moses and said to him, “I am the LORD; 3 and I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, as God Almighty, but by My name, LORD, I did not make Myself known to them. 4 And I also established My covenant with them, to give them the land of Canaan, the land in which they sojourned. 5 And furthermore I have heard the groaning of the sons of Israel, because the Egyptians are holding them in bondage; and I have remembered My covenant. 6 Say, therefore, to the sons of Israel, ‘I am the LORD, and I will bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians, and I will deliver you from their bondage. I will also redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great judgments. 7 Then I will take you for My people, and I will be your God; and you shall know that I am the LORD your God, who brought you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians. 8 And I will bring you to the land which I swore to give to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and I will give it to you for a possession; I am the LORD.'” God has done everything He told Moses He would do and Moses has truly fulfilled all that God called him to. It is sad that Moses cannot go into the land, but apart from that there really is not a better way to end his life.
After he sees the land Moses dies. He dies and God buries him in a secret place where no one can find him and no one can set up a memorial to worship. How this actually happened is up for conjecture. How exactly did Moses die? And what does it mean that God buried him? How does God physically bury someone? Did God do it Himself, or did he use Joshua and perhaps some of the elders of the people to do it? But if that is the case – how could his burial place be a secret?
None of these questions is really answerable. Deuteronomy simply says Moses died according to the word of the Lord and that God buried him. It seems to make sense to accept this on its face. Some traditions hold, however, that he did not actually die but that God took him as He did with Enoch and Elijah (which explains why the gravesite is unknown – it does not exist). There is no reason necessarily to think this is true – and it seems to contradict what is in this text – but it is interesting that Moses appears with Elijah at the transfiguration (Matt 17:1-8). Could it be that they are both there as people who did not suffer physical deaths?
Something else to think through – for Moses, death is a little different than it is for any other. He is not about to “meet his Maker” because he has already met Him on numerous occasions. This would lend some credence to the Enoch and Elijah theory. He does not need to die to change his relationship and perspective with God – he already knows Him as a friend and already converses with Him face to face.
To gain a better understanding of this alternate view it is helpful to again reference Josephus’ account in Antiquities: Now as he went thence to the place where he was to vanish out of their sight, they all followed after him weeping; but Moses beckoned with his hand to those that were remote from him, and bade them stay behind in quiet, while he exhorted those that were near to him that they would not render his departure so lamentable. Whereupon they thought they ought to grant him that favor, to let him depart, according as he himself desired: so they restrained themselves, though weeping still towards one another. All those who accompanied him were the senate, and Eleazar the high priest, and Joshua their commander. Now as soon as they were come to the mountain called Abarim (which is a very high mountain, situated over against Jericho and one that affords, to such as are upon it, a prospect of the greatest part of the excellent land of Canaan), he dismissed the senate; and as he was going to embrace Eleazar and Joshua, and was still discoursing with them, a cloud stood over him on the sudden, and he disappeared in a certain valley, although he wrote in the holy books that he died, which was done out of fear, lest they should venture to say that, because of his extraordinary virtue, he went to God.
The problem with this view, ultimately, is that Deuteronomy is not the only text that argues against it. In Jude 9 it says – apparently referencing apocryphal literature – that Michael the Archangel disputed with the devil over the body of Moses (this perhaps answers the question of how God buried Moses – it was the work of angels). [Per The Assumption of Moses, Satan made a claim on Moses’ body because Moses was a murderer.] It seems from this that Moses did indeed die and God did as the author of the end of Deuteronomy says He did – He buried him in a secret place known only to Him.
Regardless of what actually happened, Moses is now gone. The people – with Joshua as their new leader – weep and mourn him for thirty days. At the end of thirty days the people begin to make ready to enter the land. They obey Joshua as Moses commanded them and Joshua is filled with the spirit of wisdom because Moses laid his hands on him. All is well in Israel (for now).
The author of this chapter gives us a final description of Moses. He says that though he was one hundred and twenty years old when he died, his eye was not dim, nor his vigor abated. Moses apparently did not age as normal men did and died in full health (he climbed the highest mountain in the range as his last activity). The author also says that since then no prophet has risen in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face (see also Num 12:6-8), for all the signs and wonders which the Lord sent him to perform in the land of Egypt against Pharaoh, all his servants, and all his land, and for all the mighty power and for all the great terror which Moses performed in the sight of all Israel. No non-divine human has ever had the relationship with God that Moses had. God called him a friend – and spoke to him without visions and dreams but face to face as with a friend.
Perhaps the most notable description of Moses is in verse 5. There it says Moses was a servant of the Lord. This captures the essence of Moses’ life. He died as the foremost prophet of God in history. But he started his ministry as a timid shepherd who argued with God and tried to get out of his calling (Ex 4:1-17). He complained to God after his first setback and doubted not only his own abilities but God’s faithfulness (Ex 5:22-23). Yet God used him more than perhaps any man who has ever lived. And He was able to use him because Moses became God’s servant. He spent his life doing what God asked him to do. And he ultimately submitted to God and spent the last third of his life knowing God and basking in His presence and being used as God’s instrument for both the Law and for mighty acts of power.
Moses is a picture of what God can do with a life that is willing and submissive. Compare the Moses of Exodus 3-6 with the Moses of Exodus 32 and Deuteronomy. The growth in his faithfulness and in his righteous power is staggering. Moses thrived precisely because he was a servant of One who is all-powerful and all-loving and perfectly just. Moses’ life – like all lives that are committed to God – is a testament to an awesome God. Servants reflect their masters – and Moses might be the best reflection of God of anyone outside of Jesus.
Moses paved the way for the Savior of the world by being the mediator through whom the Law was revealed. Then he was chosen to encourage the Savior (on the transfiguration mount) when Jesus faced the great exodus that would bring salvation to the world. All of this was because Moses was a servant of the Lord. God may not call us to become famously great, having a spectacular role in history like Moses did. But we can all have the key to Moses’ life that was also the key to his greatness: we can be servants of God, people who are totally devoted to Him.
– Ajith Fernando, Deuteronomy (pg 704).
Josephus’ final description of Moses
He was one that exceeded all men that ever were in understanding, and made the best use of what that understanding suggested to him. He had a very graceful way of speaking and addressing himself to the multitude; and as to his other qualifications, he had such a full command of his passions, as if he hardly had any such in his soul, and only knew them by their names, as rather perceiving them in other men than in himself. He was also such a general of an army as is seldom seen, as well as such a prophet as was never known, and this to such a degree, that whatsoever he pronounced, you would think you heard the voice of God Himself.