DESPITE THE UNIQUE SIGNIFICANCE OF MOSES’ MINISTRY, HE MUST DESIGNATE JOSHUA AS HIS SUCCESSOR AND DIE WITHOUT ENTERING THE PROMISED LAND
Daniel Block: We have heard the voice of the narrator before (1:1–5; 4:41–5:1a; 29:1[28:69]), but now for the first time he holds our attention. The events described conclude the death narrative formally begun in chapter 31. By this point in the drama, Moses has done all he could do to set his house in order. He has commissioned a successor (31:1–8, 23), provided a written transcript of his farewell pastoral sermons and arranged for the regular reading of this Torah in the future (31:9–13, 24–29), taught the people a national anthem (31:14–22, 30; 32:47), and pronounced his benediction on the tribes (33:1–29). All that remains is the report of his death and the people’s response to his passing. This is the function of chapter 34.
Believer’s Study Bible: Philo, Josephus, and some modern commentators have accepted this account of Moses’ death and funeral as written by the lawgiver himself. Although this is certainly possible, there is no reason to reject the likelihood that Joshua or another prophet, acting editorially, appended these words concerning the author’s death.
G. Campbell Morgan: In this last chapter of Deuteronomy we have the writing of another hand. It contains the story of the death of Moses, the equipment of Joshua for his work, and a last tender reference to the great leader and law-giver, beginning with these particular words. For the man who wrote them, they were true words; and they remained true through all the history of that wonderful people until One was born of the seed of David, Who was greater far than Moses. In his second discourse Moses had foretold his coming in the words: “I will raise them up a prophet from among their brethren like unto thee.” Long centuries elapsed, but at last He came, and in His coming fulfilled all Moses had initiated under the Divine government; absorbed and abolished the law which came through him, in the grace and truth which He brought to men. All this does not detract from, but rather enhances our sense of the greatness of this servant of God. His passing was full of beauty. In the fact of his exclusion from the land toward which he had led the people, it was a punishment; but, like all the chastisements of God, it was wonderfully tempered with mercy. There had been no weakening of his force. Everything ended in full strength. He went up to die. Jehovah gave him a vision of the land, and then buried him in that unknown grave. It was an august and glorious ending to a great and dignified life. Thus ends the last book of the Pentateuch, the final section of the Law.
I. (:1-8) TERMINATION OF THE LIFE OF MOSES
A. (:1-4) Moses’ Vision of the Promised Land and Denial of Entry
1. (:1-3) Vision of the Promised Land
“Now 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 all the land, Gilead as far as Dan,
2 and all Naphtali and the land of Ephraim and Manasseh,
and all the land of Judah as far as the western sea,
3 and the Negev and the plain in the valley of Jericho,
the city of palm trees, as far as Zoar.”
Michael Grisanti: Yahweh introduced himself to Moses on a mountain (Ex 3), gave his law to Moses on the same mountain (Ex 19–20), and now brings an end to his physical life on another mountain.
Daniel Block: The narrator specifies the regions surveyed. Moving in a counterclockwise direction, Moses looks straight north to Gilead (representing the eastern Transjordanian territories), to Napthali (representing the northern region between the Sea of Galilee and the Mediterranean), Ephraim and Manasseh (representing the Israelite heartland across the Jordan), Judah (the region between the Dead Sea and the Mediterranean), the Negev (the southern region as far as the Sinai peninsula), and coming full circle to the southern part of the Ghor, the rift valley dominated by the city of Jericho, “the City of Palms.”
The narrator mentions the extremities of Moses’ gaze: from Gilead a hundred miles north as far as Dan, at the foot of Mount Hermon, sixty miles west as far as the western sea, and fifty miles south as far south as Zoar (cf. Gen. 19:22).
Duane Christensen: Moses was given a vision of the Promised Land in its entirety that no tourist today can see without ascending into the skies. Perhaps this fact helps to explain the subsequent tradition known as The Assumption of Moses, with its account of Moses being taken directly to heaven rather than dying a natural death. Jude 9 appears to refer to such a tradition, which was apparently well known in early Jewish circles. At any rate, it would require such an airborne experience for Moses to actually see all that the biblical text says he saw in his vision from the summit of Mount Nebo.
Gerald Gerbrandt: On a literal level, Deuteronomy and the Pentateuch end with Israel on the border of the Promised Land, yet outside of it. Although Israel has already conquered the Transjordan, it remains only a foretaste of what really counts. Later Joshua describes the actual entrance into the land, with the process only completed under David (2 Sam 7:1). But the systematic viewing of the land is more than Moses having the privilege of seeing what he cannot experience. It also is a symbolic taking possession of the land, possibly even an act of laying a legal claim to the land (Daube: 34—9). The reference to God’s oath to the ancestors binds together the whole Pentateuch (note Gen 12:7) as well as the book of Deuteronomy (1:8).
2. (:4) Denial of Entry
“Then the LORD said to him,
‘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.’”
Daniel Block: For Israel this declaration brings the book to an end on a hopeful note, but for Moses it was extremely painful. Without rehearsing the cause as he had in 32:50–52, Yahweh reminds him once more that he will not cross over there. Moses may only gaze at the prize with his eyes. With this statement, the forty-year conversation that Yahweh had initiated with his trusted servant in Midian (Ex. 3:6–10) ends. Moses will not experience the realization of the promise, but he will leave the stage knowing that Yahweh has been faithful both to the ancestors and to him.
B. (:5-8) Moses’ Death and Burial
1. (:5) Death of Moses
“So Moses the servant of the LORD died there in the land of Moab, according to the word of the LORD.”
Peter Craigie: The servant of the Lord—again, it is emphasized that in his death, Moses was faithful, and that the prohibition against entering the land had not separated him from God’s presence (see also the expression man of God, 33:1).
2. (:6) Burial of Moses
“And He buried him in the valley in the land of Moab,
opposite Beth-peor; but no man knows his burial place to this day.”
Gerald Gerbrandt: Since the location of his grave is not known, establishing a shrine to Moses, or developing a cult around Moses attached to the grave, becomes highly speculative. The memorial he leaves behind is not some grave marker but the words of this law (31:24), the instructions on how to live a life that leads to blessing in the land. At his death Israel mourns the appropriate length of time (cf. 21:13).
Eugene Merrill: Later Jewish tradition speaks of the peculiar circumstances surrounding Moses’ burial as does the New Testament. Jude relates a confrontation between the archangel Michael and the devil over Moses’ body (Jude 9), a dispute apparently having to do with Yahweh’s purpose for burying Moses in a secret place to begin with. Most likely the sepulchre remained hidden precisely to prevent the Israelites from taking Moses’ body with them to Canaan, thus violating the divine command to disallow Moses entry there. His subsequent appearances to witnesses do little to alleviate the enigmatic character of his death and interment, but they do reveal in a most magnificent manner the reality of the ongoing existence of God’s saints and of his everlasting grace toward them (cf. Matt 17:3; Mark 9:4; Luke 9:30; Rev 11:1-13[?]).
3. (:7) Vitality of Moses
“Although Moses was one hundred and twenty years old when he died, his eye was not dim, nor his vigor abated.”
Daniel Block: Moses died neither of old age nor disease, but simply because within the divine plan his time was up.
Duane Christensen: Moses died at the height of his physical strength shortly after he had commanded the tribes of Israel in battle against the Canaanite kings, Sihon and Og, and immediately after he had climbed to the summit of Mount Nebo alone.
4. (:8) Mourning over Death of Moses
“So the sons of Israel wept for Moses in the plains of Moab thirty days;
then the days of weeping and mourning for Moses came to an end.”
II. (:9) TRANSITION TO THE LEADERSHIP OF JOSHUA
A. Empowering of Joshua by Laying on of Hands by Moses
“Now Joshua the son of Nun was filled with the spirit of wisdom,
for Moses had laid his hands on him;”
Daniel Block: The expression “spirit of wisdom” occurs elsewhere in the Old Testament in Exodus 28:3 and Isaiah 11:1–2. In both, it represents a special divine endowment for the fulfillment of a divinely ordained role. Through Moses’ ritual gesture Joshua was authorized and empowered to administer the nation justly and to embody the righteousness of the Torah (cf. 17:14–20).
Duane Christensen: The act of Moses laying “his hands” on Joshua is connected with the idea of a transference of authority in a rite of investiture.
B. Effective Leadership of Joshua
“and the sons of Israel listened to him
and did as the LORD had commanded Moses.”
Gerald Gerbrandt: Surprisingly, we also read that the Israelites obeyed him [Joshua], doing as the Lord had commanded Moses, a statement in apparent tension with passages announcing that as soon as Moses leaves the scene, the people will begin to prostrate themselves to the foreign gods in their midst (Deut 31:16; cf. 31:27). But here Deuteronomy is reassuring Israel that the death of Moses is not the end of the story. Deuteronomy moves within a tension between, on the one hand, regularly warning the people against their inclination to rebel against God and, on the other hand, the assurance that the law can be obeyed and that if Israel has faithful leaders, they can choose life (cf. Josh 24; the stories of the judges). The death of Moses marks the end of one part of the story, but the accession of Joshua to leadership is the start of another, one filled not only with danger and threat but also of promise.
Eugene Merrill: For many years it had been apparent that Joshua son of Nun would someday succeed Moses as covenant mediator and leader of his people. He first appeared as a commander of Israel’s fighting men, leading them to victory over the Amalekites under Moses’ direction (Exod 17:8-16). After the giving of the covenant at Sinai, Joshua, designated as the “aide” (na ar) of Moses, began to assert a greater spiritual role by partially ascending the holy mountain with Moses to receive the stone tablets of the Decalogue (Exod 24:12-13). Thereafter he continued this close covenant association (Exod 32:17; 33:11), always concerned to maintain Moses’ leadership and to carry out his bidding (Num 11:28; 13:16; 14:6-10). When it was disclosed that Moses could not enter the land of Canaan, the mantel of leadership fell on Joshua, who, from that day forward, prepared himself with that responsibility in view (Num 20:12; 26:65; 27:15-23; 34:17; Deut 1:38; 3:28; 31:3-8, 14-23).
William MacDonald: One important insight we gather from this verse is that Moses appointed Joshua as his successor, knowing that his own ministry would be coming to an end. In doing so, he set a good example for others who are in places of spiritual leadership. Some may think that this is too elementary to emphasize but the fact is that there is often gross failure to train successors and to turn work over to them. There seems to be an innate resistance to the idea that we are replaceable.
Sometimes this is a problem that faces an elder in a local fellowship. Perhaps he has served faithfully for many years, but the day is approaching when he will no longer be able to shepherd the flock. Yet it is hard for him to train a younger man to take his place. He may see young men as threats to his position. Or he may contrast their inexperience with his own maturity and conclude that they are quite unsuitable. It is easy for him to forget how inexperienced he was at one time, and how he came to his present maturity by being trained to do the work of an overseer.
This can also be a problem on the mission field. The missionary knows that he should train nationals to assume places of leadership. But he rationalizes that they cannot do it as well as he. And they make so many mistakes…and attendance at the meetings will drop if he does not do all the preaching. And anyway, they don’t know how to lead. The answer to all these arguments is that he should look upon himself as being expendable. He should train the nationals and delegate authority to them until he works himself out of a job in that particular area. There are always unfilled fields elsewhere. He never needs to be unemployed.
When Moses was replaced by Joshua there was a smooth transition. There was no vacuum of leadership. The cause of God did not suffer trauma. That’s the way it should be.
All God’s servants should rejoice to see younger men raised up to places of leadership. They should count it a great privilege to share their knowledge and experience with these disciples, then turn the work over to them before they are forced to do so by the hand of death. They should have the selfless attitude that Moses displayed on another occasion when he said, “Would God that all the Lord’s people were prophets.”
III. (:10-12) TESTIMONY TO THE UNIQUE SIGNIFICANCE OF THE MINISTRY OF MOSES BY VIRTUE OF
Gerald Gerbrandt: Moses, Deuteronomy concludes, was an incomparable prophet, in his communication with God (whom the Lord knew face to face) and in what he did (for all the signs and wonders that the Lord sent him to perform), combining the two central themes of law and exodus.
Peter Craigie: The last three verses of the book constitute, as it were, the literary epitaph of Moses; they form a fitting conclusion to the Pentateuch, of which the last four books contain an account of the life and work of Moses in Israel. Moses was a prophet, but in his epitaph it is not his knowledge of God that is stressed, but rather the Lord’s knowledge of him. God had sought him out and appointed him to a particular task; over the years, the relationship had become intimate, so that to those Israelites who knew Moses, it was evident that his highest communion was with God. And so in his epitaph, written in a book because the grave was not known, God’s intimate knowledge of Moses was the most striking memory of the man now departed.
A. (:10) His Intimate Relationship with the Lord
“Since then no prophet has risen in Israel like Moses,
whom the LORD knew face to face,”
Daniel Block: The idiom speaks of an intimate and direct relationship—without need for an intermediary (cf. Ex. 33:11; Num. 12:6–8).
Duane Christensen: As Tigay puts it ( 340), “The point of the text is that Moses had the most direct contact with God of any prophet, and hence had the clearest knowledge of Him and His will.” As the “Word of God” incarnate, and the ultimate fulfillment of the promise of a “prophet like (Moses)” at some future point in time (Deut 18:15, 18), Jesus had even deeper personal contact with God and God’s will for his people.
Eugene Merrill: This intimacy is reminiscent of the challenge to Moses’ preeminence as a prophet by his sister and brother, who accused Moses of arrogating prophetic privilege only to himself (Num 12:2). Part of Yahweh’s response to this challenge was that there were, indeed, other prophets (Miriam and Aaron included); but only to Moses did Yahweh speak “face to face” (Num 12:8).
B. (:11-12) His Performance of God’s Special Works before both the Egyptians and the Israelites
1. (:11) Special by Virtue of Signs and Wonders before the Egyptians
“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,”
2. (:12) Special by Virtue of Power and Terror before the Israelites
“and for all the mighty power and for all the great terror
which Moses performed in the sight of all Israel.”
Eugene Merrill: Moreover, no other prophet had till then performed such signs and wonders (tôt and môp tîm; cf. Exod 7:3; Deut 4:34; 6:22; 7:19; 26:8; 29:3; Neh 9:10; Ps 78:43; 105:27), awesome displays to Pharaoh and all Egypt that Yahweh alone is God (v. 11). Nor was their effect intended only for the pagan world. Israel also needed to be reminded over and over again of the power and protection of Yahweh manifested through his humble and faithful servant Moses (v. 12). It is no less true today that the unbelieving world as well as the church depends to a great extent upon faithful servants of the Lord to make him known in his saving and sovereign purposes.
Duane Christensen: In the phrase “all Israel” we find an envelope around the book as a whole (see 1:1) that tells the reader we have reached the end of a long journey, which is also the beginning of another even longer journey for God’s people, one that extends from Joshua to another “Joshua” in times to come, for “Jesus” is simply the Greek form of “Joshua.”