Saturday Apr 29, 2023

Deuteronomy 34:1-12 - The Death of Moses


     For thirty three chapters, Moses has been speaking to his people, Israel, and informing them about their special God who is unique (Deut 4:35, 39; Isa 45:5-6), His love for them (Deut 7:7-9; 10:15-19), their liberation from slavery (Deut 5:6; 15:15), God’s calling them into a special relationship with Him (Lev 11:45), and His directives that would set them above the nations of the world and bring His blessing if they obey (Deut 11:26-28; 30:15-20). Those who love Him will follow His directives (Deut 6:4-9). In this chapter, the voice of Moses falls silent, as God calls His servant home. According to Daniel Block:

  • "By this point in the drama, Moses has done all he could do to set his house in order. He has commissioned a successor (Deut 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 (Deut 31:9-13, 24-29), taught the people a national anthem (Deut 31:14-22, 30; 32:47), and pronounced his benediction on the tribes (Deut 33:1-29). All that remains is the report of his death and the people’s response to his passing."[1]


     In this closing section, we observe Moses ascending Mount Nebo, where he will see the land of Canaan from a distance. We read, “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” (Deut 34:1-3).

     Having walked the earth for 120 years, Moses was about to take his final journey, a walk from which he would not return, for he would soon die. And, as Moses ascended the mountain, he would have been able to look over his shoulder and see the Israelites’ camp below. Moses’ destination was “the top of Pisgah, which is opposite Jericho” (Deut 34:1b). And once on top of the mountain, “the LORD showed him all the land” of Canaan (Deut 34:1c). The words showed him translates the Hebrew verb רָאָה raah, which, in the hiphil form, means “to let someone see something, to show someone.”[2] Here we observe God’s permissive will, as He allowed Moses to see the land of Canaan, which He had promised to His people, Israel. Moses visually surveyed the land in a counter clockwise manner from north to south.

     Having observed all the land, “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’” (Deut 34:4). The land Moses saw was the very land God promised to Abraham (Gen 13:15; 17:8), Isaac (Gen 26:3), Jacob (Gen 28:13), and to their descendants as an everlasting possession (Gen 15:18; 24:7; Deut 1:8). Here we observe God’s active will, in which He, by His sovereign choice and omnipotent power, gives to His people. Though Israel would get to enter the land, God reminded Moses that he was not going to let him enter it, saying, “you shall not go over there” (Deut 34:4b; cf., Deut 3:27; 32:52). Though Moses would not set foot on the land, he would leave the world stage knowing he’d been employed by the Lord to get His people there.

Moses’ Epitaph

     What follows in the closing verses of the book of Deuteronomy was written by someone other than Moses, perhaps Joshua, to inform us about the details of Moses’ death. We are told, “So Moses the servant of the LORD died there in the land of Moab, according to the word of the LORD” (Deut 34:5). Moses was faithful to the end of his life. Even though Moses was under divine discipline and would not enter the land, he is still described as the “servant of the LORD” ( עֶֽבֶד־יְהוָ֛ה- ebed Yahweh), an honorable title held by others who submitted themselves to God and walked with Him (Josh 24:29; 2 Sam 3:18; Job 1:8; Isa 20:3). This title was formalized in the name Obadiah, which means servant of Yahweh. God had been with Moses throughout his ministry, and others saw the Lord was with him. Though Moses would die alone, away from others, he was not alone, for God was with Him to the end, to accompany His servant as he left this earth and entered heaven.

     After Moses died, the Lord took his limp, lifeless body, “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” (Deut 34:6). That God personally attended to the burial of Moses speaks of an intimacy and tenderness the Lord had for His prophet. God took Moses’ body from the mountain top and brought it down into “the valley in the land of Moab.” There are some things God does not want us to know (Deut 29:29), that He keeps hidden from us for His own reasons, and the burial place of Moses is one of them. This is one of the mysteries of the Bible. But why hide Moses’ body? The text does not say. It’s possible that God knew the idolatrous hearts of the Israelites and that they would venerate Moses’ grave as a holy place in itself. According to Charles Swindoll, “Moses is the only person in the Bible whom God personally buried. Did you know that? And then the Lord hid the tomb. Why did He do that? Because that grave would have become a second Mecca. They would still be beating a path up Nebo to this day, building shrines, selling popcorn and peanuts, offering all sorts of rides, maybe running a tram up there, with big banners announcing, ‘Moses’ burial place!’”[3]

     To add to the mystery around Moses’ death, Jude wrote about “Michael the archangel” who “disputed with the devil and argued about the body of Moses” (Jude 1:9a). Apparently Michael, the archangel, was somehow involved in Moses’ burial, and had a dispute with Satan over the body. Why Satan would want the body of Moses is not known, as Jude does not elaborate on the details. It’s possible Satan wanted to use Moses’ body for idolatrous purposes. Whatever the reason, God would not permit Satan to have his way. Here we observe God’s overruling will.

     We know that Moses’ spirit, at his death, went into the presence of the Lord, and later appeared with Elijah at the Mount of Transfiguration (Matt 17:1-3). Matthew wrote about the event, saying, “Jesus took with Him Peter and James and John his brother, and led them up on a high mountain by themselves” (Matt 17:1). And while they were on the mountain, Jesus “was transfigured before them; and His face shone like the sun, and His garments became as white as light” (Matt 17:2). And during the time of Jesus’ glorification, Matthew tells us, “And behold, Moses and Elijah appeared to them, talking with Him” (Matt 17:3). Though Moses’ body was still in a grave, his spirit was alive and well, and here, along with the spirit of Elijah, was interacting with Jesus. Warren Wiersbe informs us, “Moses did arrive in the Holy Land centuries later when he and Elijah joined Jesus in glory on the Mount of Transfiguration (Matt 17:1–3; Luke 9:28–31).”[4]

     The writer informs us that Moses did not die because of old age or infirmity, as he states, “Although Moses was one hundred and twenty years old when he died, his eye was not dim, nor his vigor abated” (Deut 34:7). Moses died because God put him to death. Within God’s divine plan, it was simply Moses’ time to die, so the Lord ended his life and brought his servant home. This occurred, in part, because it was God’s time to bring Israel into the land of Canaan, which the Lord had told Moses he would not see because of his disobedience in the wilderness (Num 20:1-12).

     Though Moses had died, God and His Word remained, and the people had all they needed for a life of success if they would follow Yahweh. Sadly, the book of Judges shows they did not stay true to the Lord, and even Moses’ grandson, “Jonathan, the son of Gershom, the son of Moses” (Judg 18:30; cf., Ex 2:21-22), would later turn away from the Lord and lead the people into idolatry (Judg 18:30-31). In this way, Jonathan was acting more like Aaron, his great uncle, than his grandfather, Moses, for Aaron had led the people into idolatry and the worship of the golden calf (Ex 32:1-6).

     And after Moses’ death and burial, we’re told, “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” (Deut 34:8). The people of Israel—at least the second generation since the exodus—loved Moses and mourned his passing. They also mourned Aaron for thirty days as well (Num 20:29), which was longer than the customary seven days (cf., Gen 50:10).

     Switching focus to Joshua, the writer states, “Now Joshua the son of Nun was filled with the spirit of wisdom, for Moses had laid his hands on him; and the sons of Israel listened to him and did as the LORD had commanded Moses” (Deut 34:9). To have “the spirit of wisdom” meant Joshua had been divinely enabled to take up the leadership role and move forward, as God intended. Fortunately, the Israelites listened to Joshua and followed his directives. In this way, they “did as the LORD had commanded Moses” (Deut 34:9b).

     In closing out this book, we’re told, “Since that time no prophet has risen in Israel like Moses, whom the LORD knew face to face, 11 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, 12 and for all the mighty power and for all the great terror which Moses performed in the sight of all Israel” (Deut 34:10-12). As a prophet, Moses was in a class by himself because: 1) the Lord knew Moses face to face, 2) Moses had performed miraculous signs and wonders in Egypt, 3) the mighty power God worked through Moses in the sight of all Israel. According to Peter Craigie, “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.”[5]Warren Wiersbe adds, “Moses was faithful to walk with God, and he spoke to God as a man speaks to his friend (Ex 33:11; Num 12:7–8). The secret of his life wasn’t his own abilities—he claimed he had none—or even his education in Egypt (Acts 7:22), but his humble walk with the Lord. He spent time with God, he listened to God’s Word, and he followed God’s orders.”[6] And Daniel Block notes:

  • "The account of the death and burial of Moses on the mountain forces the reader to ask, “Now what?” The answer lies in the recognition that in the end, Israel’s fate is not in the hands of Moses. He is not the one who actually brought them out of Egypt and sustained them through the desert wanderings, and he will not complete the mission by delivering the Promised Land into their hands. The rest of the Scriptures are commentary not only on how Israel responded, but also on the fidelity of Yahweh, who will complete the present mission without Moses and who will patiently work with his people. Moses has merely been his mouthpiece, the interpreter of his great and gracious revelatory acts, whose aim was always to point his people to Yahweh their Redeemer."[7]


     In this closing section, we observe a brief account of Moses’ death and burial. Unlike other rulers throughout history, who have erected great memorials to themselves that others might remember them, Moses’ death is simple and without a monument. Moses was not concerned that people remember him, but that they remember the Lord, learn His Word, and follow His directives. Moses is remembered as God’s servant who was faithful to carry out his mission (Heb 3:5).

Present Application

     From Genesis to Revelation, God governs the lives of people and nations. People exist because God gives them life. David wrote, “Know that the LORD Himself is God; it is He who has made us, and not we ourselves” (Ps. 100:3). And God determines the duration of each person’s life, having final control over the day and cause of their death. The Lord states, “It is I who put to death and give life. I have wounded and it is I who heal, and there is no one who can deliver from My hand” (Deut 32:39). And Job said, “Like a flower he comes forth and withers. He also flees like a shadow and does not remain” (Job 14:2). And Hannah, in her stately prayer says, “The LORD kills and makes alive; He brings down to Sheol and raises up” (1 Sam 2:6).  People live and die as God decides, “for in Him we live and move and exist” (Acts 17:28).

     Furthermore, God controls the exact days of our life. David wrote, “in Your book were all written the days that were ordained for me, when as yet there was not one of them” (Ps. 139:16). The writer of Hebrews states, “it is appointed for men to die once and after this comes judgment” (Heb 9:27). The word appointed translates the Greek verb ἀπόκειμαι apokeimai, which means “it is certain, is destined.”[8] Apart from Enoch (Gen 5:24), Elijah (2 Ki 2:11), and the rapture generation (1 Cor 15:51-52; 1 Th 4:13-18), all humanity will face death. God brings His children to heaven by numerous means, and sometimes uses sickness, as He’d done with Elisha, who “became sick with the sickness of which he was to die” (2 Ki 13:14a). And we know that “Precious in the sight of the LORD is the death of His godly ones” (Psa 116:15). For believers who die, we are instantly transported into the presence of the Lord, for “to be absent from the body” means we are instantly “at home with the Lord” (2 Cor 5:8; cf., Phil 1:21-23). Our last breath here is followed by our first breath in heaven. And though the departing of a loved one leaves us with the sorrow of loss, we realize this is temporary, as we will see them again. David, who lost his son, said “I will go to him, but he will not return to me” (2 Sa 12:23). This is our hope as well, for we, as Christians, know our loved ones are in heaven, and that at a future time we will be reunited with them forever (1 Th 4:13-17). At the time of the rapture of the church, “the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive and remain will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we shall always be with the Lord” (1 Th 4:16-17). For this reason, Paul said, “Therefore comfort one another with these words” (1 Th 4:18).

     There is wisdom in thinking about death and the afterlife. David wrote, “For He Himself knows our frame; He is mindful that we are but dust. As for man, his days are like grass; as a flower of the field, so he flourishes. When the wind has passed over it, it is no more, and its place acknowledges it no longer” (Psa 103:14-16). And in another place he said, “LORD, make me to know my end and what is the extent of my days; let me know how transient I am” (Psa 39:4). And Moses said to the Lord, “Teach us to number our days, that we may present to You a heart of wisdom” (Psa 90:12). Wisdom is found in the one who contemplates the Lord, the brevity of life, and the eternal resting place of heaven. Solomon wrote, “It is better to go to a house of mourning than to go to a house of feasting, because that is the end of every man, and the living takes it to heart” (Eccl 7:2). But in all this, we must not forget to live, nor to realize that what we do in time touches things eternal, for one life will soon be past, and only what’s done for Christ will last. So live, and live well, and above all, live for the Lord. There’s no better life than the one lived in daily fellowship with God, learning and living His Word, and this we will do until the end of our days. Charles Swindoll notes:

  • "When you’re planning on retirement, don’t plan on checking out with people or with God’s Word. If you do, you’ll be moving away from that which is eternal, and that’s the wrong direction, my friend. So stay in touch. Give until you don’t have anything else to give, and then tap into God’s reservoirs and give some more. This is what lengthens the meaning and purpose—and sometimes the years—of life."[9]



[1] Daniel I. Block, The NIV Application Commentary: Deuteronomy, ed. Terry Muck (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2012), 806.

[2] Ludwig Koehler et al., The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1994–2000), 1161.

[3] Charles R. Swindoll, Moses: A Man of Selfless Dedication (Nashville, Tenn., Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2009), 346.

[4] Warren W. Wiersbe, Be Equipped, “Be” Commentary Series (Colorado Springs, CO: Chariot Victor Pub., 1999), 197.

[5] Peter C. Craigie, The Book of Deuteronomy, The New International Commentary on the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1976), 406.

[6] Warren W. Wiersbe, Be Equipped, “Be” Commentary Series, 198.

[7] Daniel I. Block, The NIV Application Commentary: Deuteronomy, 815.

[8] William Arndt et al., A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 113.

[9] Charles R. Swindoll, Moses: A Man of Selfless Dedication, 348.

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