Luca Signorelli, Testament and Death of Moses (ca. 1482), oil on panel, 21.6 x 48 cm, Vatican City, Sistine Chapel, Rome
Most of us don’t like thinking about death, especially our own. If we do, we imagine ourselves surrounded by family and friends. Dying alone is a depressing thought. Moses died alone. Not even Joshua was there, only God. At the end of our lives, we want to be able to review our accomplishments with a feeling of satisfaction. Moses, instead of looking back on his achievements, surveyed from Mt. Pisgah’s heights the Promised Land he would never set foot in. We imagine people visiting our graves, laying flowers, saying kind things about us when we’re gone. The final resting place of the great Hebrew lawgiver is known only to God.
Tradition ascribes the authorship of the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Bible) to Moses. In German these books are called “First Moses,” “Second Moses,” and so on. But certain passages could not have been written by the great lawgiver. For example, our passage for Sunday, Deuteronomy 34:1-12, records Moses’ death and could therefore not have been written by him. While many of the laws probably date back to Moses much of the narrative was written later, perhaps as late as the sixth century BCE. Still, questions of date and authorship are not nearly as important as the meaning of the text.
It isn’t quite clear why Moses wasn’t allowed to enter Canaan. We’re told that he “broke faith” with God at Mirebah and did not revere God in the eyes of the people (Numbers 20:10-13, Deuteronomy 32:51). That sounds more serious than the mere fact that Moses got angry and hit a rock. Elizabeth Achtemeier says that although this reason is obscure there’s another biblical explanation: “Moses takes the sins of the people upon himself and dies outside of the promised land in order that Israel may enter into it (Deuteronomy 1:37; 3:26; 4:21).” In so doing, he becomes a type of Christ.
Although Moses was kept out of the Promised Land, he was allowed to see it. There’s an emphasis on “eyes” and “seeing” in this passage. Despite his advanced years, Moses still has 20/20 eyesight (Deuteronomy 24:7). There’s something supernatural about his vision. He was able to survey “the whole land,” a physical impossibility even from his lofty vantage point. In a sense he can also see the future, as God tells Moses that the Israelites will inherit the land. In addition to seeing, knowing is another important theme. No one knows where Moses is buried, but God knew Moses “face to face” (v. 10).
In the New Testament book of Hebrews, Canaan becomes a metaphor for heaven, the ultimate Promised Land, a place of Sabbath rest (4:1-11). Jesus, whose Hebrew name was Joshua, leads believers into their promised rest. Truly, One greater than Moses is here.