[You’re probably gonna want to read Deuteronomy 34 and think about it for a little while before reading this. Seriously, I’m warning you–this post ain’t good for nothin’ unless you meditate on the chapter a bit beforehand. And why on earth would you want to read my stuff over His stuff anyway?]
The life of Moses was far from typical. He grew up in the house of his people’s oppressor, chatted with living fire, experienced leprosy in controlled minute-long stints, cut a sea in half, made his followers drink gold dust, and summoned water in the desert by whacking a rock. Unfortunately, that last little episode—the one time he directly disobeyed a command of God—would precipitate his exclusion from the land of promise and ultimately cost him his life. It should come as no surprise that, given the exceptionality of his life, Moses’ death was also truly unique. Without telling the readers what they may most want to know—the precise mechanism of Moses’ death—the author of Deuteronomy 34 (who, unless writing as both a prognosticator and a self-promoter, was most likely not Moses) nevertheless points to several dimensions of Moses’ death that are indicative of universal truths about death and its God.
First, Moses’ death was sad, unfortunate, and undesirable—in other words, it was bad. There can be no mistaking the fact that, without impugning God’s total sovereignty and foreknowledge, Moses’ dying before entering Canaan was not part of God’s original stated plan for Moses or the Israelites. It was as if God had prepared Moses his entire life to do something he would never actually do. The deliverance from Egypt, the giving of the Law, and even the wandering in the desert all looked ahead in preparation for the main event, the big show, the whole point—and now the Lord’s hand-picked leader who had whipped the people into shape and led them to the front door was to be killed so as to prevent him from accomplishing the one overarching goal of the last fifty years of his life. One can see that the tone of this passage regarding Moses’ death is indeed one of failure, of unfulfilled goals and frustrated pursuits. The Israelites acknowledged the tragedy of Moses’ death to such an extent as to drop all their preparations and mourn for a month. That this period is called “the time of weeping and mourning” in verse eight suggests that such practice had been standardized among the Israelites so as to greet death with the most obvious and natural response: intense and prolonged sadness. With no conception of “afterlife” clearly established at this time, the people were probably not warmly imagining Moses as being “in a better place”; instead, they were likely thinking, “Moses is dead and gone, and we don’t even know where God put him.”
Without diminishing the clear and immense badness of Moses’ death, it would yet be folly to miss in Deuteronomy 34 the glimmers of grace amid the tragedy and punishment. When Moses climbed Mount Nebo for God to show him the land, it is probably safe to assume that Moses was granted a miraculously good look; whether he was given a vision, bequeathed superhuman eyesight, or simply led to the best lookout point ever, the fact is that God was never under any obligation to show him the land. He did so as an act of grace. Though not allowing Moses’ rebellion to go unpunished nor reneging on his sentence, God gave Moses a good look at the land—not to “rub it in,” as we would be tempted to do, but to bless him with the comforting knowledge that the land was indeed good and that his work was not in vain. The prize was real, and the people were really going to get it, despite his mistake. Furthermore, his legacy would endure—through the Law he handed down, through the man he appointed and blessed, and through whoever made sure that the last paragraph of the Torah, coming right off the heels of this sad tale of Moses’ divine execution, would remind readers that this Moses was the miracle man “whom the LORD knew face to face” (34:10). Compared to the incident surrounding the Israelites’ first arrival to the promised land, Moses might even have found relief in the fact that the consequences of his sin did not affect the people’s ability to enter the land (unlike Joshua and Caleb’s ten fearful spy buddies). Thus, while death must come at the appointed time, and death exists as a penalty for sin, God may still graciously make provisions for one to reaffirm the sovereignty and goodness of God in his heart and mind. Though Moses had to die, he was given the gift of dying well.
Above all, this passage is abundantly clear on the fact that God is the bringer of Moses’ death. In addition to being the Standard, the Prosecutor, the Judge, and the Jury, in Deuteronomy 34 God is the Executioner. Verse seven provides the seemingly irrelevant detail that Moses’ “eyes were not weak nor his strength gone.” Besides further building our heroic image of Moses or even ascribing this phenomenon to the sustaining power of God, examination of the passage seems to point at a different reason for the inclusion of this fact. Verse seven could easily be put this way: “Yes, Moses was old when he died, but believe me, he did not die ‘naturally!’” God’s judgment on Moses was not a mere prediction of when he would die; the implication here is that he would have been physically able and ready to lead the people into Canaan. No, God decided to kill Moses, to cut short his days. God killed the Sodomites, God killed Ananias and Sapphira, and God killed Moses.
It might seem a stretch to try to conclude on any rosy note, and Romans 6:23 would probably feel a little cliché, though undeniably applicable. God brought death to Moses, but not at the cost of his promise to Israel–the promise that led to the Promised One who would defeat death once for all.