Aside from Abel and Christ, how much thought do Christians give to tragic deaths in the Bible? The death of one of the pivotal characters of the entire Hebrew Bible, and the most important figure in the Torah section, is both a heartbreaking moment and, as I submit here, a theological and inspirational scene.
First, let us think about the situation. For the books of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, the “plot” of the story essentially follows Moses. He is a fascinating character; from YHWH (God) calling him from the burning bush, through the moments of personal doubt in his abilities to lead the Israelites from Egypt, the Bible fleshes out the character of Moses to a degree that is almost unparalleled in the rest of the text.
Why is the death of Moses particularly heartbreaking? The answer lies in the fact that he is unable to see the conclusion of his mission, to bring Israel into the Promised Land. His whole mission throughout the Torah, through the escape from Egypt and acting emissary between the people and God, was to lead the Israelites, his own people, into the land in which their God guaranteed them. Yet, he is denied this dream, and must encounter death before he is able to step foot into the land of Israel. In order to understand this episode, I want to examine the text’s explanation as to why Moses cannot enter the Land.
In Numbers 20:1-13, the Israelites complain about their condition, so Moses and Aaron ask for God’s help, who then instructs them to strike a rock, which will then bring forth water. Verse 10 is crucial: “Moses and Aaron gathered the assembly together before the rock, and he said to them, ‘Listen, you rebels, shall we bring water for you out of this rock?’” (Num 20:11, NRSV). Moses then strikes the rock three times, and is accosted by God for his lack of faith and ability to follow instruction. This incident then leads to God’s decree that Moses cannot enter the Promised Land.
Honestly, from a theological and literary perspective, I do not think this is the true reason for Moses’ barring from the Promised Land. The reasoning in this passage is a little unclear. Is God upset because Moses implies that the water from the rock came from him and Aaron, and not God? Or is he challenging the Israelites as to whether he, Aaron, and God will bring water from the rock?
Of course, before continuing to the death of Moses, I should point out that there is no historicity in this episode. In fact, the entire scene also plays out in Exodus 17:1-7, sans the command that Moses would not reach Israel. However, let us consider the death of Moses from Deuteronomy.
Deuteronomy 34 witnesses the death of Moses. God shows him the entirety of the land that will become Israel’s possession. This culminating event that the Torah has led to, the moment that Moses has guided the Israelites towards, is on the brink of commencing, yet Moses will not be allowed to partake. He is allowed to view, but not to cross over into it. Moses passes away, still in good health. He is mourned by the people of Israel, the children of the people whom he brought from Egypt, and is finally buried somewhere in Moab, east of the Jordan River and near the land. Deuteronomy and the Torah ends with this final obituary: “[Moses] was unequaled for all the signs and wonders that the Lord sent him to perform in the land of Egypt, against Pharaoh and all his servants and his entire land, and for all the mighty deeds and all the terrifying displays of power that Moses performed in the sight of all Israel” (Deut 34:11-12, NRSV).
With all that in mind, I now come to the reason for composing this post. Despite how tragically sad this episode appears, I would like to share two interpretations that I find comforting in dealing with Moses’ lack of ability to enter the Promised Land. To be frank, I have heard these theories from multiple sources, thus I will not provide citations here. Additionally, I would like to expand on some of them in an attempt to bring more meaning into this episode.
First, despite the text’s reason for Moses not being able to enter the land (see above), a practical reason exists for him to be barred. Had Moses entered the land, a figure who brought a generation through the wilderness and performed multiple miracles, he would likely have become deified in the eyes of the people, and thus worshiped as a god once they were established in the land. By burying Moses outside of the land, in an unmarked and hidden grave, there is no chance for a shrine or temple to be established around his body in the land. Thus, the focus can remain on YHWH, and the religious progression of Israel (as presented in the Bible) continues. I like this notion, and it provides a practical reason for not allowing Moses into the Promised Land. However, I find more comfort in reason number two.
The second, and in my opinion, more powerful reason I have heard as to why Moses cannot enter the Promised Land is because his role is that of the liberator and guide for Israel. His purpose in the narrative is to bring the people to the land, and as they sit on the banks of the Jordan River looking westward, his mission is accomplished. Israel enters the land under Joshua’s leadership (a whole other topic with loaded issues), and the land is divided among the various Israelite tribes. By keeping Moses out of the land (again, buried in Moab), his grave is not in the land of Israel, thus not in one tribe’s territory. Moses therefore does not belong to a single tribe, but because he brought the people to this point, he belongs to all the people of Israel.
This is where I find the positive side of the entire narrative of Moses. He does not belong to one group, but rather to the entirety of Israel. The incident with the water from the rock in Exodus and Numbers is ancillary; the biblical writers had to explain why Moses was not in the Promised Land and why he could not enter into it. With his role fulfilled, he dies a hero and leader of the people, and although it is disheartening that he comes all this way through the narrative just to die mere yards from his goal, his importance and status to the Israelites transcends death, and thus becomes powerful and comforting.
I hope you found this post illuminating as to the fate of Moses. What are your thoughts? Should we just go with the explanation in the book of Numbers, or should we try to find deeper meaning in these events?