In Stephen L. Cook’s Reading Deuteronomy I have come to the final chapter and the death of Moses.
Moses dies alone on Mount Nebo. No one knows where exactly. “He buried him” (Deuteronomy 34:6) means that God buried him. No one else was there. Deuteronomy seems determined that Moses; great leader, servant and prophet that he was; must not outshine God as the redeemer of Israel.
Various temples or sanctuaries claimed to be the site of Jacob or Abraham’s burial. But Deuteronomy knows of no shrine for Moses. He must be absent from the new endeavor of settling the land. This is to make sure that Israel’s allegiance is to God and not a man. Also, it shifts the voice heard when Israel assembles to that of scripture rather than that of the messenger.
According to 34:10 Moses is incomparable. No prophet like him has since come to Israel. Although God continued to send prophets to Israel, none replaced or overmastered Moses. Israel must now get by with what Moses has given them.
Cook calls the death of Moses vicarious. I am sure he does not mean that Moses died in place of Israel or even as an atonement for their sin. The main emphasis is that Moses is an example. He is the “servant of the Lord” (v. 5). But all God’s people are servants. The sufferings, especially, of later prophets like Elijah and Jeremiah imitate the servanthood of Moses. But at the time of the exile, the whole people had died a kind of death like that of Moses. So Moses dies ahead of the people not instead of them.
Of course, many of us will think of the servant of the Lord, the suffering servant, of Isaiah 53 and other passages in Second Isaiah, which is also an exilic work.
Anyway the death of Moses here is very poignant. He goes up on the mountain and surveys the land that he can never enter. This implies that despite his advanced age, his eyesight was just fine. There is no hint that Moses was sick or infirm in any way. Death does not come to him as a friend. It is very sad that Israel must go on without him. Yet his death puts an emphatic end to the phase of the Exodus and journey to Canaan. Now Israel must rely upon God and cross the river.
I personally think that there was an Israelite worship center at Mount Nebo at one time. According to the Moabite king, Mesha, the site fell to Moab in the 9th century BCE. (2 Kings 3 has an Israelite account of this war and paints it as an Israelite victory, although one wonders about the “great wrath” that came against Israel in v. 27.)
And Kemosh said to me, “Go, take Nebo from Israel.” And I went in the night and fought against it from daybreak until midday, and I took it and I killed the whole population: seven thousand male subjects and aliens, and female subjects, aliens, and servant girls. For I had put it to the ban for Ashtar Kemosh. And from there I took Yahweh’s vessels, and I presented them before Kemosh’s face.
That he captured “Yahweh’s vessels” means there was a Yahwist sanctuary there. There also was a large Israelite settlement. Even if Mesha was exaggerating, there must have been a significant Israelite presence. But after the Moabite conquest the site fell into obscurity and scribes with a bias toward a central sanctuary suppressed knowledge of the old sanctuaries. Was it also supposed to mark the grave of Moses? It would be surprising if it did not have something to do with Moses.
Among the many theories about the treasure that the Copper Scroll of the Dead Sea Scrolls supposedly gives directions to find, is that the treasure is what some Israelites took from the Nebo sanctuary and hid from the Moabites.
Next week I will do one more post to wrap up this series on Cook’s commentary.