Moses’ death a mystery, but not a murder mystery

Sigmund Freud thought that the Israelites had murdered Moses. He based this on Hosea 12:13-14, which he saw as the oldest source.

13 The Lord brought Israel out of Egypt by a prophet,
and due to a prophet Israel was preserved alive.
14 But Ephraim bitterly provoked him to anger;
so he will hold him accountable for the blood he has shed,
his Lord will repay him for the contempt he has shown (NET Bible).

He thought verse 14 was still talking about Moses.

The word for “bloodguilt” in verse 14 is sometimes used for sins in general. Some translations just translate it as “crimes”. It is parallel with “contempt” in the next line. But it probably does refer to actual bloodshed. Hosea certainly did not think that Ephraim murdered Moses. He focused on more recent killings by the dynasty of Jehu (1:4) and the band of priests who had recently murdered someone on the road to Shechem (6:9).

Even rejecting Freud’s idea, the death of Moses remains mysterious. In Deuteronomy 34. God takes Moses up on Mt. Nebo and shows him the promised land across the Jordan. Although people assume Moses died on the mountain, the text says he was buried in the valley. But it doesn’t give us more information about his last movements. Deuteronomy 34:5-6:

5 So Moses, the servant of the Lord, died there in the land of Moab as the Lord had said. 6 He buried him in the land of Moab near Beth Peor, but no one knows his exact burial place to this very day (NET Bible).

The strangest thing about this is the “he” who buried Moses. We usually interpret it to mean that God buried him. But the Hebrew could have said that much more clearly. And it gives us an odd picture of God as a gravedigger. I notice that the NRSV has obscured the problem by just saying he “was buried”. But the Hebrew is not passive.

Some rabbis interpreted this to mean Moses buried himself. This is not necessarily wrong, although it gives us a picture of a ghost with a shovel. Ancient ways of thinking are not our ways.

Tradition put Moses in the category of Enoch and Elijah who had not died, but been taken up. However, unlike with Enoch and Elijah, the text says someone buried Moses.

The Bible nowhere mentions that there was a shrine or memorial temple for Moses near Nebo. But King Mesha of Moab in an inscription giving his version of the war the Bible recounts in 2 Kings 3 says that he captured and plundered a sanctuary at Nebo.

So apparently a sanctuary once existed there, but was long gone by the time Baruch or some other scribe with a post-Josianic-reform world-view compiled our edition of Deuteronomy. Sanctuaries other than the central one at Jerusalem now were banned. Joshua 22:10 ff. shows that there was a tradition of altars having once existed for eastern tribes. But, according to Joshua, that case almost caused a civil war.

Deuteronomy has access to some kind of plains-of-Moab tradition.  In fact, the whole book is set there.

The way the burial tradition has been so thoroughly scrubbed in the Deuteronomistic History corresponds with a lack of any mention in other sources, even those that seem to have a date before the centralization of worship in Jerusalem. What was this about?

I wonder if there was once an ancestor cult dedicated to Moses. A hint might be Hezekiah’s destruction of the bronze serpent people believed was a Moses artifact (2 Kings 18:4). The developed prophetic and priestly traditions of Judah saw certain ways of venerating Moses as unhealthy.

The sanctuary at Dan which housed one of the calf shrines Jeroboam set up had an ancient connection to the grandson of Moses (Judges 18:30). Bethel, where the other one went, had a connection to the grandson of Aaron (Judges 20:26-28). Jeroboam’s supposed claim that the bulls were gods who brought the people out of Egypt seems to connect Moses and Aaron to the bull shrines. The golden calf story of Exodus 32 connects them to Aaron.

In Mark Leuchter’s The Levites and the Boundaries of Israelite Identity he characterizes Moses as a saint-priest, rather than an ordinary ancestor. People may have venerated him as an elohim, a powerful ancestor spirit. It is not hard to see how this would have brought about a reaction from a purer form of Yahwism. This reaction might have included a deliberate forgetfulness about the mortuary temple of Moses.

About theoutwardquest

I have many interests, but will blog mostly about what I read in the fields of Bible and religion.
This entry was posted in Ancient Israel, Deuteronomy and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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