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The Death of Moses (Deuteronomy 32-34)

Updated: Dec 18, 2020

[Commentary on Deuteronomy 32-34] Death is not the end; it is a door that God carries us through. Here, at the end of Deuteronomy, we read Moses’ fate. It seems tragic, and yet the evidence of God’s mercy is very thick. While Moses suffered the necessary discipline for his sin, God received him into heaven. There is much we can learn about facing death here—our own, a loved one, or a great figure.

"I have let you see it with your own eyes, but you will not cross into it.” Deuteronomy 34:4

[Editor's note: this Bible study supplement started as a printed newsletter for teachers, which is why it is so text-heavy. I am slowly adding older lessons to our website.]

The Greatest Humans in History

If you want to spark an opening conversation, throw this topic out there. I won’t define “greatest” because it’s intentionally vague; it can mean anything your class members want it to mean. When I do a survey of internet sites, the results depend on the domain. Some sites emphasize artists and inventors (Michelangelo, da Vinci, Mozart, Edison, Tesla). Some emphasize scientific researchers (Curie, Galileo, Newton, Einstein). Some emphasize political and military leaders (Genghis Khan, Alexander the Great, Churchill, Napoleon, Julius Caesar). Some emphasize social and religious leaders (Confucius, Mandela, Luther, Marx, Ghandi).

There’s no right or wrong answer to this—it’s just a fun way to stir the pot. The point is that Moses needs to be on that list. His abilities as a leader and his lasting impact on hu-man history are significant. (Yes, that’s because God put him in that position, but we could say the same thing about anyone else on the list.)

Was It Worth It? -or- Could I Have Done More?

When people approach the end of their lives, they begin to ask really hard, gut-wrenching (and unanswerable) questions. If your class would appreciate this topic, say something like “As Moses faced the end of his life, I wonder what questions he asked himself. Questions like ‘Will this all be worth it?’. What hard questions do you think went through his mind, and with the benefit of hindsight what do you think the answers are?” I would go one of two directions from there. If your class likes to make things personal, ask them about friends and loved ones who have shared nostalgic regrets and concerns at the end of their lives. I’ve had too many conversations with people in that setting (either their own life or that of a loved one), and it usually comes around to regrets, and they come down very hard on themselves and their mistakes. Sometimes, the best we can do isn’t as good as we wish. God helped Moses cope with his regrets; He will help us, too.

If that’s too much of a downer, take some figures from American history. My theory is that if we could see the results or impacts of our choices and sacrifices, that things turned out as we might have hoped, it might be easier to reflect on our lives. Throw out a name like Washington or Lincoln or FDR. If you have a history buff in class, they would know that those men lived with a lot of regrets; the very difficult choices they made weighed very heavily on them (“Did I do the right thing?” is a question you hopefully heard above). Do you think they would have received some comfort knowing how things turned out? It’s probably not that easy. We can see the good and the bad (a great line from Captain America reflecting on WWII: “They told me that we won; they didn’t tell me what we lost.”) Here’s where I would go with this: after they muse about an American leader, ask them to think about Moses. Knowing the great highs and lows of the Jewish people, how do you think he would consider his legacy? How hard do you think he would be on himself?

This Week's Big Idea: The Difference between Discipline and Punishment

If you’re like me, your heart is a little broken for Moses. Here he is, an old man. Yes, he made a mistake, but I guarantee that he was sorry! That’s going to be very high on his list of regrets you might have talked about as an icebreaker. Couldn’t God forgive him? Show some mercy?

This actually opens up a very important discussion about the nature of God and His relationship with us. If anyone in your class feels that way described above, they might have some doubts about how good God really is. And that would mean you need to talk about this subject sometime during your lesson. It starts with a very simple (but hard) question: what is the difference between punishment and discipline? This is a hot-button topic on parenting websites. The way they put it is “punishment is about a penalty for breaking the rules; discipline is about helping a child make a better decision next time”. That sounds about right. [As parents, I believe we should focus on discipline rather than punishment. Punishment doesn’t always help a child learn better behavior. Proper discipline, however, is still authoritative and revolves around consequences. The difference is that discipline is proactive and involves a clear plan/set of rules; punishment is reactive and often harsher than the “lesson” requires. But if the topic of parenting will get your class way off-track, don’t bring it up! Only use illustrations that will help you!] Discipline is about maintaining previously-established consequences for breaking clear rules for the purpose of helping the person take those rules seriously. Punishment seems rudderless and harsh and often results in anger and desires for revenge.

So that leads to the next important question: why does God discipline people? It’s the same reason you discipline your children—you know that following the rules is better for them, and they need to learn the importance of following those rules. Putting your child in timeout for running with scissors is far better than the tragic alternative! The follow-up question is: doesn’t God punish a lot of people? This is really important for us to understand: God does not punish us in the way we see humans punish one another (yes, I walk a fine line with Ex 20:5). Everything God does has a redemptive purpose. He can do that because He’s God and can see all of the implications of every human action. The only true “punishment” God gives (using the definition from earlier) is damnation to hell at death. That’s the only consequence that can’t be learned from or taken back. Hell is forever (as David preached last Sunday).

The clever retort would be this: Moses’ death was final! How is that discipline? That’s where we have to appreciate God’s bigger picture. What happened to Moses when he died? He went to heaven. We know that because he was with Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration. Death was not a punishment for Moses; it just took Moses to be with God. It was discipline because of the impact it had on the rest of the Jews. When the Jews saw that even Moses would not be spared the consequences of breaking God’s law, they understood that God took the law seriously for everyone. All people, great and small, would be held accountable. That was a critical lesson for everyone; you can even call it direct discipline because it made their next steps more difficult.

Does that make sense? Hopefully that will quell any doubts or concerns that God was being too harsh with the old man Moses. Moses entered into his rest in the ultimate sense, but he still had to face earthly consequences for breaking the law. The people needed to see that so they would appreciate the importance of obeying God in all things.

The Larger Context of Deuteronomy

The end of Deuteronomy is a flurry of importance, and we get cover it all in one lesson. If wanted to try to summarize it, it would be that Moses is transferring all of his authority to Joshua while reminding the people that God is the True Authority. Among his final words: instituting the Feast of Booths during which the entire law would be read out loud to the people every seven years; Moses’ song of warning to the people against breaking the law; and finally Moses’ blessing he gave to the Israelites. Along the way, God told Moses to climb Mount Nebo where he would see the Promised Land and then die. The end of Deuteronomy records that Moses did die on the mountain, and God placed his body in an unmarked grave. Despite his shortcomings, Moses was still eulogized as the greatest of the prophets—the only one who saw God face-to-face.

As we get ready to leave the books of the law in the Old Testament, make sure your class has the “big picture” in their mind. Over the quarter, we talked about why God gave the law, how the law pointed to Jesus, and how even though Christians do not have to follow the law today we can still look at the law as useful and good. Elements of the Jewish law were fundamental in creating American society. We still hold fast to the Ten Commandments. The difference is that we now know how it points to something much more basic: love God, and love your neighbor. We can do those things with the help of the Spirit, but if we try to do them on our own, we will find ourselves needing a bunch of regulations and restrictions to keep us from making grave errors. No one can live the perfect, law-abiding life. No one except for Jesus. And now, in Jesus, we see the society God would have created in Israel.


Part 1: Our Sin Realized (Deuteronomy 32:48-52)

On that same day the Lord spoke to Moses, “Go up Mount Nebo in the Abarim range in the land of Moab, across from Jericho, and view the land of Canaan I am giving the Israelites as a possession. Then you will die on the mountain that you go up, and you will be gathered to your people, just as your brother Aaron died on Mount Hor and was gathered to his people. For both of you broke faith with me among the Israelites at the Waters of Meribath-kadesh in the Wilderness of Zin by failing to treat me as holy in their presence. Although from a distance you will view the land that I am giving the Israelites, you will not go there.”

To get a sense of where Moses’ head may be, do read the first part of chapter 32 (Moses’ song). I really can’t imagine everything going through his head. Scholars have suggested Psalm 90 as based on Moses’ last words (which would mean that someone accompanied him up the mountain). There’s no way to prove that, but Psalm 90 would be a great thing to read as a class—it’s about the brevity of life and the need to get the right things right. If you go down that road, ask your class if they’ve ever heard someone say “I wish I could go back and tell my younger self [x]”? Well, we can’t. But we have words like Psalm 90 written by someone “coming back” to tell us! Based on what Moses wrote, what are things your class thinks they should start reprioritizing right now?

I’m currently reading a book about life lessons learned by pastors after decades in the ministry. There are a number of things I’ve realized I need to be thinking about. Am I spending enough time with my family? Am I spending enough time on my own relationship with God? Am I preparing for the future like I should? Am I taking proper care of myself? By the time of our passage, it’s too late for Moses to be worried about anything like that. But if we believe we are likely to be alive tomorrow, it’s not too late for us to think about these things!

Anyway, to the passage. After Moses sings his amazing song to the people, God tells him to go up the mountain where he will die. The Abarim range is a plateau east of the Dead Sea, and Mount Nebo is its significant mountain. It might be that “Pisgah” (see 34:1) is the name of the highest peak on this mountain. From the Israelite’s location, Moses probably had to climb about 2,000 feet to get to the top—a challenge for someone 120 years old! There, he would see the Promised Land (and God reminds him that He will give it to the people as their possession) and then die. I personally love the euphemism “gathered to your people”. It makes death seem less lonely and frightening. A good question can be asked what the Jews understood by it, considering they had a very rudimentary idea of life after death. It could be that they were thinking of it as a “returning to the dirt”, which would be much less romantic! But because God uses the phrase, I believe it means something much more akin to what we think today. It was a subtle hint of what waits for God’s people on the other side of death. I think it was designed to put the people at ease. Today, we know that because Jesus has died and returned from death, we can listen to what He says about it. Most importantly, Jesus says that He will be waiting for us there, and that’s all we really need to know. I think that’s part of God’s purpose in bringing up Aaron, who died about a year earlier (Num 20).

But the other reason is to remind Moses of the cause of his predicament. Moses asked God to forgive him and let him into the promised land, but God refused. Here at the end, God wanted Moses to clearly understand why. Moses sinned in a big way. He disobeyed a direct order from God, and he tried to take credit for a miracle that would ultimately be used to point people to Jesus. That’s bad. But as I say elsewhere in this handout, we shouldn’t see this as punishment. This is discipline—discipline for the rest of the people as much as for Moses. Unlike flawed human judges, God doesn’t say things like “you’re just an old man now, all right, I’ll let you off this time”. God is true to His own justice. But even in this discipline, God shows His love and mercy to Moses. After all, at death Moses goes to be in the unfiltered presence of God! And the respect God shows for the body and legacy of Moses is truly touching.


Aside: Mount Nebo

Mount Nebo is in a fascinating location. It’s about 17 miles from Jericho and 12 miles from the mouth of the Jordan River. It rises above the “plains of Moab” to about 4,000 feet above the Dead Sea (which, the lowest point on earth, is 1,400 feet below sea level). As a result, it has a spectacular view of the entire surrounding area. According to the internet, from Mount Nebo, you can see as far west as Jerusalem and Bethlehem, as far south as Zoar, and as far north as the Jezreel Valley and Mount Hermon.

Israel captured the territory on their march toward the Promised Land, only to be retaken by Moab during the time of the Judges, recaptured by David, and then lost permanently to Israel in 850 BC.

Today, there is a pilgrim shrine marking the location where Moses purportedly died.

Aside: The Mystery of Moses’ Death

If you look through teaching guides for this passage, the good ones all say not to get into a discussion about Moses’ death and burial. Let me explain why, that way if someone brings it up, you can politely shut it down.

Jude 1:9 says, “Yet when Michael the archangel was disputing with the devil in an argument about Moses’s body, he did not dare utter a slanderous condemnation against him but said, “The Lord rebuke you!”” That just begs for more investigation, doesn’t it? It has everything: archangels, Satan, supernatural disputes! Tell me more!

But the Bible doesn’t say anything else. In fact, all we know for certain is that Moses died and God buried him in an unmarked location. That’s it.

The most common speculation (and most likely explanation) is that Satan knew the idolatrous tendencies of the Israelites, and he wanted to put Moses’ body in a location where the people would be tempted to build a shrine and eventually start worshiping him. God knew this would be the case and had already determined to bury Moses some-where no one would find him precisely so that wouldn’t happen (people do tend to turn graves into shrines). Michael was then sent to intercept Satan before he could accomplish his wicked purpose. (This is further proof of God’s love for Moses, btw.)

Here’s the problem: the Bible doesn’t corroborate that. As far as we know, Jude was citing a folk tradition to make a point (like using The Chronicles of Narnia as a sermon illustration) and nothing more. Consequently, there is absolutely nothing to be gained by speculating on what happened to Moses’ body. Moses died, and God personally buried him. And that’s all we need to know. Nothing else is actually important.


Part 2: God’s Presence Assured (Deuteronomy 34:4)

The Lord then said to him, “This is the land I promised Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, ‘I will give it to your descendants.’ I have let you see it with your own eyes, but you will not cross into it.”

Chapter 33 is Moses’ blessing on the tribes of Israel. This is intended to echo the end of Genesis, in which Jacob blesses his twelve sons. The difference is now the people have become a nation, and Moses blesses entire tribes. Because I find this interesting, let me point out a few things. Most importantly, note that Simeon is excluded—he is fully persona non grata now. Reuben is still listed first, but the shrinking numbers is clearly a problem. Judah has been elevated to second, but they face major challenges before the coming of Jesus. Levi has endured a change in direction—his former aggression has now been channeled to-ward God. Joseph has been truly blessed (we can see this in the size of Manasseh). Everything else is relatively standard for blessings. If the people stick with God, He will defend them, protect them, bless them, and help them. There is nothing else they could need.

From that perspective, we can look at God’s final dealings with Moses as compassionate and gracious. God would not let Moses out of his discipline, but He would make sure Moses knew he was still loved. “Promise” is an important covenant word, as is the mention of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. God had not forgotten His promise to His people, nor would He forget the role Moses played in bringing it about. In other words, God here focused on Moses’ success rather than his failure. The people would indeed possess the land; Moses did not break the chain.


Part 3: God’s Mercy Discovered (Deuteronomy 34:5-7)

So Moses the servant of the Lord died there in the land of Moab, according to the Lord’s word. He buried him in the valley in the land of Moab facing Beth-peor, and no one to this day knows where his grave is. Moses was one hundred twenty years old when he died; his eyes were not weak, and his vitality had not left him.

I think it’s very important that Moses died in Moab, not in Israel. He joins a list of countless heroes who died far from home. There’s something incredibly bittersweet about it—bitter in that they died in a strange land, but sweet in that God promised to bring them home even from there. Of course, it makes me think of our war heroes who died on Guadalcanal, in France, in Afghanistan, and in other places far from home. They did not get to experience the fulness of joy they desired, and my heart still breaks for them (and their families). But for everyone who has trusted in Jesus Christ as Savior, even death does not prevent them from the ultimate homecoming, to an eternal home that will never fade. Moses died a stranger in a strange land, but he was no stranger to God, and God was with him.

The personal touches in this verse are astounding. God considered Moses His servant. The coolest aspect is the Hebrew for “the Lord’s word”—it literally means “the Lord’s mouth” (not the standard term used for speaking). I take from this that God was present with Moses. Moses was completely healthy and vital (which is why the author tells us this), and then God spoke Moses’ death into being. Moses simply ceased to live, at the word of God. This is the most intimate statement I can imagine related to death. Really—it blows me away thinking about it. No, there was no punishment in this death. And then it gets better! God personally buried Moses in a secret location in Moab (but see the previous Focus). “Beth-peor” (“house of Peor”) was a location where the Israelites worshiped the false god of Baal (Num 25). Even in death, Moses would consecrate ground once claimed for a false god to be now for the true God (even if God was the only One who knew exactly where).

The comment about Moses’ health is important to establish that his death was a true consequence. This was not an old man on the verse of death; this was a man still somewhat in his prime, so to speak. He could climb the mountain. He could see vast distances. But he was completed his mission and would now suffer the consequence of his sin.

There are just a few verses left in the chapter, and I think you should read them as a class. The people knew what was going to happen to Moses as they watched him walk away. They mourned. Joshua and Caleb knew that the previous generation’s rebellion has driven Moses to exasperated sin, and so they must have felt a little conflicted. But there was no time for regret—the entire nation of Israel still needed leadership, and a military campaign was about to start. Joshua, God’s own appointed successor to Moses, was ready because God was with him. But the final words are about Moses. There has not been a man like Moses, before or since, who knew God face to face. Moses and Elijah appeared with Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration. What greater honor can God bestow on a human than that? The people were right to revere him, but the best way they could honor him would be to do what he said: follow God alone and obey His commands.

There are so many ways you could conclude this lesson; go with the one that makes the most sense for your class. (1) Talk about mourning the loss of an important family or community member. We’ve all been there. It’s hard! What do you think is the best way to honor their memory? (2) Talk about your own thoughts on death, your legacy, and whatever “unfinished business” you think you have. What changes do you need to make to your life so that you finish your life well? (3) Talk about dealing with the consequences of your own sin. Some people get very bitter with God when He follows through with discipline. Does learning Moses’ story help them appreciate better what God might be leading them through? Maybe can they find more evidence of God’s mercy in their discipline? (4) Just talk about death in general. People are afraid of death, as if it is a final punishment from God. It’s not. It’s the consequence of living in a sin-broken world. But even in death God is merciful because He is with us every moment, waiting to receive us on the other side of eternity.


Aside: What Do We Do with Our Regrets?

It’s possible that hen you go through these verses, someone will say something like, “I can’t change the past; my mistake has been made; I just don’t know how to cope with it!” Regrets are powerful and can become all-consuming. The longer we live, the more regrets we will have because the more mistakes we will make, right?

A statement like that will grind your discussion to a halt because it’s so powerful. At that point, you can’t ignore it. So, what do we do with our regrets?

Hopefully, your class will have helpful stuff to say about this topic. Here are some things you can chime in with if necessary:

  1. Acknowledge that we can’t change the past. Sins have been committed, and those sins come with consequences. Sometimes, other people suffer the brunt of those consequences. Often, that damage isn’t fair, and it is appropriate that we regret things that we’ve done (or failed to do).

  2. Accept God’s forgiveness. It is critical that we understand no sin is unforgivable, no matter how disastrous the outcome. The death of Jesus atones for any sin, even the most heinous. We must believe that God’s grace extends even to us in our worst moment.

  3. Trust that God will bring good out of it. This is the critical step because it involves letting go. Joseph’s brothers lived long enough to see what God did with their sin, but many people die before that becomes clear. We must trust that God can work through anything to accomplish His purposes.

It won’t make our regret disappear, but it will help us keep perspective.


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