The broad context for this story is the books of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, which together tell the story of Moses and the leadership role assigned to him by Yahweh.
The narrow context takes us back to Numbers 20:1-13, 24—an incident at a place that would be known as Meribah, which means “quarreling.” At that place, “The people strove with Moses, and spoke, saying, ‘We wish that we had died when our brothers died before Yahweh! Why have you brought the assembly of Yahweh into this wilderness, that we should die there, we and our animals? Why have you made us to come up out of Egypt, to bring us in to this evil place? It is no place of seed, or of figs, or of vines, or of pomegranates; neither is there any water to drink'” (Numbers 20:3-5).
Moses and Aaron took the matter to Yahweh, who told Moses, “Take the rod, and assemble the congregation, you, and Aaron your brother, and speak to the rock before their eyes, that it give forth its water; and you shall bring forth to them water out of the rock; so you shall give the congregation and their livestock drink” (Numbers 20:8).
But when Moses and Aaron assembled the Israelites before the rock, instead of commanding the rock to yield its water, as Yahweh had commanded them to do, Moses “struck the rock with his rod twice: and water came forth abundantly, and the congregation drank, and their livestock” (Numbers 20:11).
But Yahweh rebuked Moses and Aaron, saying, “Because you didn’t believe in me, to sanctify me in the eyes of the children of Israel, therefore you shall not bring this assembly into the land which I have given them” (Numbers 20:12). In verse 24, Yahweh extends that punishment to Aaron. Their sin was to add something to the command that the Lord had given them—presumably because they didn’t feel that the Lord’s words were adequate to the occasion. They took matters in their own hands when they should have simply done what the Lord told them to do.
While that punishment might seem overly harsh to us, it explains why Moses and Aaron, who led Israel out of Egypt and through their forty-year sojourn in the wilderness, were not allowed to lead Israel into the Promised Land.
A similar story of Moses and the rock of Meribah is found in Exodus 17:1-7. However, in that account, Yahweh commanded Moses to strike the rock, which he did. There is no suggestion of Moses’ disobedience or punishment in that account. Scholars debate whether the two accounts of Meribah are two accounts of the same incident or accounts of two separate incidents.
In Deuteronomy 32:49-52, Yahweh told Moses to ascend Mount Nebo of the Abarim mountains to view Canaan. Yahweh said:
“Go up into this mountain of Abarim,
to Mount Nebo, which is in the land of Moab,
that is over against Jericho;
and see the land of Canaan,
which I give to the children of Israel for a possession;
and die on the mountain where you go up,
and be gathered to your people,
as Aaron your brother died on Mount Hor,
and was gathered to his people:
because you trespassed against me
in the midst of the children of Israel
at the waters of Meribah of Kadesh,
in the wilderness of Zin;
because you didn’t sanctify me
in the midst of the children of Israel.
For you shall see the land before you;
but you shall not go there
into the land which I give the children of Israel” (32:49-52).
DEUTERONOMY 34:1-4. I HAVE CAUSED YOU TO SEE IT WITH YOUR EYES
1Moses went up from the plains of Moab to Mount Nebo, to the top of Pisgah, that is over against Jericho. Yahweh showed him all the land of Gilead, to Dan, 2and all Naphtali, and the land of Ephraim and Manasseh, and all the land of Judah, to the hinder sea, 3and the South, and the Plain of the valley of Jericho the city of palm trees, to Zoar. 4Yahweh said to him, “This is the land which I swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, saying, ‘I will give it to your seed.’ I have caused you to see it with your eyes, but you shall not go over there.”
“Moses went up from the plains of Moab to Mount Nebo, to the top of Pisgah, that is over against Jericho“ (v. 1a). Moab was located east of the Dead Sea. Its northern boundary with Ammon was located somewhere near the north end of the Dead Sea.
Mount Nebo was located in Moab, near the north end of the Dead Sea and the Jordan River. It is 2740 feet (835 meters) high, so it offers a commanding view of the Promised Land.
Scholars are divided regarding Pisgah, whether it was the peak of Mount Nebo or a separate peak connected to Mount Nebo by a saddle.
The city of Jericho was located near the Jordan River. It would be quite visible from Mount Nebo, and would be the first city that the Israelites would conquer in the Promised Land.
“Yahweh showed him all the land of Gilead, to Dan“ (v. 1b). Gilead was the name of a region north of Moab and east of the Jordan River. Dan is a city in the far north of the Promised Land. As Moses looked north from Mount Nebo, he would see Gilead in the foreground and Dan in the distant background.
“and all Naphtali, and the land of Ephraim and Manasseh, and all the land of Judah“ (v. 2a). Naphtali, Ephraim, Manasseh, and Judah would one day be tribal territories within the Promised Land. At the time that Moses saw the Promised Land from Mount Nebo, however, those territories had not yet been established.
Judah, of course, would become the southernmost tribal territory in Israel. To see that area from Mount Nebo, Moses would look west or southwest. Ephraim and Manasseh were to be located in the central part of the Promised Land, so Moses would look to the northwest to see them. Naphtali was to be located in the far north of the Promised Land, so Moses would look almost due north to see it.
“to the hinder sea“ (v. 2b). The Hebrew word behind this translation refers to the roar of a large sea, so this is often translated “the western sea.” It is intended to refer to the Mediterranean Sea.
“and the South, and the Plain of the valley of Jericho the city of palm trees, to Zoar“ (v. 3). The Negeb was in the far southern reaches of the Promised Land, in the area near Beersheba, so Moses would look southwest to see it from Mount Nebo. The Plain would be the valley in the vicinity of Jericho, on the west side of the Jordan River not far from Mount Nebo. Zoar was located near the south end of the Dead Sea.
While this text has Moses viewing these disparate places from Mount Nebo, scholars agree that there is no mountain in the vicinity of Mount Nebo where that would be possible—unless Yahweh gave Moses a vision of the places that could not normally be seen from the mountain.
“Yahweh said to him, ‘This is the land which I swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, saying, “I will give it to your seed”‘” (v. 4a). Yahweh’s initial promise was to Abraham, to whom he said, “I will give to you, and to your seed after you, the land where you are traveling, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession. I will be their God” (Genesis 17:8; see also Genesis 15:17-21). Yahweh renewed this covenant with Moses at Sinai, saying, “Depart, go up from here, you and the people that you have brought up out of the land of Egypt, to the land of which I swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, saying, ‘I will give it to your seed'” (Exodus 33:1).
“I have caused you to see it with your eyes, but you shall not go over there“ (v. 4b). As noted in the Context above, the story behind this verse is told in Numbers 20:1-13. Yahweh stated and restated the prohibition (Deuteronomy 1:37; 3:27; 4:21-22; 32:52).
DEUTERONOMY 34:5-8. SO MOSES DIED THERE IN THE LAND OF MOAB
5So Moses the servant of Yahweh died there in the land of Moab, according to the word of Yahweh. 6He buried him in the valley in the land of Moab over against Beth Peor: but no man knows of his tomb to this day. 7Moses was one hundred twenty years old when he died: his eye was not dim, nor his natural force abated. 8The children of Israel wept for Moses in the plains of Moab thirty days: so the days of weeping in the mourning for Moses were ended.
“So Moses the servant of Yahweh died there in the land of Moab, according to the word of Yahweh“(v. 5). Josephus tells us that Moses died on the first of Adar, the twelfth month. He died there at the Lord’s command.
“He buried him in the valley in the land of Moab over against Beth Peor“ (v. 6a). This makes Yahweh the one who not only determined the time and place of Moses’ death, but also making him the one who buried him. Perhaps this was Yahweh’s way of honoring Moses for his long and faithful service.
Beth-Peor was near Mount Nebo.
“but no man knows of his tomb to this day“ (v. 6b). We aren’t told why Yahweh established a secret burial place for Moses. Perhaps he wanted to insure that the Israelites wouldn’t make a shrine of his burial place. The secrecy would also insure that they couldn’t move his body to Israel at a later date.
“Moses was one hundred twenty years old when he died“ (v. 7a). Earlier, when God saw the wickedness of humans, he said, “My Spirit will not strive with man forever, because he also is flesh; yet will his days be one hundred twenty years” (Genesis 6:3).
“his eye was not dim, nor his natural force abated“ (v. 7b). That Moses retained considerable vigor at this advanced age is demonstrated by the fact that he “went up from the plains of Moab to Mount Nebo, to the top of Pisgah” (34:1).
However, earlier Moses said, “I can no more go out and come in” (31:2), which leaves us with the problem of reconciling these contradictory statements regarding his health. Jewish rabbis speculated that in 31:2 Moses might have been preparing the Israelites for his departure, which they could accept more easily if they thought of him as aged and infirmed (Biddle).
“The children of Israel wept for Moses in the plains of Moab thirty days: so the days of weeping in the mourning for Moses were ended“ (v. 8). A more usual mourning period was seven days (Genesis 50:10; 1 Samuel 31:13; 1 Chronicles 10:12). A thirty-day mourning period would be appropriate for great leaders such as Moses and Aaron.
Once the thirty days had passed, the mourning period was over and the people resumed their normal activities under the leadership of Joshua.
DEUTERONOMY 34:9. JOSHUA WAS FULL OF THE SPIRIT OF WISDOM
9Joshua the son of Nun was full of the spirit of wisdom; for Moses had laid his hands on him: and the children of Israel listened to him, and did as Yahweh commanded Moses.
“Joshua the son of Nun was full of the spirit of wisdom; for Moses had laid his hands on him: and the children of Israel listened to him, and did as Yahweh commanded Moses“ (v. 9). Joshua was an established authority among the Israelites, who knew him to be “full of the spirit of wisdom.” While wisdom can be gained through experience, some people have a greater capacity for wisdom than others. In other words, there is a sense in which wisdom is a gift of God. Joshua had this gift.
Joshua served as Moses’ assistant and one of Moses’ chosen men (Numbers 11:28). He led Israel against the Amalekites during the battle where Aaron and Hur kept Moses’ hands aloft as the battle raged (Exodus 17:8-13). He accompanied Moses on the journey up Mount Sinai (Exodus 24). He was one of the two faithful spies (out of twelve spies) who spied out the Promised Land (Numbers 13).
But Joshua became Moses’ successor, not because of his resume and not because the people chose him. Yahweh appointed Joshua as Moses’ successor, saying to Moses, “Take Joshua the son of Nun, a man in whom is the Spirit, and lay your hand on him; and set him before Eleazar the priest, and before all the congregation; and commission him in their sight. You shall put of your honor on him, that all the congregation of the children of Israel may obey” (Numbers 27:18-20; see also Deuteronomy 3:28; 31:14).
Knowing that Joshua was Yahweh’s choice, the Israelites obeyed him.
DEUTERONOMY 34:10-12. NO PROPHET LIKE MOSES
10There has not arisen a prophet since in Israel like Moses, whom Yahweh knew face to face, 11in all the signs and the wonders, which Yahweh sent him to do in the land of Egypt, to Pharaoh, and to all his servants, and to all his land, 12and in all the mighty hand, and in all the great terror, which Moses worked in the sight of all Israel.
“There has not arisen a prophet since in Israel like Moses“ (v. 10a). This has the feel of a statement written long after the events which it records. After seeing Joshua and other leaders, the Israelites could say that none of them compared to Moses.
While people today think of prophecy as foretelling the future, the role of a Biblical prophet was to convey a message from God to humans. While that could involve foretelling, conveying God’s message was the central task of the prophet.
“whom Yahweh knew face to face“ (v. 10b). Earlier we read that “Yahweh spoke to Moses face to face, as a man speaks to his friend” (Exodus 33:11)—and on another occasion, when Aaron and Miriam had been jealous of Moses, Yahweh said, “With him I will speak mouth to mouth, even plainly, and not in riddles; and he shall see Yahweh’s form. Why then were you not afraid to speak against my servant, against Moses?” (Numbers 12:8).
But when Moses was on Mount Sinai and requested to see Yahweh’s face, Yahweh replied, “You cannot see my face, for man may not see me and live” (Exodus 33:20).
That raises a question—how can we resolve these apparently contradictory statements. Tilgay says, “The point of the text is that Moses had the most direct contact with God of any prophet, and hence had the clearest knowledge of Him and His will” (quoted in Christensen).
“in all the signs and the wonders, which Yahweh sent him to do in the land of Egypt, to Pharaoh, and to all his servants, and to all his land“ (v. 11). The signs and wonders that Moses performed in Egypt were the ten plagues: Water turned to blood (Exodus 7:14ff.)—frogs (Exodus 8:1ff.)—gnats (Exodus 8:16-19)—flies (Exodus 8:20-32)—a pestilence on livestock (Exodus 9:1-7)—boils (Exodus 9:8-12)—thunder and hail (Exodus 9:13-35)—locusts (Exodus 10:1-20)—darkness (Exodus 9:21-29)—and, finally, the death of the firstborn (Exodus 11-12).
There were other signs as well—most notably the divided waters of the Red Sea that allowed the Israelites to escape the Egyptian army, which was in hot pursuit (Exodus 14)—and the water from the rock at Meribah (Numbers 20:1-13, 24).
“and in all the mighty hand, and in all the great terror, which Moses worked in the sight of all Israel“(v. 12). These mighty deeds and terrifying displays of power were for the benefit of Israel as well as Egypt. Israel needed to see, time and time again, that they were under the care of Yahweh—that Yahweh had the power to meet their needs and would do so—that Yahweh had bound himself to Israel by a covenant that he would honor come thick or thin.
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
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Biddle, Mark E., Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary: Deuteronomy (Macon, Georgia: Smyth & Helwys Publishing, Inc., 2003)
Brueggemann, Walter, Abingdon Old Testament Commentary: Deuteronomy (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2001)
Christensen, Duane L., Word Biblical Commentary: Deuteronomy 21:10 – 34:12, Vol. 6B (Dallas: Word Books, 2002)
Clements, Ronald E., The New Interpreter’s Bible: Numbers, Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, Ruth, 1 & 2 Samuel, Vol. II (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1998)
Craigie, Peter C., The New International Commentary on the Old Testament: The Book of Deuteronomy(Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1976)
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Mann, Thomas W., Westminster Bible Companion: Deuteronomy (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1995)
Maxwell, John C., The Preacher’s Commentary: Deuteronomy, Vol. 5 (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1987)
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Miller, Patrick D., Interpretation Commentary: Deuteronomy (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1990)
Newsome, James D. in Brueggemann, Walter; Cousar, Charles B.; Gaventa, Beverly R.; and Newsome, James D., Texts for Preaching: A Lectionary Commentary Based on the NRSV—Year A (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1995)
Thompson, J.A., Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries: Deuteronomy, Vol. 5 (Downers Grove, Illinois: Inter-Varsity Press, 1974)
Tucker, Gene M. in Craddock, Fred B.; Hayes, John H.; Holladay, Carl R.; Tucker, Gene M., Preaching Through the Christian Year, A (Valley Forge: Trinity Press International, 1992)
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Copyright 2012, Richard Niell Donovan