Deuteronomy 34: The Secret Burial

Leave a comment

After reminding all the people of the laws and blessing them, Moses finally goes up to Mount Nebo – and, somehow, also to the top of Pisgah – to look on the Promised Land and die.

Moses's Testament and Death (detail), by Luca Signorelli, 1482

Moses’s Testament and Death (detail), by Luca Signorelli, 1482

If Moses’s simultaneous duo-location doesn’t seem to make sense,my study Bible explains: “Two traditions about the place of Moses’ death are included here: Mount Nebo is in Transjordan east of Jericho; Mount Pisgah is a peak in the same range, slightly west” (p.262).

So while the giant Moses was standing with one foot on each peak, he looked out on the Promised Land. He saw all the different tribal lands, and even as far as the “Western Sea” (which I assume must be the Mediterranean).

After he sees the whole of the Promised Land (no word on his reaction to the sight, which is a real missed narrative opportunity), Moses dies and God gives him a secret burial somewhere in Moab, opposite Bethpeor (Deut. 34:6).

The text specifically tells us that “no man knows the place of his burial to this day” (Deut. 34:6). The possibilities are, of course, that a burial site was known but was lost, that God really did bury Moses personally, or that there was no Moses to begin with. Assuming the second possibility for the sake of narrative, I’d like to think it had to do with the possibility of idolatry.

We are told that Moses was 120 years old when he died, and that he was in perfect health (Deut. 34:7). In Deut. 32:1, Moses said that he is “no longer able to go out and come in,” which could be a reference to the limitations of his health and therefore a contradiction.

The people mourned Moses’s passing for 30 days, then turned to Joshua as their new leader. Prior to this, with Moses as the king-like secular leader and his brother/nephew as the high priest and religious leader, power was concentrated in Levite hands (though Moses’s membership in the tribe of Levi is never emphasized, and it would be easy enough to see him as some kind of Divergent).

Now that the secular leadership has passed to Joshua – who is apparently from Ephraim (Num. 13:8) – the power structure evens out just a little.

Deuteronomy 32: God’s chart topper

1 Comment

At the end of the last chapter, Moses gathered together all the elders and officers of Israel to teach them God’s new song. This, finally, is that song.

It begins in the usual way: With a description of how awesome and totally cool God is, but everything goes wrong and it’s always someone else’s fault. The people didn’t respect him enough, so “they are no longer his children because of their blemish” (Deut. 32:5). While the sentiment is reversed within a couple lines, where Moses rhetorically asks: “Is he not your father, who created you, who made you and established you?” (Deut. 32:6) – which is it’s own little parental mindfuck – I find it rather horrifying that God would go there. I mean, a god turning away from a people who aren’t worshipping him properly is all well and good, but if he’s to use the parental imagery, he loses the right to keep pulling this “I turn away from you, you are no longer my children” stuff.

Moses and the Promised Land, by Joni Ware, 2009

Moses and the Promised Land, by Joni Ware, 2009

In his description of how God created the people, Moses sings about the sons of men, and how God “fixed the bounds of the peoples according tot he number of the sons of God” (Deut. 32:8). According to my study Bible, this line is supposed to mean that God allows other members of the heavenly court to govern the other nations, while God sees to Israel personally. Given that other parts of this very song come off very monotheistic, I really wish we had a more explicit cosmology to look at.

Moses then goes on to talk about how God took care of Jacob, making him “suck honey out of the rock, and oil out of the flinty rock” (Deut. 32:13) – a miracle, obviously, but also some very maternal imagery. Given that God is later conflated with a Rock (my study Bible capitalizes the word), it certainly makes it seem like God is playing the part of a Mother Goddess figure, nursing Jacob at the breast of the land. All of this is doubly interesting because I can’t recall anything in Genesis that would give an indication of this sort of relationship – except that it is Jacob’s descendent who are the tribal founders, making Jacob the founder of the whole nation.

Moses then goes on to talk about a Jeshurun, which from the context appears to be a anthropomorphism of Israel, who grows fat and complacent, eventually forsaking God. Ironically, Jeshurun apparently means “the Upright One,” according to my study Bible.

Then, he “stirred him [God] to jealousy with strange gods” (Deut. 32:16). I find all the references to God’s jealousy quite interesting. I have a friend in a poly relationship who once explained to me that jealousy comes from a lack of self-confidence, from feeling insecure in your position in a relationship. In other words, if you feel (consciously or subconsciously) that you are not worthy enough for your partner, you react with jealousy when you see your partner in a situation where they might encounter someone better. So take of that what you will.

With Jeshurun being such a meanie, God decides that he will provoke him back by sending a “foolish nation” (Deut. 32:21) after the Israelites, to heap evils on them and kill them – even “the suckling child” (Deut. 32:25). So there’s that mercy and ‘slow to anger’ stuff he’s been talking about. In fact, it seems that the only thing preventing him from destroying the people entirely is that the nations he sends in to do his dirty work might come to think that they achieved their victories for themselves, rather than crediting God with being so totally awesome.

God will also rub it all in a bit. When the people have been conquered, he will ask them Where are your gods now? “Let them rise up and help you, let them be your protection!” (Deut. 32:38).

Then God goes on for a bit about what a gross, vindictive jerk he is.

Go up the mountain

With the song finished, God sends Moses up to Abarim, Mount Nebo, to look down on the Promised Land. Once there, he will die, as Aaron died, because they “broke faith with me [God] at the waters of Meribath-kadesh, in the wilderness of Zin; because you did not revere me as holy in the midst of the people of Israel” (Deut. 32:51).

Meribath-kadesh seems to be yet another name for Massah and Meribah from the stories we saw in Exodus 17 and Numbers 20.