Sermon Commentary for Sunday, October 29, 2017
Deuteronomy 34:1-12 Commentary
Few of us can read Deuteronomy 34 without getting at least a lump in our throat and tear in our eye. After all, Moses has dragged the Israelites, often kicking and screaming, out of Egypt, through the wilderness and to the doorstep of Canaan. Yet this Sunday’s Old Testament text reports that he never gets to put even one toe in that land of promise.
Verse 10 says, “the Lord knew [Moses] face to face.” Yet the site of Israel’s leader’s grave indicates that something is wrong between this peerless prophet and the Lord who knew him so intimately. Deuteronomy 3:25 says Moses begged the Lord to let him go over and see what he called “the good land beyond the Jordan.” Israel’s leader pleaded with God, in other words, to enter and die in the land of promise.
God, however, only lets Moses see the land he’ll never actually enter. So Israel’s greatest prophet doesn’t get to share in the fulfillment of God’s promise to which he had dedicated much of his adult life. That means that Moses doesn’t even get to do what some of his ancestors got to do. After all, even cheating Jacob got to live in Canaan for a while. What’s more, men like Abraham and Joseph at least got to enter the land of promise after they died.
Earlier, Moses complained of failing health: “I am now a hundred and twenty years old and I am no longer able to lead you” (Deuteronomy 31:2). Yet while he outlived about three generations of Israelites, Deuteronomy 34:7 insists that both his eyesight and health are still very good when he finally dies on Canaan’s doorstep.
There seem to be two main reasons for relatively healthy Moses’ death outside of the land of promise. First, as Moses repeatedly tells Israel in places like Deuteronomy 1:37, “because of” Israel, “the Lord became angry with” him as well. Though Moses too was often the victim of it, God appears to hold him at least partly responsible for the rebellions that filled Israel’s life in the wilderness. Moses has stood between Israel and God, speaking for Israel to God and for God to Israel. His life, then, in a sense, has been a place where Israel’s rebellion and God’s judgment have met.
Yet God also punishes Moses for his own sin. At the waters of Meribah, after all, he disobeyed the Lord by striking instead of speaking to the rock as God had commanded him. As a result, God told him, “You will not bring this community into the land I give them.” The Lord later echoes this by telling Moses, in Deuteronomy 32:50, “on the mountain you have climbed you will die . . . because . . . you broke faith with me in the presence of the Israelites at the waters of Meribah.”
The verb we translate there as “broke faith” is one the Bible’s original language uses to describe adultery. So it’s a reminder that Moses broke his covenant with God by being unfaithful to God by striking instead of speaking to Meribah’s rock. Moses’ sin suggests he assumed that it wasn’t enough just to speak to the rock at Meribah. Moses believed he also he to strike it twice. On other occasions, of course, God had commanded Moses to use his staff to accomplish various signs and wonders. But for Israel’s leader to do this at Meribah at least implies that he’d begun to assume that his staff itself had some kind of power.
At Meribah Moses had had the chance to show Israel just how holy God is by simply speaking to the rock and letting God send water gushing out of it. By striking it instead, Israel’s leader perhaps at least implied to Israel that he was somehow responsible for that water.
So after giving Israel a very moving blessing, Moses does, in fact, climb Mount Nebo. You can almost see him trudge up that mountain, heavy with disappointment, but likely excited to see what his ancestors had all long longed to see. At the summit God stretches out a sight that must have deeply moved Moses. God shows Israel’s leader “the whole land” of Canaan. From the top of Mount Nebo Moses finally gets to see the land flowing with milk and honey that God had promised his ancestors and him but he’ll never enter. So I sometimes wonder if his good eyes well up with tears of both gratitude to God and some sadness at not getting to receive for what he’d worked so long.
Of course, as biblical scholars point out, no height exists from which Moses could actually see all the territory that God had promised Israel. We sense, then, that God has already begun to lift up Israel’s leader from this world for him to even be able to see all of Canaan.
While Moses has faithlessly disobeyed the Lord, the Lord has not abandoned him. Israel’s leader remains “the servant of the Lord” even as death approaches. Moses has disobeyed. Yet he’s also served the Lord by speaking for the Lord to Israel and speaking for Israel to the Lord. What’s more, Israel’s leader has also led his people out of Egyptian slavery to the doorstep of Canaan.
Once this servant of the Lord glimpses that land of promise, God graciously gathers him into God’s eternal presence. Yet while our text tells us that God “buried” him on Nebo’s summit, it remains, perhaps deliberately, a very mysterious act. No one, after all, knows exactly where Moses’ grave is.
Israel had persistently and sometimes vehemently rebelled against Moses and his leadership. Yet our text indicates that her leader’s death unleashes a torrent of Israelite grief. So why does Israel so deeply grieve the man so many of them so often loathed?
The old, rebellious generation of Israelites basically died in Numbers 25. Those who grieve Moses’ death are part of a new generation of Israelites that’s at least temporarily committed to following God’s ways. So perhaps they mourn that Moses dies just like their disobedient parents and grandparents that he’d tried to lead did.
Israel, however, still needs a leader. After all, while the generation that includes Moses is dying, a new one is arising. When God told Moses that he’d never enter Canaan, God told him to commission, strengthen and encourage Joshua to lead Israel into Canaan. Joshua, our text reports, is full of the spirit of wisdom. So the Israelites listen to him and, perhaps surprisingly, do what the Lord commanded Moses.
But Numbers can’t let Moses go without offering a deeply moving eulogy. Moses was morally too frail to trust God enough to always do what God promised. Moses disobeyed the Lord by striking the rock at Meribah instead of simply speaking to it. Yet by God’s grace, Moses was an amazing servant of God anyway. Israel, insists our text, never knew anyone like him, before or since.
Yet Deuteronomy 34 doesn’t stress Israel’s leader’s knowledge of the Lord. Instead it emphasizes God’s knowledge of Moses. God, our text insists, knew him face to face. This, of course, was almost unprecedented. After all, while Isaiah only saw the Lord in a kind of vision, he could hardly handle even just that glimpse of God’s glory. John insisted that no one has ever seen God. Our text reports, however, that Moses spoke with God, as if face to face. He had such an intimate relationship with the Lord that their conversations were personal and warm.
By God’s great grace all of God’s adopted sons and daughters share something with Moses. After all, while God has no literal face, we’ve seen the Lord. In seeing Jesus Christ, whether in person or in the Scriptures, we have, according to John 14:9, “seen the Father.”
Moses glimpses the promise to which he’d dedicated his life. Yet while the Scriptures also give us a glimpse of our land of promise, Christians no longer die with only that glimpse. After all, when God’s people die, God immediately takes us into God’s eternal presence, in preparation for eternity in the new heaven and earth. That land will flow with something far, far better than milk and honey.
Have you ever thought about what you want someone to inscribe on your tombstone? Not your pizza, but your gravestone? After all, epitaphs, inscriptions on gravestones, can run from the humorous to cynical to serious.
A few are humorous. One of my favorites is Winston Churchill’s: “I am ready to meet my Maker. Whether my Maker is prepared for the great ordeal of meeting me is another matter.” W.C. Fields reportedly once said that he’d like his headstone to read: “Here lies W.C. Fields. On the whole, I’d rather be in Philadelphia.”
A certain Margaret Daniels’ epitaph reads: “She always said her feet were killing her, but nobody believed her.” In Silver City, Nevada a tombstone reads: “Here lies Zeke. The second fastest draw in Cripple Creek.”
Still other headstones are ironic. George Washington owned slaves throughout his life. Yet his epitaph reads: “Looking into the portals of eternity teaches that the brotherhood of man is inspired by God’s Word; then all prejudice of race vanishes away.”
Jefferson Davis’, head of the Confederacy, epitaph reads: “At rest. An American Soldier and defender of the Constitution.” The headstone of the notorious gangster Al Capone reads: “My Jesus, Mercy.”
Even if you were to somehow manage to find Moses’ gravesite, you’d find no tombstone or epitaph. However, if Moses had had an epitaph, it might well have been a paraphrase of Deuteronomy 34:10: “A peerless prophet whom the Lord knew face to face.” We could do worse than to have such an epitaph on our grave.
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