Theology Matters Conference - Oct 8-10th, 2024

Theology Matters Conference - Oct 8-10th, 2024

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Moses, Death, and the Continuation of Ministry

Deuteronomy brings the Pentateuch and Moses’ life to their respective conclusions. These two important things are interrelated. Deuteronomy’s conclusion (34:1–12), in which Moses dies, is expected and yet odd.  It is expected in that his upcoming death has been mentioned several times in the book. Several details in the conclusion mark it as odd, including the feel of an anticlimax—if one can say that about a person’s death.  Moses had central roles in the dramatic events of exodus, covenant-making, law-giving, and wilderness-wandering, as Israel moved toward a promised inheritance in Canaan. These are, after all, major parts of the biblical storyline including their roles in pointing forward to Christ as the ultimate Passover lamb, the Church as the New Covenant people of God, and the new Jerusalem, come down from heaven to form the eternal promised land, the inheritance of all God’s people. But just as the Pentateuch ends without an entry into the promised land, so too Moses dies without an entry into the promised land. The final chapter is also anticlimactic in a counterintuitive, but theologically rich way. Although it has a brief encomium prompting readers to reflect on Moses’ great achievements in God’s good timing, it also has a mysterious, open-endedness to it that points readers to ways that Moses’ ministries continue post-mortem. 

So pervasive is the fact of his upcoming death in Deuteronomy, some interpreters have described the book as a “last will and testament” of Moses (cf. 32:44–33:29). Before he dies, Moses reminds Israel of the dramatic events that brought them to the cusp of the promised land and elaborates on the covenant statues a last time as the younger generation prepares for life in the promised land without him. Perched on the panoramic edge of that land, Moses is affirmed for his roles in leading Israel to this point, but denied entrance to it in response to one of his failures (3:23–28; 32:51–52). How human of Moses! The Pentateuch moves from the creation of the world to a chosen people, not yet in possession of all of God’s promises, but freed from slavery and gifted with a covenantal mandate for life that is good for future generations wherever they find themselves. This already/not-yet dynamic shapes both the Pentateuch and the life of Moses.

The location of Moses’ grave is specified, but it is unknown to Israel, an odd fact noted explicitly in 34:6. This is something to be contrasted with the traditions of the burial places of the patriarchs and matriarchs in the book of Genesis (e.g. Gen 23:1–20; 25:7–11; 35:16–21; 49:29–32; Josh 24:32). Millennia later their reputed tombs in Hebron, Bethlehem, and Shechem are places of pilgrimage and prayer for Jews and Muslims.  Medieval rabbis proposed that the hidden status of Moses’ burial was God’s way to keep Israel from making it an idolatrous shrine. A straightforward reading of the Hebrew text in 34:6a mysteriously implies that the “He” who buried Moses in the valley near Beth-Peor is God. In any case, Moses died in the hands of God.

The brevity of the account of his death became the seedbed of elaborations to fill in the details. Over the centuries, traditions arose in Judaism about God weeping and kissing Moses before he died, and about disputes over his body (cf. Jude 9), perhaps over the question of whether Moses’ corpse would be assumed to heaven or remain in the hidden tomb.   There was even speculation that he didn’t really die, but was assumed to heaven like Elijah, one of the prophets who followed the profile of Moses and who sought to bring the hearts of Israel back to their first love. Elijah was assumed into heaven in a whirlwind (2 Kings 2:1–12). The later prophet Malachi paired Moses and Elijah together in his visionary instructions to Israel (4:4–6). The people should take to heart the instruction that Moses had provided Israel and be prepared for Elijah to return to renew their hearts before the climactic Day of the Lord.

Before his death, Moses announced that God would raise up a prophet in his stead (Deut 18:15–22) to bring authoritative interpretation to bear in future situations. And just before he dies (34:9), Moses confirms Joshua as his first successor. These are ways that the work of Moses continued past his death. Not only would the Sinai covenant and its statutes be passed along, aspects of his role as authoritative interpreter would also be passed on for subsequent prophets to follow. A prophetic succession of covenant mediators would accompany the people to the advent of the Messiah (Acts 3:22–26; 7:37).  Whether we call it a Mosaic office or more generally a model of prophetic leadership, God raised up a series of prophets to instruct his people under the old (Mosaic/Sinai) Covenant and to prepare them for the advent of the New Covenant (cf. Jer 31:31–34). 

We can see the importance of the prophetic office in the question that Jewish leaders asked John the Baptist, namely, whether he was Elijah or “the prophet” (John 1:19–28).  These two figures reflect expectations based on Deut 18:15–22 and Mal 4:5–6. Here is where it gets very interesting.  John’s self-understanding led him to answer negatively. He was neither Elijah nor the Prophet, perhaps a messianic new Moses expected by some Jews. The role that John did affirm for himself, that of preparing the way for a greater one to come, meant that others would indeed see in him Elijah and the mantle of prophecy (below).

We should also put the fate of Moses and the subsequent succession of prophets in the context of Jesus’ famous comments about a prophet’s “reward” (Matt 5:11–12; cf. 10:41). Over the centuries various kinds of opposition struck at those who were God’s prophets and faithful followers, sometimes including even their death, but their reward in heaven would be great.  One of those “rewards” granted in heaven was the continuing vibrancy of their ministries here on earth, regardless of their personal fate (cf. Luke 4:24). Reward in this sense does not mean an earned payoff, but the continuing fruit of actions taken.

Consider Matthew’s rendition of the conversation between Jesus and the disciples near Caesarea Philippi (Matt 16:13–20).  When Jesus asks the disciples, “who do people say that I am?,” they reply that he is thought of as John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah, or another of the prophets (16:14).  Those named are an interesting list.  John, of course, had been recently executed by Herod Antipas, who subsequently worried that John had been raised from death and come again in the person of Jesus (Matt 14:1–12; note Mark 6:14–16 and the similar list of prophets). I used to think that Herod was guiltily superstitious to worry that John had somehow reappeared.  Perhaps that is right about Herod, but if so, he was nevertheless on to something theologically significant, even if he didn’t grasp it correctly.  God has mysterious ways of keeping faith with departed servants and the ministries they faithfully performed.  Jesus confirmed elsewhere that Elijah did mysteriously continue in John the Baptist’s ministry (Matt 17:9–13). John was faithful to the ministry to which God called him and God would multiply that ministry in ways that he might not anticipate.  Ditto for Elijah.  God may have swept him up in mid-ministry, but that did not mean the end of his ministry or God’s faithfulness to him.

So what had happened to Jeremiah? The latest thing recorded about him in the book of Jeremiah is that he was taken against his will to Egypt and there he continued to prophesy (Jer 42–44).  Only God knows the time and place of his demise; a late, non-canonical tradition has him martyred for his faith. Those first century Jews who wondered if Jesus might be Jeremiah come again were, like Herod Antipas, on to something about God and his servants. No matter the earthly fate of John, Elijah or Jeremiah, they had their place in the divine economy and the reward of having their work continue.

In this context, we can also appreciate the account of Jesus’ transfiguration (Matt 17:1–13; Mark 9:2–8; Luke 9:28–36).  A select number of disciples with him on a high mountain are transfixed by his blinding effulgence and his conversation with Moses and Elijah. Previously at Mt. Sinai, God had revealed himself through a blazing fire (Exod 24:17; Deut 4:11–12, 33). After repeated encounters with God, Moses’ face shown with reflective light (Exod 34:29–35). Elijah would later hear a low voice at Sinai and then undertake prophetic tasks until God separated him from Elisha and other prophetic colleagues by a fiery chariot.  In the transfiguration on a different mountain, it was not just the face of Jesus reflecting divine light, he was himself divine light. Luke tells us that the three figures discussed Jesus’ upcoming departure, literally his “exodus,” a term rich with biblical imagery and intended to connect Israel’s earlier exodus from Egypt with the upcoming Passover events in Jerusalem when the true lamb of God would be sacrificed. Moses had played a central role in those earlier events and in the transfiguration event his ministry is confirmed in a new key.

So, Moses and Elijah stand with Jesus on a high mountain in the promised land.  Their appearance is frequently interpreted as confirmation that the Torah and the Prophets bear witness to Jesus, Israel’s Messiah. Surely this is correct.  Moses and Elijah eventually depart, but Jesus remains with the disciples to bring to fruition what those two had undertaken centuries before.  The great succession of prophetic ministry which Moses began reaches its conclusion in the revelation of God’s Son.  However great is the reward of Moses and Elijah in heaven, on earth their reward is that their work continues to instruct God’s people.  And finally, although Moses only viewed the promised land before his death, he stands in it with Jesus, a tangible illustration that with Christ, all of God’s promises are “yes” (2 Cor 1:20). 

The anonymous writer to the Hebrews offers a long list of witnesses under the Old Covenant who died without seeing the resolution of all that God had promised (11:1–40).  Their lives are one form of that already/not-yet dynamic that pervades Scripture.  Their lives were an “already” of faithful responses regardless of circumstance and their “not yet” meant that they too would die and that they would “not be made perfect apart from us” (11:40), that is, the “us” who are the beneficiaries of cross and resurrection and whose life is bound up with the risen Lord.  That was true of Moses, who died before entry into the promised land, but who through Christ, entered both the terrestrial and the heavenly kingdoms. In God’s providence both Moses and his work find their completion in Christ. For the “us” who are alive and part of the new creation (2 Cor 5:17), there is still a not-yet as we anticipate the second advent of the Lord.  And we should all take heart that, as with Moses, God may extend our ministries until that day.

J. Andrew Dearman
J. Andrew Dearman
J. Andrew Dearman, Ph.D. is Professor of Old Testament Emeritus, Fuller Seminary, and a Teaching Fellow for the Institute for Theological Education.

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