Wednesday of Week 19 of Ordinary Time – First Reading

Commentary on Deuteronomy 34:1-12

Our final reading from the book of Deuteronomy is also the whole of the final chapter of the book. It is also our last reading from the Pentateuch.

The death of Moses ends the long saga which began when he first received the call to lead his people out of slavery in Egypt, through the great experiences on Mount Sinai, the tribulations of the 40 years in the desert until the moment when they reach the threshold of the Promised Land.

As the reading opens, we see Moses leaving the plains of Moab and climbing Mount Nebo, described as “the peak of Pisgah opposite Jericho”. He went in obedience to the Lord’s command, mentioned earlier (see Deut 32:48-52). The “plains of Moab” denotes the plain lying between the mountains of Moab, which lie to the east of the Dead Sea, and the River Jordan.

Here he has a vision which embraces the whole Promised Land, into which he will not go, but of which he thus takes possession on behalf of the people. He could not actually see the whole territory with the naked eye from the top of the mountain.

He saw the whole of the Promised Land – from Gilead as far as Dan, the whole of Naphthali, the country of Ephraim and Manasseh, the whole country of Judah as far as the Western Sea (the Mediterranean), the Negeb and the region of the valley of Jericho, city of palm trees, as far as Zoar.

Dan was in the very north of the country (the names of the provinces come from the names of Jacob’s sons).  Naphthali lay immediately to the south and southwest of Dan.  Manasseh and Ephraim occupied the centre of the country, just north of Jerusalem.  Judah stretched southwards from Jerusalem (Jerusalem was in Judah).  South of Judah was the Negeb, lying west of the Dead Sea.  Jericho was on the north end of the Dead Sea and Zoar at the southern end.

Pointing to the whole territory spread out below, Yahweh says to Moses:

This is the country which I promised on oath to give to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob…I have allowed you to see it for yourself, but you yourself will not cross into it.

Moses life work was now over. He had been shown the goal of all his labours, but not permitted to enjoy it. However, he did take possession of it in the name of the people.

There in Moab:

Moses, the servant of the Lord, died as Yahweh had decreed.

‘Servant of the Lord’ is a special title used to refer to those whom the Lord, as the Great King, has taken into his service; they serve as members of God’s royal administration. For example, it was used especially of Abraham, Moses, Joshua, David, the prophets, Israel collectively, and even a foreign king the Lord used to carry out his purposes (Nebuchadnezzar, see Jer 25:9). In Nebuchadnezzar’s case, the king becomes an instrument by which God can reveal his power and glory.

Earlier God told Moses he would actually die on Mount Nebo itself (Deut 32:50). He was buried in the valley below, in the country of Moab, opposite Beth-peor, to the east of the northern shores of the Dead Sea. However, the author says that no one now knows where his grave is.

He was 120 years old when he died, but in full use of his faculties, “eyes undimmed, vigour unimpaired”. This is perhaps a round number, indicating three generations of about 40 years each.

The mourning by the Israelites went on for 30 days. Once this period was over, Joshua, son of Nun, assumed leadership. He was full of wisdom because Moses had laid his hands on him, and the Israelites accepted him as the successor to Moses.

In a final encomium, the author says that, ever since his time, there never was such a prophet in Israel like Moses, the man who knew Yahweh face to face. What wonders Yahweh caused Moses to perform in Egypt against the Pharaoh and the whole country!

How mighty the hand and great the fear that Moses wielded in the eyes of all Israel!

That is, no one could compare to Moses until the coming of Jesus (see the Letter to the Hebrews 3:1-6, where Moses the “servant” is contrasted with Christ the “son”).

We Christians also owe a lot to this great man. His story and the story of his people are also part of our story, part of our tradition and heritage. And it has much to teach us.

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