Famous Last Words: Moses

When one thinks of the famous last words of at least a few people in the Bible, one thinks of books. The famous last word of Jesus Christ is, for example, the Book of Revelation, after which the canon of scripture as a whole was closed. Peter wrote 2 Peter as he prepared to cast off this mortal tent, while Paul wrote 2 Timothy in the same circumstances. For those of us who believe Solomon to be the author of Ecclesiastes [1], the book, which envisions that son of David as calling an assembly like that in Shechem and reflecting on the mistakes of his life as he, belatedly, recognized the importance of obedience to God in the face of life’s vanity. To these books we must add Deuteronomy as being the last words of Moses, for the entire book is suffused with the melancholy realization on the part of its human author that he will soon die, and his people will fail to follow God, and will inevitably suffer punishment and exile for this disobedience.

It is little wonder that the recovery of this book during the days of Josiah the king led that righteous ruler to mourn in the face of Judah’s coming doom. Deuteronomy is a book that is full of melancholy longing for something better than that which we know will happen. Although it is far too much to expect a detailed review of the book of Deuteronomy as the famous last words of Moses to the people of Israel as they prepared to cross over the Jordan River into the holy land to receive their inheritance at last, let us examine the aspect of longing that fills this work with the regrets of someone who knows his end is approaching and that his life’s effort has been a failure, despite his long and loyal service to God. We see this mood in Deuteronomy 3:23-28: “Then I pleaded with the Lord at that time saying: ‘O Lord God, You have begun to show Your servant Your greatness and Your mighty hand, for what god is there in heaven or on earth who can do anything like Your works and Your mighty deeds? I pray, let me cross over and see the good land beyond the Jordan, those pleasant mountains, and Lebanon. But the Lord was angry with me on your account, and would not listen to me. So the Lord said to me: ‘Enough of that! Speak no more to Me of this matter. Go on top of Pisgah, and lift your eyes towards the west, the north, the south, and the east; behold it with your eyes, for you shall not cross over this Jordan. But command Joshua, and encourage him and strengthen him; for he shall go over before this people, and he shall cause them to inherit the land which you will see.’ Moses’ longing to see Israel begin to inherit the promised land was great, but it was a longing that was to be unfulfilled.

Nor is it only Moses’ longing that fills this particular book. God’s longing, equally unfulfilled, can be seen in Deuteronomy 5:28-31: “Then the Lord heard the voice of your words when you spoke to me, and the Lord said to me: ‘I have heard the voice of this people which they have spoken to you. They are right in all that they have spoken. Oh, that they had such a heart in them that they would fear Me and always keep all My commandments, that it might be well with them and with their children forever! Go and say to them, “Return to your tents.” But Israel did not have a heart in them to fear and obey God, and all too often those of us who profess to believe in God lack the heart to obey God as well. We, like our physical and spiritual ancestors [2], are all too often stubborn and stiff-necked and hard to reach with gentle entreaty by God, to our sorrow when God uses more drastic and less pleasant ways of gaining our attention to the state of our ways. So God too, and not only Moses, had a longing that was not to be met because of the hardness of hearts of the children of Israel.

It is fitting that the last two extended parts of Deuteronomy spoken by Moses are a curse and then a blessing. Their antiquity can be well understood from the fact that they are recorded in verse, which is a general pattern of solemn oracles whether found in the Law, the Prophets, or the Writings, all of which are full of deeply meaningful poetry that was meant both for personal reflection and corporate worship. Although time does not permit for these two songs to be analyzed in great detail, it is worthwhile to at least bring the reader’s attention to these two moving songs, first the curse and then the blessing, and to note that these prophetic songs came to pass, and to make some other notes about their relationship with the rest of scripture, so that we can come to terms with the greatness of Moses as a prophet, and the way that this book looks forward not only to Israel’s arrival in the promised land, but it also looks back and forward to other matters as well.

The prophetic curse that Moses sang can be found in Deuteronomy 32:1-43. Let us look at the first seven verses of the song which reads: “Give ear, O heavens, and I will speak; and hear, O earth, the words of my mouth. Let my teaching drop as the rain, my speech distill as the dew. As raindrops on the tender herb, and as showers on the grass. For I proclaim the name of the Lord: ascribe greatness to our God. He is the Rock, His work is perfect; for all His ways are justice, a God of truth and without injustice; righteous and upright is He. They have corrupted themselves; they are not His children, because of their blemish: a perverse and crooked generation. Do you thus deal with the Lord, o foolish and unwise people? Is He not your Father, who bought you? Has He not made you and established you? Remember the days of old, consider the years of many generations. Ask your father, and he will show you; your elders, and they will tell you.”

We see in this beginning a very ominous reflection on the fate of Israel that is seldom regarded even by those who pay a great deal of attention to God’s Word as a whole. Israel was delivered from slavery in Egypt in large part because of God’s justice, and it was the punishment of the sins of the people of Canaan that led for Israel to inherit the promised land after about 400 years. Yet Israel did not take into account that the justice of God was not merely something that worked against the enemies of God, but also worked against them, especially for those who had received the blessings of God being just and faithful to His promises without being faithful to their promises and covenants. These words could easily be said of we and our generation, that we are blemished, that we have corrupted ourselves, that we are a perverse and crooked generation, a foolish and unwise people. We know, on some level, that God has bought us from slavery to sin and has created us and established us, but yet we neglect to study history, to see the patterns of how God operates in the face of flagrant and longstanding sin among those who claim to be His people but lack a repentant heart. Maybe we do not look because it is too painful to look.

The second song of Moses, his final blessing to the people of Israel, is no less obscure than his final curse, which we previously discussed briefly. This particular song deserves to be better known, but there is not time to give it due justice here. Let us content ourselves with some brief comments on the structure of the blessing and to its obvious antecedents in Genesis 49, where Jacob gave similar blessings to his twelve sons, just as Moses gives a final blessing to the twelve tribes who are shortly to receive their inheritance. The order of the blessings is somewhat striking: Reuben, Judah, Levi, Benjamin, Joseph, Zebulun, Gad, Dan, Naphtali, and Asher. There are no blessings recorded for Simeon or Issachar, for unknown reasons. As is the case with Genesis 49, some of the blessings are short and some are long. Of Reuben, for example, we have this poignant verse recorded in Deuteronomy 33:6: “Let Reuben live, and not die, not let his men be few.” Yet the blessing to Judah is equally short, in verse seven: “And this he said of Judah: “Hear, Lord, the voice of Judah, and bring him to his people; let his hands be sufficient for him, and may You be a help against his enemies.”” Truly this is a prayer that could be said of any of the brave inhabitants of the land of Israel today. Although Gad is one of the more obscure tribes in Israelite history, it receives a lengthy blessing, in verses 20-21: “And of Gad he said: “Blessed is he who enlarges Gad; he dwells as a lion, and tears the arm and the crown of his head. He provided the first part for himself, because a lawgiver’s portion was reserved there. He came with the heads of the people; he administered the justice of the Lord, and His judgments with Israel.” This is flattering praise, indeed.

Given the biblical importance of last words [3], it is puzzling that Moses’ last words are so obscure, given that they contain the last words of one of the more notable human authors of scripture, close one of the sections of scripture, and that contain prophetic information that could be used to better fill out the perspective about the various children of Israel. They contain a prophetic look at the coming judgment and exile of Israel that loomed as a result of Israel’s hardness of heart, even if that is painful for those of us who are similarly stubborn and obstinate to reflect upon. Yet these last chapters of Deuteronomy are obscure. I, for one, cannot remember any aspect of these verses being focused on at great length by any speaker I have heard except for the poignant matter of Moses walking up to the top of Mount Nebo after establishing Joshua as his successor and then viewing the land of Israel before his grave was hidden by God to avoid it becoming a pilgrimage site for the Israelites and a place for idolatrous regard of the servant of God instead of God Himself. His last words are seldom regarded or reflected upon, even if they look forward to the near and to the long term. This undeserved obscurity is striking and worthy of comment, and hopefully worthy of reversal as well.

There is one aspect of the end of Deuteronomy where the looking forward is particularly and richly ironic that is likewise seldom reflected upon. Those who know at least enough Hebrew to be dangerous can recognize that Jesus Christ and the successor of Moses Joshua share the same Hebrew name Yeshua. Yet there is a deep layer of ironic and prophetic significance in the final words of Deuteronomy, which we read in Deuteronomy 34:9-12: “Now Joshua the son of Nun was full of the spirit of wisdom, for Moses had laid his hands on him; so the children of Israel heeded him, and did as the Lord had commanded Moses. But since then there has not arisen in Israel a prophet like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face, in all the signs and wonders which the Lord sent him to do in the land of Egypt, before Pharaoh, before all his servants, and in all his land, and by all that mighty power and all the great terror which Moses performed in the sight of all Israel.”

The irony is as follows: Joshua the son of Nun was the human successor of Moses, but he did not have the same face-to-face relationship with God that Moses did, even though the Bible says that Israel heeded him during his time of leadership. On the other hand, Jesus Christ (or Yeshua, if you prefer), the son of Man, the son of David, and the son of God, spoken of by Moses in Deuteronomy 18:15-22 [4] did know God face to face, and yet Israel did not heed His voice or follow Him, despite of His identity and His following as the ultimate successor to Moses. And even those who claim to be Christians often fail to realize that the claim for Jesus’ authority rests on the very law that so many who claim to follow Jesus Christ so openly disdain. We are truly creatures of tragic irony indeed. For these reasons, whether we conceive of the entire book of Deuteronomy being the last words of Moses, or look to the songs of Deuteronomy 32 and 33, Moses’ last words are little regarded despite being of great importance to us whether we speak of physical or spiritual Israel. We neglect these words and their importance to us at our peril.

[1] See, for example:

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2011/06/20/a-case-for-solomonic-authorship-of-ecclesiastes/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2011/06/21/a-case-for-solomonic-authorship-of-ecclesiastes-part-two/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2011/06/22/a-case-for-solomonic-authorship-of-ecclesiastes-part-three/

[2] See, for example:

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2011/01/11/so-i-swore-in-my-wrath-they-shall-not-enter-my-rest-a-reflection-on-psalm-95/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2012/08/25/i-am-no-better-than-my-fathers/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2012/12/27/nor-did-he-acknowledge-his-brothers-or-know-his-own-children-a-personal-reflection-on-the-tribe-of-levi/

[3] See, for example:

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2016/01/19/famous-last-words-jacob/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2016/01/19/famous-last-words-joseph/

[4] https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2011/01/27/deuteronomy-18-on-legitimate-and-illegitimate-religious-authorities/

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in Bible, Biblical History, Christianity, History, Musings and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Famous Last Words: Moses

  1. Pingback: Famous Last Words: Joshua | Edge Induced Cohesion

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  3. Pingback: Famous Last Words: Sisera | Edge Induced Cohesion

  4. Pingback: Famous Last Words: Adoni-Bezek, Zebah and Zalmunna, Agag | Edge Induced Cohesion

  5. Pingback: A Mighty Man Of Valor | Edge Induced Cohesion

  6. Pingback: Serving God And Man: A Three-Stage Process | Edge Induced Cohesion

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