The following is a response to a question I received about Moses’ death on Mt. Nebo as recorded in Deuteronomy 34. This passage states that Moses only saw the promised land before he died there. The person who asked me this had some good inquiries. However, I would recommend that he read all five books of the Torah (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy) and then Joshua. Many answers to his questions will be found there. But the crux of his questions was: Wasn’t it a jerk thing of God to let Moses die without entering the promised land?
I think there are lots of great lessons to be gleaned from the entirety of the Exodus narrative. First of all, there is no arguing that Moses did a lot. However, one can never say that he did a lot for God. Because, the fact of the matter is, I don’t think we can ever do anything “for” God. We can do things on God’s behalf, we can do things because we are compelled or called by God, and we can do things for other people for God’s sake. But I do not think it is possible for us to do good things to God, as if God needed our help. If one wants to say that Moses did a lot for the Israelites, I have to agree completely. Moses (working as God’s agent) led them out of Egypt, advocated for them in the Wilderness, and eventually led them to the Promised Land.
Second, the time in the Wilderness was a a great time for Moses and God. It was there in the Wilderness, that God actually made himself known to Moses. The exodus narrative makes it clear that Moses actually encountered God face to face. I don’t think Moses had to enter the Promised Land to receive all the benefits of God’s great blessing, Moses received it in person. What is more, I think it is clear that the best time for God with the Israelites was in the desert. It was here that the Israelites depended absolutely on God for their very lives. It was not a jerk thing to do to let Moses die in the Wilderness, but instead it was a way of preserving and ending the great time God had with the Israelites.
Third, the Promised Land didn’t turn out to be all that great. Wars had to be fought and there were divisions within the tribes of the Israelites, just to name two things. Moses actually died in a good state, the text does not make it sound like Moses was bitter at all. I think this is an interesting insight into American culture, we want satisfaction and we want it now. Moses died without ever being in the Promised Land, but he never belly-ached about it. Instead of looking at it through our eyes that are only sated through greed and lust for possessions, we should see this is as an incredible blessing for Moses; that his task of advocating for the Israelites through the desert was over.
Fourth, this passage is ripe with Biblical allusions that one who is not a Christian has difficulty picking up. Moses died when he was 120 years old. The year forty has lots of significance throughout the Bible (the Israelites’ forty years in the wilderness, Moses’ forty days on the mountain, Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness), and for Moses to die at three times that number represents an even higher state of perfection. Second, it was on a mountain that Moses first encountered God in the burning bush and it was on a mountain that God gave the law; so it is only fitting that is on a mountain that Moses should die. Moses’ death on the mountain is not some unkind action from God, instead it is symbolic of Moses’ very close relationship with God (see the second point above).
Fifth, this whole passage, and indeed the whole Bible, is not about people, but it is the witness of God’s love for us. Therefore, when we read that Moses died and nobody knows where his gravesite is it means that God’s deliverance and providence through the wilderness is more important than the actions of Moses. Once again, this shows how unChristian American thought is. As Christians, we live and we die in God (Romans 14:8). We are not concerned about ourselves, as Moses was not concerned about himself. Unfortunately, secular culture so turns our minds inward that we begin asking questions like: “Why did God let Moses die on Mt. Nebo?”
These are just some of my thoughts. They are not very coherent.