I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about Deuteronomy, to be just real honest about it. But for one reason or another Deuteronomy chapter 34 has come up a few times recently. It was mentioned in our study of the book Making Sense of Scripture, and I happened to read an article just this week in which someone was talking about Deuteronomy 34.
In both cases, this passage came up in a conversation about the nature of scripture and particularly the Old Testament. Traditionally, the first five books of the Old Testament, called the Pentateuch, or Torah – the Law – were attributed to Moses. Moses wrote the first five books of the Bible. They are sometimes even called the Books of Moses.
Except that there are a few problems with that theory. I read an article by Mickey Maudlin, senior editor of Harper’s religious publishing division, about his experience of having a conversion to Christian faith and becoming an “all-in” evangelical with the enthusiasm of a new convert. He attended an inerrancy conference where he learned that God’s people (that would be the people at the conference) were in a war with “liberals” over the Bible. Anti-God, secular forces wanted to strip Scripture of anything supernatural, and their job was to defend God’s Word as true and trustworthy.
But then he read in Deuteronomy 34 that Moses died. This was a problem because in the Quest Study Bible (held in great esteem in his community) there were frequently asked questions in the margin. One question was, “Who wrote Deuteronomy?” and the answer was, Moses. Moses wrote the first five books of the Bible.
This raised the question for him: how did Moses report on his own death? And in fact, the passage goes on to say, “Never since has there arisen a prophet in Israel like Moses,” which makes it sound as though it had been some time since Moses had died. Even if you could somehow overlook that, would Moses really go on and on about what a fantastic and unequalled leader he was? And could Moses have written a verse like Numbers 12:3, which says, “Now the man Moses was very humble, more so than anyone else on the face of the earth.” If Moses actually wrote that, then he certainly was not the most humble man on the face of the earth.
Well, this may be a non-issue for you, but it is possible to get so caught up in our theories about the Bible, our beliefs about the Bible, that we are unable to hear what the Bible is actually saying. Reading Deuteronomy 34 did not exactly provoke a crisis of faith for Mickey Maudlin, but it began a growing awareness that a number of beliefs he had about the Bible did not match his actual experience with the Bible.
Scholars believe that there were four main sources that came together to form what we call the Pentateuch, including the editor who weaved these accounts together into the books we have today. Does this make the Bible any less God’s book? Portions of the Torah certainly come from Moses and those around him – the Ten Commandments, for example - but does scripture lose its power if it turns out Moses didn’t write all of it?
Well, I don’t sense that this is a big issue for many of us, and I don’t want to dwell too long here. But Deuteronomy 34 seemed like a good opportunity to talk a bit about how scripture came together.
It is easy to understand why the Torah has been ascribed in its entirety to Moses: he was the great figure, the great hero of Israel. And it is easy to understand why the report of Moses’ death is accompanied by such words of exaltation. The deaths of great leaders seem somehow different than the deaths of all those ordinary folks whose obituaries appear in the newspaper every day. Those just a little bit older than me remember where they were when they heard that John F. Kennedy was shot. Those still older remember when FDR died. The sense of loss can feel palpable, and there is the question of what this will mean for the life of the nation.
Multiply that feeling many times over and you have the death of Moses. There had never been anyone like Moses. Never mind that the Bible is honest about Moses’ faults and weaknesses; his stature in Israel was beyond question. Everybody knew the story of his rescue from the Nile River by Pharaoh's daughter. God spoke to him through the burning bush and Moses confronted Pharaoh. God brought plagues upon Egypt through the hand of Moses. When Moses held forth his hand, the Red Sea split open. When Moses withdrew his hand, the waters rushed back over the horse and rider of Egypt. Moses led them out of slavery and spoke to the people the very words of God. Moses went up on Mt. Sinai, had seen God’s face, and brought back the law.
Of course, the people knew that Moses was simply the instrument God used to channel God’s power. Moses would have been the first to make that clear. Still, the people could not help but hold in the highest esteem the leader through whom God had worked. How could the people not reverence Moses the man?
But then one day he was just gone. He went up into the mountains and never came back. It was obvious he was dead, but there could be no burial rites. Apparently God himself had buried Moses, and our scripture today makes clear that no one ever did find out where. If the site of Moses’ grave had been known, the people would have no doubt built a shrine there. Instead, we find the shrine to Moses in scripture.
We read that when he died, Moses was 120 years old, and that his sight was unimpaired and his vigor unabated. If he were 120 and had not slowed down even a little bit, 120 years old and didn’t even need reading glasses, then it would have been a big surprise that he had died. If he still had the energy of a 30 year old, then it seems less likely that a successor would already be in place.
Moses may have been comparatively strong, even at the end, but those comments may have been along the lines of somebody who looks into a casket and say, “She really looks good.” These are words of honor and reverence for the man, and it is hard to fault anyone for doing that.
Then we read, “The Israelites wept for Moses in the plains of Moab for thirty days; then the period of mourning for Moses was ended.” Their grief and pain was real. This was a great loss for the people, and Moses would remain down through the ages as the great prophet and leader of Israel. I mean, here we are talking about him today, right? But the time of mourning lasted 30 days and ended. Thirty days, and that’s it. Of course the people still grieved and missed him, but the formal mourning period ended because life has to go on. Through Moses, God had anointed Joshua as the new leader. He was a different leader, and this was a new day. There would be new challenges and both victories and disappointments lie ahead. Moses was gone, but God was still with the people.
In some ways, this is a very sad conclusion to the story of Moses, to the book of Deuteronomy, and to the whole Pentateuch, or Books of Moses. Moses does not get to enter the Promised Land, the destination toward which he had been leading the people for 40 long years. Moses climbs to the top of Mt. Nebo and sees all of the lands that God had promised to Abraham and Sarah. He sees the Promised Land but does not make it there himself.
We are not sure why that was the case – there were a couple of minor incidents where Moses does not follow God’s instructions, but the penalty does not seem to fit the crime. Sometimes, that’s just the way it goes: the leader cannot arrive at the destination to which he had led the people. For David, the crowning achievement of all he had accomplished as king would have been building God a grand and glorious Temple. But God said no, leave that to your son Solomon. David didn’t see it himself.
So many never quite made it to the place toward which they had been struggling their whole lives long. As Hebrews 11 put it, they could only see from a distance that city that God had prepared for them.
I think of Martin Luther King, speaking in Memphis on the night before he was shot. He said, “God has allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land.”
On the Church Calendar, today is Reformation Sunday. On October 31, 1517, Martin Luther nailed 95 theses concerning the nature of the church and the sacraments to the church door in Wittenberg, which served as the community bulletin board, and it went viral. The Protestant Reformation was off and running. The Church had come to be so concerned about the institution that it was missing the gospel. Jesus summarizes it in our reading from the gospel of Matthew: love God and love one’s neighbor.
Of course, it is simplistic to date the Reformation from that one event. The Reformation was not a one-time event – boom, and it’s over. The Reformation, formally speaking, was more of a process that took decades. But even then, the church did not stay where it was in the 16th century. In order to respond to the needs of the culture in which it finds itself, the church is constantly changing, and ever in need of reformation.
The Roman Catholic Church went through what was known as the counter-reformation, and changed many of its practices. And the Catholic Church has continued to reform, even today – maybe you have been paying attention to the new pope. The Baptists came along in the early 17th century as separatists who had given up hope on reforming the Church of England from within and established their own congregations. Along the way, we have continued to evolve and reform. I would venture that First Baptist Church of Ames in 2014 is considerably different from the First Baptist Church in America in Providence in 1639.
Phyllis Tickle wrote a book a few years ago called The Great Emergence. Her thesis was that the church undergoes a great change every 500 years or so – kind of like clearing out the attic and having a giant rummage sale. The church lets go of some forms of spirituality in order to make room for new ones.
In the sixth century, it was Gregory the Great with liturgical reform – you’ve heard of Gregorian chants – and the great growth of monasteries, which were repositories of western knowledge through the Dark Ages. In 1054, there was the Great Schism, as the church split east and west. 500 years later, it was the Protestant Reformation. And now, we find ourselves in a time of transition again – what Tickle and others have called the Great Emergence. Our ways of doing church and being church are changing. This is a time of rapid change in matters of spirituality, but the shape of the church to come is yet to be seen.
David Lose (in his …”In the Meantime” blog), speaking of changes in society, the decline in many churches and denominations, and trends such as the increasing number of people who claim no religious affiliation asked:
What if our congregations are set up to respond to the needs of those who came of age in the fifties, sixties, and seventies but have little to offer millennials? In other words, what if the way we do church just doesn’t make much sense to the youngest third of our population? What then?
I find this to be a terrifying thought. Mostly because I think it might be true. But I also find that to be an incredibly freeing thought. Because it means, in part…
- that we don’t have to do things the same way
- that we don’t have to judge ourselves by the practices and patterns of previous generations
- that we don’t have to keep pretending that we’ve got everything under control when deep down we feel like the world, or at least the church, is falling apart
- that we are free to experiment, to risk, even to play
- and that as with the vast majority of Christians throughout the ages we must rely again on God’s Spirit and grace, rather than our accomplishments or organizations, to lead us forward.
Moses was gone. There would never be another Moses. But there would be Joshua. There would be judges like Deborah and Gideon and Samson and Samuel. There would be King David. And in time, there would be Jesus.
Honoring Moses did not mean staying behind in the wilderness, it meant moving forward into the Promised Land. We honor those who have gone before us when we continue to be open to the leading God’s Spirit.
Moses is ushered out with great dignity, and remembered with great affection and esteem. Then it is Joshua’s turn. He takes the reins and continues the work which Moses began.
We have inherited a wonderful tradition from spiritual forbears who stretch back over the centuries. Now it is our turn. Joshua was a different person than Moses, and we are different than those who went before us. The church continues to move forward, and someday we will pass on the torch. Through it all, we are called to figure out how best to further the gospel of Jesus Christ in our time and place, loving God and loving our neighbor.
The late columnist and humorist Lewis Grizzard wrote about his own mortality in a book with the wonderful title, Elvis is Dead and I Don’t Feel So Good Myself. With apologies Grizzard, and in recognition that we have received this tradition of reformation and are passing it on to others, we might say, “Moses is dead, and I don’t feel so good myself.”
That doesn’t mean we are checking out anytime soon, but it means that like Moses, we are all “temporary,” while the call to love God and neighbor goes on. Amen.