Moses Dies at the Age of 120 — Was It Premature?
Untimely Death (?)
The book of Deuteronomy records Moses’ death:
דברים לד:ז וּמֹשֶׁה בֶּן מֵאָה וְעֶשְׂרִים שָׁנָה בְּמֹתוֹ לֹא כָהֲתָה עֵינוֹ וְלֹא נָס לֵחֹה.
Deut 34:7 Moses was a hundred and twenty years old when he died; his eyes were undimmed and his freshness unabated.
Despite Moses living to the old age of one hundred twenty years, a typological lifespan number (cf. Gen. 6:3) representing three generations (40×3), Bible commentators throughout the generations considered his death untimely, and thus tragic and sorrowful, because he does not manage to fulfil his life-mission of reaching the Promised Land.
And indeed, the book of Deuteronomy does not use positive terms to express Moses’ old age. This contrasts, e.g., with Abraham’s, “ripe old age, elderly and full” (בְּשֵׂיבָה טוֹבָה זָקֵן וְשָׂבֵעַ; Gen 25:8), or variations of this used for Isaac “elderly and full of years” (זָקֵן וּשְׂבַע יָמִים; Gen 35:29) and Gideon “ripe old age” (בְּשֵׂיבָה טוֹבָה; Judg 8:32). Instead, Deuteronomy 34:7 describes Moses as still vigorous, implying his ability to stay alive and to function a few more good years (though see 31:2).
Why Moses Died in the Transjordan
The grounds for Moses’ “premature” death are presented differently in various sources of the Torah. The best known, and most often repeated claim is found in a narrative ascribed to the Priestly school, recounting that Moses’ death was a result of his wrongdoing with Aaron at Meribah:
במדבר כ:יב וַיֹּאמֶר יְ-הוָה אֶל מֹשֶׁה וְאֶל אַהֲרֹן יַעַן לֹא הֶאֱמַנְתֶּם בִּי לְהַקְדִּישֵׁנִי לְעֵינֵי בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל לָכֵן לֹא תָבִיאוּ אֶת הַקָּהָל הַזֶּה אֶל הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר נָתַתִּי לָהֶם.
Num 20:12 YHWH said to Moses and Aaron, “Because you did not trust Me enough to affirm My sanctity in the sight of the Israelite people, therefore you shall not lead this congregation into the land that I have given them.”
While the leader’s wrongdoing in the story is not entirely clear, the narrative explicitly indicates that the failure was of Moses and Aaron (20:24, 27:12–14).
In contrast to this Priestly conception, three earlier references to Moses’ death in Deuteronomy (1:37, 3:26, and 4:21) make no mention of a sin on Moses’ or Aaron’s part, and seem to offer a different explanation.
Three Synonymous Statements?
Placed together in the framework introduction of the law section in Deuteronomy, the three abovementioned references to Moses’ death are considered by many scholars as reflecting the same narrative about Moses’ destiny: death outside the Cisjordan because of the people’s deeds.
This reading appears, for example, in Gordon McConville’s recent commentary on Deuteronomy, where he chooses the same expression to translate the statements in Deut 1:37 and 3:26 and closely similar wording for the statement in 4:21, suggesting that they express the same idea:
|My (literal) Translation||Verse||McConville’s Translation|
|YHWH was angry with me because of you||
גַּם בִּי הִתְאַנַּף יְ-הוָה בִּגְלַלְכֶם
|The LORD was angry [even] with me because of you|
|But YHWH was furious with me on your behalf||
וַיִּתְעַבֵּר יְ-הוָה בִּי לְמַעַנְכֶם
|But the LORD was angry with me on your account|
|YHWH was angry with me owing to your words||
וַי-הוָה הִתְאַנַּף בִּי עַל דִּבְרֵיכֶם
|The LORD was angry [even] with me because of you|
By choosing similar wording, McConville conveys his assumption that the statements relate to and presuppose each other. The NRSV takes a similar approach. But the tendency to translate these statements of Moses with identical or similar wording misses the diverse terminology of the statements in the Hebrew text. Two of the statements refer to God’s reaction with the word התאנף (Deut 1:37, 4:21) whereas the verb ויתעבר is used in the other statement (3:26). In addition, three different expressions are used to describe the people’s part in the event: בגללכם (Deut 1:37), למענכם (3:26) and על דבריכם (4:21), each of which have different meanings.
These differences must be taken into consideration, as they reveal the diverse intentions of the authors, reflecting the complex process of the growth of the tradition. Let us look at each statement in turn, paying careful attention to what it says in context. We will start with the latest source, 4:21, and peel back the layers till we get to the possibly original and oldest of the three.
Israel’s Words (Deut. 4:21)
According to Deut. 4:21 Moses will not enter the land because of God’s anger with him (התנאף בי), which is an outcome of something for which the people are responsible (על דבריכם). But what exactly does the latter phrase mean?
The biblical term על דבר is usually translated as “because of,” based on translating דבר as thing, matter, or action, and therefore “for the thing/ in the matter.” But when the term appears with a pronominal suffix “my, his, your” (e.g. על דברי, על דבריו, על דבריכם) it means “word” or “speech.” The phrase here thus means, “owing to your words” or “due to what you said.” This is accurately conveyed in the LXX Greek translation, περὶ τῶν λεγομένων ὑφ᾿ ὑμῶν, as well as in Targum Onkelos’ Aramaic rendering על פתגמיכון, both of which mean “on account of your words,”stating that Moses was condemned because of specific words spoken by the people.
Most English translations mistranslate this phrase. For example, NRSV and ESV render, “because of you,” NJPS translates, “on your account,” and the King James reads, “for your sakes.” Whereas these translations elsewhere render על דבר correctly, as connected to words, they miss it here. Why do they err in the case of Deut 4:21?
One likely factor driving these translators is their desire to make this text correspond with 1:37, which reads בגללכם, “because of you.” Another factor may be the general context of chapter 4, which lacks any mention of specific words uttered by the people. This explanation thus points to a problem in the text itself—the entire accusation about the people’s words (על דבריכם, 4:21) and the following reference (v. 22) seem misplaced.
A Redactional Insertion
Verses 21-22 in Deuteronomy 4 seem to be a later insertion in their context, as they interrupt the discussion of the importance of the Israelites not turning to worship heavenly bodies once they enter the land:
דברים ד:יט וּפֶן תִּשָּׂא עֵינֶיךָ הַשָּׁמַיְמָה וְרָאִיתָ אֶת הַשֶּׁמֶשׁ וְאֶת הַיָּרֵחַ וְאֶת הַכּוֹכָבִים כֹּל צְבָא הַשָּׁמַיִם וְנִדַּחְתָּ וְהִשְׁתַּחֲוִיתָ לָהֶם וַעֲבַדְתָּם אֲשֶׁר חָלַק יְ-הוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ אֹתָם לְכֹל הָעַמִּים תַּחַת כָּל הַשָּׁמָיִם. ד:כוְאֶתְכֶם לָקַח יְ-הוָה וַיּוֹצִא אֶתְכֶם מִכּוּר הַבַּרְזֶל מִמִּצְרָיִם לִהְיוֹת לוֹ לְעַם נַחֲלָה כַּיּוֹם הַזֶּה.
Deut 4:19 And when you look up to the sky and behold the sun and the moon and the stars, the whole heavenly host, you must not be lured into bowing down to them or serving them. These YHWH your God allotted to other peoples everywhere under heaven; 4:20 but you YHWH took and brought out of Egypt, that iron blast furnace, to be His very own people, as is now the case.
ד:כא וַי-הוָה הִתְאַנַּף בִּי עַל דִּבְרֵיכֶם וַיִּשָּׁבַע לְבִלְתִּי עָבְרִי אֶת הַיַּרְדֵּן וּלְבִלְתִּי בֹא אֶל הָאָרֶץ הַטּוֹבָה אֲשֶׁר יְ-הוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ נֹתֵן לְךָ נַחֲלָה. ד:כב כִּי אָנֹכִי מֵת בָּאָרֶץ הַזֹּאת אֵינֶנִּי עֹבֵר אֶת הַיַּרְדֵּן וְאַתֶּם עֹבְרִים וִירִשְׁתֶּם אֶת הָאָרֶץ הַטּוֹבָה הַזֹּאת.
4:21 Now YHWH was angry with me owing to your words and swore that I should not cross the Jordan and enter the good land that YHWH your God is assigning you as a heritage. 4:22 For I must die in this land; I shall not cross the Jordan. But you will cross and take possession of that good land.
ד:כג הִשָּׁמְרוּ לָכֶם פֶּן תִּשְׁכְּחוּ אֶת בְּרִית יְ-הוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם אֲשֶׁר כָּרַת עִמָּכֶם וַעֲשִׂיתֶם לָכֶם פֶּסֶל תְּמוּנַת כֹּל אֲשֶׁר צִוְּךָ יְ-הוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָד:כד כִּי יְ-הוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ אֵשׁ אֹכְלָה הוּא אֵל קַנָּא.
4:23 Take care, then, not to forget the covenant that YHWH your God concluded with you, and not to make for yourselves a sculptured image in any likeness, against which YHWH your God has enjoined you. 4:24 For YHWH your God is a consuming fire, an impassioned God.
It is plausible that the remark in verses 21–22 was aimed at linking the law-giving account that begins in 4:44 with the narrative in the previous chapters. But as referring to a notion of the people’s words the reference seems to indicate familiarity with a specific narrative, that is the story of the spies as described in Deuteronomy 1, which accuses the people for their utterances.
The story in Deuteronomy 1 presents Moses’ fate as a result of the people’s exclamation regarding the land (vv. 27–28, 34). But as we will see this reference to Moses in chapter 1 happens to be itself misplaced in the context.
Reaction to the Spies (Deut 1:37)
According to the narrative of Deuteronomy 1 it was during an early stage of the journey in the wilderness that Moses was condemned to die outside the land (1:37, 46). His death was destined to take place together with the demise of the congregation (vv. 34–37), who were blamed for a negative reaction to the report of those spies who reconnoitred the land (vv. 27–29). The wrong attitude of the people is especially noticeable in light of the positive report this account attributes to the spies themselves:
דברים א:כה …וַיָּשִׁבוּ אֹתָנוּ דָבָר וַיֹּאמְרוּ טוֹבָה הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר יְ-הוָה אֱלֹהֵינוּ נֹתֵן לָנוּ.
Deut 1:25 …They brought back a report to us, and said, “It is a good land that YHWH our God is giving us.”
In this way, the people’s refusal to go up the land seems more unacceptable and unforgivable.
The narrative further states that Moses’ death was because of the people (v. 37), suggesting that he dies as a result of a kind of collateral damage: all the Israelites who left Egypt (except for the good scout Caleb) may not enter the land, and this must include their leader, Moses. But here too, Moses’ comment about his death seems out of place, interrupting the flow from what will happen to the generation of the spies and their children:
דברים א:לד וַיִּשְׁמַע יְ-הוָה אֶת קוֹל דִּבְרֵיכֶם וַיִּקְצֹף וַיִּשָּׁבַע לֵאמֹר. א:לה אִם יִרְאֶה אִישׁ בָּאֲנָשִׁים הָאֵלֶּה הַדּוֹר הָרָע הַזֶּה אֵת הָאָרֶץ הַטּוֹבָה אֲשֶׁר נִשְׁבַּעְתִּי לָתֵת לַאֲבֹתֵיכֶם. א:לו זוּלָתִי כָּלֵב בֶּן יְפֻנֶּה הוּא יִרְאֶנָּה וְלוֹ אֶתֵּן אֶת הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר דָּרַךְ בָּהּ וּלְבָנָיו יַעַן אֲשֶׁר מִלֵּא אַחֲרֵי יְ-הוָה.
Deut 1:34 When YHWH heard your loud complaint, He was angry. He vowed: 1:35 Not one of these men, this evil generation, shall see the good land that I swore to give to your fathers — 1:36 none except Caleb son of Jephunneh; he shall see it, and to him and his descendants will I give the land on which he set foot, because he remained loyal to YHWH.–
א:לז גַּם בִּי הִתְאַנַּף יְ-הוָה בִּגְלַלְכֶם לֵאמֹר גַּם אַתָּה לֹא תָבֹא שָׁם. א:לחיְהוֹשֻׁעַ בִּן נוּן הָעֹמֵד לְפָנֶיךָ הוּא יָבֹא שָׁמָּה אֹתוֹ חַזֵּק כִּי הוּא יַנְחִלֶנָּה אֶת יִשְׂרָאֵל.
1:37 Because of you YHWH was angry with me too, and He said: You shall not enter it either. 1:38Joshua son of Nun, who attends you, he shall enter it. Imbue him with strength, for he shall allot it to Israel.
א:לט וְטַפְּכֶם אֲשֶׁר אֲמַרְתֶּם לָבַז יִהְיֶה וּבְנֵיכֶם אֲשֶׁר לֹא יָדְעוּ הַיּוֹם טוֹב וָרָע הֵמָּה יָבֹאוּ שָׁמָּה וְלָהֶם אֶתְּנֶנָּה וְהֵם יִירָשׁוּהָ…
1:39 Moreover, your little ones who you said would be carried off, your children who do not yet know good from bad, they shall enter it; to them will I give it and they shall possess it…
The obscurity of the judgment of Moses is especially noticeable in this context when comparing the narrative with its textual source in the account of the spy story in Numbers 13–14. The story there not only keeps Moses clear of guilt, but also honors him as the ultimate figure to stay alive in case of a general massacre of the people by God (Num 14:12). God’s judgment of Moses is also surprising, since, if anything, Moses attempts to talk the people down once they refuse to continue the journey and blame God (Deut 1:29–33).
The depiction of Moses’ faultless involvement in the incident of Deuteronomy 1 makes God’s judgment of him (v. 37) even more obscure. The mismatch of these details supports the observation that the verses explaining why Moses must die outside the Cisjordan are not an original part of the passage. The verses were added to supplement the information about the entrance into the land. Alongside the information about the fate of the current generation and their children (vv. 35-36, 39), the fate of the leader(s) could be mentioned (vv. 37-38).
Thus, like the reference in 4:21-22, the remark about Moses’ fate in 1:37-38 is secondary in its context. This remark reflects familiarity with the third and most original version of this tradition, the dialogue between God and Moses in Deut. 3:23–28.
Moses Begs to Enter the Land (Deut 3:26)
In Deuteronomy 3, Moses encourages Joshua by saying that the natives of the Cisjordan will fall to him just as easily as the Transjordan fell to Moses (vv. 21-22). At that point, Moses pleads to YHWH to allow him to enter the land with Israel, but YHWH refuses. This unit is characterized by varied uses of the root עבר (bold):
דברים ג:כג וָאֶתְחַנַּן אֶל יְ-הוָה בָּעֵת הַהִוא לֵאמֹר.ג:כד אֲדֹנָי יְ-הוִה אַתָּה הַחִלּוֹתָ לְהַרְאוֹת אֶת עַבְדְּךָ אֶת גָּדְלְךָ וְאֶת יָדְךָ הַחֲזָקָה אֲשֶׁר מִי אֵל בַּשָּׁמַיִם וּבָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר יַעֲשֶׂה כְמַעֲשֶׂיךָ וְכִגְבוּרֹתֶךָ. ג:כהאֶעְבְּרָה נָּא וְאֶרְאֶה אֶת הָאָרֶץ הַטּוֹבָה אֲשֶׁר בְּעֵבֶרהַיַּרְדֵּן הָהָר הַטּוֹב הַזֶּה וְהַלְּבָנוֹן.
Deut 3:23 I pleaded with YHWH at that time, saying, 3:24 “O Lord YHWH, You who let Your servant see the first works of Your greatness and Your mighty hand, You whose powerful deeds no god in heaven or on earth can equal! 3:25 Let me, I pray, cross over and see the good land on the other side of the Jordan, that good hill country, and the Lebanon.”
ג:כו וַיִּתְעַבֵּר יְ-הוָה בִּי לְמַעַנְכֶם וְלֹא שָׁמַע אֵלָי וַיֹּאמֶר יְ-הוָה אֵלַי רַב לָךְ אַל תּוֹסֶף דַּבֵּר אֵלַי עוֹד בַּדָּבָר הַזֶּה. ג:כז עֲלֵה רֹאשׁ הַפִּסְגָּה וְשָׂא עֵינֶיךָ יָמָּה וְצָפֹנָה וְתֵימָנָה וּמִזְרָחָה וּרְאֵה בְעֵינֶיךָ כִּי לֹא תַעֲבֹר אֶת הַיַּרְדֵּן הַזֶּה. ג:כח וְצַו אֶת יְהוֹשֻׁעַ וְחַזְּקֵהוּ וְאַמְּצֵהוּ כִּי הוּא יַעֲבֹר לִפְנֵי הָעָם הַזֶּה וְהוּא יַנְחִיל אוֹתָם אֶת הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר תִּרְאֶה.
3:26 But YHWH was furious with me on your behalf and would not listen to me. YHWH said to me, “Enough! Never speak to Me of this matter again! 3:27 Go up to the summit of Pisgah and gaze about, to the west, the north, the south, and the east. Look at it well, for you shall not go across yonder Jordan. 3:28 Give Joshua his instructions, and imbue him with strength and courage, for he shall go across at the head of this people, and he shall allot to them the land that you may only see.”
God’s response to Moses here suits not only the specific account of Moses’ plea, but the broader context in the chapter, which describes the people’s preparations for crossing the Jordan and taking possession of the land, while experiencing a change in the leadership (vv. 18–21, 28).
עבר here functions as a Leitwort (literally, “leading word”; Hebrew, מילה מנחה) , appearing six times, and thrice in the previous passage (vv. 18-22), for a total of nine occurrences. In eight out of nine instances, it is used in two related ways:
- It is qal-form verb, “crossing,” used to describe the people’s and Joshua’s future action, and that which Moses wishes he could do.
- It is the name of the coveted land beyond the border of the Jordan (עבר הירדן).
Significantly, the one remaining use of the root is the very unusual hitpa’el-form verb ויתעבר, meaning “became furious,” which refers to YHWH’s reaction to Moses’ request. The verb resonates with its more typical use related to “crossing,” thereby emphasizing that Moses’ crossing is against YHWH’s plan, in contrast to Joshua and the people’s crossing, which is in line with YHWH’s plan.
The frequency of the root עבר in God and Moses’ dialogue (3:23–28), as part of the broader context of Deuteronomy 3, indicates the authenticity of Moses’ sentence in the chapter.In contrast, the redactional supplements in chs. 1 and 4, in summarizing and recasting this interaction, use the more common Deuteronomistic term ויתאנף to describe God’s anger (Deut 9:8, 20; 1 Kings 11:9; 2 Kings 17:18. And 1 Kings 8:46 [אנף]).
Why Does God Refuse Moses’ Request?
According to this earliest account of chapter 3, why does God refuse to let Moses cross the Jordan and enter the land? Unlike the other accounts, Deuteronomy 3 does not point to the people’s wrongdoing as the basis of the verdict (cf. בגללכם, על דבריכם; “because of you”, “because of your words”, 1:37, 4:21). In fact, the text says that YHWH became furious with Moses “on your behalf” (למענכם), meaning that the decision was for Israel’s benefit.
The use of the preposition למען, when attached to a noun, indicates anyone on whose behalf action is done. The term is always positive and thus means “for your benefit.” This explains why the text did not choose the similar preposition בעבור which seemingly could have fit better into the context as it contains the prominent root of the chapter (עבר). While בעבור can be used interchangeably with the particle למען (Gen 18:24–29, 27:19–25; Exod 9:16), it does not always convey “in favour of” (e.g. Gen 3:17, 12:13, 16), as the term למען does. Thus, by choosing the preposition למענכם for Deut 3:26, the author conveys that God’s anger was for the benefit of the people, rather than a result of their deeds.
The End of the Leader – The End of a Period
In a brief commentary from 1973, Anthony Phillips implied that the tradition in Deuteronomy about Moses’ punishment is similar to the model in Isaiah 53 of the suffering servant that carries the iniquities of the people (vv. 4–6, 11). But the examination above shows that in earlier layer of the Deuteronomistic historiography no punishment actually needed to be borne. In fact, it is arguable that Moses’ death was not considered punishment at all.
As reflected in Moses’ speech in Deuteronomy 31, the end of his leadership arrives when he reaches the traditionally limited number of a human life (cf. Gen 6:3):
דברים לא:ב וַיֹּאמֶר אֲלֵהֶם בֶּן מֵאָה וְעֶשְׂרִים שָׁנָה אָנֹכִי הַיּוֹם לֹא אוּכַל עוֹד לָצֵאת וְלָבוֹא וַי-הוָה אָמַר אֵלַי לֹא תַעֲבֹר אֶת הַיַּרְדֵּן הַזֶּה. לא:ג יְ-הוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ הוּא עֹבֵר לְפָנֶיךָ הוּא יַשְׁמִיד אֶת הַגּוֹיִם הָאֵלֶּה מִלְּפָנֶיךָ וִירִשְׁתָּם…
Deut 31:2 He said to them: “I am now one hundred and twenty years old, I can no longer be active. Moreover, YHWH has said to me, ‘You shall not go across yonder Jordan.’ 31:3 YHWH your God Himself will cross over before you; and He Himself will wipe out those nations from your path and you shall dispossess them…”
Thus, Moses’ end is the expected consequence of his mortality, which stands in contrast with YHWH’s eternality, and consistent presence among the Israelites (Deut 31:3b–4, Josh 1.2–5). In other words, YHWH will accompany the Israelites into the land and the next phase of their life as a people, but Moses, the leader of the exodus and the wilderness wandering, will not be accompanying them.
Moses Dies for Israel’s Benefit
But how does Moses’ death benefit Israel and why is God angry with him? God’s anger derives from Moses’ endeavour to change his fixed destiny. Moses is overreaching, asking for an unnatural extension of life so he could participate in the next stage of Israel’s destiny. Thus, his death was is actually not premature, it is at the right time and in the right place!
Moses was the leader of the exodus and the wilderness wandering. At the end of this period, a new era with new challenges of settling in the land is waiting for the people. Deuteronomy here imagines that a new leader might better facilitate this process, enabling the people to begin a new stage released from their past bonds.
Mythologizing of Moses
So why were reasons for Moses’ death added in Deuteronomy 1 and 4? These supplements reflect the development of certain mythical dimensions of Moses, requiring that he did not die as a regular man. Thus chapter 1, followed by ch. 4, reflect an attempt to correct the impression that Moses died just because of old age like any other mortal, suggesting that a grave sin was responsible for his death. While here, in Deuteronomy 1 and 4, this sin was related to the people, alternative traditions such as the one of P attributed the sin to Moses himself.
In contrast to these, the main narrative of Deuteronomy attributed to Moses the experience of death as common to all mortals. He died in a ripe old age, no longer able (or allowed) to be active (Deut 31:2), though he was as fresh as a young man (34:7). His mission ends at the climax of his life, closing the period of the wilderness wandering. A new person, Joshua, was needed to initiate the next stage of bringing Israel into the Promised Land.
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September 29, 2018
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Dr. Gili Kugler is a senior lecturer of Biblical Studies and Classical Hebrew at the Department of Hebrew, Biblical and Jewish Studies in the University of Sydney. She holds a Ph.D. from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Among her articles are, “Not Moses, but David: Theology and Politics in Psalm 78,” Scottish Journal of Theology 73 (2020), 126–136, and “Moses died and the people moved on: A Hidden Narrative in Deuteronomy,” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 43 (2018), 191–204. Her book, When God Wanted to Destroy the Chosen People: Biblical Traditions and Theology on the Move, was published in 2019 by De Gruyter.
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