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Raymond P. Scheindlin





Moses Pleads with God: Why Must I Die?





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Raymond P. Scheindlin





Moses Pleads with God: Why Must I Die?








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Moses Pleads with God: Why Must I Die?

Moses, on his last day, recites two poems—the Song of Moses and Blessing of Moses (Deut 32, 33). In this spirit, the eighth century Tiberian Pinchas Hakohen poetically describes Moses excusing his sins and offering alternatives to his death.


Moses Pleads with God: Why Must I Die?

Moses spreads death among the Egyptians, Marc Chagall, 1931. Wikiart

Moses spends his last day on earth reciting and teaching the poem in Deuteronomy 32, after which, God instructs him to ascend Mount Nebo and die there:

דברים לב:מח יְדַבֵּר יְ־הוָה אֶל מֹשֶׁה בְּעֶצֶם הַיּוֹם הַזֶּה לֵאמֹר. לב:מט עֲלֵה אֶל הַר הָעֲבָרִים הַזֶּה הַר נְבוֹ... לב:נ וּמֻת בָּהָר אֲשֶׁר אַתָּה עֹלֶה שָׁמָּה וְהֵאָסֵף אֶל עַמֶּיךָ...
Deut 32:48 YHWH spoke to Moses on that very day and said, 32:49 “Go up onto this mountain of Abarim, Mount Nebo… 32:50 and die on the mountain on which you ascend and join your ancestors….

Before fulfilling that last command, Moses recites another poem, his final blessing of the individual tribes (Deut 33). Thus, Moses spends nearly the entirety of his last day reciting and teaching poetry. It is appropriate, therefore, that his last day became the subject of Hebrew poems composed during late antiquity and the early Middle Ages.

Moses Pleads for His Life

Several of these poems elaborate on the theme of Moses pleading with God for a reprieve from death, a theme that is also developed in the prose literature of the age—the classical midrashim and the short work Petirat Moshe.[1] Moses prayed 515 times that he be spared, according to Devarim Rabbah (11:10),[2] and assorted midrashic texts offer varying versions of Moses’ attempts to persuade God to relent.

In some texts, Moses bases his claim to an exemption from death on his virtues or accomplishments, and God refutes them or points out that other men who were just as virtuous accepted the decree of death. In Midrash Tanchuma (Vaetchanan 6, Buber ed.) and Petirat Moshe (Jellinek, Bet hamidrasch, 1:117), Moses claims that he deserves an exemption from death because he has never committed a sin. God informs him, however, that he has, in fact, committed six sins, each one an act of speech:

  1. At the burning bush, Moses asks God to send someone else on his mission (Exod 4:13);
  2. When Pharaoh forces the Israelites to find their own straw for making bricks, Moses complains that since the beginning of his mission, the people’s conditions have only worsened (Exod 5:23);
  3. In his confrontation with Korah and his supporters, Moses says to the assembly, “If these men die a normal death, God has not sent me!” (Num 16:29);
  4. He goes on to say in that same speech, “But if God creates something new … then you will know that these men have … the Lord” (Num 16:30);
  5. Addressing the people before the rock at Qadesh, Moses begins by saying, “Listen, you rebels!” (Num 20:10);
  6. He addresses the people of Gad, Reuven, and the half-tribe of Manasseh, who want to settle in the Transjordan, as “the spawn of sinful people” (Num 32:14), implying that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were sinners.

A rahit poem[3] by Pinchas Hakohen (eighth century Tiberias), intended to be recited on the Shabbat of Vezot Haberacha, takes up the theme of Moses’ sins from a different and unique perspective.[4]

The Sins of Moses in the Poem of Pinchas Hakohen

The poem consists of eleven stanzas, each divided into two parts, with Moses pleading in the first part and God refuting his plea in the second. In the first section of the poem, Moses proposes reasons (and excuses) for his sins, and in the second section, he suggests alternatives to dying.

What Did I Do? The Recurring Refrain

As the poem begins, Moses, who has just received God’s order to ascend the mountain and die, is protesting. His opening words are the refrain with which each stanza of the first seven commences:

לֹא אָמוּת! לָמָה אָמוּת?
אֵל הוֹדִיעֵנִי, עַל מַה תְּרִיבֵנִי!
Let me not die! Why should I die?
O God, just tell me, What complaint have You with me?

Moses begins his plea by alluding to a verse in Psalms:

תהלים קיח:יז לֹא אָמוּת כִּי אֶחְיֶה וַאֲסַפֵּר מַעֲשֵׂי יָהּ.
Ps 118:17 I shall not die, but live and recount the deeds of the Lord.

This allusion actually appears in many of the Moses’ death texts, and the quote highlights his humanity.[5] Moses may be the man of God (Deut 33:1) who split the sea, stood on Mount Sinai, and shepherded his people through the wilderness for forty years, but in these lines, he sounds like an ordinary man who just wants a little more time.

Moses views his death not as the fate of all humanity but as uniquely his. He reviews his life, seeking a cause in his own behavior and an excuse in his good intentions. We readers might find Moses’ question surprising, for he had been informed and ought to have known very well that he would die in the wilderness as a result of the sin at the Waters of Meribah (Num 20:1–13). Indeed, this story will be mentioned in stanza 7, after Moses has surveyed many other potential sins.

Moses’ Sins and His Excuses: Stanzas 1–7

In the first seven stanzas, Moses reviews his life, proposing sins for which God might be punishing him, and for each,[6] he offers an explanation or an excuse. Six times, God replies, explaining why this sin is not the reason for the decree. Each time, God’s reply is introduced by the same words and ends with the same words.

God’s reply remains partially enigmatic until the seventh stanza. In this way, God clinches his rejection of Moses’ suggestions, stanza by stanza, with this maddening riddle and its unanswerable climax.

In evaluating the list as a whole, the reader will certainly feel that some of these supposed sins do not seem like sins, or at least not like significant ones, which is likely meant to be purposeful on Moses’ part.

First Stanza: Killing the Egyptian

The first stanza will provide an example of the deeds that Moses proposes might be the reason for the decree. Note the compactness, bordering on obscurity, of the Hebrew in the stanzas, as contrasted with the simplicity, bordering on tautology, of the introduction and the refrain:

לֹא אָמוּת! לָמָה אָמוּת?
אֵל הוֹדִיעֵנִי, עַל מַה תְּרִיבֵנִי!
I will not die! Why should I die?
O God, just tell me, What complaint have You with me?
אִם אָץ דַּם מִצְרִי
לִסְבֹּב וְלַהֲצֵירִי—
גּוֹחִי וְיוֹצְרִי,
בַּעֲבוּרוֹ אַל תַּעֲצִירִי!
כְּשַׁרְתִּי אֶת נְאָצָיו,
יָדַעְתִּי כִּי אֵין צַדִּיק עוֹמֵד מֵחֲלָצָיו.
If the Egyptian’s blood was quick
To encircle and confine me—
O my birther and creator,
For his sake do not block me!
Observing his wicked deeds,
I realized that he would beget no righteous man.

To paraphrase: “If you are punishing me for killing the Egyptian who had struck the Israelite slave [Exod 2:12], well, I actually had a good reason for that: he was evil and was destined to beget evil; do not block me from entering the Land on his account.”[7]

But that excuse is of no interest to God, who dismisses Moses’ compunctions; the opening line is a refrain, and we recognize the phrase “that very day” from Deut 32:48, quoted above, as denoting the day on which Moses recited the Haazinu poem:

וֶהֱשִׁיבוֹ אָיוֹם בְּעֶצֶם הַיּוֹם:
The Fearsome One answered him On that very day:
בִּין כִּי מִצְרִי לְמַפָּח,
לְהַבְהַב יְסֻפַּח;
וְאֵיךְ בְּחֵטְא יְטֻפַח,
וּבְרוּחַ יְנֻפַּח?
Observe that the Egyptian was meant for death,
To be attached to Gehenna;
Given his sin, how could he be cared for,
Or permitted to have breath?

God concludes with the riddling refrain:

זֹאת לֹא זֹאת! לָמָּה זֹאת? אֵין זֹאת!
מֹשֶׁה, עֲלֵה וּמוּת. כִּי גְזֵירָה הִיא שֶׁתָּמוּת. [8]
This is not this! Why this? Not this!
Go up, Moses, and die. For this is My decree.

Five More Non-Sins: Stanzas 2–6

In the succeeding stanzas, Moses proposes other reasons for which he might be being punished; for each, he offers explanations and excuses:

Stanza 2: Declining the Mission

Moses recalls his attempt to decline his prophetic mission when he said, at the burning bush, that he was “heavy of speech” (Exod 4:10), perhaps implying that God was not capable of making Moses eloquent. For this supposed sin, he offers no excuse but asks only for forgiveness.

Stanza 3: Death of Righteous Egyptians

Moses next suggests that God might be angry with him for the death of any righteous Egyptian swept up in the ten plagues or at the Red Sea. His answer is that no righteous Egyptians were harmed, for they were converted to the Israelite religion.[9]

Stanza 4: Executing the Wood Gatherer

Moses then brings up the execution of the man who gathered wood on the Sabbath (Num 15:32–36). Moses’ excuse is ignorance: He was unaware that this man committed the capital crime intentionally, in order to demonstrate the seriousness of the Sabbath commandment and was thus actually a martyr for the cause of the Sabbath.

Stanza 5: Smashing the Tablets

Moses recalls his smashing the first set of tablets.[10] He prays that God will balance this sin against his virtue in pleading on behalf of the people when God threatened to destroy them (Exod 32:11).

Stanza 6: Death of Korah and Followers

Moses speaks of the destruction of Korah and his party of rebels. For this episode, he hopes merely to be forgiven.

Counterintuitive Sins

Viewed as a series of episodes that weigh on an old man’s conscience, the list as a whole makes a certain amount of sense. But the poem is couched in a kind of legalistic format in which God is the judge and Moses is attempting both to learn the indictment and to defend himself against it.

Killing the Egyptian (stanza 1) and smashing the tablets (stanza 5) are deeds for which Moses might reasonably feel guilty enough to imagine a connection to the punishment. In contrast, the initial refusal of his mission (stanza 2) might indeed be something Moses regrets, but to be punished by death for this would be out of proportion.

Even more problematic are the cases in stanzas 3, 4, and 6, in which Moses was involved in killing others on God’s command. At most, he might regret having been the agent of the death even of deserving men, but these cases are not convincing as conjectural reasons to condemn him.

The list is rather flimsy and tends to weigh in the direction of Moses’ innocence. It is as if he is saying, “Do you really mean to kill me on account of three actions that were taken in fulfillment of Your own commands and three others that could be seen as virtuous?” It is, therefore, unsurprising that God denies the sinfulness of each of these acts.[11]

Stanza 7: The Sin at the Rock

In stanza 7, Moses at last brings up the confrontation at the rock (Num 20:1–13), when the Israelites cried out for water, and Moses and Aaron fail to carry out God’s decree in the way God wished:

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 But 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.”

Although that passage does not explicitly mention Moses’ death, Numbers 27:12–14 makes this implication explicit when God tells Moses that his death in the Transjordan is punishment for the episode of the rock. But though Moses does bring up the episode of the rock here, he avoids alluding to the reason given in the Torah itself as originally stated in the telling of that episode, and repeated in Deuteronomy:

דברים לב:נא עַל אֲשֶׁר מְעַלְתֶּם בִּי בְּתוֹךְ בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל בְּמֵי מְרִיבַת קָדֵשׁ מִדְבַּר צִן עַל אֲשֶׁר לֹא קִדַּשְׁתֶּם אוֹתִי בְּתוֹךְ בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל.
Deut 32:51 For you both broke faith with Me among the Israelite people, at the waters of Meribath-kadesh in the wilderness of Zin, by failing to uphold My sanctity among the Israelite people.

Instead, Moses proposes that perhaps God is punishing him for being too severe with the Israelites when he rebuked them with the words (v. 10) שִׁמְעוּ נָא הַמֹּרִים, “Listen, you rebels!”[12] By calling attention to this problematic turn of phrase, the poet is directing our attention away from the striking of the rock and away from the two negative reasons given in the Torah (not trusting, not affirming God’s sanctity). Moses hopes that God will balance this sinful speech against a virtuous speech of his, when, after the sin of the golden calf, he offered to die in place of the people (Exod 32:32):

אִם מוֹרִים הַחַתִּים,
בְּקִשְׁיוֹן חַתְחַתִּים
בְּמֶרִי הֶאֱנַחְתִּים—
בִּמְחֵנִי נָא...
יַנְחוּנִי כְּמוֹ נְחִיתִים
אַרְבָּעִים וּשְׁנֵי נְחִיתִּים.
If fearful rebels,
In hard-heartedness and terror—
If I grieved them by calling them rebels—
On account of “Wipe me out” …
Let them lead me as I led them
Through forty-two encampments.

The words “wipe me out” refer to Moses’ threat to God, when God says that Israel will be destroyed for the sin of the Golden Calf:

שמות לב:לב וְעַתָּה אִם תִּשָּׂא חַטָּאתָם וְאִם אַיִן מְחֵנִי נָא מִסִּפְרְךָ אֲשֶׁר כָּתָבְתָּ.
Exod 32:32 Now, if You will forgive their sin [well and good]; but if not, erase me from the record which You have written!

Similarly, by saying “let them lead me as I lead them,” he alludes to a later verse in the same passage, in which God accepts Moses’ plea:

שמות לב:לד וְעַתָּה לֵךְ נְחֵה אֶת הָעָם אֶל אֲשֶׁר דִּבַּרְתִּי לָךְ...
Exod 32:34 Go now, lead the people where I told you…

The poem’s text is frustratingly difficult; my translation of the first two lines is conjectural,[13] and the fourth line is incomplete. Nevertheless, the import is clear: Moses suggests that he is being punished for calling the people “you rebels,” and thus deprecating them;[14] but surely, his offer to die on their behalf renders him worthy of at least being among them when they enter the Land. Moses hopes that God will agree to make him into an ordinary Israelite so that they can lead him (presumably, under Joshua) into the Land.

God’s Response

With his statement in this stanza, Moses knows that he has finally hit upon the reason for his punishment. This is why, though stanza 7 follows the pattern of the others in offering an excuse or a plea in expiation of his sin, in it, Moses turns from speaking of sin and expiation to the sentence and asks to have it suspended so that he can at least enter the Land. But, to no avail:

וֶהֱשִׁיבוֹ אָיוֹם בְּעֶצֶם הַיּוֹם:
The Fearsome One answered him On that very day:
נִשְׁבַּעְתִּי וַתּוּחַק:
וּבַעֲבוּר זֹאת הוּחַק.
וְלָמָה תִּדְחַק
I have sworn and it is decreed:
For this it is decreed.
So why do you press

Here, the maddeningly vague word “this,” repeated so insistently after each of the first six stanzas, finally takes on concrete meaning as referring to Moses’ disparagement of the Israelites at the rock. The refrain is aptly reformulated in a riotous celebration of the word (note how it is reinforced by the internal rhyme in line 3):

הִנֵּה זֹאת!
תֵּדַע לְךָ כִּי עֲלֵי זֹאת,
מֹשֶׁה, עַל זֹאת מוּת!
כִּי גְזֵירָה הִיא שֶׁתָּמוּת.
Here is this!
Know that it is for this,
For this, Moses, die! (al zōt mōt)
For My decree is that you die.

The pronoun “this” at last has a referent, but every aspect of the composition of the poem until this point is designed to stress that God’s decree is God’s decree—inscrutable and irreversible.

What Was the Sin Then?

In one sense, Moses has hit upon the reason for his death. But in another sense, he is still in the dark. For despite the biblical verses quoted above that give God’s reasons for decreeing Moses’ death, His words have left readers puzzled ever since: Jacob Milgrom, in his JPS commentary on Numbers, lists ten explanations that he found among medieval commentators alone,[16] and he does not consider the ancients or the moderns—and presumably, they left Moses puzzled as well.

This indeterminateness is built into the poem’s structure, for although the pronoun zōt, “this,” now has been given a referent, it has not completely shed the vagueness in its myriad antecedent occurrences. Moses has hit the blank wall of God’s decree; he will never really know the reason for his death, any more than does the rest of mankind.

Moses’ Proposals to Enter the Land

Moses now accepts his death, but he is not yet ready to submit, because of his unfulfilled ambition to see the Promised Land. In this, too, he resembles the rest of us. Like us, his hatred of the inevitability of death is exacerbated by the thought of not knowing what happens next. Is God so ungenerous as to deny us even a glimpse of the future?

Moses begins each of the remaining four stanzas with an altered version of the opening lines:

אִם בְּזֹאת אָמוּת,
אָבוֹאָה וְאָמוּת!
If for this I am to die,
Let me enter and die!

This opening is an attempt to separate the decree of death from the decree that he would never see the Promised Land, and to dicker for a lighter sentence.

Stanza 8: Not to Die in an Unclean Land

Moses begs that God not make him die in an unclean land, as if he had committed a serious offense; perhaps God will permit him to enter the Land, live there for a year or two, and only then take his life. God replies that He has sworn that Moses will never cross the Jordan (Deut 4:21).

Nevertheless, God does extend an offer: God will break His oath and permit Moses to cross the Jordan on condition that the Israelites be blocked from entering the Land and have to wander in the wilderness forever. This is the exact inverse of what Moses does at the Mountain of God, referred to in the previous stanza, when he says that if God does not forgive Israel, Moses should be erased as well. God knows that Moses could never doom his people to eternal exile.

Stanza 9: Entering without Crossing 1—Tunnels

Moses now tries again with a legalistic approach. He suggests that God evade the letter of His oath by permitting Moses to enter the Land through underground tunnels. God counters that Moses’ life span was decreed long ago to be 120 years; but again, he is willing to give Moses a choice: He will extend Moses’ life span, but the people will have to relinquish the plan to enter the Promised Land. This plan is, of course, no more acceptable to Moses than the preceding one.

Stanza 10: Entering without Crossing 2—Flying

Moses makes another legalistic suggestion that would permit God to evade His oath, though this one with a miraculous bent: Perhaps he could be given wings like a bird so that he could fly over the Jordan, there to live as a servant to Joshua. God now begs Moses to end his resistance, which is not worthy of Moses’ stature or his reputation as a man of humble piety. He must know that God does not decree death lightly (alluding to Ps 116:15). Moses should accept his fate with dignity, in a spirit of submission.

Stanza 11: Crossing as Joshua’s Servant without Access to God or Revelation

Unable to abandon his desire to see the Holy Land, Moses makes one last try, proposing that he be allowed to live on for a while, as a mere follower of Joshua. Joshua will have access to God’s presence in the Holy of Holies, while Moses will stand outside. Moses’ offer in this stanza is more extreme than his offer in the preceding stanza, in that he now envisions Joshua as having access to revelation.

Some prose midrashim actually envision Moses sitting outside the Tent of Meeting while Joshua enters it to encounter the divine presence; the experience arouses in him such jealousy that once is enough to reconcile him to death. But in our poem, the situation does not actually arise; it is only proposed.[17]

God’s Final Response: The Divine Kiss

God has had enough. But the speech in which He concludes the argument is not the rebuke that we might have expected. In Hebrew diction, that contrasts in clarity with the preceding stanzas, He confesses that He has found Moses’ speeches beautiful; nevertheless, He demands obedience. Moses will die. Not, however as other men die, but by the divine kiss.[18] Thus God will make Moses’ death a sweetness rather than the horror that it is for ordinary men. God regrets His own decree, but His decree it is, and even God is bound by it.

וֶהֱשִׁיבוֹ אָיוֹם בְּעֶצֶם הַיּוֹם:
The Fearsome One answered him On that very day:
תַּכְלִית אִמְרֵי יֹפִי,
וְדִבּוּר בְּלִי דֹפִי!
קַבֵּל אַכְפִּי
וּמוּת בִּנְשִׁיקוֹת פִּי.
אֲהוּבִי, אֱמוּנִי, חֶפְצִי בְכָל זֹאת—
אַל תּוֹסֶף דַּבֵּר זֹאת.
נִחַמְתִּי כִּי גָזַרְתִּי כָזֹאת,
וּמָה אֶעֱשֶׂה וְנִגְזְרָה זֹאת.
An end to beautiful words,
Speech without blemish!
Yield to My power
And die at the kiss of My mouth.
Beloved and trustworthy friend despite this—
Do not go on saying this.
Sorry I am that I decreed this,
But what can I do? Decreed is this.[19]

What more consolation could a man on the point of death want than these touching words?


September 24, 2020


Last Updated

December 8, 2022


View Footnotes

Prof. Raymond P. Scheindlin is professor emeritus of medieval Hebrew
literature at the Jewish Theological Seminary. He has published extensively on
the poetry of the Hebrew Golden Age and has made a specialty of literary
translation of premodern Hebrew texts, including The Book of Job (Norton, 1998)
and Vulture in a Cage: Poems by Solomon Ibn Gabirol (Archipelago, 2016). For
more information, see raymondscheindlin.com.