The Torah’s Three Explanations for Why Moses Does Not Enter the Land
Moses is Too Old (E)
A straightforward explanation for why Moses dies before Israel has entered the land is provided at the end of Deuteronomy, which says simply that Moses was too old to lead the people in the battles they would face:
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 יְהוֹשֻׁעַ הוּא עֹבֵר לְפָנֶיךָ כַּאֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר יְ־הוָה.
Deut 31:2 He [Moses] said to them: I am now one hundred and twenty years old, I can no longer lead you. Indeed, YHWH has said to me, “You shall not go across yonder Jordan.” 31:3 Your God YHWH is the one who will cross over before you, and who will wipe out those nations from before you so that you can dispossess them. Joshua is the one who will cross over before you, as YHWH has spoken.
In this passage, which scholars attribute to the Elohistic source (E) and see as part of E’s ending of the Torah, Moses is not being punished; it is merely time for a new, younger leader.
Moses Punished For the Spies Incident (D)
A different explanation appears in Moses’ opening speech in Deuteronomy. He recounts how the Israelites sent spies to explore the land that YHWH was giving to them, but when the spies returned, the people refused to enter the land for fear of the Amorites who lived there:
דברים א:כז וַתֵּרָגְנוּ בְאָהֳלֵיכֶם וַתֹּאמְרוּ בְּשִׂנְאַת יְ־הוָה אֹתָנוּ הוֹצִיאָנוּ מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם לָתֵת אֹתָנוּ בְּיַד הָאֱמֹרִי לְהַשְׁמִידֵנוּ.
Deut 1:27 You sulked in your tents and said, “It is because YHWH hates us that He brought us out of the land of Egypt, to hand us over to the Amorites to wipe us out.
YHWH’s anger over this incident leads to the punishment of both the Israelites and Moses:
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:לז גַּם בִּי הִתְאַנַּף יְ־הוָה בִּגְלַלְכֶם לֵאמֹר גַּם אַתָּה לֹא תָבֹא שָׁם. א:לח יְהוֹשֻׁעַ בִּן נוּן הָעֹמֵד לְפָנֶיךָ הוּא יָבֹא שָׁמָּה אֹתוֹ חַזֵּק כִּי הוּא יַנְחִלֶנָּה אֶת יִשְׂרָאֵל.
Deut 1:34 YHWH heard your loud complaint, became wrathful, and vowed: 1:35 “Not one of those involved, this evil generation, shall see the good land that I swore to give to your fathers”…. 1:37 Because of you, YHWH was incensed with me too, saying: You shall not enter it either. 1:38 Joshua son of Nun, who attends you, he shall enter it. Imbue him with strength, for he shall allot it to Israel.
That Moses is punished for the people’s wrongdoing, rather than because of Moses’ own failure, is a recurring theme in the Deuteronomic source (D). Moses describes how he pleaded with YHWH for a reprieve and was rebuffed:
דברים ג:כו אֶעְבְּרָה נָּא וְאֶרְאֶה אֶת הָאָרֶץ הַטּוֹבָה אֲשֶׁר בְּעֵבֶר הַיַּרְדֵּן הָהָר הַטּוֹב הַזֶּה וְהַלְּבָנוֹן. ג:כו וַיִּתְעַבֵּר יְ־הוָה בִּי לְמַעַנְכֶם וְלֹא שָׁמַע אֵלָי וַיֹּאמֶר יְ־הוָה אֵלַי רַב לָךְ אַל תּוֹסֶף דַּבֵּר אֵלַי עוֹד בַּדָּבָר הַזֶּה.
Deut 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.” 3:26 But YHWH was wrathful with me on your account and would not listen to me. YHWH said to me, “Enough! Never speak to Me of this matter again!
He subsequently accepts that he will die without entering the promised land:
דברים ד:כא וַי־הוָה הִתְאַנֶּף 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.
Deut 4:21 Now YHWH was angry with me on your account and swore that I should not cross the Jordan and enter the good land that your God YHWH 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.
Moses and Aaron Punished for Strifewater (P)
Another set of passages provides a third answer, and specifically includes Aaron in the ban. When the Israelites quarrel with Moses and Aaron at מֵי מְרִיבָה (me meribah), “Strifewater,” YHWH instructs Moses and Aaron to gather the people and speak to the rock so that they can witness Him providing water for them. Moses and Aaron instead strike the rock, and they are punished for that infraction:
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. כ:יג הֵמָּה מֵי מְרִיבָה אֲשֶׁר רָבוּ בְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶת יְ־הוָה וַיִּקָּדֵשׁ בָּם.
Num 20:12 Then YHWH said to Moses and Aaron, “Because you did not show loyalty to me by affirming My sanctity in the sight of the Israelite people, therefore you shall not lead this congregation into the land that I have given them.” 20:13 That is Strifewater —meaning that the Israelites quarreled with YHWH —whose sanctity was affirmed through them.
This explanation, attributed by scholars to the Priestly source (P), appears again at two key points in the narrative. YHWH reminds Moses and Aaron of the incident when Aaron dies:
במדבר כ:כג וַיֹּאמֶר יְ־הוָה אֶל מֹשֶׁה וְאֶל אַהֲרֹן... לֵאמֹר. כ:כד יֵאָסֵף אַהֲרֹן אֶל עַמָּיו כִּי לֹא יָבֹא אֶל הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר נָתַתִּי לִבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל עַל אֲשֶׁר מְרִיתֶם אֶת פִּי לְמֵי מְרִיבָה.
Num 20:23 YHWH said to Moses and Aaron,… 20:24 “Let Aaron be gathered to his kin: he is not to enter the land that I have assigned to the Israelite people, because you disobeyed My command about Strifewater.”
He also reminds Moses just before Moses’ own death, when he is standing within sight of the promised land:
במדבר כז:יב וַיֹּאמֶר יְ־הוָה אֶל מֹשֶׁה עֲלֵה אֶל הַר הָעֲבָרִים הַזֶּה וּרְאֵה אֶת הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר נָתַתִּי לִבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל. כז:יג וְרָאִיתָה אֹתָהּ וְנֶאֱסַפְתָּ אֶל עַמֶּיךָ גַּם אָתָּה כַּאֲשֶׁר נֶאֱסַף אַהֲרֹן אָחִיךָ. כז:יד כַּאֲשֶׁר מְרִיתֶם פִּי בְּמִדְבַּר צִן בִּמְרִיבַת הָעֵדָה לְהַקְדִּישֵׁנִי בַמַּיִם לְעֵינֵיהֶם הֵם מֵי מְרִיבַת קָדֵשׁ מִדְבַּר צִן.
Num 27:12 YHWH said to Moses, “Ascend these heights of Abarim and view the land that I have given to the Israelite people. 27:13 When you have seen it, you too shall be gathered to your kin, just as your brother Aaron was. 27:14 For, in the wilderness of Zin, when the community was contentious, you disobeyed My command to uphold My sanctity in their sight by means of the water.” That is Strifewater at Kadesh, in the wilderness of Zin.
Another version of this scene, also attributed to P, appears at the end of Deuteronomy. YHWH commands Moses to ascend the heights of Abarim to Mount Nebo so that he can view the land, and He then declares:
דברים לב:נ וּמֻת בָּהָר אֲשֶׁר אַתָּה עֹלֶה שָׁמָּה וְהֵאָסֵף אֶל עַמֶּיךָ כַּאֲשֶׁר מֵת אַהֲרֹן אָחִיךָ בְּהֹר הָהָר וַיֵּאָסֶף אֶל עַמָּיו. לב:נא עַל אֲשֶׁר מְעַלְתֶּם בִּי בְּתוֹךְ בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל בְּמֵי מְרִיבַת קָדֵשׁ מִדְבַּר צִן עַל אֲשֶׁר לֹא קִדַּשְׁתֶּם אוֹתִי בְּתוֹךְ בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל.
Deut 32:50 You shall die on the mountain that you are about to ascend, and shall be gathered to your kin, as your brother Aaron died on Mount Hor and was gathered to his kin; 32:51 for you both broke faith with Me among the Israelite people, in Strifewater at Kadesh in the wilderness of Zin, by failing to uphold My sanctity among the Israelite people.
Comparing the Explanations
In sum, E simply attributes the fact that Moses never entered the land to his age. D and P, on the other hand, both treat the ban as a punishment, with several features in common:
Reason – In both sources, the ban is punishment due to wrongdoing.
Description – Both sources refer to disloyalty and disobedience.
Disloyalty: In P, YHWH describes the wrongdoing as “you did not show loyalty to me” (לֹא הֶאֱמַנְתֶּם בִּי: Num 20:12). In D, Moses describes it as “you are not showing loyalty to your God YHWH” (אֵינְכֶם מַאֲמִינִם בַּיהוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם: Deut 1:32).
Disobedience: D defines the wrongdoing as מרה אֶת פִּי יְ־הוָה, “disobeying YHWH’s command” (Deut 1:26; 9:23), while P has מרה אֶת פִּי, “disobeying My command” (Num 20:24; מרה פִּי in Num 27:17).
Location Name – Both sources place the wrongdoing in a location with the element “Kadesh” in its name: Kadesh Barnea in D (Deut 1:19; 9:23) and Strifewater at Kadesh in P (Num 27:14; Deut 32:51; and see Num 20:1, 13, 14).
Despite these similarities, however, the two explanations are substantially different:
Nature of the wrongdoing – In D, the misdeed is the Israelites’ refusal to enter the promised land during the spies’ incident, while in P, it is Moses’ and Aaron’s violation in the production of water at Strifewater.
Who is punished – In D, YHWH punishes all the people, including Moses (but Aaron is not mentioned), while P describes a punishment of Moses and Aaron only.
YHWH’s reaction – Whereas D emphasizes that YHWH was angry (using three different words for “anger”), none of the P passages say such a thing. This difference fits the Priestly source’s overall tendency not to attribute emotions to God.
Samaritan Pentateuch: A Blended Narrative
To smooth over the difference between the Priestly and Deuteronomic explanations for Moses’ ban from the promised land, the Samaritan Pentateuch inserts, with slight changes, one of the relevant Deuteronomic passages (Deut 3:23–28) at the end of the Priestly explanation (Num 20:13):
הם מי מריבה אשר רבו בני ישראל את יהוה ויקדש בם.
SP Num 20:13 This is the water of Meribah, because the children of Israel strove with the LORD, and he was sanctified in them.
ויאמר משה אדני יהוה אתה החלת להראות את עבדך את גדלך ואת ידך החזקה אשר מי אל בשמים ובארץ אשר יעשה כמעשיך וכגבורתיך אעבר נא ואראה את הארץ הטובה אשר בעבר הירדן ההר הטוב הזה והלבנון. ויאמר יהוה אל משה רב לך אל תוסיף דבר אלי עוד בדבר הזה עלה אל ראש הפסגה ושא עיניך ימה וצפונה ותימנה ומזרחה וראה בעיניך כי לא תעבר את הירדן הזה וצוי את יהושע בן נון וחזקהו ואמצהו כי הוא יעבר לפני העם הזה והוא ינחל אתם את הארץ אשר תראה.
And Moses said: “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! 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.” But YHWH said to Moses: “Enough! Never speak to Me of this matter again. Go up to the summit of Pisgah, and gaze about, to the west, and the north, and the south, and the east. Look at it well, for you shall not go across yonder Jordan. Give Joshua son of Nun 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”.…
As in the Masoretic Text, the narrative then turns to an account of Moses contacting the king of Edom to ask permission for the Israelites to cross his territory:
וישלח משה מלאכים מקדש אל מלך אדום....
SP Num 20:14 From Kadesh, Moses sent messengers to the king of Edom….
The same combination of Numbers 20:13 with material from Deuteronomy 3:23–28 is found in 4QNumb, a Jewish scroll of the book of Numbers from the Herodian era, demonstrating that this harmonization existed already in the Second Temple period.
Psalm 106: Harmonizing D and P
We also see harmonization of the Priestly and Deuteronomic explanations in the biblical text that we are familiar with:
תהלים קו:לב וַיַּקְצִיפוּ עַל מֵי מְרִיבָה וַיֵּרַע לְמֹשֶׁה בַּעֲבוּרָם.
Ps 106:32 They provoked wrath at Strifewater, and Moses suffered on their account.
The setting of “Strifewater” is certainly taken from P (Num 20:13, 24; 27:14; Deut 32:51). The wording וַיַּקְצִיפוּ, “they provoked wrath,” however, is absent there and instead recalls D, which says that YHWH “became wrathful” (וַיִּקְצֹף: Deut 1:34).
That “Moses suffered (וַיֵּרַע) on their account” could mean the Israelites’ quarreling was unpleasant for Moses, as in the Priestly backstory (Num 20:2–6, 10). This would reflect a straightforward interpretation of the qal verb וַיֵּרַע (as it is pointed in the Masoretic Text) with the preposition ל, which means “it was upsetting for.” Alternatively, Moses’ suffering could refer to his being punished by YHWH on the Israelites’ account, as stated in all three D passages. This interpretation works better, however, if the verb is vocalized as hifil וַיָּרַע, which means “to harm,” as reflected in the Peshitta’s translation.
The next verse also carries double meanings that fit both the Deuteronomic and Priestly explanations:
תהלים קו:לג כִּי הִמְרוּ אֶת רוּחוֹ וַיְבַטֵּא בִּשְׂפָתָיו.
Ps 106:33 Because they rebelled against his spirit, and he issued with his lips.
Who “rebelled” (הִמְרוּ) against whose spirit? The description could apply either to the people rebelling against YHWH, as in D (Deut 1:26; 9:23; cf. 1:43; 9:7; 31:27), or to them rebelling against Moses, as in P (Num 20:10). It might even describe Moses and Aaron rebelling against YHWH, as in P (Num 20:24; 27:14).
Finally, the phrase וַיְבַטֵּא בִּשְׂפָתָיו, “he issued with his lips,” is unclear. The expression could mean to utter a vow (see Lev 5:4; Num 30:7, 9), thus referring to YHWH vowing that Moses will not enter the land, as in D (Deut 4:21; cf. 1:34; 2:14). It could also mean to speak impulsively (see Prov 12:18), in which case the phrase would refer to Moses calling the Israelites rebels, as in P (Num 20:10).
Thus, the two-verse passage in Psalm 106 contains a series of three ambiguous statements, each of which can be interpreted to match either the Deuteronomic or the Priestly explanation of Moses’ ban from the promised land. It is hard to see these ambiguities as anything other than an intentional effort to incorporate two conflicting traditions in one text. I call this “harmonistic ambiguity.”
Preserving Multiple Traditions
The Torah offers three different answers to the question of why Moses did not enter the promised land. E’s explanation is brief and inconspicuous. The other two, D’s and P’s, are more elaborate and conflict with each other more noticeably. The conflict between these latter two answers troubled some biblical authors and scribes, who produced two attempts that we know of to harmonize them. The first—preserved in the Jewish Second Temple scroll 4QNumb and in the Samaritan Pentateuch—combines the two answers by placing them side by side.
The second, in Psalm 106:32–33, presents a new text, which, by means of carefully crafted ambiguities, incorporates both answers in the same words. These attempts show how remarkable it is that the Bible could include many different points of view in the first place and how fortunate we are for this richness.
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Prof. Raanan Eichler is an Associate Professor of Bible at Bar-Ilan University in Israel. He received his Ph.D. from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and completed fellowships at Harvard University and Tel Aviv University. He is the author of The Ark and the Cherubim (Mohr Siebeck, 2021) and many academic articles.
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