“I am now a hundred and twenty years old and I am no longer able to lead you” (Deut. 31:2).Each of us leaves a heritage behind when we reach the end of our lives. Moses left a glorious heritage: a generation prepared for victory, a Law for Israel to live by, and the memory of the God who keeps His promises.
God would be with Israel’s new leader, Joshua (31:1–8). The Law was to be read to all Israel every seventh year (vv. 9–13), but God predicted future rebellion (vv. 14–30). Moses taught them a unique song, in the form of a judicial indictment, to encourage obedience (32:1–47). Just before his death (vv. 48–52), Moses blessed the tribes of Israel (33:1–29). An unknown author later added Moses’ epitaph (34:1–12).
Understanding the Text
“I am now a hundred and twenty years old” Deut. 31:2. In Egypt, 110 was the symbolic age of wise men. Like Moses, those who base their lives on relationship with God are wiser than this world’s wisest. It’s fascinating to remember that Moses was 80 when he was first called to serve God. The last third of Moses’ life was the most productive spiritually. Old age isn’t the end for any of us, though persons who found great satisfaction in their jobs often feel this way. The time we once devoted to work can now be devoted to serving God and others. “The Lord your God goes with you” Deut. 31:3–8. Moses presented Joshua as Israel’s new leader and reminded the people that it was the Lord who had won past victories and who “goes before you.” It’s only natural for us to depend on human leaders. But such dependence is misplaced. God, not Moses, was the key to past triumphs. Let’s respect our leaders, but let’s depend only on the Lord. “Moses wrote down this Law and gave it to the priests” Deut. 31:9–13. It seems likely that what Moses delivered to the priests was the bulk of the Book of Deuteronomy. This book was to be read to the whole nation—“men, women and children, and the aliens living in your towns.” The reading was to be done at the Feast of Tabernacles every seventh year, “as long as you live in the land.” All have a right to know and to understand what God says to us in the Scriptures. “I know what they are disposed to do” Deut. 31:14–29. Despite commanding that the Law be faithfully and regularly taught to Israel, God told Moses that dark days were ahead. Israel would “soon” turn to idolatry and “break the covenant I made with them.” God knew “what they are disposed to do, even before I bring them into the land” (v. 21). The Hebrew word, yeser, (“purpose”) here means a tendency, impulse, or disposition. The revelation of this tendency may come as a surprise, for under Joshua the Israelites obeyed God. In fact, their behavior was exemplary. But God, who knows the heart, saw the inner tendency toward sin despite outward obedience. You and I need to be sensitive to our hearts. That tendency toward sin still exists within us. We can be in great danger even when there is no sign of faltering in our outward behavior. Jesus once explained His criticism of certain Pharisees who were extremely strict in their approach to God’s Law: “These people honor Me with their lips,” He said, “but their hearts are far from Me” (Mark 7:6). Only wholehearted love for God can guard us against our tendency toward sin. “Moses recited the words of this song” Deut. 31:30–32:47. The Israelites were expected to memorize this lengthy “song,” or poem. In cultures where reading and writing are less common, memorization of extremely long poems, legends, treaties, etc., is quite common. This fascinating poem follows what is known today as the “RIB pattern.” The Hebrew word, rib, means a controversy or a legal suit. The song was in effect God’s indictment of Israel for breaking the covenant with Him as Sovereign. What is striking is that the poem then went on to add material that is not found in ancient secular indictments! God assured Israel that though “they are a nation without sense” He would indeed have compassion on them (vv. 26–38). God would deliver Israel once again and free them from their enemies (vv. 39–43). The rib pattern of the poem shows its ancient origin, for it fits comfortably into the culture existing in Moses’ day. But the variation from that pattern is most important to us. Those who angered secular rulers perished. The statement which expressed the punishment due to covenant-breakers ended the indictment. But even when we sin and deserve judgment, punishment is not God’s last word. His last word to us as to Israel is one of grace. We too can be restored. We too can come back, and once again worship our God as a forgiven people. “This is the blessing that Moses . . . pronounced” Deut. 33:1–29. The final blessing pronounced by a dying father was viewed as a will in the ancient Near East, and was legally binding. The blessing of Moses, Israel’s spiritual father, contained elements of prophecy. The poetic blessings in these chapters are sometimes obscure but are based on traits of the tribal patriarchs and on God’s revelation concerning their future. The blessings contain prayers, predictions, praise, and commands. The emphasis of each blessing is shown below.
|Reuben||A prayer for survival.|
|Judah||A prediction of victory.|
|Levi||A prayer for blessing, a call to faithfulness.|
|Benjamin||A promise of safety.|
|Ephraim||A promise of preeminence.|
|Manasseh||A prediction of strength.|
|Zebulun||A prediction of wealth.|
|Issachar||A prediction of wealth.|
|Gad||A promise of land.|
|Dan||A prediction of energy.|
|Napthali||A promise of blessing.|
|Asher||A prayer for strength and security.|
The range of blessings predicted again shows that God desires the very best for His people. Yet, as this magnificent psalm of blessing concludes, we need to remember that the most important gift God can give is already ours—Himself. As Moses said, “the Eternal God is your refuge, and underneath are the everlasting arms.” GOD’S INDICTMENT OF ISRAEL
|A statement of God’s character||(vv. 1–4)|
|Implied accusation of Israel||(vv. 5–6)|
|Recalling God’s acts for Israel||(vv. 7–14)|
|Specific charges against Israel||(vv. 15–18)|
|The sentence||(vv. 19–25)|
Moses’ Epitaph (Deut. 34)
One of the unusual privileges I’ve had is to serve as chaplain to my family. Though ordained, I’ve not pastored a church. So most of the weddings I’ve performed, and all of the funerals, have been for family. To date I’ve buried my mother, my dad, a stepmother, an uncle, and an aunt. Each time I’ve thought back over their lives, I’ve found something that made that person special. Each one of my relatives was very different from the others. But in each life God had done something beautiful. Something to remember that honored Him, and made the memory of our loved one more precious. Then, after Moses’ death, an unknown editor added an epitaph. He described the words God spoke to Moses (vv. 1–4), and the grief felt by Israel (vv. 5–8). He added a word about Joshua to show that life goes on (v. 9). And then he concluded with an epitaph intended to show what was special about Moses. “Since then, no prophet has risen in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face, who did all those miraculous signs and wonders the Lord sent him to do in Egypt” (vv. 10–11). Moses was special. And he deserved this epitaph as well as our awed respect. But what moves me most has been to realize, as one by one the members of my own family die, that every one of us is special. When God enters a life, He takes at least one trait of ours and makes us beautiful.
What trait of yours will your family members remember with greatest joy?