Deuteronomy 34, Psalm 64, Luke 22
The death of Moses – RIP
The Pisgah National Forest was established in 1916 and is one of the first national forests in the United States. It contains parts of the Appalachian and the Blue Ridge Mountains and is located near Asheville, North Carolina. The forest was formerly owned by George Washington Vanderbilt and was part of the Biltmore Estate. Gifford Pinchot managed it, before leaving to become the first head of the United States Forest Department. Carl Schenk started the first school of forestry in the United States in this forest. On a personal note, it’s a great place to fly fish, but a hard stream from which to extract a trout.
The forest gets its name from the Bible. Moses ascended the peak of either Pisgah or Nebo, both of which are in the mountain range of Moab across the Jordan from Jericho. With God beside him, Moses scanned the sweeping panorama of the Promised Land that lay as a bounty for his long-suffering people.
Geographers today would say that the land that he scanned stretched from the Sea of Galilee in the north to the southern end of the Judean wilderness, from the Mediterranean Sea in the west toward the southeastern Jordan valley and the Dead Sea. Moses’ brother Aaron and his sister-in-law Miriam had already preceded him in death. Like many people who have been fortunate to live a long life, he was ready to surrender the gift of life. Israel’s great lawgiver was buried in a hidden grave somewhere in the valley of Moab or on the mountaintop.
There is no grave that Jews, Christians or Muslims can visit today to honor and reflect on the life, miracles, ministry and work of Moses. In the end, what remains is the body of law that he passed on, which has become a foundational point from which other laws and codes of conduct have evolved. His true epitaph appears in the final three verses of Deuteronomy, which stand as the finale of the Pentateuch as a whole.
The author makes a clear effort to deny any parity between Moses and the prophets who will follow. We read, “Never since has there arisen a prophet in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face. He was unequaled for all of the signs and wonders that the Lord sent him to perform in the land of Egypt, against Pharaoh and all his servants and his entire land, and for all the mighty deeds and all the terrifying displays of power that Moses performed in the sight of all Israel.” (Deut. 34:10-12)
The belief that Moses wrote the first five books of the Old Testament has received great criticism, mostly in the last 200 years. Originally both Jews and Christians maintained that Moses was the author of the Torah or Pentateuch, the Bible’s first five books. The consensus today, however, is that Moses did not write all of the Pentateuch.
Throughout the Torah it becomes clear that Moses is recording what happens. Exodus 24:4 states that “Moses then wrote down everything the LORD had said” and that shortly thereafter he took the “Book of the Covenant and read it to the people” (Ex 24:7). Moses also wrote down the Ten Commandments (Ex. 24:27-28). Other passages shed light on the fact that Moses kept record of what was going on (Ex. 17:14; Num. 33:2), and there are clear references that Moses was the author of Deuteronomy (Deut. 31:9, 19, 22, 24). Less direct references can be found in Ex. 25:16, 21-22; Deut. 28:58; 29:20, 21, 27, 29; 20:10, 11.
The Bible refers to Moses as the authority behind the books of the Law. The books are referred to as the “Book of Moses” (5 times), the “Law of Moses” (22 times), the “Book of the Law of Moses” (4 times), the “Word of the Lord by Moses” (1 time), and the contents of the books are attributed to Moses over 32 times (cf. 2 K. 21:8, 1 Ch. 15:15, 1 Ch. 22:13, 2 Ch. 24:6, 2 Ch. 33:8, 2 Ch. 34:14, Ne. 1:8, Ne. 8:14, Ne. 10:29, Mal. 4:4, Matt. 8:4, Matt. 19:8, Matt. 22:14, Mark 1:44, Mark 7:10, Mark 10:4, Luke 5:14, Luke 20:37, Luke 24:27, John 1:45, John 5:46, John 7:19, John 7:22, John 8:5, Acts 3:22, Acts 15:21, Acts 26:22, Rom. 10:5, Rom. 10:19, 2 Cor. 3:15, Heb. 9:19). Jesus (John 5:46, Mark 10:5), Paul (Rom. 10:5), and Philip (John 1:45) all attest to Moses writing.
The Jewish Talmud refers to the first five books of the Bible as the “Book of Moses.” Furthermore, the Mishnah and the early Jewish historian Josephus both accepted the Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch. Although biblical scholarship is deeply divided on the issue of how the Pentateuch was composed, there is widespread agreement that the Pentateuch, as it now stands, is an edited work and not a piece of literature that was penned by one individual. This conclusion stems from the fact that the Pentateuch occasionally refers to other pre-existing documents that were written down prior to the writing of Genesis through Deuteronomy (e.g. Gen 5:1; Ex 17:14, 24:7, 34:27; Num. 21:14-15, 33:2; Deut. 31:9, 22, 24). The idea that Moses wrote all of the Pentateuch also becomes difficult when it is realized that he could not have described his own death and burial in Deut. 34.
While the long-standing tradition of Mosaic authorship is based upon clear statements that Moses was responsible for writing substantial parts of the Pentateuch, the weight of evidence suggests that Moses probably did not compose the Pentateuch as we now have it… This is not to say that the Pentateuch’s claims concerning Moses’ literary activity should be rejected. On the contrary, such assertions ought to be respected and given serious consideration, which unfortunately all too rarely happens.
We do know that Joshua was Moses’ assistant (Ex. 33:11), which quite likely included scribal and editorial duties. He was also the God-appointed successor to Moses (Num. 27:18-21), a prophet whom the Lord spoke to directly (Dt. 34:9, Jos. 1:1-9), and a leader the people obeyed just as they obeyed Moses (Jos. 1:17). We know that Joshua was with Moses when he spoke to God on Mt. Sinai (Ex. 24:13) and in the tent of meeting (Ex. 33:11). We also know that Joshua also contributed to the “Book of the Law of God” (Jos. 24:26). Although not recorded, it is likely that the death of Moses was recorded by Joshua.
Muslims believe that Allah dictated the Quran to the Prophet Muhammad. The Jewish tradition, which later Christian scholars adopted, is that God dictated the Torah to Moses, with the exception of the last eight verses of Deuteronomy, which describe Moses’ death and burial. Hence, the Pentateuch is known as “the Book of Moses.” Indeed, the 8th principle of the 13 Principles of Faith, which were established by the Jewish philosopher, theologian and medical writer Maimonides, who was born and raised in Cordoba, Spain, states that, “The Torah that we have today is the one dictated to Moses by God.” Jews and Christians have believed this for centuries.
Prior to the Renaissance and Reformation, biblical scholars rarely focused on who wrote the Bible. This began to change as a new field of studies emerged called Classical studies, which focused on the ancient literature of Greece and Rome. Classical studies attempted to examine ancient texts with a scientific thoroughness. Soon theologians and biblical scholars were following suit. When these same tools of critical analysis were applied to the Bible, scholars such as Richard Simon (1638-1712) began to argue that the Pentateuch was not the work of one author.
Today, however, most biblical scholars maintain that the Torah does not have a single author. Furthermore, they believe that the Pentateuch’s composition took place over several centuries. As previously noted, starting in the 19th century, a general consensus developed around the “documentary hypothesis,” which maintains that the Torah was created around 450 B.C. by combining various independent and original sources known as the Jahwist, of J (circa 950 B.C.), the Elohist, of E (circa 850 B.C.), the Deuteronomist, or D, (circa 600 B.C.) and the Priestly source, or P (circa 500 B.C.)
The documentary hypothesis suggests that the Torah was derived from originally independent narratives, which were later combined by a series of “redactors” or editors – J, E, D and P. The most prominent clue to the documentary hypothesis and the subsequent division of the materials in the Pentateuch was derived by noting the different use of two words, “Jehovah” and “Elohim,” to designate God. Jehovah was translated in the Septuagint translation of the Bible by a word meaning “Lord”, which appears in the King James Version in the capitalized form, “LORD.” The revisers of 1880, however, simply transliterated the word, so that “Jehovah” usually appears in the revision wherever “LORD” appeared in the KJV. Elsewhere, Elohim is translated by the general word for deity, “God.”
Scholars believed that writers in the southern Kingdom of Judah used the title “Jehovah” when they referred to God, while writers in the northern Kingdom of Israel used the title “Elohim.” And so the critics came to designate one set of passages as belonging to the J document and the other to the E document. These they believed had been cut up and pieced together by a later editor so as to make the existing continuous narrative. But they frequently found that one of these words is found in passages where it is thought the other word should have been used, it is supposed, wholly on theoretical grounds, that a mistake had been made by the editor, or, as they call him, the “redactor.”
German biblical scholar Julius Wellhausen was the first to propose that these independent sources ordered the Torah chronologically as JEDP, giving them a coherent setting in the evolving Jewish tradition and history of Israel, which had its ultimate influence by the final redactor or editor P. Hence, the Priestly author put the last touches on how the Books of Moses would be known. He proposed that J wrote in the southern Kingdom of Judah, E wrote in the northern Kingdom of Israel. D wrote in Jerusalem during a period of religious reform, and P was composed by Jewish priests living in exile during the Babylonian Captivity.
Since Wellhausen’s time, the documentary hypothesis has been increasingly challenged by other models in the last part of the 20th century. It was the approach to reading the Old Testament that I was taught in seminary. Unfortunately, at the time that I attended Yale Divinity School, my professor focused very little on the customs and traditions of the Old Testament and the spiritual meaning of the text and almost completely on who wrote which book of the Bible and when. This is something to be avoided by Christians reading the Bible, except for as an academic aside. It is not the way to glean truth and insights to guide our daily life. Nevertheless, the hypothesis continues to provide a framework for understanding the origins of the Torah. Today, most scholars believe that the Pentateuch did not originate during Moses time and most of the laws attributed to Moses did not come into existence until several centuries after his death and many of them not until the time of Ezekiel.
In today’s reading, we learn that Moses died on Mount Pisgah or Mount Nebo, located about sixty miles east of the Mediterranean Sea. On a clear day one can see Mount Hermon about 100 miles to the north. A considerable body of material developed around the fate of Moses and the location of his remains. There is much apocryphal material written concerned where the body of Moses was buried and much rabbinic literature speculated about it. Jude 9 speaks about a dispute over the body of Moses. The Assumption of Moses and The New Testament of Moses both discuss this. The former speaks of Moses ascending directly to heaven, while it the latter he dies a natural death. Deuteronomy 34 makes it clear that Moses died, and there is nothing remarkable in the account. The text does not tell us who buried Moses, but it is clear that his gravesite is unmarked and unknown.
The conclusion of the P account is Moses’ death and the succession of Joshua. The Israelites mourn Moses for the same mourning period as for Aaron. (Num. 20:29) In contrast to Numbers 27:18, where Joshua is appointed because he possesses spirit, here the spirit of wisdom or the ability to rule over the people is the result of the laying on of hands, which entitled Joshua to be obeyed by the Israelites. This is similar to the ordination of a bishop, priest or deacon in the Church today.
The Philadelphia Inquirer carries a story this morning about a 19-year-old quiet young man from a community close to our church who was trying to use Ricin to poison the man who has been dating his ex-girlfriend. Photos show police in special protective uniforms arresting him. Other photos show Russian soldiers toting machine guns and wearing ski masks escorting Ukrainian soldiers out of military bases in Crimea, which the Russians have confiscated under President Putin’s orders. Wasn’t this the same leader who warmly greeted athletes from around the world at the Winter Olympics in Sochi? How often the face of evil is cleverly disguised or hidden behind a mask. The Psalmist writes,
Hide me from the secret plots of the wicked,
from the scheming of evildoers,
who whet their tongues like swords,
who aim bitter words like arrows,
shooting from ambush at the blameless;
they shoot suddenly and without fear. (Ps. 64:2-4)
Evil is real. It inhabits some people, communities and organizations. Our duty as Christians is to oppose it, but we must exercise care. The movie Deliverance was based on a famous southern novel by author James Dickey, whose son was one of my college roommates. The book is based on a phrase from the Lord’s Prayer “…and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.” This phrase can also be translated “lead us not to trifle with evil.” Evil is powerful. Evil people cannot be negotiated with or easily appeased. Be careful of trifling with evil.
Jesus asked the disciples to prepare for the Passover meal. They are instructed that the owner of the house will show them to a large room upstairs. (Luke 22:12) Since the fourth century A.D. a structure identified as the Cenacle has been identified as the scene of the Last Supper. It is a popular site for pilgrims visiting the Holy Land to see on Mount Zion in Jerusalem. Pilgrims such as Egeria, who visited it in 384 A.D., write about their experience. The original has been torn down and reconstructed, culminating in a Gothic structure that can be found today.
While the Upper Room is found in the upstairs of the building, down below pilgrims can visit a niche that was said to be the burial site of King David. It is marked by a sarcophagus set up by 12th century Crusaders. Most scholars do not believe this to be the site of David’s burial. I Kings 2:10 tells us that David was buried “in the City of David,” which is identified as the eastern hill of Jerusalem as opposed to Mount Zion, which is the western hill of the ancient city. The Cenacle is also connected to the house where the Virgin Mary lived among the Apostles until her death or dormition, an event celebrated in the nearby Church of the Dormition.
The Upper Room was originally a synagogue according to Biblical archeologist Bargil PIxner, who spent most of his life living in Jerusalem. It was transformed into a church probably during the reign of Emperor Theodosius. In 1009 A.D. the church was raised by the Muslim Al-Hakim. The Crusaders later built a five-aisled basilica named for Saint Mary on this site. In 1552 Ottoman authorities took possession of it and added a mihrab so Muslims could pray facing the direction of Mecca. An Arabic inscription was added prohibiting public prayer at the site.
What I remember most about visiting this room is three-fold. First, the acoustics are incredible. We sang the doxology inside the Cenacle and our voices reverberated beautifully inside this wonderful space. Second, there is a wonderful Crusader carving in a pillar of a pelican pecking her own breast to draw blood to feed her young. Third, there is a locked door that is only opened on the Day of Pentecost, which leads to a smaller room, which is said to be the actual room used for the Last Supper. Overall, many pilgrims are likely to have one of those “ah ha” moments of “this is where it actually happened” when they enter the Cenacle, and the Bible comes alive.
Once they were gathered for the Last Supper, a dispute arose among the disciples as to who was the greatest among them. It’s hard to fathom how the disciples could have come this far and spent so much time with Jesus and still be acting like little boys vying for leadership. Jesus upbraids them, saying, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But no so with you; rather the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like the one who serves. For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one at the table? But I am among you as one who serves.” (Luke 22:25-27) Christ came to serve and not to be served. This is our calling as well.
Later, Jesus prays for God to remove the suffering that he must undergo. There isn’t a person who has suffered greatly who cannot relate to his request. “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done.” (Luke 22:42) If you are undergoing suffering or a great trial, see if you can bring yourself to say these words to God “not my will but yours be done.” These are among the most freeing words that we can utter. Whatever God’s will is for us, that is what shall be. God, unite our will with your will.
We are told that an angel appeared to Jesus while he was praying and that this “gave him strength.” (Luke 22:43) God does not relieve all of our suffering and pain. Good people are afflicted every day with illness and tragedy. It is not punishment for what we have done, and trust that God cares greatly for you when you suffer. God does not always remove our suffering, but God sends angels to us during our trials. Keep your eye open for unexpected people company when your life becomes chaos.
Only Luke offers the section where Jesus tells Peter, “Simon, Simon, listen! Satan has demanded to sift all of you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail; and you, when once you have turned back, strengthen your brothers.” (Luke 22:31-32) Likewise, only Luke has some of Jesus’s followers draw their swords. Who would have thought that Jesus’s friends were packing weapons? Wisely, Jesus ordered them to put them away. The prophet Muhammad did not do so. He ordered his followers to pick up the sword to defend the Muslim faith. To this day, Christians must speak out on any occasion when Muslims, Christians, Jews or others choose the way of the sword. Our way is not the way of the sword. “No more of this,” said Jesus. “And he touched his ear and healed him.” (Luke 22:51)
For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one at the table? But I am among you as one who serves. (Luke 22:26-27)
Does it matter to you who wrote the Torah? What have you found to be most important in reading it? What struck you most about Moses, his life, teaching and ministry? Under what conditions do you think that Christians can use weapons? Have you been to the Holy Land? Do you wish to go there on a pilgrimage? What sites would you want to see? Who would you invite to attend your Last Supper?
Gracious God, you meet us in the ordinary moments of life, such as sitting at table to break bread and visit with family and friends. Help us to see that every meal, no matter how ordinary, is an opportunity to discover your presence our midst. In Jesus’s name we pray. Amen.
© The Rev. Marek P. Zabriskie
Rector of St. Thomas Episcopal Church
Fort Washington, Pennsylvania