Blessing and curse enacted (Deuteronomy 32:48- 34:12)

We have come to the end of Deuteronomy.  The people are ready to enter the land. There is joy but there is a little bitter sting. Moses will not be going into the land with the people.  This will vividly reinforce the point to Israel, no-one is immune, entry to the land is not something to be taken for granted.

Do we sometimes take for granted our presence in God’s family and our eternal security? Deuteronomy 32-34 should remind us never to do that but rather to enjoy God’s blessings to us with thankfulness in our hearts.

Identifying with a sinful people in exile and death (32:48-52)

Moses has one last song to sing. If the previous song was for later, one for when the people had rebelled, this is for now. It is the song of blessing for the people as they enter the land. It is fitting therefore to see the way that the song has been wrapped around by the last events in Moses’ life. I’ve suggested that in these last few chapters, we see the blessing and curse proclaimed and demonstrated again. I say that because whilst Moses gets a taste of the blessing, he in fact most experience and model some of the curse.

Moses is invited by God to climb a mountain overlooking the land. From there he will be able to survey it. The wrap around links in his last view with the blessing he will sing first.  Moses gets to gaze on the land and see where the tribes will end up.

Moses is going to see the land but not enter. Why? The answer is that he broke faith with God.  He had failed in his duties.  Therefore, Moses is to experience exile, death and curse, outside the land.  Why is this so?  Well, I want to suggest two reasons. The first is a little bit speculative and not explicit in the text but I think is implicit there in terms of the early chapters of Deuteronomy. Remember that the Israel that first arrived at the border of the land was stubborn, rebellious Israel. That stubbornness, faithlessness and unfaithfulness had been seen on the journey but was explicitly demonstrated by them listening to the ten spies and refusing to go into the land. The whole generation that left Egypt is condemned to wander the wilderness. The people must wait for that generation to die out before they can enter in. Moses, in effect identifies with that generation and so his death in effect symbolises its end.[1]

But is Moses unfairly on or a Christlike manner representing and taking on the sins of his generation too. No, he had been very much part of it.  This was demonstrated by an incident at Meribah-Kabesh.[2] There, the people grumbled and complained about a lack of water. Once again, God leads them to a rock where he will provide refreshing water to drink. Moses is instructed to speak to the rock and it will give water. Instead, he strikes it twice. Most preachers and commentators on that passage have picked up on Moses doing something different to God’s instruction. He repeats the action that brought water at a previous time.  He is seen as impatient, not really trusting God to respond to prayer, he needs to drive things forward. His trust seems more in his action of striking than in God’s answer to prayer.  I would also add that if the rock symbolically represents Christ then Moses in effect strikes back against God, strikes the Messiah, the anointed one symbolically.

It is because of this that Moses is barred from entering the land. He looks and sees but he dies on the outside.[3]

A song of Blessing (Deuteronomy 33)

The song is about blessing within the context of the covenant so it starts with God appearing at Sinai. God has come to his people with power and glory. They are his people within their care. God is their king. He loves them. This is going to be an important theme going forward. The covenat both provides for human representatives to reign and king and a reminder that their authority is derived from YHWH. Paran and Seir are mentioned to show that Moses has the whole “march of YHWH and his appearing with Israel through the Exodus in mind. (v1-5)[4]

Blessing is pronounced on the Tribes in turn. Reuben is promised life instead of death and yet the tribe will be small in number (v6). This reflects an Old Testament theme, the firstborn submits to the younger, the descendants of Joseph and Judah will exceed the descendants of Jacob’s firstborn in number, authority and achievement. Notice the mirroring of Moses’ words with the blessing given by Jacob on his deathbed. There Reuben is rebuked for his sin.[5]

Judah is listed next. We know that they led the Israelites in battle.[6] It is possible that Moses is saying either that Judah contends with his own hands, a reference to his place in battle or pleading with God to contend with his hands for Judah. Either way, the blessing for Judah is the promise of protecting and help in battle (v7)

The Levites are blessed and confirmed as the priestly people. They have been tested and have contested. At times this has put them at odds with the rest of the people. They are the ones who stand firm with Moses at Sinai.  They are therefore responsible for teaching God’s Torah and Covenant wit the people. This is not a peaceful life though, there will be enemies, adversaries and they will need protection (v8-11)

Benjamin is loved and either dwells between YHWH’s shoulders reinforcing the father son bond or alternatively God dwells between his, within his territory which would be a reference to the Tabernacle at Bethel and the Temple at Jerusalem which although it falls under Judah as David’s city is including within Benjamin by Joshua (v12)[7]

Notice the favourable way in which Joseph is addressed. The two half tribes, Manasseh and Ephraim will exert influence in the land and Ephraim will later dominate the northern kingdom. This is a promise of fruitfulness in the land. Note the allusion to the hill country of Ephraim too (v13-17)

Zebulun and Issachar are referred to together, commended for their righteousness and promised the coastal benefits of sea trade (v18-19). Gad is described as a warrior tribe, likened to  lion, crouched, ready to pounce (v20 -21). Dan similarly is compared to a lion but as a cub which suggests exuberance (v22). Naphtali is a place of God’s favour. When you realise the tribe’s portion was around Galilee, that makes a lot of sense (v23). Asher’s name means blessed or favoured or happy and the tribe inherits land where there will be prosperity as represented by the abundance of olive oil (v24 -25).

In the last few verses of the song, Israel are reminded of their own unique status. This is rooted in the uniqueness of God. There is no-one like him (v26).  It is because of this that they will enjoy safety and blessing. God himself is their dwelling place. In other words, he is the one who provides for them and protects them by fighting for them.. They live with YHWH, in the presence of the living God (v27 -28). Finally, verse 29 emphasise the point. Israel are to be a happy people. Their enemies will submit to them. Yet the real reason for their happiness is repeated again. It is that God is their saviour.

Postscript – The Death of Moses

Chapter 34 feels like a postscript, the high finish is in 33:29.  However we are now given a glimpse of Moses’ last day and succession.  As prophesied by God, he climbs Mount Nebo, just as years earlier he climbed Sinai and looks into a land he will not enter (v1-8). Once again God reminds him that this land was promised to his ancestors. God has kept his promise (v4). God had provided Moses with the strength and energy he needed for the task. Moses dies and is buried. No-one knows the exact location of his grave (v5-8). Note that there the identification of the one who buries is impersonal. It may be that God buried him but also that unnamed persons buried him. I think we are meant to assume that Joshua is present and there is no reason why others would not have gone up the mountain to assist Moses. The restriction was on him entering the land not others seeing it.  He would have needed help given his aforementioned frailty.

Joshua succeeds Moses as the leader but Moses has a unique place as the covenant receiver and law giver. The conclusion by the editor is that there was no prophet like him (v9-12).

Seeing through New Covenant Eyes

As I read through these last few chapters, I was reminded of Christ being taken to a mountain top to survey the kingdoms of this world. Maybe it was Mount Nebo? You can imagine Christ looking across and saying. “I’ve been here before with Moses” whether or not on that mountain.  Satan could show Jesus all those kingdoms but they were already his and his focus was on his portion, his people.

I’m also drawn to Hebrews 11 which describes those people of faith who trusted God in the Old Testament. The writer says:

13 These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. 14 For people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. 15 If they had been thinking of that land from which they had gone out, they would have had opportunity to return. 16 But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city. [8]

Moses is listed as one of those people.[9] He got close, he saw the land but he could not enter. However, it is not the land that he truly longed fo. The promise was Christ and the promise to be with him for eternity. In fact although Moses did not get into the land and did not see the fulfilment of the promise physically in Christ’s coming, he knows the fulfilment now in glory.

So a couple of questions for us. First of all, where do you stand right now? Are you on the outside looking in, at risk of getting to see something of God’s goodness but never truly being in Christ? Or are you firmly there, one of God’s people in God’s place under his rule?   Have you believed the promise, the one kept at calvary and to be kept at Christ’s return? Believer, do you really believe God’s promise of eternal blessing in Christ? Are you enjoying the blessing knowing that it is through grace or have you become immune to the wonder and mazement we should have at God’s grace to us.

Conclusion

Deuteronomy is all about what it means to live life in the presence of the living God. It isn’t just a set of laws, it is the covenant, setting out the story and providing the basis for agreement between God and his people. We know that the basis for God’s love, forgiveness and promise of future hope is in Christ alone.


[1] See Craigie, Deuteronomy, 105.

[2] Numbers 20.

[3] See McConville, Deuteronomy, 460.

[4] McConville, Deuteronomy, 468.

[5] Genesis 49:3-4. See also Genesis 35 – Reuben had slept with his father’s concubine.

[6]  Numbers 2:9. See Craigie, Deuteronomy, 394-5

[7] McConville, Deuteronomy, 471. Note Cragie, detects a reference to weapons in the description of shoulders/shoulder blades and so thinks the emphasis is again on Benjamin’s warrior duties. See Cragie, Deuteronomy, 397. I think that it is best to see the text as showing an development of the theme of God’s love and presence.

[8] Hebrews 11:13-16. 

[9] Hebrews 111:23-29.