The Death of Moses and the End of the Pentateuch (Deut. 34)

We come to the end of Deuteronomy. After the long “Song of Moses”—which, as we mentioned in a previous post, is likely the oldest bit of this book—Moses dies, aged 120 years (Deut. 34:7: “yet his eyes were not weak nor his strength gone”). His passing marks a shift in the Bible: the end of the Pentateuch.

As so goes Moses, so goes the Pentateuch. Tradition, actually, holds that Moses himself composed the Pentateuch, or the first five books of the Old Testament—Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy—but this is almost certainly not true. We have briefly explored authorship questions of the these five books—discussing the Documentary Hypothesis, for example—and plan, in the near future, to write up a much longer blog piece on this question. For current purposes, though, let’s look at one facet, present in Deuteronomy 34, which calls into question Moses’ authorship. Let’s see if you all at home can figure this one out:

And Moses the servant of the Lord died there in Moab, as the Lord had said. He buried him in Moab, in the valley opposite Beth Peor, but to this day no one knows where his grave is. Moses was a hundred and twenty years old when he died, yet his eyes were not weak nor his strength gone. The Israelites grieved for Moses in the plains of Moab thirty days, until the time of weeping and mourning was over. (Deut. 34:5-8)

So what about this passage indicates that Moses did not write it?

Where to begin?

For one, if Moses died, how he did he write the above passage about himself dying? Did he write it beforehand, making sure to put in the past tense so everything would be neatly together and ready for the Israelites? How did he know that the Israelites would only grieve for him thirty days? Might he have guessed they would have stretched the standard grieving period on for such an important figure? How did Moses know that no prophet would ever reach his level? (Deut. 34:12: “For no one has ever shown the mighty power or performed the awesome deeds that Moses did in the sight of all Israel.”) Lastly, how did Moses know that “to this day no one knows where his grave is”?

This raises an obvious question about much of the rest of the Pentateuch: Did Moses constantly refer to himself in the third person throughout these books? If you were writing an account of the history, wouldn’t you use “I” instead of your name? (Perhaps if you were not Bob Dole, that is.) I don’t think these are purely semantic questions—they are simply the most obvious way of finding holes with this theory. These questions can be addressed by some slippery arguments, which, honestly, seem to be ignoring the obvious: this small portion here—besides the significant evidence we will discuss later on—demonstrates that Deuteronomy was, in all likelihood, not written by Moses.*

*Thanks to our readers for sticking with us through the Pentateuch. We’ll probably have a couple more posts summing up what we have learned and posted about here, both about Deuteronomy and about the Pentateuch as a whole—before we move on through the rest of the Old Testament.

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