We come to the end of Deuteronomy. After the long “Song of Moses”â€”which, as we mentioned in a previous post, is likely the oldest bit of this bookâ€”Moses dies, aged 120 years (Deut. 34:7: “yet his eyes were not weakÂ 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 Testamentâ€”Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomyâ€”but this is almost certainly not true. We have briefly explored authorship questions of the these five booksâ€”discussing the Documentary Hypothesis, for exampleâ€”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 theÂ LordÂ diedÂ there in Moab, as theÂ LordÂ had said.Â 6Â He buried himÂ in Moab, in the valley opposite Beth Peor,Â but to this day no one knows where his grave is.Â 7Â Moses was a hundred and twenty years oldÂ when he died, yet his eyes were not weakÂ nor his strength gone.Â 8Â The Israelites grieved for Moses in the plains of MoabÂ thirty days,Â until the time of weeping and mourningÂ 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 hasÂ ever shown the mighty power or performed the awesome deedsÂ 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 questionsâ€”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 hereâ€”besides the significant evidence we will discuss later onâ€”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 wholeâ€”before we move on through the rest of the Old Testament.