Commentary on Deuteronomy 31-34 (Joshua Succeeds Moses)

Moses’s speeches and admonitions to the Israelites are about to come to an end. Chapter 31 begins with Moses telling them that he is 120 years old, and thus he is no longer able to lead the people. In addition, God has commanded that Moses not cross into the Promised Land because of his sin at Meribah.

Even though Moses will not be leading Israel across the Jordan River, he encourages them about what will happen. God Himself will go ahead of the people and drive out the Canaanites so that the children of Israel can take possession of the land. Moses reminds them how God destroyed the Amorite kings Sihon and Og. He will do the same for them in Canaan, so they must be strong and courageous and never doubt God’s presence.

In verses 7-8, Moses singles out Joshua for encouragement, as Joshua would be assuming leadership after Moses’s death. Joshua must see that the promises made to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are fulfilled by dividing up the land that God will give them among the 12 tribes of Israel. Moses reminds Joshua that God will go before him and he need never be afraid or discouraged.

As we move ahead to chapter 34, the final chapter of Deuteronomy and the Pentateuch, we finally come to the death of Moses. Moses climbs, alone, to the top of a high mountain, so that he can see the Promised Land from his vantage point. His eyes sweep across the expanse of the land in a counter-clockwise direction. God reminds him that this is the land he promised Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, but that Moses could never possess himself.

In verses 5-8, Moses dies and is buried by God in a valley in Moab (the exact location is unknown by the author of the text). Why would Moses’s body not be buried by another person? Scholars have speculated that God was preventing the Israelites from carrying Moses’s body into the Promised Land, which they surely would have done if they had known where he died. Therefore, God handled the death and burial of Moses Himself.

Note that Moses is called, in verse 5, the “servant of the Lord,” even though his sin prevented him from entering the Promised Land. Moses was denied the inheritance of the land, but he was still God’s servant. His sin did not completely separate him from God. God may punish his children, but He does not disown them.

In verse 9, the torch of leadership is officially passed to Joshua because Moses had duly anointed Joshua, with God’s approval, as his successor. The text indicates that the people of Israel respected the anointing of Joshua.

Verses 10-12 provide the literary epitaph for Moses. The author of this section, probably writing decades, if not hundreds of years later, states that there never was another prophet like Moses, whom God knew “face to face.” The incredible signs and wonders surrounding the Exodus from Egypt are incomparable to the feats of any previous or subsequent prophets of Israel.

Peter Craigie, in The Book of Deuteronomy (New International Commentary on the Old Testament), concludes:

Thus the unique aspect of Moses’ prophetic ministry is to be found in the role he played in a unique and vitally important event in Israel’s history. That unique event, emerging from the Exodus and the forming of the covenant at Sinai, was the formation of the kingdom of God in the nascent, theocratic state of Israel, in which the Lord was King (Exod. 15:18; Deut. 33:5). The event began with the great liberation from Egypt and it was sealed by the new commitment at Sinai. Consequently, however distinguished a subsequent prophet in Israel might be, his ministry would be within the community of God’s people; the work of the prophet Moses, however, was instrumental, under God, in the formation of that community.