When Moses Died

by

Deuteronomy 34:1-12 (RSV)

Every life has to defining moments — that of birth at one end, death at the other. Whether one is a Queen or the poorest of the poor, life is bordered by those two events. Of course, there are other milestones in each life lying at various points along the journey, and each life has a number of those points differing by age, culture, education, religious beliefs, and happenstance.

Moses definitely had an unusual beginning. Because Israelite babies were not welcome in Egypt, midwives were instructed to kill all newborns. Two midwives who attended Moses’ birth disobeyed the orders and quietly let the child live. The birth mother told her daughter, Miriam, to take  him to the river and put him in a waterproof basket, hoping someone would find him and adopt him. That’s precisely what happened. Pharaoh’s daughter came for a bath in the river and went home clean and with a new baby, which she raised as her son.

In the course of Moses’ life, he was raised as a prince of Egypt, but killed an Egyptian who was beating an Israelite to death. He fled to Midian, where he met his future father-in-law and married his wife. He took care of sheep and had a life-changing event on a mountain where a mysterious bush caught his attention. It was a turning point in his life.

Fast forward a few decades. Moses had returned to Egypt where he became God’s spokesman to Pharaoh. He warned Pharaoh of the coming plagues and trials, but God had made sure Pharaoh wasn’t buying it — until they happened. Eventually the last plague was the last straw. Pharaoh’s firstborn son and all other firstborns, whether human or animal, died, but all the Israelites (who had the lintels of their doorposts painted with blood) survived intact.  Moses was  permitted to lead the Israelites out of Egypt on a journey that would take them 40 years and with not a few adventures of various kinds.

There’s an interesting thing about that journey taking so long. They could have gotten there in probably a quarter of the time, but God had other plans. During the time of the exodus, the whole 40 years, those who had lived in Egypt the longest and had been most infected by the long stay and the exposure to the religion and culture of the Egyptians would die on the trip, and their influence would be weakened. By the time they were ready to cross into the Promised Land, new generations would be ready to follow God. Moses, though, was another story.

Moses had been a faithful follower of and transmitter of God’s will to the Israelites. He’d made one big error by doing something other than God had told him to do (striking a rock twice rather than speaking to it). As a result, Moses was told he would not be permitted to set foot in the Promised Land with the Israelites he had led for so many years. Still, God was merciful. Moses was led to the top of a mountain where he could look into the Promised Land from a distance, and there Moses died. His body was never found lest it become a place where the people would stop and create their new land there where Moses’ body would have been entombed. It’s happened before and also since with other great leaders.

People become attached to places where loved ones or martyrs have died or where they have been buried (or even believed to have died or buried). That place becomes a shrine, much like the little ones we see along the road where a person has been killed in an accident or a murder. There’s a little white cross with a name and imitation flowers placed around it. It’s a reminder to the family who visit it on significant dates, and also to the public, who need to be reminded of the deaths automobile accidents and murders can cause. Memorials like those of the Unknown Soldiers in various countries memorialize young men who have paid the final price for their country, and becomes a place where families whose children probably never came home for a regular burial can go to pay their respects and remember their lives.

The death of Moses was a big thing for the Israelites. For years he had led them, put up with their grumblings, brought them through hardships, and kept their focus on God and the Promised Land. Suddenly he was gone, and their GPS, internet, wi-fi, and smart phone that he had been to them had disappeared with him. They didn’t really have a place to memorialize him, like we do for people like Martin Luther King Jr and John F. Kennedy. Even a family tombstone in a local cemetery becomes a place of memorial to those we have loved and lost, although we often need to move away from their locale because of circumstances like job relocation and the like. Still, those tombstones are there for us to visit whenever we return.

The death of a leader can mean the death of a group or a movement. Most often, though, it means a change. In the case of the Israelites, it meant a new life in a new place along with new leadership. We have seen the results of this type of situation throughout history and still see it today. It is not always a death of a leader that produces such changes, and often there are a lot of mistakes that accompany a learning experience.  Moses and Aaron had worked hard to keep the Israelites’ eyes on God, and now it was the job of a new generation to continue moving forward.

The lesson of the death of Moses is that life does not stop because one life does. There is a time for mourning the loss, but the world continues to turn, and changes happen. As Christians, our job is to keep our eyes on God, who has given us the tools to carry on and to continue to build God’s Kingdom on earth. Human changes may let us down in some way, but with God’s guidance and attention to that guidance, will carry us through. The Israelites made mistakes, just as we will when changes threaten us. Still, God’s there and with us, if we stay faithful to God.

 

Image: The Death of Moses, Bible card published 1907 by the Providence Lithograph Company. Found at Wikimedia Commons.

Linda Ryan is a co-mentor for two Education for Ministry groups, an avid reader, lover of Baroque and Renaissance music, and semi-retired. She keeps the blog Jericho’s Daughter. She is also owned by three cats.

 

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