Moses: Where, Why, and How did he Die? Why a Secret Burial?

Moses (circa 14th – 13th century BC)1 was not just the man who led the Israelites out of Egyptian slavery, he also authored the first five books of the Old Testament, also known as the Torah or Pentateuch. Furthermore, he was a great prophet and recognized as such in all Abrahamic religions: Judaism, Christianity, Islam. His story, from birth to death, is detailed within the books of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy.

It was Moses to whom God appeared within a burning bush and first revealed his divine name. God said, “I Am Who I Am” (Exodus 3:14, NRSV),2 which is written in Hebrew as ‘YHWH’ and pronounced ‘Yahweh’ (although some pronounce it ‘Jehovah’). It means, ‘I Will Be What I Will Be’. God was saying he is alive, immediate, and present; he is! In the past he was known by what he did for others, but from this point on, he would be known by what he does for the Israelites.3

After negotiating with the Egyptian leader, Pharaoh, Moses guided his people out of slavery, met with God upon a mountain, received the Ten Commandments, and led the Israelites to the land that was promised to Abraham (Genesis 12; 26:3; 28:13). He was, however, much more than the freer of slaves and a guide for their escape. Forbes, is a global media company, and they stated the following in their popular business magazine. “Moses was the CEO, the Israelites were his employees, customers and shareholders, and the Egyptians, Amelekites, etc. were the competition. Finally, Moses had the most knowledgeable and powerful chairman of the board ever: God.”4

Moses does present a distinct personality as he mediates between God and the people. World History Magazine implies he was neither holy, nor secular. “He accepts his mandate from God reluctantly, constantly asks God why he was chosen and what he is supposed to be doing, and yet consistently tries to do God’s will.”5

Although Moses was a patient man, there was a limit to that patience which sometimes brought on outbursts of his anger. Purposely breaking the stone tablets of the ten commandments that God presented to him, at Mount Sinai, is but one example of his wrath.

In another example, Moses was given strict instructions to ‘speak’ to a rock to get water for the people, but in anger he ‘strikes’ the rock with his staff instead (Numbers 20:1-12). God performs that miracle anyway, but Moses would later pay a price for disobedience. Because of this act of defiance, Moses was not allowed to enter the Promised Land.

Was this fair for such a minor infraction? Well, one commentator explains it this way. Once, previously, Moses struck a rock (as God requested) and water came forth. God meant that rock to later symbolize Christ, who was crucified (struck) before the Spirit could be given. In the second water miracle, the rock was to be spoken to, meaning that after Christ’s death, one only need ask to receive the Spirit. “By striking the rock the second time, Moses was violating the lesson the Lord was trying to teach us. Jesus only had to die once for us to receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. After that, all we have to do is ask to receive him (Matthew 7:7-8). So this was more than a single act of disobedience on the part of Moses. It was in effect a denial of the sufficiency of the still-to-come Lord’s death.”6

Besides, Moses (with his brother Aaron) was taking credit for the miracle (“shall we bring water”), instead of attributing it to our Lord. “Moses and Aaron gathered the assembly together before the rock, and he said to them, ‘Listen, you rebels, shall we bring water for you out of this rock?’” (Numbers 20:10).

 

Arriving at the Promised Land (the first time)

The vast majority of this story is much too long for this discourse, but it is worth reading, even if it takes a while over several days to do so. But for our study now, we need to know that Moses led his people to the promised land twice, and why it worked out that way.

The first time they arrived at the border of Canaan, God instructed Moses to send twelve men to survey the land. This would give the Israelites an opportunity to first view this area known as the ‘land of milk and honey’ and the types of people living there. The current inhabitants were a wicked and sinful people living in idolatry (Deuteronomy 9:4), to which God would give the Israelites help in driving out of the land. (It is God’s land, so he gets to decide who lives there.)

When the spies returned, ten of them lied by exaggerating the situation. They reported their fear of not being able to conquer this enemy, saying they were not only outnumbered, but the land included powerful giants (the Nephilim7), and their cities were heavily fortified against intrusion. Only two of the men, Joshua and Caleb, told the truth and had faith that, with God’s help, they could take the land and encouraged Moses to proceed.

The ten pessimistic spies of a differing opinion discouraged the people of Israel and they all rebelled. This majority protested to Moses and complained that they should have stayed in Egypt. They wanted to choose a new leader and return back to where they came. They even discussed stoning Moses, Aaron, Caleb, and Joshua.

But the Lord intervened displaying his own anger, and said to Moses. “How long will this people despise me? And how long will they refuse to believe in me, in spite of all the signs that I have done among them? I will strike them with pestilence and disinherit them, and I will make of you a nation greater and mightier than they” (Numbers 14:11b-12).

The people disappointed Moses, too, but he pleaded with God to forgive them, which he did — with a stipulation. “I do forgive, just as you have asked; nevertheless — as I live, and as all the earth shall be filled with the glory of the LORD — none of the people who have seen my glory and the signs that I did in Egypt and in the wilderness, and yet have tested me these ten times and have not obeyed my voice, shall see the land that I swore to give to their ancestors; none of those who despised me shall see it” (Numbers 14:20-23).

And God told Moses to speak to the congregation and explain that not anyone over the age of twenty years old who complained against God, with the exception of Caleb and Joshua, would make it into the Promised Land (Numbers 14:29-30).

“And your children shall be shepherds in the wilderness for forty years, and shall suffer for your faithlessness, until the last of your dead bodies lies in the wilderness. According to the number of the days in which you spied out the land, forty days, for every day a year, you shall bear your iniquity, forty years, and you shall know my displeasure” (Numbers 14:33-34).

And this is why the Israelites wandered in the desert for forty years, before they were finally allowed to enter the land they were promised; the entire generation of sinful adults would have to die, before their progeny experienced the fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham.

All the Christians in our current time should take this message to heart. “Once saved, always saved” isn’t really biblical; it is necessary for us to remember that the salvation we receive is not unconditional. Remember that we all have free will, so if we are relentless in the rejection of our Lord, eventually God will respect our choice, but it is an unpardonable sin and we can lose our salvation. For more about this subject, read the article “Hebrews 6:4 – Can We Lose Our Salvation?” which is listed in References & Notes.8

But even Moses was not to enter the Promised Land; look at all that he did for God, and he was faithful, why keep him out? The specific reason given for not entering the new land was his previous disobedience of striking the rock for water, instead of speaking to it. Was that a fair and just decision of God?

Moses may have lost the opportunity to enter the land of Canaan, but he didn’t lose his salvation, and to be honest, he received a special gift from God, as you will see. As God’s people were set to enter the Promised Land, Moses’ job was finished — he got the chosen people to their destination — and God’s plan now switches to other matters, starting with Joshua.

The younger Joshua was to conquer the land and divide it among the twelve tribes of Israel. This would have been impossible if he was only living in but the shadow of the great Moses. Besides, in death Moses was but at rest, sleeping, until a newer Promised Land is ready for his resurrection (John 11:11; also 1 Corinthians 15:20; 1 Thessalonians 4:14). When he awakes, it will be in the new world as described in the Book of Revelation (verses 21:3-8).

 

Where was Moses when he saw the Promised Land?
How Did He Die? — Why the Secret Burial?

The Bible states neither how Moses died, nor why the exact burial site is kept secret. We will examine scattered clues upon which we can assemble a picture of possibilities. But first, let’s examine why there is some confusion as to the exact location where Moses got his view of the long-promised land in Canaan.

For instance, in petitioning God to allow him to enter, Moses repeats the Lord’s instructions, “The LORD said to me, ‘Enough from you! Never speak to me of this matter again! Go up to the top of Pisgah and look around you to the west, to the north, to the south, and to the east. Look well, for you shall not cross over this Jordan’,” (Deuteronomy 3:26b-27).

But other scripture doesn’t state it was Mount Pisgah. God says to Moses, “Ascend this mountain of the Abarim, Mount Nebo, which is in the land of Moab, across from Jericho, and view the land of Canaan, which I am giving to the Israelites for a possession; you shall die there on the mountain,” (Deuteronomy 32:49-50a).

It is hard to resolve this conflict unless you know Abarim is the Hebrew name for the range of mountains of ancient Moab (now Jordan). And some translators call the highest peak Pisgah (which actually only means ‘summit’).9 But this particular summit has its own name and is called Mount Nebo, which is from where Moses viewed the Promised Land.10

Muslims identify Mount Nebo with Jebel Osha,11 which rises 3,600 feet (1097 meters) above sea level in that same general area.12 As you can see, names and meanings change over time, depending upon historical period, languages used, and/or translator preferences.

Anyway, Moses did die on the mountain and was buried in the valley in the land of Moab, before everyone else crossed the Jordan River into Canaan. Since the biblical account states “no one knows his burial place to this day” it must be assumed that he was buried by God himself or by the Lord’s angels (Deuteronomy 34:6).

Most people assume that the secret burial was to keep people from using his grave site for some kind of idol worship, and that may be true, but another reason could have been to keep Satan from knowing its location. There is a verse in the Book of Jude that supports the possibility of angelic help with Moses’ burial. “But when the archangel Michael contended with the devil and disputed about the body of Moses, he did not dare to bring a condemnation of slander against him, but said, ‘The Lord rebuke you!’” (Jude 9).13

One commentator explains it this way, “The archangel Michael was sent to bury Moses’ body, but according to Jewish tradition (the pseudepigraphical book, The Assumption of Moses), the devil argued with the angel about the body, apparently claiming the right to dispose of it. But Michael, though powerful and authoritative, did not dare dispute with Satan, so he left the matter in God’s hands, saying, ‘The Lord rebuke you!’14

Now, there is another idea (believed by Mormons, as well as others) that Moses did not die, but was ‘translated’. What does this mean? Well, depending upon some religious sects, translation can mean a power whereby people are preserved in their “tangible and physical bodies” and taken into the presence of God for eternity — or a habitat of terrestrial order held in reserve and ministered by angels, but not as great as that which will be in the coming resurrection15 (there are other variations on this theme).

A couple of possible such ‘translations’ instead of death are discussed in the article “Enoch and Elijah: Are they Dead or in Heaven?” which is listed in References & Notes.16 If you decide to read that article, be sure to include viewing the visitor comment at the end from Gary Bartlett, who proposed an interesting, but rather unconventional, answer.

Actually, though, in this case we know Moses could not have been ‘translated’ anywhere, because the scripture plainly states “Moses, the servant of the LORD, died there in the land of Moab, at the LORD’s command” (Deuteronomy 34:4). So, what method was used to end Moses’ life? A couple of researchers, Daniel Berry and Sandra van Eden,17 believe they may have the answer to that question and have published their research in the Jewish Bible Quarterly.

Their article pieces together a possible exact mode and cause of Moses’ death by obtaining evidence from scripture. They feel, from the wording used, that “God is telling Moses, not just that he will die and where his death will occur, but he, Moses, must do something active to bring about his death.” Because Moses is healthy and vigorous at age 120, he was unlikely to die of natural causes from hiking up Mount Nebo. And more important, “God is commanding Moses that he will not take any explicit action to end Moses’ life for him.” So, simply, Moses is being commanded by God to actively bring about an end to his own life.18

Forty years previously, when Moses first left the land of Egypt and went up a mountain to converse with God, he wanted to see God’s face. But the Lord told him, “‘you cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live.’ And the LORD continued, ‘See, there is a place by me where you shall stand on the rock; and while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by; then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back; but my face shall not be seen,’” (Exodus 33:20-23).

The key to solving this conundrum is understanding Deuteronomy 34:10: “Never since has there arisen a prophet in Israel like Moses, whom the LORD knew face to face.” This face-to-face confrontation meant that Moses must have had the privilege of seeing God’s face on Mount Nebo, but by doing so, he lost his life. Basically, by asking again to see God’s face, he would actively carry out God’s command to die. Moses wasn’t able to enter the promised land, but his wish to see God’s face was granted.19

 

Conclusion

If it had bothered you that God forbid Moses from the Promised Land thousands of years ago, you are in good company, for most people think it was somewhat unfair. However, I hope enough evidence has been presented that helps you realize it was not as bad as it seems. God is morally just and ethically fair, and he does have a plan that we may not fully understand sometimes. Although God can forgive sins, he doesn’t just disregard them; we are all responsible for a sin’s consequences.

Generally, when we go to sleep at night, we sleep until morning, then awake with the length of missing time of our slumber not remembered. That is how I think of death, because death is just a sleep. “I will sleep the sleep of death” (Psalm 13:3a).

It matters not whether our sleep is but a few hours, or it spans a duration of millennia — we will neither recognize nor experience the missing time. So, between death and resurrection, we will have no recall. “The living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing” (Ecclesiastes 9:5a). This is how I imagine Moses’ experience; upon awakening in the coming new Paradise, the last thing he will remember seeing will be the face of God.

The song selected for this article is “On My Way to Canaan Land” sung by Burt Lancaster in the 1960 American film Elmer Gantry. It was adapted from the Sinclair Lewis 1927 novel and is about a confidence man and a female evangelist selling religion to small-town America.20 This special arrangement of the song was crafted by gospel singer Mahalia Jackson. Selected lyrics are below and the music video is listed in References & Notes.21

On my way, off to Canaan Land,
I’m on my way.
Had a mighty hard time,
All along the way,
Satan’s lies await’n,
Every night and day,
Hear me shout and say,
Get behind me, Satan,
I’m on my way, Glory, Hallelujah,
I’m on my way.

Copyright © 2022, Dr. Ray Hermann
OutlawBibleStudent.org

→ Leave comments at the end, after ‘References & Notes’.
Your email address will NOT be published. You can view our basic rules for comments by clicking “The Fine Print” on the top menu bar.

References & Notes

  1. Beegle, Dewey M., “Moses: Hebrew prophet” (Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica Inc, 26 July 1999), https://www.britannica.com/biography/Moses-Hebrew-prophet
  2. All scripture is quoted from The Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version, (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1989). Used by permission.
  3. Knowles, Andrew, The Bible Guide: An all-in-one Introduction to the Book of Books, (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Fortress, 2001), p. 46.
  4. Loftus, Geoff, “Holy Moses! How to Lead to the Promised Land”, (Forbes Media, PARS International Corp., 25 April 2012), https://www.forbes.com/sites/geoffloftus/2012/04/25/holy-moses-how-to-lead-to-the-promised-land/?sh=3a415cae707a
  5. Mark, Joshua J., “Moses”, (World History Encyclopedia, 28 September 2016), https://www.worldhistory.org/Moses/
  6. Kelly, Jack, “Why Didn’t Moses Go Into The Promised Land?” (Grace thru Faith, 11 November 2009), https://gracethrufaith.com/ask-a-bible-teacher/why-didnt-moses-go-into-the-promised-land/
  7. Nephilim: sometimes loosely translated as giants, they are hybrid offspring of fallen angels. For more information, see “When the sons of God were having sexual relations with the daughters of humankind — the story of the Nephilim” at https://outlawbiblestudent.org/when-the-sons-of-god-were-having-sexual-relations-with-the-daughters-of-humankind-the-story-of-the-nephilim/
    Also see: “What are Demons and the Nephilim? — and that Mayhem before the Flood of Noah?” https://outlawbiblestudent.org/what-are-demons-and-the-nephilim-and-that-mayhem-before-the-flood-of-noah/
  8. Hermann, Ray, “Hebrews 6:4 – Can We Lose Our Salvation?” (The Outlaw Bible Student, OBS, 20 August 2018), https://outlawbiblestudent.org/hebrews-64-can-we-lose-our-salvation/
  9. “Mount Pisgah (Bible)”, (Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 20 January 2022), https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mount_Pisgah_(Bible)
  10. “Pisgah” (Dictionary.com, retrieved 4 June 2022), https://www.dictionary.com/browse/pisgah
  11. Knowles, Andrew, The Bible Guide, (see above), p. 104.
  12. Conder, C. R., in The International Standard Bible Encyclopædia, (Ed.) James Orr, (Chicago: the Howard-Severance Company, 1915), vol. 4, p. 2209.
  13. Deere, Jack S., in The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures, (Eds.) Walvoord and Zuck, (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1985), vol. 1, p. 323.
  14. Ibid., Pentecost, Edward C., in vol. 2, p. 921.
  15. “Translation of Moses”, (Book of Mormon Evidence Central, 23 December 2020), https://evidencecentral.org/recency/evidence/translation-of-moses
  16. Hermann, Ray, “Enoch and Elijah: Are they Dead or in Heaven?” (The Outlaw Bible Student, OBS, 11 May 2020), https://outlawbiblestudent.org/enoch-and-elijah-are-they-dead-or-in-heaven/
  17. Daniel Berry is a professor at the University of Waterloo in Waterloo, ON, Canada. Sandra van Eden works for the New Zealand government schools in Auckland, New Zealand.
  18. Berry, Daniel M., and van Eden, Sandra, “How Did Moses Die?” (Jewish Bible Quarterly, 2018), vol. 46, no. 2, pp. 104-108).
  19. Ibid.
  20. “Elmer Gantry (film)”, (Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 28 November 2021), https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elmer_Gantry_(film)
  21. “On My Way to Canaan Land”, Artist: Burt Lancaster; Arranged by Mahalia Jackson; Music by Andre Prévin; Film: Elmer Gantry, 1960, (distributed by United Artists). Used under ‘fair use copyright’ for teaching under Section 107 of United States Copyright Act of 1976 – MUSIC VIDEO: https://youtu.be/IY1cEZ-jXlQ
Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Leave a Comment