IV. The Transition from Moses to Joshua (Deuteronomy 31:1–34:12)
IV. The Transition from Moses to Joshua (31:1–34:12)
31:1-5 Moses’s messages were over. He had come to the end of his leadership. Even though he was 120 years old (31:1), his age was not what would prevent him from entering the promised land (see Num 20:1-13). But Moses didn’t dwell on that. He knew the important thing was that the Lord would cross ahead of Israel, clearing the way before them (31:3). Under the leadership of Joshua, Israel would defeat their enemies because God would deliver them over (31:3-5).
31:6-8 Moses then gave the Israelites an exhortation that became God’s rallying call later to Joshua: Be strong and courageous (31:6; see Josh 1:6-7, 9, 18). Then Moses turned and said those same words to Joshua (31:7). If you’re wondering why God had to tell Joshua so many times to be strong and courageous, it’s because he knew the human tendency to be afraid and discouraged when facing giants (31:8).
31:9-13 Moses wrote down this law and gave it to the priests, with the command to have it read aloud (publicly) every seventh year when the nation gathered in Jerusalem for the Festival of Shelters (31:9-10). The seventh year was the Sabbatical year when debts were forgiven and slaves were freed (see 15:1-23), making it an important time already. The Festival of Shelters was one of three annual pilgrim festivals requiring all Israelite men to go to the central sanctuary. On this occasion, however, they were commanded to bring their families. A public reading of the law would have the benefits of review and education: the people would listen and learn to fear the Lord through hearing it (31:12). In addition, the children who [did] not [yet] know the law would be taught to fear the Lord (31:13).
31:14-15 Joshua had been publicly commissioned as God’s choice for Moses’s successor (see Num 27:18-23). Here, as the time for Moses’s death approached, God ratified his choice a final time with another commissioning service at the tabernacle. The appearance of the glory of God in a pillar of cloud (31:15) would have provided all the confirmation that Israel needed: Joshua was God’s man.
31:16-30 But the Lord also gave heartbreaking news to Moses. After he died, Israel would soon prostitute themselves with the foreign gods in the land of Canaan. They would abandon God and break the covenant that Moses had spent so much time explaining (31:16). Therefore, God would abandon them and would hide [his] face from them (31:17). God also gave Moses a song whose purpose was to remind his people of the reason for the troubles and afflictions they would encounter, showing them the path to forgiveness by means of his grace (31:19-21). Moses must have left this meeting with mixed emotions: sadness over the future sin of God’s people, joy in knowing that his legacy would continue through the writing down of the covenant, and righteous anger over the Israelites’ rebellious and stiff-necked nature that would lead them to spiritual disaster (31:27).
32:1-12 Then Moses proceeded to recite the song to the entire assembly of Israel (31:30). The “Song of Moses” is an incredible teaching instrument that traces God’s dealings with the nation. As if in a courtroom, Moses called the heavens and the earth as witnesses to the truth of what he was about to say, beginning with his testimony to the greatness of our God whose work is perfect (32:1-4). In contrast to God’s greatness and faithfulness to Israel, his people acted corruptly toward him by becoming a devious and crooked generation—it was a wretched way to repay the love and kindness he had shown them (32:5-12).
32:13-18 The Lord had nourished Israel throughout their journey (32:13-14). But once the people enjoyed these blessings, Jeshurun (a term of affection for Israel meaning “Upright One”) became fat, bloated, and gorged, like a rebellious, stupid animal that kicks at the master who feeds it even as it chews what he’s provided (32:15). Israel treated God with utter contempt and scorn by abandoning him for different gods who were actually demons (32:16-17). They forgot the God who gave birth to them (32:18). The Lord was a kind and devoted Father, but his ungrateful children hated him.
32:19-21 Israel’s flagrant disobedience provoked God’s righteous anger and judgment. This statement is ominous: I will hide my face from them (32:20). When the God who alone made you and sustains you turns his back on you, there is absolutely no hope. We see a similar phrase used in the book of Esther when Queen Esther revealed that Haman had plotted to kill her and the Jews. Once King Ahasuerus passed sentence on Haman, “they covered Haman’s face” (Esth 7:8) to hide the king’s face from him. This symbolized that he was out of appeals.
32:22-27 God’s anger is compared to a raging fire (32:22). His judgment would come in the form of disasters such as pestilence and bitter plague . . . wild beasts . . . venomous snakes . . . the sword and terror that would take the lives of everyone, including the infant and the gray-haired man (32:23-25). Israel’s record of apostasy was already so great that the nation deserved to be cut off completely by their enemies. But God stopped short of doing that lest Israel’s enemies wrongfully concluded that their power—and not God himself—had defeated God’s people (32:26-27). The Lord would make sure that the nations understood: Israel hadn’t been vanquished because their God was weak. On the contrary, Israel was vanquished by their holy God.
32:28-29 You have to wonder what Moses’s hearers were thinking when they heard him say, Israel is a nation lacking sense with no understanding at all (32:28). They could consider the example of their parents’ generation—those who had been buried in the wilderness because they failed to trust God and blew their chance to enjoy the promised land. But perhaps this new generation thought to themselves that they wouldn’t be like that. If so, they would have benefited from Paul’s warning to the Corinthians: “Whoever thinks he stands must be careful not to fall” (1 Cor 10:12).
32:30-33 We all would like to think that we’ll do better than those who have gone before us. But we would be wiser to recognize that we are prone to failure and pray to the Lord, “Do not bring us into temptation, but deliver as from the evil one” (Matt 6:13). In the case of arrogant Israel, apostasy was in their future to such a tragic degree that the Lord would give them up (32:30) because they had become as sinful as Sodom and Gomorrah (32:32).
32:34-47 Moses concluded his song with a word of deliverance for Israel after God’s fierce judgment had run its course. God would take vengeance on Israel’s enemies once he saw that the nation had come to the end of its strength and turned back to him (32:34-36). But Israel had to learn a hard lesson first—the futility of depending on false gods for help in their time of disaster (32:37-38). Only then would they be ready to come back in repentance to the Lord, who alone could heal them (32:39). Then he would rise up in vengeance on his adversaries (32:41) and purify his land and his people (32:43). Moses taught the people these words of life to help ensure their blessing in the promised land (32:44-47).
32:48-52 On that same day, Moses was given instructions regarding where he was to go to die. From a distance (32:48-52), and out of God’s mercy, he would be able to view the promised land’s extent.
33:1-5 The blessing Moses gave in this chapter served as something of a last will and testament. It was modeled on the blessing Jacob imparted to each of his sons, the patriarchs of Israel’s tribes, who shared their names (see Genesis 49). One difference is that the tribe of Simeon is omitted and Joseph is counted as one, although his two sons Manasseh and Ephraim are mentioned. Judging from the statement in 34:1, it seems Moses pronounced his blessing to the people before making the final climb up Mount Nebo. It was appropriate for Moses to bless the children of Israel as their “father” who was present at the nation’s birth in the exodus of Egypt. He recalled God’s majesty in his appearance at Sinai and his guidance through the wilderness years (33:2-5). Then he spoke of the future.
33:6-11 First, Moses asked that Reuben, the tribe descended from Israel’s eldest son by that name, would live . . . though his people become few (33:6). Judah, the tribe from which Jesus would be born, had led the way in Israel’s march through the wilderness and would continue to lead into the promised land, needing God’s help for victory in battle (33:7). Levi was also a significant tribe, providing Israel with its priests and counting Moses and Aaron among its members. The Levites were the faithful ones who kept God’s word and maintained his covenant by teaching his ordinances and instruction (33:8-10). Thus, Moses asked that Levi be protected from his adversaries and enemies (33:11).
33:12-25 Benjamin (33:12) and Joseph (33:13-17), the patriarchs of the tribes bearing their names, were Jacob’s youngest and favorite sons through his beloved Rachel. Benjamin is called the Lord’s beloved who rests on God’s shoulders, which is a picture of great peace that brings to mind a shepherd carrying a lamb (33:12). Joseph was the most blessed of all of Jacob’s sons and was a type of Christ (that is, a foreshadowing of Christ) in that he was the redeemer of his family in a situation that would’ve ended in their deaths. Moses prayed that God would bless Joseph with great material prosperity (33:13-16). The blessing on Joseph’s land (33:13) was realized by his sons, Manasseh and Ephraim (33:17), since his portion among his brothers was given to his offspring (see Gen 48). The blessings continued with the tribes of Zebulun and Issachar (33:18-19), Gad and Dan (33:20-22), Naphtali and Asher (33:23-25).
33:26-29 Moses concluded his blessing on the tribes of Israel with his final words of praise to the God of Jeshurun (33:26; on “Jeshurun,” see 32:15). There was no word of warning or coming judgment here, just a magnificent picture of Israel’s majestic God who held them in his everlasting arms and stood ready to destroy their enemies (33:27). If only Israel would love and serve him faithfully, God would see to it that his people lived securely and untroubled in a land of grain and new wine where even God’s skies drip with dew and Israel’s enemies cringe before them (33:28-29).
34:1-4 With those words said, Moses walked up Mount Nebo to his funeral, as an anonymous writer recorded here as an epilogue to the story (34:1). God graciously showed him all the land of Israel, which suggests that what he saw required a supernatural extension of his vision (34:1-3). Even though Moses would not be allowed to enter Canaan, God affirmed his promise to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob to give it to their descendants, the Israelites (34:4).
34:5-12 Moses died there on Mount Nebo and was buried by the Lord in the land of Moab, even though he was not weak and had not lost his vitality (34:5-7). After a mourning period of thirty days, the Israelites prepared to move into Canaan under Joshua, whom God filled with the spirit of wisdom for his huge task (34:8-9). The closing tribute to Moses ends this book and demonstrates the truth that no prophet like him ever arose again in Israel—a prophet whom the Lord knew face to face and who performed mighty acts of power and terrifying deeds . . . in the sight of all Israel (34:10-12).
Nevertheless, one day a new kind of prophet—an even better one—would arise (see 18:15; Acts 3:22-23). He would be a man—but far more than a man (see John 1:1-14). He would be the Son of God (see Matt 3:17). Though God knew Moses face to face, yet God’s glory would truly shine in the face of Jesus Christ (see 2 Cor 4:6). Moses was faithful in God’s household, but the Son would be worthy of more honor, in the same way that a builder has more honor than the house (see Heb 3:2-3). For the law came through Moses, but grace and truth would come through Jesus Christ (see John 1:17).