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Bible Commentaries
Deuteronomy 34

Coffman's Commentaries on the BibleCoffman's Commentaries


This brief chapter brings us to the end of Deuteronomy. Having now completed our detailed study of the five Books of Moses, we find the same full confidence that was expressed by Keil, “So far as critical opinions respecting the origin of these works is concerned, we find the INTERNAL UNITY of the whole Torah, as well as its Mosaic origin, thoroughly confirmed!”(F1) The problems that men discover in these books are of as little account as a speck of dust on the George Washington Monument. There are no intellectual grounds upon which an inquiring mind should refuse to hear the word of MOSES. That some will not believe is due not to: (1) their intelligence, nor (2) their learning, but as the Son of God said so long ago, “Men have loved darkness rather than the light because their deeds are evil.” (John 3:19). Therefore, people who will not believe the Pentateuch are without excuse!

When the critical tide against the Bible was running at its flood in the first one third of this century, D. R. Scott boasted that, “The fact that Moses is no longer accepted as the author of Deuteronomy, does not lessen its value.”(F2) Scott was profoundly in error on two counts:

(1) There are today a vast number of able, conservative scholars who devoutly believe that MOSES indeed wrote the five Books which have come down through history as his, and his only. The exception that may be cited in such small instances as the two paragraphs of this conclusion do not compromise this fundamental truth.

(2) If Moses indeed did not write this, the value of the books are infinitely diminished. The invariable affirmation of the Pentateuch itself is that Moses wrote it, and, indeed, if he did not, then we have a tissue of lies here, the value of them not merely diminished, but destroyed!

A word from the Head and Founder of our Holy Religion is appropriate here: “They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them… If they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded, if one rise from the dead” (Luke 16:29; Luke 16:31). Here is one of the profoundest truths ever revealed. Where them is a will to disbelieve, no evidence of any kind whatever is effective. What Jesus said here was profoundly true of the Jewish Hierarchy in Jerusalem, men who had been present for the funeral of Lazarus, and were also present four days and nights later when Jesus Christ raised Lazarus from the dead; and would they believe? Indeed not! They freely admitted that “a notable miracle” had been done and that they were unable to deny it, and therefore they decided that, in order to prevent “the whole world” from believing on Jesus, they would murder Lazarus! What has this to do with us? Much in every way, for the same is true of every man alive today, and it was no less an intellectual genius than Sir Isaac Newton who drew the parallel between them and ourselves as follows:

“We have Moses, the prophets, and the apostles, and the words of Christ himself, and if we shall not hear them, we shall be more inexcusable than the Jews. For the prophets and apostles have foretold, that as Israel often revolted and broke the covenant, and upon repentance renewed it. So there should be a falling away among the Christians soon after the days of the apostles; and that in the latter days God would destroy the impenitent revolters… The giving ear to the prophets is a fundamental character of the church.”(F3)

Today we have many who will NOT believe Moses, and we may be certain that the brilliant and unanswerable refutations of their unbelieving arguments will produce no change whatever in willful unbelievers, but it should be an encouragement to the saints of God to know that such unanswerable refutations of Satan’s carpings against the Bible are available for all who might need such help. The greatest help, however, is exactly what Jesus said in the passage cited above. “They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them!” We are thus commanded to BELIEVE!

This final chapter falls into two divisions: (1) the death and burial of Moses (Deuteronomy 34:1-8); and (2) the succession of Joshua and a final evaluation of Moses’ great life (Deuteronomy 34:9-12).

Verses 1-8

“And Moses went up from the plains of Moab unto mount Nebo, to the top of Pisgah, that is over against Jericho. And Jehovah showed him all the land of Gilead, unto Dan, and all Naphtali, and the land of Ephraim and Manasseh, and all the land of Judah unto the hinder sea, and the South, and the Plain of the valley of Jericho, the city of palm trees, unto Zoar. And Jehovah said unto him, This is the land which I sware unto Abraham, unto Isaac, and unto Jacob, saying, I will give it unto thy seed: I have caused thee to see it with thine eyes, but thou shalt not go thither. So Moses the servant of Jehovah died there in the land of Moab, according to the word of Jehovah. And he buried him in the valley in the land of Moab over against Beth-Peor: but no man knoweth of his sepulchre unto this day. And Moses was a hundred and twenty years old when he died: his eye was not dim, nor his natural force abated. And the children of Israel wept for Moses in the plains of Moab thirty days: so the days of weeping in the mourning for Moses were ended.”

As to the authorship of this final chapter, there have been many opinions. We have already noted that Sir Isaac Newton thought Joshua wrote it, and, as Adam Clarke said, “Some believe Ezra wrote it; some think Joshua did; and others think that the seventy elders wrote it immediately after Moses’ death.”(F4) Clarke went on to say that he favored the opinion that Joshua wrote it, and that, “What now makes the last chapter of Deuteronomy was originally the first chapter of Joshua.”(F5) The divisions between books on the same roll were sometimes confused. “The beginning of one book might therefore be easily transferred to the end of another, and in process of time be considered its real conclusion, as in the case of Deuteronomy.”(F6) Of course, there is an element of speculation in this; but certainly this is a lot better guess than the arbitrary suggestion of Watts that, “Deuteronomy 34:9-12 here connect directly with Numbers 27:23,”(F7) and the dogmatic guess of Von Rad that the first paragraph here (Deuteronomy 34:1-8), “is the immediate continuation of Deuteronomy 32:48-52.”(F8)

Pisgah and Nebo appear here as synonymous names of a single place; and all quibbles based on the two different names should be ignored.

“And Jehovah showed him all the land” Several opinions on this from men who should know leave us a little confused. Alexander said, “This whole prospect could not have been surveyed by any ordinary power, so Moses’ vision was miraculously increased.”(F9) Dummelow said, “No miracle was required,”(F10) and went on to tell how travelers who have been there say one can see all over Palestine, all the way from Mount Hermon to the Mediterranean and southward throughout the whole country from the place where Moses stood. Still others declare that, it is impossible to see all of this country from that height. We do not know whose opinion on this is correct, but whatever was necessary for Moses to see all of Palestine was provided by God Himself. Satan showed Jesus “all the kingdoms of this world” (Matthew 4), and we do not know exactly how that was done either. It is sufficient for our information that it occurred. The mention of the various tribal possessions here seems to indicate that the land had already been allocated, but at the time of Moses’ death, this had not yet taken place. Joshua, writing after the land was divided would naturally have described the whole of Palestine in the manner we have here.

Phillips, Kline, and Cousins have all pointed out that in ancient times, the purchaser of land actually took possession of it by seeing, or surveying, it. Thus, it appears that God in this passage invited Moses to take possession of the entire land of Canaan on behalf of the children of Israel. This must be hailed as the very climax of Moses’ great life.

“So Moses the Servant of Jehovah died there in the land of Moab” (Deuteronomy 34:5). Here is another of the striking similarities between the Type and the Antitype, Moses, and Christ. “The testator must die before the testament is in force” (Hebrews 9:16-17). Just as Christ died before the New Covenant became operative, in that same manner, the great system of laws and regulations, many of which could not be practiced in the wilderness, became fully operative in Canaan, after the death of Moses. Note the title of Moses, “Servant of Jehovah.” He is also called, “The Man of God,” (Deuteronomy 33:1).

Josephus has an interesting account of Moses’ death, and, since this is unquestionably the Jewish tradition of what happened, imaginative critics have no right whatever to substitute “their tales” about Moses’ death for this one from Josephus. All of the objections they have to this are applicable in double force to theirs! A paraphrase of Josephus is:

“Moses was universally wept and mourned for by all of the people, so much that Moses himself even joined in the weeping as he prepared to ascend the mountain. He was accompanied by Eleazar the High Priest, by Joshua the commander, and the entire Jewish Senate. While they were talking with Moses a cloud suddenly stood over him, and he disappeared.”(F11)

“And he buried him in the valley, etc” (Deuteronomy 34:6). The undeniable antecedent of “He” in this passage is Jehovah, last word of the preceding verse, and there has never been a translator who could avoid the conclusion that God must be the subject of this clause, and that it was “God Himself who buried Moses.” The very best that Satan’s servants can do with this verse is simply to ignore it and deny it. “Moses’ grave was probably well known in earlier days, but, in course of time the knowledge of it was lost, and in the opinion of the narrator the grave ought never to have been known to men!(F12) A commentator who could cook up anything like that is capable also of supposing that the United States of America lost the graves of George Washington, Ulysses S. Grant, Robert E. Lee, etc. The Jews never lost any important graves, as demonstrated by the graves of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and Sarah, Rebekah, and Leah, all of which are still known today! We like what Cook said about this:

“Bearing in mind the appearance of Moses at the Transfiguration (Matthew 17:1-10), and what is said by Jude (Judges 1:9), we may conjecture that Moses after death passed into the same state with Enoch and Elijah, and that his sepulchre could not be found because he was shortly translated from it.”(F13)

“And he (God) buried him” (Deuteronomy 34:6). Dummelow’s remark that, “This probably means no more than what is expressed in the second half of the verse, that his sepulchre was never known,”(F14) could not possibly be based upon anything else except the writer’s unwillingness to believe what the Holy Bible plainly declares as a fact. It is amazing that men whose scientific ability is supposed to consist in understanding “the meaning of words” could be blind to what the words in this text declare.

The preposterous notion that Moses died as an atonement for the sins of Israel, as advanced by some scholars, is refuted here by the fact that Moses, like every other mortal who ever lived, suffered in his death the deserved punishment of sin. “Moses’ sin at the waters of Meribah rendered it necessary that he should suffer the punishment of death.”(F15) Keil also went on to say:

“After the justice of God had been satisfied by this punishment, he was to be distinguished in death before all the people, and glorified as the servant who had been found faithful in all the house of God, whom the Lord had known face to face (Deuteronomy 34:10), and to whom he had spoken mouth to mouth (Numbers 12:7-8).”(F16)

In view of the fact that to the Jews a dead body was the ultimate in things unclean, and that even a grave was considered to be extremely unholy, we may set aside the superstition that the reason God buried Moses and hid the grave was to prevent the Jews from worshipping it. It is more likely, as pointed out by Keil, that God’s purpose in taking care of the disposal of Moses’ body was, “in order to place Moses in the same category as that of Enoch and Elijah.”(F17)

Verses 9-12

“And Joshua the son of Nun was full of the spirit of wisdom; for Moses had laid his hands upon him: and the children of Israel hearkened unto him, and did as Jehovah commanded Moses. And there hath not arisen a prophet since in Israel like unto Moses, whom Jehovah knew face to face, in all the signs and the wonders, which Jehovah sent him to do in the land of Egypt, to Pharaoh, and to all his servants, and to all his land, and in all the mighty hand, and in all the great terror, which Moses wrought in the sight of all Israel.”

“In the acceptance of Joshua, the people needed to understand that Joshua was not Moses’ equal. God spoke to Moses face to face, but Joshua needed to find the divine will through priestly mediation.”(F18) Later on when Joshua neglected to consult through proper channels the will of God, in the case of the Gibeonites, a very costly error resulted.

“A prophet…like unto Moses” There was never but One, in all human history who was indeed a prophet like unto Moses in several mighty particulars, a number of which are cited here: (1) in the mighty signs and wonders; (2) in his being the mediator of a Covenant; (3) who knew directly from God what was indeed the divine will; and (4) who actually led the people out of bondage. (Please see my comment more extensively on this in Deuteronomy 18, above.)

Joshua was indeed an inspired man, as indicated here. (See Numbers 27:18-23, and the comments there, regarding the endowment of Joshua with God’s spirit.) (See Vol. 3 in this Penteuchal series).

Deuteronomy 34:10 is seized upon by some as proof that “ages have passed since Moses’ death.” This is not true. As Keil said, “This remark concerning Moses does not presuppose that a long series of prophets had already risen up since the times of Moses.”(F19) This remark would have been just as appropriate six months after Joshua’s succession to the leadership of Israel as it would have been a thousand years later! The remark is eternally true.

Throughout these long studies of the Pentateuch, we have found C. F. Keil to have been a true and helpful guide in many difficult passages, and we can think of no better way to conclude this research on the five Books of Moses than to include this final paragraph:

“There is but One who is worthy of greater honor than Moses, namely, the Apostle and High Priest of our profession, who is placed as a Son over all the House of God, in which Moses was found a faithful servant (See Hebrews 3:2-6, and Numbers 12:7). He is Jesus Christ, the founder and mediator of the new and everlasting Covenant.”(F20)


Our final thought with reference to this long and intensive study is one of surprise. Through long contact with the writings of critical enemies of the Bible, this writer had unconsciously come to believe that, after all, maybe there were some really intelligent reasons behind the widespread rejection of these five nooks as the Books of Moses. Our surprise is that no shadow of any such intelligent reason exists. As a study in the University of Jerusalem has affirmed; “A careful long-term, computerized study of the whole Pentateuch reveals that one author, and one author only, may be credited with writing it.” This report was circulated over the international wire services in all the newspapers of the world in 1982.

Bibliographical Information
Coffman, James Burton. "Commentary on Deuteronomy 34". "Coffman's Commentaries on the Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/bcc/deuteronomy-34.html. Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. 1983-1999.
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