When God was an Undertaker

by Gary Simpson

Deuteronomy 34:1- 6 (KJV) And Moses went up from the plains of Moab unto the mountain of Nebo, to the top of Pisgah, that is over against Jericho. And the Lord shewed him all the land of Gilead, unto Dan, 2and all Naphtali, and the land of Ephraim, and Manasseh, and all the land of Judah, unto the utmost sea, 3and the south, and the plain of the valley of Jericho, the city of palm trees, unto Zoar. 4And the Lord 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 over thither. 5So Moses the servant of the Lord died there in the land of Moab, according to the word of the Lord. 6And he buried him in a valley in the land of Moab, over against Beth-peor: but no man knoweth of his sepulchre unto this day.

Most of the times I read this passage it was in context of the larger story of Moses leading the children of Israel out of Egypt. Glancing at this story, out of the context of the mistake Moses made, a mistake that cost him his leadership gave me a very different perspective. Moses made a mistake, but I am left wondering if Moses deserved another chance, the ability to enter the promised land. He looked after the children of Israel and that was no mean task.

Moses' ministry was finished. The man God called to ministry and leadership at a burning bush, the man to whom God revealed God's name, the man God provided with key people who made his leadership work, the man through whom God worked miracles, the man who lead the Israelites for forty years in the wilderness was out of leadership.

God heard the cries of frustration when the children of Israel were slaves in Egypt. The dream planted deep in the heart of Moses and of the children of Israel was one of freedom from bondage and oppression. And at the end of Moses' life, God shows Moses the promised land. Moses gets to see more than just the mental picture of freedom from bondage, more than just an imagined taste of freedom from slavery, more than just the mere concept of a just society; he sees the promised land. Moses, unlike some more contemporary champions of social justice saw the promise with his own eyes.

Other people who dreamed of social justice and/or who labored tirelessly for social justice died without seeing their dream. The dream was deep in the heart, but was not physically seen. Martin Luther King, Jr., one of the most influential figures of the Americancivil rights movement, the man who delivered the famous "I have a dream" speech was murdered before seeing the dream. In fact, we are still waiting for a world where society is colorblind, where people look past skin color, look into the eyes, gaze directly into the heart and judge people on their hearts, not on the color of their skin.

Matthew Shepard, a gay college student, had a dream, a dream to work for international justice(1). He was murdered in what is generally considered to be a hate crime. While he died without seeing his dream come true, a hate crimes bill in the United States was named in honor of Matthew Shepard.

For some reason, God showed Moses the promised land. Moses saw what God said would be delivered to the children of Israel, and, as God did when God met Moses at the burning bush, God assured Moses that the promised land was a done deal.

The old Jamieson, Fausset and Brown Commentary notes that some people believe Moses entered a cave and died in the cave.(2) There is a sense of intimacy and love between God and Moses in this story. We get a glimpse of that in the verse about Moses' death and burial. Ancient Jewish and Christian tradition holds that Moses was "buried by angels (Jude 9; Nu 21:20)."(3)

Some English translations, such as the New Revised Standard Version, give a different sense than what seems to be in the Hebrew. Sara Koenig, a contributor to a website that provides commentaries on the passages in the lectionary notes the Hebrew reads, "and he buried him in a valley." The word "he" may refer to God. Koenig refers to this as a "startling intimacy" with God.(4) At the end of a long life, many years of which were spent in advocacy, Moses may well have been a man who shared God's heart for the children of Israel. Being buried by God is the best eulogy that can be paid to any person. The story of Moses gives us hope-hope that even when life is not fair, even when we make mistakes, the God who loves us and who calls us to make the world a better place will lovingly look after us after we die.

Notes

(1) Leslie Newman. He Continues to Make a Difference: Commemorating the Life of Matthew Shepard. (n.p.: GLSEN, Matthew Shepard Foundation and Candlewick Press, 2014), 1.
(2) Jamieson, Fausset and Brown Commentary. Olive Tree Bible Application for iPad.
(3) Jamieson, Fausset and Brown Commentary. (4) Sara Koenig. "Commentary onDeuteronomy 34:1-12." n.d., 16 October 2014. < http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2213>.