The story of Moses is one of the most iconic in all of history. The tale of a Hebrew baby, abandoned by his parents but raised by a princess, who would eventually lead his people out of slavery and into freedom. It’s no surprise that it has inspired countless films and books over the centuries, including many fictionalized accounts of how Moses died. But in reality, how did Moses die?
The Bible tells us that Moses died while attending a religious festival in Moab when he was 120 years old (Deuteronomy 34:5-7). He was buried near his father-in-law Jethro’s grave, and thus far no archaeological evidence has been found supporting this account (Numbers 20:29).
Many people believe that Moses did not actually die at age 120 but rather went into hiding because he believed that he had become too powerful for his own good. In this version of events, he would have returned to Egypt at some point after leading Israel out of bondage to help them fight against their enemies (Exodus 18). Other theories suggest that Moses was killed shortly after entering Canaanite territory due to tensions between the two groups (Judges 1:16-21).
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How Did Moses Die In The Bible
Moses did not go gently into the night. When God in wrath against Moses and Aaron vowed “Therefore you shall not bring this assembly into the land which I have given them”. Moses did not take it to heart. He decided not to implore God to do away with this sentence because he remembered the precept “Do not attempt to dissolve thy neighbor’s vow in the moment that he has made it”. So, Moses waited forty years before he approached God with the request to permit him to enter the promised land with Israel. Moses was convinced that God would change His mind. God ten times decreed that Moses was to die in the desert but he thought how often did Israel sin and yet when I, Moses prayed for them God annulled the punishment He has decreed. Surely God should accept my prayer if I, a man who has never sinned should pray to Him.
Moses erred. God informed him that he was to look upon the promised land from Mount Abarim as he should never enter it.
Moses put on sackcloth, threw himself upon the ashes and prayed not less than fifteen hundred prayers for the annulment of the divine resolve against him. He drew a circle about himself and stood in the center of it and said “
“I will not move from this spot until judgment shall have been suspended.” God bade the angels not to accept Moses’ prayer because Moses’ doom of death had been sealed by Him. Moses’ prayer made the heavens and earth tremble, for his prayer was like a sword that slashes and rends. Moses began his long prayer by saying “Lord of the world, consider how much I had to bear for the sake of Israel until they became the people of Thy claim and of Thy possession. I suffered with them, shall I not then take part in their rejoicing? Look Thou by forbidding me to enter the promised land Thou givest the lie for Thy Torah for it says ‘In his day Thou shalt give they laborer his hire’. Where then God is my hire for the forty years during which I labored for the sake of Thy children? With them I suffered pain. Shall I not behold their good fortune as well? But Thou tellest me that I may not cross the Jordan. All the time that we were in the desert I could not sit quietly in the academy teaching and pronouncing judgment. But now that I should be able to do so Thou, God tellest me that I may not?”
Moses continued “May the mercy in Thee precede Thy justice so that my prayer may be answered. For I well know that there is no mercy in justice. God, Thou Thyself pointed out to me that it is Your desire that people should pray to You to cancel punishment that was laid upon them. When Israel committed the terrible sin, the worship of the Golden Calf, You said to me ‘Let Me alone that I may destroy them and blot out their name from under heaven.’ I then thought ‘Who can restrain God that He should say ‘Let me alone’? It is plain that God desires me to pray for His children and I prayed and was answered. The prayer of the individual for the community was answered but not so the prayer of the community for one individual? God, You keep Your covenant but with me You break it. For You have said ‘Die in the mount whither thou goest up’. In the Torah Thy words are ‘If the servant shall plainly say I love my master, my wife and my children; I will not go out free. Then his master shall bring him unto the judges and he shall serve him forever.’ I implore You God, hear my cry. Attend to my prayer. Let me serve You forever.”
Moses’ petition continued “If You will not let me enter the promised land as a leader, let me at least enter it as a common citizen. And if that request also be denied grant me at least that after my death my bones may be carried to the other side of the Jordan. God answers Moses and recalls Moses’ limitations. “Moses, do you not recall that when I wanted to send you to Egypt you declined My request with the word ‘Behold they will not believe me”?
Moses insisted that he is not deserving of death. God explains that Moses must be because he is the descendant of Adam upon whose sons God had pronounced death. Adam died and so must he.
But Moses said “But Lord to Adam You gave a command that could easily be obeyed and yet he disobeyed it and thereby merited death. But I have not transgressed any of Thy commandments.”
GOD: “Abraham also who sanctified My name in the world died.”
MOSES: “Yes, but Abraham issued Ishmael whose descendants aroused Thy anger.”
GOD: “Isaac also who laid his neck upon the altar to be offered as a sacrifice to me died.”
MOSES: “But from Isaac issued Esau who will destroy the Temple and burn thy house.”
GOD: “From Jacob issued twelve tribes that did not anger Me and yet he died.”
MOSES: “But he did not ascend into heaven, his feet did not tread the clouds. Thou didst not speak with him face-to-face and he did not receive the Torah out of Your hand.”
GOD: “Speak no more unto Me of this matter.
MOSES: “Lord of the world, future generations will perhaps say ‘Had not God found evil in Moses He would not have taken him out of the world.
GOD: “I have already written in My Torah and there hath not arisen since a prophet in Israel like unto Moses.”
MOSES: “Future generation will perhaps say that I had probably acted in accordance with Thy will in my youth but that in my old age I no longer did Thy will.”
Moses continued, “Lord of the world let me enter into the land, live there two or three years and then die.
GOD: “I have resolved that thou shalt not go there.”
MOSES: “If I may not enter into it in my life time let me reach it after my death.”
GOD: “No. Neither dead nor alive shalt thou go into the land.”
MOSES: “Why this wrath against me?”
GOD: “Because you sanctified Me not in the midst of the children of Israel.”
MOSES: “With all Your creatures You deal according to the quality of mercy, forgiving them their sins once, twice and three times. But me You will not forgive
even one single sin.”
GOD: “Outside of this sin of which you are aware, you have committed six other sins. At the very first when I appeared to you, you said ‘Oh my Lord send I pray thee by the hand of him whom Thou will send’ and you did refuse to obey My commandments to go to Egypt. Second, you
accused Me of having only armed Israel instead of aiding them. Third, you said to Israel calling them rebels ‘Hear now ye rebels’ and did insult My children. Moreover, you are risen up in your father’s stead an increase of sinful men.”
MOSES: “I only followed Your example. For You too called them sinners.”
GOD: “But I did not characterize their fathers as sinners.”
MOSES: “Oh Lord of the world how often did Israel sin and how often did You forgive them?
GOD: “The punishment that is laid upon the community is different from the punishment that is laid upon the individual. For I am not so severe in the treatment of the community as I am in dealing with the individual.”
MOSES: “Lord of the world, rise up from the throne of justice and seat Thyself upon the throne of mercy and grant me life. Hand me not over to the sword of the angel of death. If you grant me my prayer then I shall sound Your praises to all the inhabitants. I do not wish to die but live and
declare the works of the Lord.”
GOD: “This is the gate of the Lord. The righteous shall enter into it. This is the gate into which the righteous must enter as well as other creatures for death has been decreed for man since the beginning of the world.”
And Moses persisted and said to God that is his life was spared he would be able everlastingly to restrain Israel from sin.
GOD: “Let is suffice thee. If you life were to be spared men should mistake thee and make a god of thee and worship thee.”
Now the dialogue increases and Moses said, “I have been tested at the time of the golden calf and I destroyed it. Why then should I die?”
GOD: “Whose son art thou?”
MOSES: “Amram’s son.”
GOD: “And whose son was Amram?”
MOSES: “Izhar’s son.”
GOD: “And whose son was he?”
MOSES: “Kohat’s son.”
GOD: “And whose son was he?”
MOSES: “Levi’s son.”
GOD: “And from whom did all of these descend?”
MOSES: “From Adam.”
GOD: “Was the life of any of these spared?”
MOSES: “They all died.”
GOD: “And thou wishes to live on?”
MOSES: “Lord of the world, Adam stole the forbidden fruit and ate of it. And it was on this account that You punished him with death. But did I ever steal anything from You? You Yourself did write of me ‘My servant Moses who is faithful in all mine house.'”
GOD: “Are you worthier than Noah?”
MOSES: “Yes. When You sent the flood over his generation he did not beg Your mercy for them but I did say to You ‘Yet now if You, God will forgive their sin and if not blot me I pray You out of Your book which You have written.'”
GOD: “Was it I that counselled thee to slay the Egyptian?”
MOSES: “You did slay all the first born of Egypt and shall I die on account of one single Egyptian that I slew?”
GOD: “Are you perchance My equal, Moses? I slay and restore to life. But can you revive the dead?”
When Moses saw that God lent no ear to his prayers he sought to invoke God’s mercy through the pleadings of others. He sought for someone to appeal to God’s mercy. He turned to the earth and said “Earth, I pray thee implore God’s mercy for me. Perhaps for thy sake He will take pity on me and let me enter into the land.”
Earth replied “I am without form and void. And then too I shall soon wax old like a garment. No, your fate is like mine for you are dust and unto dust you shall return.”
Moses then turned to the heavens. And the heavens replied, “Before imploring God’s mercy for thee we must first do so for ourselves for the heavens are not clean in His sight. And the heavens shall vanish away like smoke.”
Then Moses hastened to the sun and the moon. And they replied, “Before we pray to God for thee we must pray for ourselves.”
Then Moses took his request to the stars and the planets. They answered “We must plead first for ourselves. For all the host of heaven shall be dissolved.”
Then Moses went to the hills and the mountains. And they answered “The mountains shall depart and the hills be removed.”
He then turned to Mt. Sinai. And Mt. Sinai responded “Mt. Sinai was altogether in smoke because the Lord descended upon it in fire.”
He went to the rivers and sought their intercession. They answered “The Lord made a way in the sea and a path in the mighty waters. We cannot save ourselves out of His hand.”
And he went to the desert and to all the elements of nature, but in vain
He went to the great sea. And the sea replied “What ails thee today? Are you not the son of Amram that came to me with a staff beat me and clove me into twelve parts where I was powerless against you because Shechinah accompanied you at your right hand? Why do you come to me pleading? Moses burst into tears “Oh if I were as in those days when I stood before you. I was king of the world. But now I am suppliant whose prayers are unanswered.” When Moses perceived heaven and earth, sun and moon, stars and planets, mountains and rivers turning a deaf ear to his prayers he implored mankind to intercede before God.
God was now very angry with him because he would not resign himself to the doom that had been sealed. But God’s anger vanished as soon as Moses spoke the words “The Lord, the Lord God full of compassion and gracious, slow to anger and plenteous in mercy and truth; keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin.” God said kindly to Moses “I have registered two vows. One, that thou art to die. And the second, that Israel is to perish. I cannot cancel both vows. If therefore you choose to live Israel must be ruined.”
Moses said, “You God see the rope at both ends so that I myself must now say rather show Moses and a thousand others can
perish rather than a single soul out of Israel. “But what will men say? That the face that beheld the face of the Shechinah is not covered with dust.”
God replied, “The people will say ‘If a man like Moses who ascended into heaven and who appeared to the angels, with whom God spoke face-to-face and to whom He gave the Torah, if such a man cannot justify himself before God, how much less can an ordinary mortal, flesh and bone justify himself?”
And God continued, “Why Moses are you so aggrieved at your impending death?”
And Moses replied “I am afraid of the sword of the angel of death.”
God said, “If this is the reason then speak no more in this manner for I will not deliver into his hand. It was in My mind even before I created the world and so is the course of the world. Every generation has its learned men. Every generation has its leaders, every generation has its guides. Up to now
it was your duty to guide the people. But now the time is
ripe for thy disciple, Joshua to relieve thee of the office destined for him.”
There is a measure in which God strikes a bargain and in which Moses strikes a bargain with God and says “Let me live a few years and take away from me my prophecy and leadership and give it to Joshua, my disciple.” And God granted him that wish. One day Joshua came out of the tent of meeting, the place where he heard the voice of God. And when he left he came upon Moses and Moses asked him “What did you hear from God?” And Joshua responded “That is privileged dialogue. That I am forbidden to tell you.” Then Moses was envious and he said to God “Now I am prepared to die.” “Lord of the world”, Moses said “rather a hundred deaths than one jealousy.”
We are dealing with the rabbinic imagination that frees up the literal text with poetry, illusion, parable, word association. Here we have seen how the rabbis dealt with their own questions about death. What is the meaning of death? They put it in the form of asking what was Moses’ death like? And in the course of that free association, that imagination, we learn about their attitudes toward sin, toward human nature, toward the justice and mercy of God. From what we have heard it is clear that while Moses is the greatest of the prophets, he nevertheless sinned because all mortals sin. There is no one beyond that human nature. The Midrash was written at the time Christianity preached a different measure, that there was someone who was sinless and blameless and immortal and he was called the son of God. But in their mind no one who has breathed the breath of nature, no one who has walked the face of this earth is without transgression. But this sin is not an original sin, it is not an inherited sin, it is not something that stems from Adam’s transgression. People sin but it is not a result of some genetic inheritance.
Sin is to be expected and death is to be expected. But death is not a punishment but a condition of life. What to me is interesting is that there is little about the afterlife in another place as a comfort or consolation to Moses. There is an afterlife but that afterlife is in this place. So, one of the Chasidim told the story of a disciple of the Tzaddik who went to heaven and in heaven looked around and saw that there was Tzaddikim, no saints, no holy men in paradise. And he was hurt and puzzled by it until a sage told him “You are wrong. The righteous are not in heaven. Heaven is in the righteous. Therefore look about you here and now to find paradise. It is not elsewhere but here, not beyond but between.”
Everyone must die, including Moses. But he died with God beside him. God replied to Moses’ fear “I have heard thy prayer. I myself shall attend to thee and bury thee.” And when Moses beheld the Holy One he fell upon his face and said “In love Thou didst create the world and in love Thou guidest it. Treat me also with love and deliver me not into the hands of the angel of death.” And the heavenly voice sounded and said “Moses be not afraid. Thy righteousness shall go before thee. The glory of the Lord shall be thy reward.” God took Moses soul by kissing him upon the mouth. God Himself wept for Moses and mourned him.
These are remarkable poetic insights into the character of Moses himself. For Moses, throughout his life and into his death was not an acquiescent, passive, blindly obedient servant of God. He was a true child of Israel who wrestled with God and with man and who prevailed. Moses did not go quietly into the night. His argumentation and quarrel with God to the last breath was vindication of his dignity and assertion that he was created in God’s image.