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The Many Faces of Moses

A Deuteronomic portrait
By Patrick D. Miller, Jr.
BR 04:05
No single figure so dominates the pages of the Hebrew Bible as Moses. This is especially
true of Deuteronomy, the final book of the Pentateuch. There Moses is not only the central
figure, he is virtually the only figure. Indeed the only ones who speak in the book are
Moses and God.
Scholars differ as to what role Moses actually played in Israels origins. Their views vary
along a wide spectrumfrom those who see the biblical record as essentially accurate in
ascribing to Moses a leading and formative place in Israels history to Martin Noths
famous conclusion that Moses came into the story only because his grave site lay on the
path of the Israelites who were occupying the land.
The portrait of Moses drawn in the Pentateuch is obviously the result of a complex stream
of history, tradition, story and legislation. The final product is more readily discernible than
the process by it came into being. Even in Deuteronomy itself there are some tensions
between competing passages. But this very complexity, and perhaps even contradictions,
testifies to the significance of Moses in the history of Israels religion, although it is
admittedly difficult to go behind the final product in our search for history.
Here we shall concentrate on the text of Deuteronomy as it has come down to us, with only
brief forays elsewhere in the Bible. Deuteronomy is in effect a retellingor second telling,
as the name Deuteronomy suggestsof the story of the Exodus from Egypt, the giving of
the law at Sinai, and the desert wandering. In form, Deuteronomy is a speech by Moses to
the people of Israel shortly before they cross the Jordan River into the Promised land
(Deuteronomy 1:15). Frequently, the voice of Moses blends with the voice of God and in
fact often takes over for God in speaking to the people.
The first picture of Moses one gets is of the leader of Israel, a role of which the reader is
reminded by the rehearsal of past events in chapters 1 through 3.

Moses the Mediator of Gods Word

In Deuteronomy as a whole, however, the focus is on Moses role as the mediator of the
divine word, the spokesman for God to the people. Moses fills that function and distinction
in a way no other figure in the entire Bible does.
Immediately after Moses recites the Ten Commandments (Deuteronomy 5:118/21),
repeating with some variations what is already found in the book of Exodus (Exodus 20:1
14), where we are given a direct account of the Sinai event, Moses reminds the people
standing on the shore of the Jordan that after they heard the word of the Lord at Sinai, they
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were fearful lest they die: For what mortal ever heard the voice of the living God speak
out of the fire, as we did, and lived? (Deuteronomy 5:23/26). Then the people said to
Moses: You go closer and hear all that the Lord our God says, and then you will tell us
everything that our God tells you (Deuteronomy 5:24/27).
Moses then reports to the people that God heard what they told Moses and that God said
that the people did well to speak thus (Deuteronomy 5:25/28). God then tells Moses to
tell the people to return to their tents (Deuteronomy 5:27/30): But you [God says to
Moses], stand here by me, and I will tell you all the commandment and the statutes and the
ordinances which you shall teach them (Deuteronomy 5:28/31).
Thus the people themselves explicitly (Deuteronomy 5:24/27) designate Moses as the only
one who can listen directly to God, and the Lord approves that special place for Moses
(Deuteronomy 5:25/28).
Moses words are coterminous with Gods words (Deuteronomy 1:3). Moses is not only the
hero and leader of the people, as in Exodus and Numbers; here in Deuteronomy he is
especially the bearer of the divine word, the Torah, the law.
But Moses is not just the peoples leader and the transmitter or bearer of the divine law, he
is also the interpreter of the law. And, as we read in Deuteronomy 1:5, Moses did not
simply speak the law, that is, repeat the words he had received from God (however the
mode of reception); he undertook to explain this law. In his communication of the word
of God, Moses also functions as a teacher, indeed, as the teacher.

Moses the Teacher

While Moses is typically understood as lawgiverand Deuteronomy underscores that role
in this book the act of transmitting the law is nevertheless a teaching task. The Lord tells
or speaks all the commandment, the statutes, and the ordinances to Moses, but Moses in
turn teaches them to the people: In Deuteronomy 6:1, as Moses begins to transmit the
instruction of God, Moses responsibility as a teacher is made explicit: Now this is the
commandment, the statutes and the ordinances which the Lord your God commanded me to
teach you (compare this with Deuteronomy 5:3031).
Elsewhere in the Pentateuch, Moses is presented as the transmitter or mediator of the divine
law. But in Deuteronomy, and here alone, this activity is understood by God, Moses and the
people to include instruction and teaching: spelling out the laws and statutes, explaining
them as clearly as possible and interpreting what they mean for Israel.
Yet this teaching of the word of the Lord is not simply the communication of information or
explanation. It is not simply to understand and to know. It is a teaching to do. Result or
purpose regularly follow references to Moses teaching. Thus, for example in 5:31 (5:28 in
Hebrew) we are told that these are the ordinances which you shall teach them that they
may do them in the land which I give them to possess. (See also Deuteronomy 4:1, 5; 6:1.)
That is why the Book of Deuteronomy has such a hortatory character to it. Deuteronomy
contains more motivation clauses than any other body of biblical law; that is, clauses that
give a purpose or reason for obeying to motivate the hearers to keep the law (for example,
that it may go well with you). The teaching that Moses does is in no sense neutral
communication, like a mechanical copier; it is an intense effort to elicit from his audience a
response of obedience. Moses seeks at every turn to convey, to explain, and also to stir the
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heart to respond to the divine instruction, to follow the way that is set forth.
Another feature of Moses teaching is a concern for passing on the tradition to the
following generations who will not have seen the fire and heard the voice. Moses insists
that the teaching not end with his own activity, but go on in persistent and intense fashion
both in the family and in the sacred gatherings of the whole community, so that each new
generation may not only come to know, but also come to obey.
Thus, in Deuteronomy 6:7, we read:
And you shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk
of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way,
and when you lie down, and when you rise. (See also Deuteronomy
And in Deuteronomy 31:1213, we read:
Assemble the people, men, women, and little ones, and the sojourner
within your towns, that they may hear and learn to fear the Lord your
God, and be careful to do all the words of this law, and that their
children, who have not known it, may hear and learn to fear the Lord
your God, as long as you live in the land which you are going over
the Jordan to possess.

Moses the Prophet

But Moses is more than the leader, the Prophet transmitter of the law, and the interpreter
and teacher of it He is also the prophet par excellence. Elsewhere in the Pentateuch, Moses
is portrayed as the recipient of a prophetic call (see, for example, Exodus 34). But
Deuteronomy lifts this role to such prominence that it becomes definitive for all the
subsequent history of prophecy. Moses is both the model for any future prophet and the
greatest of all prophets. In one sense, this is not separate or different from his role as
mediator of the divine instruction. Indeed the central characteristic that identifies Moses as
the ideal prophet is his function as the mediator of the divine word.
There is, however, an internal conflict regarding Moses standing as a prophet. In
Deuteronomy 18, he is described as the prototype of prophecy; he defines prophecy for the
future by his example:
The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet from among
your own people, like myself; him you shall heed (Deuteronomy
Scholars generally agree that the Book of Deuteronomy was composed in the late seventh
century B.C., approximately 600 years after Moses lived. The authors and compilers of
Deuteronomy surely knew of the long line of Israels classical prophets. In light of the
history of prophecy at the time Deuteronomy took shape, it is likely that the reference in
chapter 18 to the Lord raising up a prophet envisioned not one future prophet but many
This passage from Chapter 18 does seem to stand in some tension, however, with chapter
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34:10: There has not arisen a prophet since in Israel like Moses. This is surely different
from chapter 18:15: The lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like myself.
This tension is partly resolved by distinguishing between speaking the word commanded by
the Lord (which future prophets will do like Moses) and great signs and wonders (which no
other prophets were able to perform like Moses). Moreover it is only Moses who spoke to
God face-to-face (Exodus 33:11).
It is also possible to resolve this tension on textual grounds. Chapter 34 was added to
Deuteronomy after the formulation of the law of the prophet in chapter 18. When chapter
34 was added, it served to elevate Moses role not only as a spokesman of the Lord but also
as wonder-worker, so that the absolute claim could be made that no prophet like Moses has
arisen since.
As we have seen, the characteristics that identify Moses as a prophet are also those that
belong to his role as transmitter/teacher of the law (one who speaks to the people all that
the Lord commands). Two other prominent features of the Mosaic portrait in Deuteronomy
are also consonant with the prophetic experience: the prophet as intercessor and as
suffering servant of God.
When Moses went up the mountain to receive the tablets of the law, the people made a
golden calf and worshipped it. The Lord told Moses:
I see that this is a stiffnecked people. Let Me alone and I will
destroy them and blot out their name from under heaven, and I will
make you a nation far more numerous than they (Deuteronomy

Moses the Intercessor

Moses broke the tablets of the law and lay prostrate for 40 days and 40 nights, for, as he
said, I was in dread of the Lords fierce anger against you, which moved Him to wipe you
out. And that time, too, the Lord gave heed to me (Deuteronomy 9:19; see also
Deuteronomy 10:1011). Moses had successfully interceded for them.
A second reference to Moses intercession on this occasion appears in Deuteronomy 9:26:
Destroy not thy people and thy heritage, whom thou has redeemed through thy greatness.
Again, it is said that the Lord relented.
Interestingly, only one psalm is ascribed to Moses: Psalm 90. That ascription is probably
because the psalm contains an intercessory prayer on behalf of the people: Turn, O Lord
. Show mercy to your servants (Psalm 90:13). The ancients were well aware of Moses
role as intercessor and that the Lord responded to Moses prayer for mercy.

Moses Compared to Amos

The intercession of Moses has much in common with that of another prophet known as
intercessor for his people, Amos. Like Amos, Moses prays for divine mercy for the people
in full knowledge of their sin and disobedience. Moreover, in both cases the sin of the
people is not a single rash action against the will of God but a persistent pattern of
disobedience. Both prophets know the extent of the peoples sin but dare to appeal to the
mercy of God no matter how extensive the history of rebellion and stubbornness may be. It
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is almost characteristic of the intercessors of the Old Testament that their passionate
intercession is most clearly present when the sin is greatest (compare Abrahams pleas for
Sodom and GomorrahGenesis 18:2233). It is as if they know that the mercy of God is
equal to, and indeed more intense than, the judgment of God.
Amos appeal for mercy is rooted in the prophets knowledge of Gods special concern for
the weak and defenseless (How can Jacob stand? He is so small!Amos 7:2, 5). Moses
also appeals to Gods nature, but his appeal is in various ways an appeal to the integrity of
the Lord who is one, that is, to the oneness of the Lords purpose. God is not divided either
in being and manifestation, nor in purpose. It is an understanding of the Lord as one and as
one who is consistent in dealing with the people that grounds Moses cry for Gods mercy
to the people.
Thus, Moses appeals to the nature and quality of the relationship between God and Israel.
Israel is Gods chosen people, Gods peculiar treasure or possession (your people and your
heritageDeuteronomy 9:26, 29). So Moses urges that God not destroy the relationship
that has been created.
Moses appeals to the redemptive work of God, the saving act by which God redeemed
Israel from slavery (Deuteronomy 9:26). It is as if Moses says, Do not bring to nought the
work you have done with this people.
Moses then draws upon the basis of Gods election of Israel, the oath that the Lord swore to
Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, as a reminder of Gods own faithfulness (Deuteronomy 9:27).
Finally, Moses appeals to the reputation of the Lords power in the world, which is really a
call for the vindication of Gods power before the people (Deuteronomy 9:28).
As with Amos, the Lord heeds Moses plea. In a parallel passage (Exodus 32:14), God
actually repents.

A Startling Conclusion
This rather startling outcome suggests that a change of mind is possible for God and indeed
happens, a notion that cuts against our ideas both of divine consistency and the nexus of
cause and effect that seems to operate in all matters. Furthermore, the various efforts on
Moses part to motivate God to turn from judgment to mercy may seem inappropriate. Yet
Scripture persistently testifies that the heart of God is moved by the importuning prayers of
chosen servants and that a dimension of the divine consistency is precisely the continuing
inclination of God toward a merciful dealing with humankind and especially with those
who are Gods people.
Nevertheless, it is clear from the motivating appeals of Moses that the prayer is not for an
arbitrary or inconsistent action on Gods part. It is a prayer for God to act according to the
divine will and purpose as it has been manifest over and over againa purpose that is
faithful, redemptive, forgiving, grounded in perduring relationships and constantly being
vindicated before the public audience of peoples and nations. The prayer of Moses, with all
its appeals, and as it pushes God, is precisely in tune with who God is and how God acts.

Moses the Suffering Servant

Finally, we see in the Deuteronomic profile of Moses a prefiguring of the suffering servant
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motif developed further in Second Isaiah (Isaiah 53). Moses is not allowed to enter the
Promised Land because of the Lords anger on account of the people. The judgment on
Moses is for their sin:
Because of you the Lord was incensed with too, and He said: You
shall not enter it [the Promised Land] either (Deuteronomy 1:37).
When Moses prayed to God to allow him cross over to the Promised Land, God refused. As
Moses explained it to the people:
O Lord God, You who let Your servant see first works of Your greatness and Your mighty
hand, You whose powerful deeds no god heaven or on earth can equal! Let me, I pray, cross
over and see the good land on the other side of the Jordan, that good hill country, and the
Lebanon. But the Lord was wrathful with me on your account and would not listen to me
(Deuteronomy 3:2426/2729; see also Deuteronomy 4:2122).
Moses seems to bear chastisement as representative of and for the people. We do not have
here a full-blown notion of the salvation and forgiveness of the many brought by the
punishment of the one, but we are on the way to that.
It is also true that, at one point in Deuteronomy, Moses not being allowed to enter the
Promised Land is attributed to his own breach of faith with God: Moses must die without
entering the Promised Land
because you broke faith with me in the midst of the people of Israel
at the waters of Meri-bath-kadesh, in the wilderness of Zin; because
you did not revere me as holy in the midst of the people of Israel. For
you shall see the land before you; but you shall not go there
(Deuteronomy 32:5152).
But this is clearly a later Priestly text that has entered into the Deuteronomic literature and
is not a part of the Deuteronomic tradition about Moses. The dominant view of
Deuteronomy is that Moses was the Lords faithful servant whose death outside the promise
was due to the Lords anger on account of his people.

Moses Duty Fulfilled

Although the explicit reason Moses is not permitted to enter the Promised Land is that God
is angry with him on account of the people, there is another, implicit reason: His work is
done. The Book of Deuteronomy says that all that is needful for Israels life as a
community under God, guided and blessed by the Lord, is found in these words that Moses
spoke and taught as charged by the Lord. Israel is to live now by the Torah that Moses has
taught and in a very real sense does not need Moses. A leader is needed to guide the people
safely into the Promised Landand for this Joshua is commissioned. But he is not Moses.
He is only a military leader, the servant of Moses, not the servant of God as Moses was
Henceforth Israel will be led not by a great authority figure but by the living word of the
Torah that Moses taught.
Earlier, we discussed the tension between the passage in chapter 18 in which Moses seems
to anticipate other prophets like me (18:15) and chapter 34, which declares that there has
not been a prophet since in Israel like Moses (34:10). There may be other later figures
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like Moses, but no new Moses.

Before Moses leaves the scene, he speaks to the people twice in song and poetry.
Deuteronomy 32 is a song of judgment in which Moses teaches the people, so that they may
have this learning in their hearts and on their lips when in time to come they wander from
the Lords instruction. Deuteronomy 33, on the other hand, is a poem of blessing upon all
the tribes, anticipating their life in the land and the provision and place that God will give
So it is that as the people are sent on their way by Moses, but without him, they carry not
only the divine instruction that he has taught them but, in addition, both a word of warning
and a word of blessing, Moses final testament to his people.

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