Moses: In Death, He's Larger than Life

Moses: In Death, He's Larger than Life

SuperMan illustrating a post about Biblical Moses and his outstretched armMoses dies. People grieve. Writers praise.

That’s how the Torah ends.

“No other prophet arose in Israel, as great as Moses, who was known by God face to face…for the mighty hand and great terror that Moses performed.” (Deut. 34:10-12)

So beautiful.

And so confusing.

Because I would expect Torah’s conclusion to summarize. Not to contradict. Especially because our early commentators taught: Torah is perfect, without contradiction.

Yet Torah’s conclusion does contradict its narrative. Twice.

Here’s the first contradiction. It’s subtle. Here Torah says: Moses was known by God face to face. In a relationship of two-way intimacy.

But forty years earlier, Moses had urged God, “Show me your ways.” God responded, “I know you by name…but you won’t be able to see my face. No human can see me and live.” Instead, “I will transfer my goodness to your face.”  Thus, Moses will reflect God’s qualities of compassion, patience, love, and truth. But the two beings will not meet face to face. (Ex. 33:13-20)

And here’s the second contradiction. This one’s bold. Moses, says the Torah’s last line, worked miracles. His was a mighty arm. He brought terror upon Egypt. All Israel could see this.

Really? Moses brought might and terror? He himself would not agree. In fact, shortly before his death, Moses said the opposite. “When you arrive in the land,” he said, “you’ll take the first fruits of the earth to the priest and say: God took us out of Egypt with a might hand and great terror.” (Deut. 26:1-8)

Each year, in synagogue, we read the last few verses during Simchat Torah. Always, I notice the contradictions. But I rarely think about them. Because I’m too busy crying about Moses’s death. This year, however, I have decided to think in advance.

Sometimes, our earliest commentators said, you see what looks like a contradiction in Torah. But it’s never a real contradiction. Instead, it’s an invitation to look harder. To think more deeply. Because the Torah cannot be understood from a superficial reading.

So, what do these contradictions invite us to see?

Could they hint at the divinity of Moses? That God transferred not just goodness but godliness to Moses? Maybe no human could see God’s face. But maybe, after the transfer, Moses was no longer human. And that’s why the Torah says no comparable prophet arose. None other could work wonders and cast terrors along with God.

Sure, I could go in this direction. If I were willing to echo Christian views of Jesus as fully divine and fully human. But Jewish thought has not gone in this direction, so I’ll suggest something else. A look at yet another section of Torah.

Fifteen times, the Book of Numbers says that God acts “through the hand of Moses.” Why would God need such a helping hand? Because God has no physical body. As the great philosopher Rambam says, all references to God seeing or hearing are metaphorical. Thus, if God wants something tangible done, God works through Moses — who sometimes recruits other people to help.

But now, at the conclusion of Torah, the great prophet has died. Who will be God’s body? We will be God’s body. All of us. God’s goodness is transferred to us. And it’s up to us to use it. That’s the closing message of the Torah.

Originally presented to my students at Vancouver School of Theology, in the course How Jews Read the Bible: An Introduction to Rabbinic Midrash. The two principles of Torah’s perfection and cryptic nature are articulated in words borrowed from the scholar James Kugel.

  1. Thank you. A hiddush, a whole new way of
    Looking at this parsha!

    1. Thank you, Marthajoy! All the best to you in your work and spiritual teachings.

  2. At this moment in my family’s situation, your words are marvelous and filled with guidance. Thank you, Mary

  3. I remember your earlier insights about Gods compassion and mercy. If the soul (Nafshi) is what shines/proceeds from the eternal part of being, through to what is seen in the realm of the physical, the face, then God who has a soul could show Himself as He was to the soul of Moses even if the physical part of Moses, his face could not see God. Then Moses did exactly as you said, with mercy and compassion he led Israel. He offered to be destroyed in place of Israel so that God would not be seen as having failed His people. The ultimate act of love not just for Israel but God. Perhaps there is no contradiction?

  4. Hello Laura, it is amazing that last Sunday, as I preached the Number 11:16-17, where God take the Spirit that is on Moses and put the Spirit on the seventy elders of Israel. Instead to turning Moses into a superman (divine-equal man) by giving Moses more power or authority over other to clear the chaos, through the Spirit scattering, more people become Spirit-led leader, at least for a very short time.

    Thanks for your sharing and insights, your question of “Who will be God’s body?” 🙂

    1. Thank you, Ashly. That sounds like a wonderful sermon and a great inter-textual reinforcement of the theme of taking responsibility.

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