The last chapter of Deuteronomy is a perfect example of how God mixes gut-wrenching disappointment with the greatest of hope at the same time. Moses, the prophet and leader that we come to know so deeply throughout the first five books of the Bible, breathes his last. He dies right on the edge of Canaan, on the brink of a promise fulfilled, a land that he spends 40 years walking toward. The first time I read this, I wept for him — a man like us who lived through such grave disappointment, but who also gives us a picture of what this transition from wandering to homecoming would look like hundreds of years later in the story.
The reason Moses was kept on the wrong side of the promised land occurs earlier in the book of Numbers. Amid constant rebellion and pushback from God’s people, Moses reached a boiling point. He let his temper get the best of him and did not follow God’s specific instructions on how to get life-saving water to pour out from a rock for the Israelites. Instead of holding his staff and telling the rock to open up (much like he did on the shores of the Red Sea), he yelled at the people and brought his anger down on the rock itself, striking it twice. Despite his disobedience, the rock still poured forth water, but Moses’ fate was sealed. God said, “Because you did not believe in me, therefore you shall not bring this assembly into the land that I have given them” (20:12). We aren’t told how Moses reacted to this news, but we can assume it was devastating. Fast forward to the end of Deuteronomy, the end of forty years of leading a people who were bent on their passions and lawlessness, and here Moses sits, on the top of Mount Nebo, the Lord himself showing Moses the land that had been promised to Abraham so long ago, in which he would never step one foot.
But in this sad story lies a glimmer of hope. From two angles. The first has to do with the timing of Moses’s death. His death preceded the people’s entrance into a new life, a promised life, a land that was flowing with provision and blessing. The Israelites were unable to enter the promised land until Moses died; they had known this from the time of Moses’ striking of the rock. They mourned, but their sadness was followed by the fulfillment of a joyful promise. Jesus’s death would serve this same type of bridge many years later. He would be the rock that was struck in the wilderness, breaking himself open and pouring out living water. He would be the one to die a cursed death in symbolic Moab, hanging on a tree, for us (Deut 21:22-23). And ultimately, his death would precede and usher us into the land that was promised, the land flowing with milk and honey. Except this time it wasn’t Canaan or any other actual land. This new land, this better land, was Christ himself and the promise of eternal salvation of abundance through his death and resurrection. Christ’s coming was foretold directly and indirectly throughout the stories of the Old Testament. Moses’ life, and more importantly, his death was a symbolic reflection of Christ, who came as a better and complete version of our Exodus hero. Unlike Moses, however, there was no heartbreak at the knowledge of his unavoidable death. We read in Hebrews 12:2 that Jesus “for the joy that was set before him endured the cross.” He climbed a hill, just like Moses, and laid down his life, just like Moses, on the precipice of the fulfillment of the greatest promise ever made.
The second angle has to do with what Moses represents in the greater biblical storyline. One of the great acts that God accomplished through him was the passing down of the Law. Immediately after breaking his people free from the chains of Egypt, God thundered his perfect law from the top of Mount Sinai, carving it in literal stone, making it as immovable and as unforgiving as its bearer. This stone-written law was not to be broken, and the penalty for wavering even one single iota from it was death. We see this in the first generation of Israelites who continuously rebelled and were sentenced to wander the wilderness until they died. And, unsurprisingly yet heartbreakingly, we also see this in the life of Moses. Moses represented the law; he carried it down the mountain. Yet it was his failure to keep it that kept him from the promised land. Even the one who saw God carve the letters into the tablets was not able to keep it perfectly enough to walk into Canaan.
So who was it that took on the burden of the Israelites and finally led them into the land of Canaan? It was Joshua, one of the twelve spies that had been sent into Canaan in Numbers 13, the one who encouraged the Israelites to rise up and take the land that they had been promised, despite the seemingly insurmountable obstacles that had been living there (including giants!). In the face of the impossible task that could not be performed by the work of their hands, he trusted that with God on their side they would have victory.
The enormity of this transition cannot be overstated. Instead of the man who became a picture of the law and the death sentence that it represents (“Do this or die!”), the people reached the land of milk and honey following a different man, the man who said, “I know that I can’t do this, but God can.” What a beautiful microcosm of the greater movement in the Bible from the works of our hands which always leads to death to the work of God’s hands which always leads to life. Though Jesus hadn’t been born yet, we see glimpses of his upturning of the law even here at the end of the Pentateuch. He is our true and better Joshua, so that we might know that to truly enter God’s land of salvation is to do so by his grace alone, owning our weaknesses, and trusting in the one who was strong for us on the cross.