Devarim

What Do We Know About Moses’s Burial Place?

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Ezra W. Zuckerman Sivan

 

If a reader of the first four books of the Torah still harbors any doubts as to the paramount importance of Moses to Israel’s history, the book of Deuteronomy makes the matter crystal clear. The book consists almost entirely of Moses giving speeches, and no other individual human takes any action, not even his successor Joshua. And if the way Deuteronomy centers Moses points indirectly to his singular greatness, the closing verses of the book– and of the Torah itself– explicitly declare that Moses is the greatest prophet and leader who Israel has had and will ever have. To be sure, the steps that God takes at the end of Deuteronomy ultimately curtail Moses’s ambitions and indeed his life. But they also reinforce the impression of his unique status. No previous patriarch was given a virtual aerial tour of the Promised Land; no one else is escorted to his death by God himself (“and he died… at God’s word” 34:5); and no one else has his burial place obscured such that “no man knew of his [place of] burial until this very day” (34:6).

Yet while this last aspect of Moses’s death may seem a straightforward indicator of Moses’s greatness, closer inspection uncovers a puzzle. After all, the Torah had previously ascribed great importance to recognizing the burial place of Israel’s leaders, beginning with Abraham’s purchase of the Cave of Makhpelah to bury his wife Sarah and future family members (Genesis 23). Indeed, Joseph had risked his standing in Pharaoh’s court by honoring his father Jacob’s request to bury him there (50:1-12) and Moses had made sure to take Joseph’s bones with Israel when they left Egypt (Exodus 13:19). Why then the sudden break from precedent? Why did God want to hide Moses’s body?

Ralbag (R. Levi ben Gershon, France, 1288-1344) offers an intriguing answer, one that is both more compelling and more flawed than it might seem at first glance. His reasoning is as follows:

If the place of his burial would be known, future generations would err by making a god out of him considering what had become publicized about the wonders he had performed. After all, some members of Israel erred in the case of the copper serpent that Moses made, considering the greatness of the man who made it… (Deuteronomy 34:6, ad loc.)

Ralbag is referring here to the mysterious incident of Numbers 2:4-9. God had let loose “fiery serpents” on the complaining people which eventually killed “a vast multitude of Israel” by biting them. Moses responded by devising a copper serpent that protected Israel when they gazed upon it. We learn from II Kings 18:4 that over the next several generations this copper serpent was apparently to become an idol, and Ralbag interprets this idolatry as a form of Moses-worship.

Ralbag’s worries about Moses-worship may seem far-fetched until we do a close reading of Deuteronomy 4:15-24. This is the second half of a short speech in which Moses exhorts Israel on proper worship of God and teaches what they should learn from their experience of revelation. It is here that Moses provides explicit instruction in what has come to be known (in reference to Maimonides’ Guide to the Perplexed) as “negative theology”– i.e., what God is not and what Israel should therefore not worship. It is also here that Moses first mentions that God has decreed that he will soon die.[1]

Moses begins the second half of his speech by stressing that the people saw no image at Sinai but had instead only heard the sounds and seen the fire of God. Moses then proceeds to run through a list of six examples of images the people must not worship upon arrival in Canaan. In particular, Moses tells them that they must not worship the form of a) a male or a female [person] (4:16); b) a land animal or c) a winged bird in the sky (4:17); d) anything that creeps on the ground or e) any fish that swims in the sea (4:18); or f) the sun or the moon or stars (4:19).[2] Moses concludes this speech a few verses later on the same theme: by reemphasizing the importance of not forgetting the covenant and coming to make graven images. He also reminds them that God is a consuming fire, a jealous God (4:23-24).

Ralbag’s Moses-worship theory receives some support from the examples that top the list: “male or female [person].” But there is also strong subtextual evidence that Moses was specifically worried that he himself would come to be deified. Consider the three verses that separate Moses’s rundown of the six types of “non-gods” (4:15-19) and the concluding verses (4:23-24):

And you, God took you. He brought you out of that iron blast furnace, out of Egypt, to be for Him a people of legacy, as is now the case. (4:20)

And/But God became enraged with me, And he swore that I would be barred from crossing the Jordan and barred from coming to the good land that God is giving you as a legacy (4:21).

For I am indeed dying in this land; I am not crossing the Jordan. And/but you will cross and inherit this good land (4:22).

These verses seem like a strange digression. It seems especially odd that Moses selected this moment to tell the people that he was about to die (Moses had mentioned earlier [Deuteronomy 1:37; 3:23-36] that he wouldn’t be allowed to cross the Jordan; but that didn’t necessarily mean his death was imminent). But the juxtaposition makes sense once we recognize that they had very good reason to see Moses as a godlike figure.

After all, he and two acolytes who were utterly deferential to him, Joshua and Caleb, were the sole survivors from the previous generation, and this new generation had grown up on stories in which the key agents of their salvation were God (whom they could not see or experience directly) and Moses (whom they could). Furthermore, while Moses was nominally an old man, his “eyes were undimmed and his vigor was undiminished” at the time of his death (34:7). It was also well known that he had lived for forty days and nights without food or drink (9:9,18) and that he had acquired a divine aura at that time, such that the people could not stand before him unless he were veiled (Exodus 34:33-35). If anyone has ever should have seemed immortal to any group of human beings, it would have been Moses in the eyes of Israel.

Finally, Moses seemed to have godlike powers at a time when God’s presence was hard to discern. Of the three miraculous salvation events that had occurred to this generation– a) water flowing from a struck rock to meet their needs (“Waters of Strife”; Numbers 20:1-13); b) healing from snake bites provided by viewing a copper serpent (“Copper Snake”; 21:4-9); and c) a plague arrested by the spearing of sinners (“Sin of Ba’al Pe’or.” 25:1-15)– Moses was the key agent in two of them, taking a great deal of initiative (as Ralbag notes) in each. To be sure, the Torah credits God with being the force behind these events, and informs us that He had privately chastised Moses for errors in the first case. But all the people could see with their own eyes was what Moses (and in the third case, Phineas) had done: taken actions responsible for miraculously saving them.

And so by interjecting his own impending death due to God’s wrath after the list of non-gods, Moses seems to be hinting very loudly here that the people should banish any thoughts from their minds that he is a god. Indeed, by discussing his death in the context of a narrative about the formation of Israel and instructions to Israel about its future over many generations, Moses is implicitly contrasting his own mortality and weakness with the people’s immortality and greatness: yes he will die but they will live on to fulfill their legacy.[3] Just a few verses earlier, Moses hints that this contrast is not coincidental but causal (3:26): “God was angered with me for your sake, and didn’t listen to [my request to go in the land].”

Consistent with Ralbag’s theory then, the climax of Deuteronomy seems to complete a logical circle begun at the beginning of the book. On the one hand, this climax affirms Moses as a uniquely great leader. But it also reinforces the message that Moses is fully mortal and an inappropriate target of worship. Hiding his body seems key to accomplishing the latter goal.

The problem: The body isn’t missing

Consider the following riddle: If you were God and you wanted to obscure the place of a person’s burial, how would you do it? When I have posed this question to friends, they invariably paraphrase Moses in his famous characterization of the unattainable above the heavensor “beyond the sea” (30:13). In fact, God does the former in the case of Elijah, whisking his body into the heavens with only one eyewitness as to the spot of ascent (II Kings 2). And Jonah famously gets a reprieve from the latter type of death. When God wants to hide a body, He knows very well how to do it. But did He actually hide Moses’s body?

No.

To the contrary, the text tells us precisely where Moses is buried. The beginning of the very verse (34:6) that informs us that “and no man knew his burial (place) to this very day” begins with “And He/he buried him in the valley, in the land of Moab, opposite the House of Pe’or.”

One may be tempted to object that this is in fact imprecise. Since Moses was apparently alone when he was interred (no other human is described as ascending with him to Mt. Nebo, and the ambiguously-described agent of burial “he” is variously interpreted as God or Moses himself), perhaps his body was effectively hidden. Moreover, “the valley” is rather vague and it is unclear who was informed that Moses’s body was buried there rather than on top of the mountain.

But these objections quickly dissolve when we consider two straightforward points. First, there actually should be no ambiguity for those seeking Moses’s grave about which valley is intended. After all, it was mentioned towards the beginning of Deuteronomy as the very place where they had been encamped for awhile: “And (since God denied my final request to go into the Land), we have been living in the valley, opposite the House of Pe’or” (3:29).

Second, one does not need to identify a holy man’s body in order to build a shrine to him. Consider how many shrines we have today– Jewish and non-Jewish– where it is doubtful that the revered saint is actually buried there. Certainly the amount of information provided here is more than sufficient for Moses’s admirers to construct a shrine to him. Moreover, even if they were not informed that the body was buried in the valley, the shrine could have been built on the nearby Mt. Nebo.

Our original question has thus been sharpened. On the one hand, Ralbag seems to be correct that there is a serious threat of Moses-worship hanging over Israel, and it seems plausible that obscuring knowledge of Moses’s burial place could be helpful in countering this threat. Moreover, the text goes out of its way to tell us that they in fact did not know Moses’s burial place. But whereas we might be tempted to infer that God had put the body out of reach, the text had already told us that he was buried in a well-known location. It is almost as if the people were being encouraged to engage in Moses-worship.

The Most Familiar Place in the World

To begin developing a resolution to this puzzle, let us take an even closer look at what we know about the location of Moses’s burial. As discussed, the Torah is quite specific about this spot: “in the valley, in the land of Moab, opposite the House of Pe’or” (34:6). We have also noted that Moses had earlier (3:29) named “in the valley, opposite the House of Pe’or” as the place where they had dwelled for an extended period of time. And yet as we look further into the identity of this place, we begin to see that it has a wide array of names and associations. For instance, the third of the three biblical mentions of “in the valley, opposite the House of Pe’or” indicates that that it is in not the land of Moab but rather “in the land of Sihon, King of the Amorites, who reigns from Heshbon, whom Moses and Israel smote as part of the exodus from Egypt ”(4:46). This attribution is not inconsistent with the others once we recall that Sihon had taken over this territory from Moab (Numbers 21:27-30). Furthermore, given the use of the mountain overlook by King Balak of Moab (22:41), it was apparently a border region (21:13). Thus while each of these references points to exactly the same geographic location (“the valley, opposite the House of Pe’or), they evoke a multiplicity of historical and political associations (Balak/Moabites, Sihon/Amorites).

Indeed, now observe how this same specific geographic location apparently goes by multiple names, each with a different resonance. In particular, the overview of Israel’s encampments in Numbers 33 (the beginning of Parashat Mas’ei) ends as follows:

And they traveled from ‘Almon-Divlataimah and they encamped on the mountains of the ‘Avarim (“Crossings”), before Nebo.

And they traveled from the mountains of ‘Avarim and they encamped at the Plains of Moab, on the Jordan near Jericho.

And they encamped on the Jordan, from Beit Ha-Yeshimot (“House of the Wastelands”) and until Avel Ha-Shitim (“Mourning-Place of the Acacias”) on the Plains of Moab (33:47-49).

Given that Nebo is one name of the mountain that Moses ascended to die (Deuteronomy 34:1) and that ‘Avarim is another name for that mountain (32:49), it appears that all three of these verses describe places in close proximity to one another. Note further that the last two verses do not describe two different camps (no traveling between them is mentioned) but provide first a more general and then a more specific way of describing the very same encampment.[4] And note further that that neither of these names overlaps linguistically with the way this encampment is described in Deuteronomy (3:29): “in the valley, opposite the House of Pe’or.” And yet, these two names do overlap thematically. In particular, just as “House of Pe’or” recalls the Sin of Ba’al Pe’or (where Israel’s licentiousness and idolatry elicited a divine plague) so does Avel Ha-Shittim (“Mourning-Place of the Acacias”) given that this sin occurred at Shittim (“Acacias”; Numbers 25:1) and that it led to mass death.[5]

From a review of Numbers 21-22:1 and 33:38-49 and Deuteronomy 1:3, it appears that by the beginning of Deuteronomy, it it had been six months since they had buried Aaron on Hor Ha-Har (at the end of the fifth month of the 40th year) and that they had spent the majority of the intervening time based at this particular encampment and its close environs. The people were also to spend one more month at this site mourning Moses, and would not depart for Jericho for a few more days. While this seven-month period may be longer than the time they had spent at many other campsites, it is less time than the year the previous generation had spent at Sinai; and it is clearly less than the “many days” they had spent at Kadesh (1:46) or at Mt. Seir (2:1). And yet, it is remarkable how much memorable history had transpired over this short amount of time– accounting for many more chapters than had taken place at any place since Sinai and certainly the most in this generation.

Accordingly, now consider the following table, which includes fifteen names (including those already discussed) of places within the vicinity encompassed by these three verses, as well as the stories (recounted in Numbers, Deuteronomy, and Joshua) with which they are associated:

Name

Translation

Reference

Relevant Story/ies

1. ‘Iyei Ha-Avarim

Wastelands[6] of the Crossings

Numbers 21:11

After Copper Serpent Incident

2. Nahal Zered

Wadi Zered

Numbers 21:12

After Copper Serpent Incident

3. Be’erah

Towards the Well

Numbers 21:16

Digging/Song of the Well; Perhaps Waters of Strife

4. ((Ha-)Nishkaf/ah al pnei) Ha-Yeshimon

(Overlook over) The Wasteland

Numbers 21:20, 23:28

Song of the Well; Balaam’s Failed Curses

5. Bamot Ha-Gai

Altars of the Valley

Numbers 21:20

Digging/Song of the Well

6. Rosh Ha-Pisgah

Top of the Cliff/Summit

Numbers 21:20, 23:14; Deuteronomy 3:27, 34:1

Digging/Song of the Well; Balaam’s Failed Curses; Moses’s Death

7. Bamot Ba’al

Altars of Ba’al

Numbers 21:28, 22:41; Joshua 13:17

Sihon’s victory over Moab; Balaam’s Failed Curses; Victory over Sihon

8 .Shittim

Acacias

Numbers 25:1; Joshua 2:1, 3:1

Sin of Ba’al Pe’or; Crossing of the Jordan

9. Har Ha-Avarim

Mountain of the Crossings

Numbers 27:12; Deuteronomy 32:49

Moses’s Death

10. (Har) Nevo

(Mt.) Nebo

Numbers 32:3, 32:38, 33:47; Deuteronomy 34:1

Victory over Sihon; Land Allocation to Reuben; Moses’s Death

11. Avel Ha-Shittim

Mourning of/at the Acacias

Numbers 33:49

Edge of final encampment; Sin of Ba’al Pe’or

12. Beit Ha-Yeshimot

House of the Wastelands

Numbers 33:49

Edge of final encampment

13. (Mul) Beit Pe’Or

(Opposite the) House of Pe’or

Deuteronomy 3:29, 4:46, 34:6; Joshua 13;20

War against Sihon; Moses’s Burial

14. Ha-Gai

The Valley

Deuteronomy 3:29, 4:46, 34:6

War against Sihon; Moses’s Burial

15. (Ashdot/Ashdat) Ha-Pisgah

Watershed of the Cliff/Peak

Deuteronomy 3:17, 4:49, 33:2

Land allocation to Reuben, Gad & Manasseh; War against Sihon

 

These names hardly exhaust the vast array of Transjordanian place names that lend meaning to this location. As noted, the larger context is that of the Plains of Moab, the eastern banks of the Jordan, and situated opposite Jericho (see e.g., Numbers 26:3, 26:63, 35:1, 36:13). Additional context is provided by Gilead, which is both Israel’s name for the Transjordan generally (e.g., 32:1), going back to Genesis 31, and the name for the particular clan of Mansasseh that was given a share in this territory (see Numbers 26:21, 32:40). In addition to these regional names, various additional names seem to refer to smaller locations/camps whose significance is more obscure to us but had apparent significance for Israel.[7] And finally, some names in the vicinity are associated with Sihon’s Amorite kingdom for which this camp is the southwestern border,[8] and which were subsequently taken for settlement by the tribes of Reuben, Gad, and (half of) Manasseh. A reference to this area of conquest in turn reminds the reader of the conquest of King ‘Og’s northern Bashan area (up to Mt. Hermon, in today’s Golan), which occurred after the conquest of Sihon, and which forms the other main region of the conquered Transjordanian territory.

This larger context helps reinforce the first important implication of our table of names that are associated with the specific vicinity of Israel’s encampment. In particular, we see that Moses was buried in a location that is saturated with meaning. Think of the various objects, person, or places in our own lives to which we affix multiple names. This generally reflects the fact that we have extensive interaction with that someone or something and that we experience them in multiple, distinct ways. It seems that Israel had such a relationship with this encampment. It is remarkable that this place had come to mean so much to Israel over a mere half a year. But it is perhaps no surprise when we realize how many momentous events had occurred here and how they relate to one another.

Saturated with Historical Context and Communal Knowledge

Beyond the general observation that Moses’s burial place was saturated with meaning, we can also  begin to break down the meanings of these various names in three distinct ways. First a high proportion are “left over” from the conquered peoples, and many are even associated with pagan worship. While we might have expected Israel to eliminate such names, in fact this pattern is quite familiar from recent historical episodes involving conquering peoples. For example, Israelis continue to use the Arab names for conquered Arab neighborhoods in Jerusalem (e.g.,Talbiyeh, Katamon, Baq’a) and Americans use the Mexican names for conquered Mexican mission towns (e.g., San Diego; Los Angeles) as well as many names that honor the pagan forebears supplanted by Christian settlers (e.g., Massachusetts, Kentucky).

Relatedly, the Torah is quite interested in relating the history of the predecessor peoples of this region (see also Genesis 36; Judges 11:12-28). In particular, it situates Israel’s conquest of the mighty Transjordanian Amorite kingdoms as justified and appropriate in the context of the political history of the region and of Israel’s family loyalty to Edom, Moab, and ‘Amon, who turn out to enjoy divine land grants similar to Israel’s (see Numbers 21:27-30; Deuteronomy 2:9-12, 2:19-23, 3:9-11). The implication is that while Israel’s recent experience in this location is only six months old, it is in fact deeply embedded in the history of the region. In fact, whereas we might otherwise be tempted to view Israel’s conquest of this area as a major historical turning point and perhaps to credit Moses with effecting radical change, this historical context makes the conquest seem like part of a much larger historical process guided by God from afar.

A second theme in these place names is also discernible. In particular, it is notable how many of the new Hebrew place names are merely descriptions of features of the natural landscape with a definite article attached: “the valley;” “the cliff/summit”; “(to) the well;” and “the acacias.” As discussed above in the case of “the valley,” these names are puzzling because they seem at first glance to have an ambiguous referent: Which valley? Which grove of acacias?[9]

Why would a community have place names that are so vague? Political Scientist James Scott’s influential argument about how states/outsiders differ from insiders/local communities in their characteristic approaches to naming helps illuminate these vague names. The key to his theory is that the outsider/state is trying to make the local as “legible” as possible so they can understand and control something unfamiliar and elusive, whereas the local already understands it in their own terms and takes a great deal of contextual information for granted. Scott and his colleagues’ treatment of state vs. local naming practices is especially relevant here. Here’s the key motivating example and heart of the insight:

A contrast between local names for roads and state names for roads will help illustrate the two variants of legibility. There is, for example, a small road joining the towns of Durham and Guilford in the state of Connecticut (USA). Those who live in Durham call this road (among themselves) “Guilford Road,” presumably because it informs the inhabitants of Durham exactly where they’ll get to if they travel it. The same road, at its Guilford terminus, is called the “Durham Road” because it tells the inhabitants of Guilford where the road will lead them. One imagines that at some liminal midpoint, the road hovers between these two identities. Such names work perfectly well; they each encode valuable local knowledge, i.e., perhaps the most important fact one might want to know about a road. That the same road has two names, depending on one’s location, demonstrates the situational, contingent nature of local naming practices. Informal, ‘folk’ naming practices not only produce the anomaly of a road with two or more names; they also produce many different roads with the same name. Thus, the nearby towns of Killingworth, Haddam, Madison, and Meriden each have roads leading to Durham which the inhabitants locally call the “Durham Road.” Now imagine the insuperable problems that this locally-effective folk system would pose to an outsider requiring unambiguous identifications for each road. A state road repair crew, sent to fix potholes on the “Durham Road” would have to ask, “Which Durham Road?” Thus it is no surprise that the road between Durham and Guilford is re-incarnated on all state maps and designations as “Route 77.” Each micro-segment of that route, moreover, is identified by means of telephone pole serial numbers, milestones, and township boundaries. The naming practices of the state require a synoptic view, a standardized scheme of identification generating mutually exclusive and exhaustive designations. And, this system can work to the benefit of state residents: if you have to be rescued on Route 77 by a state-dispatched ambulance team, you will be reassured to know that there is no ambiguity about which road it is that you are bleeding on. (Scott et al., 2002, pp. 4-5)

Scott and colleagues go on to generalize this insight in various ways, including the modern state’s drive to impose “synoptic” markers of individual identity on its citizens and residents, providing the basis for public health campaigns that are challenged by local communities to this very day. Scott et al. also discuss an example of this from the history of Ashkenazi Jews: the imposition of surnames on Ashkenazi Jews by 19th century states, an imposition that did no small amount of violence to us and with which we have never been fully comfortable. And of course, Ashkenazi Jews made sure to keep our existing naming system for internal, communal purposes, though it is difficult for outsiders to parse. This is no small act of resistance, as an-oft quoted midrash reminds us.[10]

What are the implications for the vague place-names in our table? In short, it seems that whereas Israel had only been in this location for six months, they had already assumed a way of discussing the location as if they were long-term insiders resistant to outside “legibility.” Everyone knew which valley was “the valley, opposite the House of Pe’or,” even if we as outsiders to that time and place struggle to make sense of their nomenclature. The same goes for the acacia grove, and for the well, and for the cliff/summit. We may be unsure of these locations, but their very obscurity to us reflects how well-known they were to them.

In addition, and crucially, the insider knowledge behind these names was communal knowledge. The Song of the Well marks the first time that such a name (Be’erah) is mentioned and it comes from a song that is produced by “Israel” rather than by “Moses and Israel,” as was the case for the Song of the Sea (compare Numbers 21:17 with Exodus 15:1). Similarly, whereas the patriarchs in Genesis often changed place names based on the experiences (of God) they had there, Moses does not do that here. To be sure, some of the recent conquests (Havot Ya’ir, Novah; Numbers 32:41-2; Deuteronomy 3:14) are named for their Israelite conquerors. But that is not the case for the set of common-noun names used in their main encampment. These are as fully communal as Guilford Road is to the people of Durham, Connecticut. They transcend Moses as they do any individual in Israel.

Association with Leadership Failure

We have noted to this point how prior to it becoming the location of Moses’s burial, the location of “the valley, opposite the House of Pe’or” was already saturated with a multiplicity of associations that would have cast a large shadow over any attempt to associate the location with one person. That these associations were so different– some deriving from the larger political history of the region and some from Israel’s idiosyncratic communal experience– would have made that shadow particularly hard to cast off.

And now let us turn to a final implication: insofar as this location is associated with Moses’s leadership, it is associated with a significant amount of failure. To be clear, this is the site of Moses’s valedictory addresses, as compiled in the book of Deuteronomy. And it is the site of the staging area for “Moses and Israel’s” victory over Sihon and ‘Og (4:46), not to mention Israel’s military expedition to vanquish the five Midianite kings. But as the various stories listed in the final column of the table remind us, it is also associated with significant failures– the Sin of Ba’al Pe’or in particular.

A midrash[11] makes this point quite clearly and forcefully in explaining why Moses’s burial place was unknown:

At the end of forty years … “they had camped by the Jordan from Beit Ha-Yeshimot  as far as Avel Ha-Shittim on the Plains of Moab” (Numbers 33:49), and there they became lawless through unchastity. And they weakened Moses and the righteous who were with him, and they were crying. See that [Moses] had [previously] stood up to six hundred thousand [men with the golden calf, as stated] (Exodus 32:20), “And he took the calf that they had made.” And [now] he weakened? It was simply so that Phinehas would come and receive his due. Moreover, because [Moses] had been indolent [in the execution of justice], “no one knows his burial place” (Deuteronomy 34:6). [This fact serves] to teach you that one must be bold as a leopard, light as an eagle, swift like a gazelle, and strong as a lion to do the will of his Creator. From here you learn that [the Creator] is as meticulous with the righteous as a thread of hair.

Quite reasonably, this midrash sees the Sin of Ba’al Pe’or as Moses’s great failure (if only because he is held to unusually high standards). After all, God had explicitly instructed Moses to take action against the ringleaders (Numbers 25:4) and he apparently could not bring himself to do so, thereby failing to prevent a plague that killed 24,000 souls. Moreover, since Moses was the leader, it is hard to hold him blameless for Israel’s descent in the first place.

The inclination to see a larger failure of leadership gains support when we review the set of events that are referenced in the table and how they are interconnected.[12] Consider for example Reuben and Gad’s request to settle the Transjordan. On the one hand, Moses seems to overreact to this request (saying they are free-loaders who are adopting the approach of “evil men” even though they apparently had planned to be the military vanguard in conquering Canaan (Numbers 32:14)). But on the other hand, Moses may have good reason to be suspicious and insecure (as Israel was even after the tribes did what they promised; Joshua 22). In particular, it is notable that a) In making their request, Reuben and Gad seem to have abandoned Simeon, their erstwhile partner in the tribal encampments, perhaps due to Simeon’s strong association with the Sin of Ba’al Pe’or; b) Reuben had previously been associated with rebellion against Moses’s leadership (in the affair of Korah); and c) Reuben’s and (especially) Simeon’s populations had dropped precipitously over the course of the years in the wilderness (presumably due to the plague of Ba’al Pe’or and the incident leading up to the plague stopped by the Copper Serpent). Moses’s reaction seems to reflect major concerns with a significant part of Israel’s body politic. But however much these issues can be attributed to the leaders of Reuben and Simeon, they also reflect poorly on Moses himself as the preeminent leader.

With this context in mind, it is all the more striking that the location of Moses’s final resting place references the House of Pe’or.[13] Yet given how recent this calamity was and how inseparable it was with so much of Israel’s recent and momentous history, there could be no escaping its legacy. As the leaders of the ten other tribes (minus Levi) assert even after completing their conquest of Canaan, “the Sin of Pe’or– we are yet to be purified of it” (Joshua 22:17). Moreover, the legacy would have been physical as well. Moses, after all, was not the only person who ended up buried on his burial spot. So were 24,000 freshly-buried victims of a divine plague that was the largest stain on Moses’s great record of leadership. Indeed, the place had already been named as a mourning site for those dead. Those dead would necessarily loom large over any additional body that was then added. How then could one build a shrine that celebrated Moses– let alone one that deified him– there?

Conclusion: Great Leader but not a God

Following the lead of the midrash just quoted, let us be clear that the Torah in no way means to present Moses as a failed leader. To the contrary. As the climax of Deuteronomy states, Moses was and will ever remain Israel’s greatest prophet and leader. And as the thirty-day mourning period for Moses described implies (intriguingly, the only leader whose mourning period is given a name- “the Weeping Days of Moses’s Mourning” Deuteronomy 34:8), the people must have felt a tremendous love and gratitude for him. Moreover, that the leadership transition to Joshua was as smooth as it was, speaks eloquently of how well Moses had led Israel and prepared them for their future.[14] Key to that successful transition was how God and Moses apparently worked together to neutralize the serious threat that Moses would be deified: As discussed at the outset of this essay, Moses understood the risk that he might be treated as a god; and as we have seen, God addressed this risk by burying Moses in a spot that was especially ill-suited to becoming a shrine to Moses.

Following Ralbag, we have seen that a key mechanism for countering that threat was by preventing Moses’s burial place from becoming a shrine. But we have also gained a deeper appreciation for what it means that this place “would never be known as Moses’s burial place.” Paradoxically, this strategy was not about hiding the body so that it was physically beyond reach. To the contrary, they had more than enough information such that if all else were equal, the location would surely have become a shrine.

The actual strategy was effectively the opposite of hiding the body. It involved embedding the location of burial deep in the webs of meaning associated with Israel’s experience, larger divinely-guided historical forces, and Moses’s leadership challenges. These webs of meaning were so complex and dense that no human being’s legacy could have transcended them. The general logic here should be familiar once we consider our general practice of keeping burial sites away from locations that are either full of ongoing life or have broader cultural significance. The reason for this practice is that the various associations thereby evoked would interfere with our ability to appreciate and revere the deceased, whose life would otherwise seem short and insignificant. And if interference is generally a problem, how much more is it true when the location is associated with notable failures of the deceased?

Yet if we are left without the ability to build a shrine for Moses, we are also left with the most fitting tribute he could ever want: we are his people, guided by his teachings. This will necessarily be true as long as the “Torah of Moses” is taught and lived. And core to this Torah is the idea that Moses was a human being just like the rest of us and that his greatness came from being chosen by God because of his great and actionable empathy for fellow human beings subject to unjust treatment, and from how at age 80, he began a personal metamorphosis from being a retiring herdsman who resisted the mantle of leadership by insisting he wasn’t an ish devarim (Exodus 4:10; “man of words”) to becoming the quintessential ish Devarim (man of Deuteronomy).


[1] The following interpretation of Deuteronomy 4 is not one I’d seen elsewhere but I recently was pleased to learn that R. Menachem Leibtag has developed a closely related approach. Thanks to R. Leibtag for input on this essay.

After the original publication of this essay, R. Elchanan Adler helpfully noted that the Meshech Chochma (ad loc) offers a similar approach.

[2] Notably, this rundown is a reverse-order recital of the movable bodies created by God on days four through six of creation (Genesis 1:14-27). This follows the first three days, which are devoted to creating the immobile conditions for such bodies to thrive.

[3] Fascinatingly, he also seems to compare the people’s immortality to that of an idol, one that is forged in a blast furnace and will always retain its original form. Here he seems to acknowledge that this is the source of an idol’s appeal, and that this is at the core of Israel’s appeal to God: that it would be immortal like Him (and unlike Moses). But another key aspect of the relationship is distinct from the relationship between a human being and their idol: Israel was capable of– and likely to– fail to keep up its side of the covenant. Thus while the relationship would be eternal, it would be dynamic, with ups and downs.

[4] The Talmud (Yoma 75b; Eruvin 55b) notes that the width of the encampment was three parasangs long, which thus provides the basis for defining the size of tehum shabbat (halakhic area within which it is permissible to walk on Shabbat).

[5] Avel Ha-Shittim is often translated as “Meadow of the Acacias” rather than “Mourning-place of the Acacias,” as I am proposing. The basis for my proposed translation is not only that eivel means mourning (whereas the link between avel and “meadow” is unclear), but also that the only other place name in the five books of the Torah that similarly contains the descriptive Avel is Avel Mitzrayim (Genesis 50:11), where the location is associated with mourning. See also Kli Yakar (on Numbers 33:49), who associates Avel Ha-Shittim with the mourning for Aaron, and Bamidbar Rabbah (20:24), which sees Avel Ha-Shittim as the same place as Shittim.

[6] This translation is based on Hirsch, ad loc.

[7] E.g., Matanah and Nahaliel (21:19) as well as Divon-Gad and ‘Almon-Divlataimah (33:45-46)

[8] E.g., Yahtzah (Numbers 21:23) and Ba’al Meon (32:38)

[9] Accordingly, they have long posed a problem for translators, some of whom translate them as if they are proper nouns (“Pisgah”) and some of whom translate them as common nouns (“the cliff”). The latter approach seems appropriate insofar as these place names seem informal and do not last beyond Deuteronomy (but see Micah 6:5). The former approach seems appropriate insofar as they seem to function as place names. Thanks to Dr. Rivka Press Schwartz for alerting me to this issue and for prompting the analysis that follows.

[10] See https://www.yutorah.org/lectures/lecture.cfm/901913/rabbi-elli-fischer/they-didn-t-change-their-name-language-and-dress-why-everyone-knows-a-midrash-that-doesn-t-exist/.

[11] Bamidbar Rabbah 20:24.

[12] Space constraints prevent a full consideration of these interlinkages. One intriguing thread mentioned by various commentators is the link between the well of Be’erah with the Waters of Strife and thus with the transgression of Moses that is the basis for God’s decision to bar him from entering Canaan (Numbers 27:14; Deuteronomy 32:15). In particular, Rashi notes (Numbers 21:20, ad loc.) that Moses is not credited in the Song of the Well as a punishment. A key basis for this connection between Be’erah and the Waters of Strife is that in both cases God is described as commanding Moses to gather the people so God can give them water (compare Numbers 21:16 with 20:8). Thanks to R. Alex Maged for emphasizing this connection to me.

[13] R. Menachem Leibtag helpfully points out that God never uses this (or any other name with problematic associations) in referring to Moses’s final resting place, thereby seeming to spare Moses the pain associated with Ba’al Pe’or. It is instead referred to as Rosh Ha-Pisgah, Nevo, or Har Ha-Avarim.

[14] Thanks to R. Menachem Leibtag for this point.

Ezra Zuckerman Sivan, an economic sociologist, is the Alvin J. Siteman Professor of Entrepreneurship and Strategy at the MIT Sloan School of Management, where he currently serves as associate dean for teaching and learning. Among his current research projects is a book on the emergence of the seven-day week. Ezra welcomes feedback at ewzucker@mit.edu and he tweets at @ewzucker.