Biblical Commentary on the Old Testament, by Carl Friedrich Keil and Franz Delitzsh, [1857-78], at sacred-texts.com
IV. Moses' Farewell and Death - Deuteronomy 31-34
With the renewal of the covenant, by the choice set before the people between blessing and curse, life and death, Moses had finished the interpretation and enforcement of the law (Deu 1:5), and brought the work of legislation to a close. But in order that the work to which the Lord had called him might be thoroughly completed, it still remained for him, before his approaching death, to hand over the task of leading the people into Canaan to Joshua, who had been appointed as his successor, to finish writing out the laws, and to hand over the book of the law to the priests. The Lord also directed him to write an ode, as a witness against the people, on account of their obstinacy, and teach it to the Israelites. To these last arrangements and acts of Moses, which are narrated in ch. 31 and 32, there are added in ch. 33 the blessing with which this man of god bade farewell to the tribes of Israel, and in ch. 34 the account of his death, with which the Pentateuch closes.
Deu 31:1-13 describe how Moses promised the help of the Lord in the conquest of the land, both to the people generally, and also to Joshua, their leader into Canaan (Deu 31:2-8), and commanded the priests to keep the book of the law, and read it publicly every seventh year (Deu 31:9-13); and Deu 31:14-23, how the Lord appeared to Moses before the tabernacle, and directed him to compose an ode as a testimony against the apostasy of the people, and promised Joshua His assistance. And lastly, Deu 31:24-27 relate how the book of the law, when brought to completion, was handed over to the Levites; and Deu 31:28-30 describe the reading of the ode to the people.
In Deu 31:1 Moses' final arrangements are announced. ויּלך does not mean "he went away" (into his tent), which does not tally with what follows ("and spake"); nor is it merely equivalent to porro, amplius. It serves, as in Exo 2:1 and Gen 35:22, as a pictorial description of what he was about to do, in the sense of "he prepared himself," or rose up. After closing the exposition of the law, Moses had either withdrawn, or at any rate made a pause, before he proceeded to make his final arrangements for laying down his office, and taking leave of the people.
These last arrangements he commences with the declaration, that he must now bid them farewell, as he is 120 years old (which agrees with Exo 7:7), and can no more go out and in, i.e., no longer work in the nation and for it (see at Num 27:17); and the Lord has forbidden him to cross over the Jordan and enter Canaan (see Num 20:24). The first of these reasons is not at variance with the statement in Deu 34:7, that up to the time of his death his eyes were not dim, nor his strength abated. For this is merely an affirmation, that he retained the ability to see and to work to the last moment of his life, which by no means precludes his noticing the decline of his strength, and feeling the approach of his death.
But although Moses could not, and was not to lead his people into Canaan, the Lord would fulfil His promise, to go before Israel and destroy the Canaanites, like the two kings of the Amorites; only they (the Israelites) were to do to them as the Lord had commanded them, i.e., to root out the Canaanites (vid., Deu 7:2.; Num 33:51.; Exo 34:11.).
Israel was therefore to be of good courage, and not to be afraid of them (vid., Deu 1:21; Deu 20:3).
Moses then encourages Joshua in the same way in the presence of all the people, on the strength of the promise of God in Deu 1:38 and Num 27:18. את־העם תּבוא, "thou wilt come with this people into the land." These words are quite appropriate; and the alteration of תּבוא into תּביא, according to Deu 31:23 (Samar., Syr., Vulg.), is a perfectly unnecessary conjecture; for Joshua was not appointed leader of the people here, but simply promised an entrance with all the people into Canaan.
Moses then handed over the law which he had written to the Levitical priests who carried the ark of the covenant, and to all the elders of Israel, with instructions to read it to the people at the end of every seven years, during the festal season of the year of release ("at the end," as in Deu 15:1), viz., at the fast of Tabernacles (see Lev 23:34), when they appeared before the Lord. It is evident from the context and contents of these verses, apart from Deu 31:24, that the ninth verse is to be understood in the way described, i.e., that the two clauses, which are connected together by vav. relat. ("and Moses wrote this law," "and delivered it"), are not logically co-ordinate, but that the handing over of the written law was the main thing to be recorded here. With regard to the handing over of the law, the fact that Moses not only gave the written law to the priests, that they might place it by the ark of the covenant, but also "to all the elders of Israel," proves clearly enough that Moses did not intend at this time to give the law-book entirely out of his own hands, but that this handing over was merely an assignment of the law to the persons who were to take care, that in the future the written law should be kept before the people, as the rule of their life and conduct, and publicly read to them. The explanation which J. H. Mich. gives is perfectly correct, "He gave it for them to teach and keep." The law-book would only have been given to the priests, if the object had been simply that it should be placed by the ark of the covenant, or at the most, in the presence of the elders, but certainly not to all the elders, since they were not allowed to touch the ark. The correctness of this view is placed beyond all doubt by the contents of Deu 31:10. The main point in hand was not the writing out of the law, or the transfer of it to the priests and elders of the nation, but the command to read the law in the presence of the people at the feast of Tabernacles of the year of release. The writing out and handing over simply formed the substratum for this command, so that we cannot infer from them, that by this act Moses formally gave the law out of his own hands. He entrusted the reading to the priesthood and the college of elders, as the spiritual and secular rulers of the congregation; and hence the singular, "Thou shalt read this law to all Israel." The regulations as to the persons who were to undertake the reading, and also as to the particular time during the seven days' feast, and the portions that were to be read, he left to the rulers of the congregation. We learn from Neh 8:18, that in Ezra's time they read in the book of the law every day from the first to the last day of the feast, from which we may see on the one hand, that the whole of the Thorah (or Pentateuch), from beginning to end, was not read; and on the other hand, by comparing the expression in Deu 31:18, "the book of the law of God," with "the law," in Deu 31:14, that the reading was not restricted to Deuteronomy: for, according to v. 14, they had already been reading in Leviticus (ch. 23) before the feast was held - an evident proof that Ezra the scribe did not regard the book of Deuteronomy like the critics of our day, as the true national law-book, an acquaintance with which was all that the people required. Moses did not fix upon the feast of Tabernacles of the sabbatical year as the time for reading the law, because it fell at the beginning of the year,
(Note: It by no means follows, that because the sabbatical year commenced with the omission of the usual sowing, i.e., began in the autumn with the civil year, it therefore commenced with the feast of Tabernacles, and the order of the feasts was reversed in the sabbatical year. According to Exo 23:16, the feast of Tabernacles did not fall at the beginning, but at the end of the civil year. The commencement of the year with the first of Tisri was an arrangement introduced after the captivity, which the Jews had probably adopted from the Syrians (see my bibl. Archaeol. i. 74, note 15). Nor does it follow, that because the year of jubilee was to be proclaimed on the day of atonement in the sabbatical year with a blast of trumpets (Lev 25:9), therefore the year of jubilee must have begun with the feast of Tabernacles. The proclamation of festivals is generally made some time before they commence.)
as Schultz wrongly supposes, that the people might thereby be incited to occupy this year of entire rest in holy employment with the word and works of God. And the reading itself was nether intended to promote a more general acquaintance with the law on the part of the people, - an object which could not possibly have been secured by reading it once in seven years; nor was it merely to be a solemn promulgation and restoration of the law as the rule for the national life, for the purpose of removing any irregularities that might have found their way in the course of time into either the religious or the political life of the nation (Bhr, Symbol. ii. p. 603). To answer this end, it should have been connected with the Passover, the festival of Israel's birth. The reading stood rather in close connection with the idea of the festival itself; it was intended to quicken the soul with the law of the Lord, to refresh the heart, to enlighten the eyes, - in short, to offer the congregation the blessing of the law, which David celebrated from his own experience in Ps. 19:8-15, to make the law beloved and prized by the whole nation, as a precious gift of the grace of God. Consequently (Deu 31:12, Deu 31:13), not only the men, but the women and children also, were to be gathered together for this purpose, that they might hear the word of God, and learn to fear the Lord their God, as long as they should live in the land which He gave them for a possession. On Deu 31:11, see Exo 23:17, and Exo 34:23-24, where we also find לראות for להראות (Exo 34:24).
After handing over the office to Joshua, and the law to the priests and elders, Moses was called by the Lord to come to the tabernacle with Joshua, to command him (צוּה), i.e., to appoint him, confirm him in his office. To this end the Lord appeared in the tabernacle (Deu 31:15), in a pillar of cloud, which remained standing before it, as in Num 12:5 (see the exposition of Num 11:25). But before appointing Joshua, He announced to Moses that after his death the nation would go a whoring after other gods, and would break the covenant, for which it would be visited with severe afflictions, and directed him to write an ode and teach it to the children of Israel, that when the apostasy should take place, and punishment from God be felt in consequence, it might speak as a witness against the people, as it would not vanish from their memory. The Lord communicated this commission to Moses in the presence of Joshua, that he also might hear from the mouth of God that the Lord foreknew the future apostasy of the people, and yet nevertheless would bring them into the promised land. In this there was also implied an admonition to Joshua, not only to take care that the Israelites learned the ode and kept it in their memories, but also to strive with all his might to prevent the apostasy, so long as he was leader of Israel; which Joshua did most faithfully to the very end of his life (vid., Josh 23 and 24). - The announcement of the falling away of the Israelites from the Lord into idolatry, and the burning of the wrath of God in consequence (Deu 31:16-18), serves as a basis for the command in Deu 31:19. In this announcement the different points are simply linked together with "and," whereas in their actual signification they are subordinate to one another: When thou shalt lie with thy fathers, and the people shall rise up, and go a whoring after other gods: My anger will burn against them, etc. קוּם, to rise up, to prepare, serves to bring out distinctly the course which the thing would take. The expression, "foreign gods of the land," indicates that in the land which Jehovah gave His people, He (Jehovah) alone was God and Lord, and that He alone was to be worshipped there. בּקרבּו is in apposition to שׁמּה, "whither thou comest, in the midst of it." The punishment announced in Deu 31:17 corresponds most closely to the sin of the nation. For going a whoring after strange gods, the anger of the Lord would burn against them; for forsaking Him, He would forsake them; and for breaking His covenant, He would hide His face from them, i.e., withdraw His favour from them, so that they would be destroyed. לאכל היה, it (the nation) will be for devouring, i.e., will be devoured or destroyed (see Ewald, 237, c.; and on אכל in this sense, see Deu 7:16, and Num 14:9). "And many evils and troubles will befall it; and it will say in that day, Do not these evils befall me, because my God is not in the midst of me?" When the evils and troubles broke in upon the nation, the people would inquire the cause, and would find it in the fact that they were forsaken by their God; but the Lord ("but I" in Deu 31:18 forms the antithesis to "they" in Deu 31:17) would still hide His face, namely, because simply missing God is not true repentance.
"And now," sc., because what was announced in Deu 31:16-18 would take place, "write you this song." "This" refers to the song which follows in ch. 32. Moses and Joshua were to write the song, because they were both of them to strive to prevent the apostasy of the people; and Moses, as the author, was to teach it to the children of Israel, to make them learn it, that it might be a witness for the Lord (for Me) against the children of Israel. "This" is defined still further in Deu 31:20, Deu 31:21 : if Israel, through growing satisfied and fat in its land, which was so rich in costly good, should turn to other gods, and the Lord should visit it in consequence with grievous evils and troubles, the song was to answer before Israel as a witness; i.e., not only serve the Lord as a witness to the people that He had foretold all the evil consequences of apostasy, and had given Israel proper warning (Knobel), but to serve, as we may see from Deu 31:20, Deu 31:21, and from the contents of the song, as a witness, on the one hand, that the Lord had conferred upon the people so many benefits and bestowed upon them such abundant blessings of His grace, that apostasy from Him was the basest ingratitude, for which they would justly be punished; and, on the other hand, that the Lord had not rejected His people in spite of the punishments inflicted upon them, but would once more have compassion upon them and requite their foes, and thus would sanctify and glorify Himself as the only true God by His judgments upon Israel and the nations. The law, with its commandments, promises, and threats, was already a witness of this kind against Israel (cf. Deu 31:26); but just as in every other instance the appearance of a plurality of unanimous witnesses raises the matter into an indisputable truth, so the Lord would set up another witness against the Israelites besides the law, in the form of this song, which was adapted to give all the louder warning, "because the song would not be forgotten out of the mouths of their seed" (Deu 31:21). The song, when once it had passed into the mouths of the people, would not very readily vanish from their memory, but would be transmitted from generation to generation, and be heard from the mouths of their descendants, as a perpetual warning voice, as it would be used by Israel for God knew the invention of the people, i.e., the thoughts and purposes of their heart, which they cherished (עשׂה used to denote the doing of the heart, as in Isa 32:6) even then before He had brought them into Canaan. (On Deu 31:20, vid., Deu 7:5; Deu 9:5, and Exo 3:8.) - In Deu 31:22 the result is anticipated, and the command of God is followed immediately by an account of its completion by Moses (just as in Exo 12:50; Lev 16:34, etc.). - After this command with reference to the song, the Lord appointed Joshua to the office which he had been commanded to take, urging him at the same time to be courageous, and promising him His help in the conquest of Canaan. That the subject to ויצו is not Moses, but Jehovah, is evident partly from the words themselves, "I will be with thee' (vid., Exo 3:12). (Note: Knobel's assertion (on Num 27:23) that the appointment of Joshua on the part of Moses by the imposition of hands, as described in that passage, is at variance with this verse, scarcely needs any refutation. Or is it really the case, that the installation of Joshua on the part of God is irreconcilable with his ordination by Moses?)
With the installation of Joshua on the part of God, the official life of Moses was brought to a close. Having returned from the tabernacle, he finished the writing out of the laws, and then gave the book of the law to the Levites, with a command to put it by the side of the ark of the covenant, that it might be there for a witness against the people, as He knew its rebellion and stiffneckedness (Deu 31:24-27). על־ספר כּתב, to write upon a book, equivalent to write down, commit to writing. תּמּם עד, till their being finished, i.e., complete. By the "Levites who bare the ark of the covenant" we are not to understand ordinary Levites, but the Levitical priests, who were entrusted with the ark. "The Levites" is simply a contraction for the full expression, "the priests the sons of Levi" (Deu 31:9). It is true that, according to Num 4:4., the Kohathites were appointed to carry the holy vessels, which included the ark of the covenant, on the journey through the desert; but it was the priests, and not they, who were the true bearers and guardians of the holy things, as we may see from the fact that the priests had first of all to wrap up these holy things in a careful manner, before they handed them over to the Kohathites, that they might not touch the holy things and die (Num 4:15). Hence we find that on solemn occasions, when the ark was to be brought out in all its full significance and glory, - as, for example, in the crossing of the Jordan (Jos 3:3., Deu 4:9-10), when encompassing Jericho (Jos 6:6, Jos 6:12), at the setting up of the law on Ebal and Gerizim (Jos 8:33), and at the consecration of Solomon's temple (Kg1 8:3), - it was not by the Levites, but by the priests, that the ark of the covenant was borne. In fact the Levites were, strictly speaking, only their (the priests') servants, who relieved them of this and the other labour, so that what they did was done in a certain sense through them. If the (non-priestly) Levites were not to touch the ark of the covenant, and not even to put in the poles (Num 4:6), Moses would not have handed over the law-book, to be kept by the ark of the covenant to them, but to the priests. ארון מצּד, at the side of the ark, or, according to the paraphrase of Jonathan, "in a case on the right side of the ark of the covenant," which may be correct, although we must not think of this case, as many of the early theologians do, as a secondary ark attached to the ark of the covenant (see Lundius, Jd. Heiligth. pp. 73, 74). The tables of the law were deposited in the ark (Exo 25:16; Exo 40:20), and the book of the law was to be kept by its side. As it formed, from its very nature, simply an elaborate commentary upon the decalogue, it was also to have its place outwardly as an accompaniment to the tables of the law, for a witness against the people, in the same manner as the song in the mouth of the people (Deu 31:21). For, as Moses adds in Deu 31:27, in explanation of his instructions, "I know thy rebelliousness, and thy stiff neck: behold, while I am yet alive with you this day, ye have been rebellious against the Lord (vid., Deu 9:7); and how much more after my death."
With these words Moses handed over the complete book of the law to the Levitical priests. For although the handing over is not expressly mentioned, it is unquestionably implied in the words, "Take this book, and put it by the side of the ark of the covenant," as the finishing of the writing of the laws is mentioned immediately before. But if Moses finished the writing of the law after he had received instructions from the Lord to compose the ode, what he wrote will reach to Deu 31:23; and what follows from Deu 31:24 onwards will form the appendix to his work by a different hand.
(Note: The objection brought against this view by Riehm, namely, that "it founders on the fact that the style and language in Deu 31:24-30 and Deu 32:44-47 are just the same as in the earlier portion of the book," simply shows that he has not taken into consideration that, with the simple style adopted in Hebrew narrative, we could hardly expect in eleven verses, which contain for the most part simply words and sayings of Moses, to find any very striking difference of language or of style. This objection, therefore, merely proves that no valid arguments can be adduced against the view in question.)
The supposition that Moses himself inserted his instructions concerning the preservation of the book of the law, and the ode which follows, is certainly possible, but not probable. The decision as to the place where it should be kept was not of such importance as to need insertion in the book of the law, since sufficient provision for its safe keeping had been made by the directions in Deu 31:9.; and although God had commanded him to write the ode, it was not for the purpose of inserting it on the Thorah as an essential portion of it, but to let the people learn it, to put it in the mouth of the people. The allusion to this ode in Deu 31:19. furnishes no conclusive evidence, either that Moses himself included it in the law-book which he had written with the account of his oration in Deu 31:28-30 and Deut 32:1-43, or that the appendix which Moses did not write commences at Deu 31:14 of this chapter. For all that follows with certainty from the expression "this song" (Deu 31:19 and Deu 31:22), which certainly points to the song in ch. 32, is that Moses himself handed over the ode to the priests with the complete book of the law, as a supplement to the law, and that this ode was then inserted by the writer of the appendix in the appendix itself.
Directly after handing over the book of the law, Moses directed the elders of all the tribes, together with the official persons, to gather round him, that he might rehearse to them the ode which he had written fore the people. The summons, "gather unto me," was addressed to the persons to whom he had given the book of the law. The elders and officers, as the civil authorities of the congregation, were collected together by him to hear the ode, because they were to put it in the mouth of the people, i.e., to take care that all the nation should learn it. The words, "I will call heaven and earth as witnesses against you," refer to the substance of the ode about to be rehearsed, which begins with an appeal to the heaven and the earth (Deu 32:1). The reason assigned for this in Deu 31:29 is a brief summary of what the Lord had said to Moses in Deu 31:16-21, and Moses thought it necessary to communicate to the representatives of the nation. "The work of your hands" refers to the idols (vid., Deu 4:28).
Deu 31:30 forms the introduction to the rehearsal of the ode.