Israel’s renowned liberator, Moses, dies alone with God high atop Mount Nebo (Deuteronomy 34:1-8). Though he will not accompany his nation into the Promised Land, he spends the last moments of his earthly life scanning the region with God’s assurance that it will be given to his descendants (Deuteronomy 34:1-4).
Moses lives to the age of 120 (Deuteronomy 34:7). Despite his advanced years, the text is clear that Moses does not succumb to old age.
Although Moses was one hundred and twenty years old when he died, his eye was not dim, nor his vigor abated. (Deuteronomy 34:7 NASB)Moses does not endure the diminished capacity that invariably comes with age (Deuteronomy 34:7). Even when he dies at the age of 120, he’s still got it!
Gene A. Getz (b. 1932) applauds:
Moses had begun his career in Israel as a very strong man, and even though he endured unusual stress, he ended his life on earth well-preserved [Deuteronomy 34:7]—a great tribute to his trust and confidence in God and an even greater tribute to the Lord’s loving care and concern for His friend. (Getz, Moses: Freeing Yourself to Know God, 174)Dennis T. Olson (b. 1954) supports:
Moses remains exceptionally strong and healthy: “His sight was unimpaired and his vigor had not abated” (Deuteronomy 34:7). Unlike the ancestor Isaac, whose eyes were dim in his old age (Genesis 27:1), Moses is able to see clearly the land that God has showed him [Deuteronomy 34:4]. Moreover, Moses’ “vigor” remains strong. The word for “vigor” is rare in Hebrew but is associated with the fresh, moist property of young trees and fresh fruit. At 120, Moses remains strong, young and supple. These claims about Moses’ extraordinary strength and youthfulness are common legendary motifs associated with heroes in ancient literature. (Olson, Deuteronomy and the Death of Moses: A Theological Reading, 167-68)
Moses is characterized as the picture of health throughout his life. Danny Mathews observes:
The canonical presentation of Moses begins and ends with reference to the appearance and health of Moses. At his birth, he is described as “beautiful (מוב; Exodus 2:2). Upon his death, Moses “was one hundred and twenty years old...his sight was unimpaired and his vigor had not abated” (Deuteronomy 34:7). Here Moses is presented as one in perfect health on the day of his death who dies rather at “the Lord’s command” (Deuteronomy 34:5). (Mathews, Royal Motifs in the Pentateuchal Portrayal of Moses, 48-49)Some have seen a discrepancy in the narrator’s evaluation of Moses’ health and his own personal assessment presented three chapters earlier (Deuteronomy 31:2, 34:7).
Dennis T. Olson (b. 1954) acknowledges:
This heroic depiction of Moses [Deuteronomy 34:7] seems to contradict the portrait of Moses as feeble and weak in Deuteronomy 31:2: “I am now one hundred twenty years old. I am no longer able to get about.” While the contradictions may be explained away as coming from two different sources, their presence together in the final form of Deuteronomy suggests a meaningful tension in the portraiture of Moses. Moses is heroic and legendary and at the same time subject to the limits and weaknesses of all human beings. The same dialectic is at work in the juxtaposition of the stress of the inevitable reality of Moses’ death on the one hand (Deuteronomy 34:16) and on the undiminished vigor and sight of the heroic Moses on the other (Deuteronomy 34:7). (Olson, Deuteronomy and the Death of Moses: A Theological Reading, 168)Mark E. Biddle (b. 1957) evaluates:
Moses’ admission (Deuteronomy 31:2) that, at 120 years of age, he could “no longer go out or come in,” sounds like a description of geriatric infirmity. If so, it contradicts the claim (Deuteronomy 34:7) that at the time of his death Moses’ eyesight was still good and he was still vigorous. Contrasts such as this prompt modern scholars to hypothesize multiple traditions or editorial processes. Rabbinic scholars, on the other hand, regarded such infelicities as indicators of some subtlety...The late medieval Jewish commentator Nachmanides [1194-1270], for example, assumed that the great Moses would have been in remarkable health to the end. The interpretive problem, then, is Moses’ apparent misrepresentation in Deuteronomy 31:2. Nachmanides suggested a psychological motivation for Moses’ white lie; Moses’ statement reveals his pastoral concern for the people who were about to be deprived of the only leader they have ever known: “he told them this in order to comfort them”; that is, so they could find some rationale for Moses’ passing...The Talmud (Sotah 13b) harmonizes the two statements by postulating that Deuteronomy 31:2 refers to Moses’ mental condition while Deuteronomy 34:7 refers to his physical condition. It explains that “This [Deuteronomy 31:2] teaches us that the well-springs of wisdom were stopped for him.” (Biddle, Deuteronomy (Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary), 455)Moses must be in relatively good physical condition as he can climb the mountain (Deuteronomy 34:1) and his eyes are strong enough to see the Promised Land (Deuteronomy 34:2, 4).
Moses’ age and health (Deuteronomy 34:7) are often seen as emblematic of divine blessing, comparable to the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox belief in the incorruptibility of the saints.
Eugene E. Carpenter (1943-2012) informs:
Old age was a blessing from the gods in the thinking of the ancient Near East. The kings before the flood in the Sumerian King List were attributed heroic lives of thousands of years. The age of one hundred and ten represented a fulfilled life in Egypt. Ramesses II [1303-1213 BCE] lived to be about ninety. Moses reaches the biblical ideal of one hundred and twenty years (Genesis 6:3; cf. Genesis 50:26). (John H. Walton [b. 1952], Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy (Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary, 513)Some have viewed Moses’ 120 year life span as an approximation (Deuteronomy 34:7). Pierson Parker (1905-1995) and Henry Herbert Shires (1886-1961) consider:
It is difficult to know whether or not we should take this tradition at face value. In rough computation Israel frequently assumed a generation to be roughly forty years (cf. the time spent in the wilderness [Deuteronomy 2:7], i.e., a generation). Moses’ age as here given is simply thrice forty years, which may mean nothing more than that he was an old man who had seen grandchildren grow to maturity. (Parker and Shires, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, Ruth, Samuel (The Interpreter’s Bible), 511)Ian Cairns (1930-2000) supplements:
Moses’ age is 120 years (Deuteronomy 31:2; cf. Deuteronomy 34:7). In the historical framework of the Deuteronomistic history, “forty years” stands for a complete generation (e.g., Judges 3:11, 5:31b), or for the time in office of a great leader — Eli, David, Solomon, Joash, and Moses himself (e.g., Deuteronomy 2:7)...That Moses’ life span is precisely three times forty years may be symbolic of his preeminence. (Cairns, Deuteronomy: Word and Presence (International Theological Commentary), 271)There is meaning attached to the number 120. Gary Harlan Hall (b. 1941) footnotes:
There is probably some symbolism at work here. The ideal age in Egypt was 110, the age of Joseph at his death (Genesis 50:26). In ancient Syria the ideal age was 120 (John H. Walton [b. 1952] and Victor H. Matthews [b. 1950], Genesis–Deuteronomy, p. 265). In the Old Testament 120 years was the limit to life after the flood (Genesis 6:3). Moses’ full life of service had been under the careful watch of God and was now complete. In the Old Testament forty was the number that signaled a full and complete period of service (Eli – I Samuel 4:18; David – II Samuel 5:4; Solomon – I Kings 2:11; Joash – II Kings 12:1) or a full generation (Judges 3:11, 5:31b, 8:28). Moses’ life spanned three such periods. (Hall, Deuteronomy (College Press NIV Commentary), 453)J.A. Thompson (1913-2002) contemplates:
The age of Moses is given as a hundred and twenty years (Deuteronomy 34:7; cf. Exodus 7:7). The significance of the figure is not clear. In Egyptian literature 110 years was the life-span of a wise man and numerous examples are known. The fact that Moses’ life was ten years longer may be a device to express Moses’ superiority over the wise man of Egypt. Again, the age 120 is three times forty (cf. the time spent in the wilderness, Deuteronomy 2:7) and may well denote three generations. In any case Moses was an old man who had seen his grandchildren grow to maturity. (Thompson, Deuteronomy (Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries), 290)Jack R. Lundbom (b. 1939) adds:
Moses is the only person in the Bible to achieve the ideal life span set forth in Genesis 6:3...A life span of 120 years occurs in the ancient Sumerian folktale “Enlil and Namzitarra” (lines 23-24), which speaks of the uselessness of accumulating wealth when life is so short; you die and can take nothing to the grave (Jacob Klein [b. 1934] 1990). In Egyptian literature the ideal life span is 110 years (Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament, 414 n 33; cf. Genesis 50:26, where Joseph’s age at the time of his death in Egypt is 110 years). Joshua, too dies at 110 years (Joshua 24:29). Psalm 90:10 puts the normal lifespan at 70, perhaps 80. (Lundbom, Deuteronomy: A Commentary, 829)Moses’ advanced age is certainly an anomaly. James M. Scott (b. 1955) surveys:
If, as we have seen, Moses died at 120 years of age (less than three jubilees) [Deuteronomy 34:7], then the death of Moses on the verge of entering the Land marks the end of an era, since human longevity thereafter drops to below two jubilees. This corresponds to the fact that outside of the patriarchal narrative in Genesis, only four individuals in the Old Testament are said to have lived beyond 100 years of age: Moses (120 years [Deuteronomy 34:7]), Joshua (110 years [Joshua 24:29]), Job (140 years [Job 42:16]), and the high priest Jehoiada (130 years [II Chronicles 24:15]). (Scott, On Earth as in Heaven: The Restoration of Sacred Time and Sacred Space in the Book of Jubilees, 114)Jewish tradition advances that Moses is the first of four significant figures who die at the landmark age of 120. The Midrash Sifre (Deuteronomy 34.7 §357.14) records:
He [Moses] is one of four who died at the age of one hundred twenty years. These are they: Moses, Hillel the Eder [110 BCE-7CE], Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai [30 BCE-90 CE], and Rabbi Aqiba [40-137]. Moses spent forty years in Egypt, forty years in Midian, and forty years as sustainer of Israel. Hillel the Elder emigrated from Babylonia at the age of forty years, served as disciple of sages for forty years, and spent forty years as sustainer of Israel. Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai spent forty years in trade, served as disciple of sages for forty years, and spent forty years as sustainer of Israel. Rabbi Aquiba studied Torah at the age of forty years, served as disciple of sages for forty years, and spent forty years as sustainer of Israel. There are six pairs who lived the same length of time: Rebecca and Cheetah, Levi and Amam, Joseph and Joshua, Samuel and Solomon, Moses and Hillel the Elder, and Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai and Rabbi Aquiba. (Jacob Neusner [b. 1932], A Theological Commentary to the Midrash: Sifré to Numbers and Sifré to Deuteronomy, 187)At the time of his death, Moses is one hundred twenty years young (Deuteronomy 34:7). Despite his many years, he is still vigorous. This detail adds an element of tragedy to his death.
Eugene H. Merrill (b. 1934) laments:
That Moses’ death was premature, even though he was 120 years old, is clear from the assessment that “his eyes were not weak nor his strength gone” (Deuteronomy 34:7). In other words, he did not fail to enter Canaan because he died, but he died because he failed to enter Canaan [Numbers 20:12]. (Merrill, Deuteronomy (New American Commentary), 453-54)George W. Coats (1936-2006) analyzes:
At this critical point in the heroic story, intimacy between the hero and God is apparent. But in the death away from the people, intimacy between hero and people is broken. In the past he also belonged to his people. Now his people are absent. The death of the hero is thus typically tragic: ‘No man knows the place of his burial to this day’ [Deuteronomy 34:6]. Deuteronomy 34:7 heightens the tragedy. Moses was one hundred twenty years old. That age is the time for death (contrast Deuteronomy 31:1). But for Moses the vigor of his heroic life remained. ‘His eye was not dim, nor his vigor abated.’ He could have continued his leadership. He was in physical form if not in chronological age a young man. And he left his people when he would have still been able to lead them. (Coats, Moses: Heroic Man, Man of God, 152)Despite Moses’ premature death prohibiting him from entering the Promised Land, he never experiences poor health and is permitted to inspect the region while imagining a better life for his people given divine assurance that his efforts have not been in vain (Deuteronomy 34:1-4). Deuteronomy 34:7 provides a fitting epitaph for the revered leader .
What does Deuteronomy’s epitaph convey about Moses (Deuteronomy 34:7)? How do you picture Moses, as a vigorous mountain man or a decrepit lawgiver; which is more accurate? How important is vitality to a leader’s credibility? What do you think Moses felt as he inspected the Promised Land, hope or regret (Deuteronomy 34:1-4); is this viewing a blessing or a curse? Who have you known who experienced good health even well advanced in years; who aged best? How long would you like to live?
Moses’ 120-year life can be divided neatly into three parts. Gary Harlan Hall (b. 1941) delineates:
Moses was a hundred and twenty years old [Deuteronomy 34:7]. This marked the end of the third cycle of his life and rounded off his service to God. Moses was forty wen he fled Egypt (Acts 7:23), eighty at the time of the Exodus (cf. Deuteronomy 2:7), and now 120. Now at the end of the third cycle he was no longer able to carry out his leadership functions. The end had come for Moses not because of deteriorating health (see Deuteronomy 34:7), but because his role in God’s plan was at an end. A new task called for new leadership. (Hall, Deuteronomy (College Press NIV Commentary), 453-54)Though Moses’ life has three notable forty year phases, he is primarily remembered for what he achieved during its final chapter (Deuteronomy 2:7, 34:7); Israel’s renowned leader saves his best for last. In a very real sense Moses’ life begins at eighty (Exodus 7:7). Moses’ age provides hope that it is never too late to serve God. And to do so well.
How did the first phases of Moses’ life prepare him for its final chapter? How would you divide your life into eras? Who do you know who was most productive during the last leg of their life’s race? What do you want to do in the final chapter of your life? What would you do if you knew that you were living it now?
“Sometimes, the embers are better than the campfire. It’s strange, but it’s true.” - Stephen King (b. 1947), The Green Mile: The Complete Serial Novel