Moses looks over his people’s promised lands across the Jordan river. Then he is killed by God, and buried in an undisclosed location. Deuteronomy, and the Pentateuch, end with Moses’ death.
Never since has there arisen a prophet in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face.
Moses tells a poem right before he dies, where he oddly refers to himself in the third person. It is very similar to Jacob’s poem on his own deathbed at the end of Genesis, in that it describes each of Jacob’s children (each of the tribes of Israel). There are, however, some changes: The Reubenites are apparently on the brink of extinction, the role of leader is changed from Judah to Joseph, and Dan is changed from a snake to “a lion’s whelp”. Simeon is strangely left out altogether.
The poem’s description of God sounds like some kind of pagan war god.
There is none like God, O Jeshurun, who rides through the heavens to your
majestic through the skies.
He subdues the ancient gods, shatters the forces of old;
he drove out the enemy before you,
and said, “Destroy!”
This chapter is a quite long song about how awesome God is, how the Israelites in Canaan deserted him for other gods, how God considered destroying them, and how he changed his mind because it might look bad to other peoples and gods. It is framed in the previous chapter as being prophetic, but it seems more likely to simply have been written after the Jews were actually exiled to Babylon from Canaan in the 6th century BC.
It also describes how the emperor god Elyon allotted peoples and lands to all the gods, including the Israelites to God. Most of the explicit polytheistic references were apparently at some point removed from the received Hebrew text; they have been restored in modern times using other, older texts, including the Dead Sea Scrolls.
Praise, O heavens, his people,
Worship him, all you gods! …
Moses finally ends his long speech, and declares that he will soon die, at the age of 120 (the maximum lifespan of humans since Noah). But first he writes down “the law” (“torah”) and has it put into the Ark of the Covenant next to the tablets with the ten commandments. This “law” is traditionally interpreted by Jews and Christians to mean either Deuteronomy or the entire Pentateuch (which is about to end); but that makes no sense, since the text would then be referencing its own creation in the past tense. Plus, the next chapter is explicitly stated to have been written down after writing “the law”. Plus, Moses will die in a few chapters. Plus… Look, the tradition that the following quote describes the creation of the entire Deuteronomy or Pentateuch, and not simply the speech that Moses just delivered, is just silly, and I cannot fathom why people would stick to it.
Then Moses wrote down this law, and gave it to the priests, the sons of Levi, who carried the ark of the covenant of the Lord, and to all the elders of Israel.
Moses promises that even if the Israelites do disobey God and all the terrors of the two earlier chapters are fulfilled, they need only start obeying God again to be returned to their original condition. Bothering to mention this suggests that this part might have been written during the Babylonian exile of the 6th century BC.
I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. …
Moses continues to warn the Israelites never to disobey God, and to describe in grand terms all the horrors that will befall them if they do. But I think his prophetic powers have gone to his head at this point, because he actually exclaims “I am the Lord your God”.
… All the curses written in this book will descend on them, and the Lord will blot out their names from under heaven.
Moses spends the first 14 verses describing all the good things God will do for the Israelites if they obey him.
Then he spends the next *54* verses describing, in excruciating and violent detail, how God will make their lives torturous and unbearable if they don’t. I think this is the most horrifying account I’ve come across so far in the Bible. Instead of just declaring that everyone will die, God intentionally seeks out the most insidious ways of making them live long and utterly miserable lives. The Israelites will, of course, be subject to the standard treatment of plague, bad weather and attacking enemies, but in addition to these the psychological terror has no end. It’s like a bad dream where you see a catastrophe coming, but are unable to move: “… you shall be unable to find your way; and you shall be continually abused and robbed, without anyone to help.” “Your sons and daughters shall be given to another people, while you look on; you will strain your eyes looking for them all day but be powerless to do anything.”
By the end of God’s treatment, the Israelites will apparently be afflicted with consumption, fever, inflammation, boils, ulcers, scurvy, itch, blindness and madness; hunkering behind their walls in a desolate and devastated country besieged by their countless barbarian and godless enemies, forced by hunger to eat their own children. “In the morning you shall say, ‘If only it were evening!’ and at evening you shall say, ‘If only it were morning!’ — because of the dread that your heart shall feel and the sights that your eyes shall see.”
So it wasn’t all that surprising to read that this whole chapter (and parts of several earlier chapters) is probably strongly inspired/modeled on the Succession Treaty of Esarhaddon, a covenant between the Assyrian king Esarhaddon and his vassals written in 672 BC. In it, Esarhaddon describes what will happen to his vassals if they disobey his son after he dies (§37-56). The treaty’s text is definitely reminiscent of the Deuteronomy covenant, though even more visceral and uncomfortable reading.
Moses’ speech would also be more convincing if he didn’t suddenly refer to “the words of this law that are written in this book”, suggesting that the scribes did not record his words with 100% accuracy.
You shall become engaged to a woman, but another man shall lie with her. You shall build a house, but not live in it. …
The Succession Treaty of Esarhaddon §42
May Venus, the brightest of the stars, before your eyes make your wives lie in the lap of your enemy; may your sons not take possession of your house, but a strange enemy divide your goods.