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The Four Moses Death Accounts
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Ever since Martin Noth proposed that Deuteronomy is the introduction to a Deuteronomistic History (DtrH), critics have followed his lead in attributing significant portions of Deuteronomy 34 to this document.1 A survey of recent publications on the composition of Deuteronomy 34 confirms the considerable influence of the Nothian paradigm. Phillip Stoellger contends that a Deuteronomistic school is solely responsible for the composition of Deuteronomy 34.2 Following the studies of Erhard Blum,3 Félix García López identifies layers of DtrH (Deut 34:1*, 2aα, 5, 6a), a pre-Priestly Deuteronomic composition (34:2aβ–4, 10–12), and a composition of the Priestly school (34:1*, 5b, 7a, 8–9).4 John Van Seters presents three distinct layers in Deuteronomy 34: based on Deut 3:23–28, Dtr provides the basic account in 34:1*, 5, 6a, (7a); J then builds upon DtrH with vv. 1b–3 (as preserved in the Samaritan Pentateuch), 4, (6b), 7b–8, 10–12; finally, P adds a layer in vv. 1a, 5, 9.5 Thomas Römer and Marc Zvi Brettler argue that an original Dtr version (Deut 34:1*, 4*, 5, 6) was subsequently revised by a pentateuchal redactor (34:4*, 10–12) and then a Priestly-Deuteronomistic redactor (34:1*, 7–9).6 In response to these studies, I will suggest that a source-critical reading of Deut 34:1–12 also offers a plausible solution that untangles the complexities of this text. The J, E, D, and P accounts of Moses’ death were combined by a single redactor (R) because in an uninterrupted narrative, Moses can die only once.7

The narratives contained in J, E, and P suggest that it is likely that these traditions included an account of Moses’ death.8 D, however, is problematic. Its concern with the promulgation of the (Deuteronomic) law and the lack of a birth narrative of Moses raises questions about the possibility that an account of Moses’ death existed in this document. I am open to the probability that D includes a death account of Moses.9 D sets up Moses’ death as an event that will come to pass before the Israelites possess the land (Deut 4:21–22).10 Most of D consists of Moses speaking in the first person, but we could note that third-person narratives are intertwined throughout Moses’ speeches.11 A death notice in D, combined with its introduction, establishes the background for the important event of the promulgation of the law.

Deuteronomy 34:1a

At the beginning of Deuteronomy 34, Moses journeys from the plains of Moab (ערבת מואב), a place that is recalled only in P.12 From Deut 34:1aα, מערבת מואב ויעל משה can be safely assigned to P. The difficulty in assigning Deut 34:1aβ lies in the phrase אל ה־ר נבו ראש הפסגה אשר על פ־ני ירחו, “To Mount Nebo, the summit of Pisgah, opposite Jericho.” Here is the only juxtaposition of הר נבו (Mount Nebo) with ראש הפסגה (the summit of Pisgah) in the Pentateuch, which suggests that this particular geographical description is a composite of two locations.

I will first consider Mount Nebo. Besides Deut 32:49; 34:1, a location referred to as Nebo is found elsewhere only in P’s travel itinerary (Num 33:47):

ויסעו מעלמן דבלתימה ויחנו בהרי העברים לפני נבו

They set out from Almon-divlataim and camped in the mountains of Abarim, before Nebo.

From this location, in P, Yhwh instructs Moses to climb Mount Nebo:13

עלה אל־הר העברים הזה הר־נבו אשר על־פני ירחו

Ascend this mountain of Abarim, Mount Nebo, which is opposite Jericho.14

(Deut 32:49a)

This command is fulfilled in the Priestly sections of Deut 34:1a. My reconstruction of P is as follows:

ויעל משה מערבת מואב אל־הר נבו אשר על־פני ירחו

Moses ascended from the plains of Moab to Mount Nebo, which is opposite Jericho.15

The combination of the qal imperative of עלה in Deut 32:49a with the qal waw-consecutive of the same root in Deut 34:1a, in addition to the common place-names of Mount Nebo and Jericho, suggests that most of Deut 34:1a is P’s description of the fulfillment of Yhwh’s command to Moses in Deut 32:49a.16 We can confirm the assignment of Deut 34:1a* to P by noting its similarities to the description of Aaron’s ascension from the same document:

ויעל אהרן הכהן אל־הר ההר על־פי יהוה

Aaron the...

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