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Who Wrote Moses’s Obituary in Deuteronomy 34?

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What do these books have in common? The sixth volume of Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible, J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Silmarillion and The Book of Lost Tales, and Charles Krauthammer’s The Point of It All. The author of each died before completing his work. In each instance—and there are many more—another author edited and completed the work.

The Bible is no different.

The Scriptures are clear that Moses wrote the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Old Testament (Deut. 4:14; 5:1–2; 1 Kings. 2:3; 8:9; 2 Kings. 14:6 Ezra 7:6; Neh. 1:7; 8:1; Ps. 103:7; Dan. 9:13; 2 Chron. 23:18; 25:4; Mal. 4:4; Matt. 19:7–8; 22:24; Acts 3:22; 7:37–38; Rom. 10:19; 1 Cor. 9:9; Heb. 9:19; Rev. 15:3). Holding to Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch, however, poses an interesting question: Who wrote about Moses’s death and burial in Deuteronomy 34?

Over the centuries, biblical scholars and commentators have differed over who wrote Deuteronomy 34. For example, Jewish tradition cites Joshua. In his commentary on Deuteronomy, John Calvin acknowledges the “probable conjecture of the ancients” that Joshua wrote Deuteronomy 34, but admits Eleazar the priest is a likely candidate too. John Gill says Joshua could be the author, and yet admits that Eleazer, Samuel, and Ezra are also possible.

More recent commentators—such as Eugene Merrill, Edward J. Woods, and Dan Block—simply leave the author unnamed.

Maybe Moses?  

It’s not far-fetched to think Moses wrote the account of his own death and burial, particularly since God revealed his word and works to Moses (Ps. 103:7). There are other examples in Scripture that lend some credibility to the idea that Moses saw his coming death and wrote about the circumstances.

That would be consistent with God’s revelation of future events in other places. God previewed his plan to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah to Abraham (Gen. 18:17–33). God revealed to Ezekiel in real time that Nebuchadnezzar was standing at a crossroads, divining which way to proceed (Ezek. 21:18–23). In Ezekiel 8, God revealed to Ezekiel—while in exile near the Euphrates River—what was going on in the temple in Jerusalem. Matthew 16:21 indicates that Jesus knew what lay before him—suffering, crucifixion, and resurrection—in Jerusalem. Therefore, God could have revealed to Moses what would come in his last days. After all, God revealed to him what happened before his birth (Gen. 1:1–Exod. 1:22).

However, it’s more likely that another hand penned Deuteronomy 34, and there are indications in Scripture and in Jewish tradition as to the  author’s likely identity.

Eleazer?

The son of Aaron and his successor as high priest, Eleazar is often named as a possible author of Deuteronomy 34. Eleazar played an important role in Israel’s life during the ministries of Moses and Joshua. He was named the chief of the tribe of Levi (Num. 3:32) and was charged with overseeing the duties of the sanctuary (Num. 4:16). In the wilderness, Eleazar was charged to inventory the spoils of war after Israel fought Midian (Num. 31). He also assisted Moses and Joshua in distributing the land to the tribes of Israel (Num. 34:17; Josh. 14:1).

Further, Eleazar was a Levite. The Levites were charged with the care of the law (Deut. 31:9, 26) and charged to teach the law (Num. 31:21; Deut. 33:10; 2 Chron. 17:9; 35:3). Eleazar’s position as high priest, and his service alongside Moses and Joshua, may have given him the qualifications to update Deuteronomy after Moses’s death.

Ezra?

Ezra is described as a worthy scribe who was “skilled in the law of Moses” and who had “set his heart to study the law of the Lord and to practice it” (Ezra 7:6, 10). Ezra was responsible for restoring faithful worship among the remnant that returned from exile.

As part of his restorative work, Jewish tradition attributes two actions that bear on our topic. First, he’s responsible for updating the script of the Hebrew Bible. Second, in the Jerusalem and Babylonian Talmud, the rabbis indicate that Ezra completed updating, collecting, and arranging the books of the Old Testament. Additionally, 2 Maccabees 2:13 suggests that Ezra had a large library at his disposal to perform his work on the Old Testament canon. Given Ezra’s literary activity and the resources available to him, he could’ve been responsible for closing out the Pentateuch with Moses’s death and burial.

Samuel?

Samuel is a prime candidate for the authorship of Deuteronomy 34 given both his standing before the Lord (1 Sam. 2:21; 3:19) and also his role as a prophet. The Old Testament prophets were divinely inspired (1 Pet. 1:10–12; 2 Pet. 1:20–21), and many committed their prophecies to writing (Isaiah, Ezekiel, Joel, Micah, and so on).

According to the division of the Hebrew Bible, however, there are more prophetic books. What we consider the historical books (Joshua, Judges, 1 and 2 Samuel, 1 and 2 Kings) are considered prophetic as well. This means the historical books are not merely a historical record of Israel; they are a “sacred history” written by a prophet to record God’s acts among his covenant people (1 Chron. 29:29). The prophet Samuel, then, wrote the sacred histories of Judges and the books of Samuel up to his death. Some would add the book of Joshua to the list of books Samuel authored. Scripture also gives evidence of Samuel’s literary activity in 1 Samuel 10:25 and 1 Chronicles 29:29. Samuel, then, as a prophet, would have divine authority to complete Deuteronomy. And this would account for the statement found in Deuteronomy 34:10: “Since that time no prophet has risen in Israel like Moses.”

Evidence Points to Joshua

But Joshua seems to be the most likely candidate for authorship of Deuteronomy 34. Most commentators and Jewish tradition agree. John Peter Lange points out that it is clear from Joshua’s command in Joshua 1:8 (compare with Deut. 4:2; 13:1) that he meditated on and practiced God’s Word.

Joshua served as Moses’s attendant since his youth, and likely grew to love God’s Word while serving Moses (Num. 11:28; see also Ex. 33:11). Scripture also gives evidence of Joshua’s literary activity in Deuteronomy 31:19 and Joshua 24:26.

Although God could have communicated the account of Moses’s death and burial to any of the men listed above, a simple reading of Deuteronomy 34 seems to point Joshua as the most likely author.

Does It Matter?

While a compelling case can be made for the author of Deuteronomy 34, ultimately we aren’t certain who wrote it. Many follow Calvin’s wise advice and leave “the matter of no very great importance undecided.” In preaching Deuteronomy 34, then, the pastor may offer his opinion about the author, since a few fit the bill. Yet the pastor should simply suggest his opinion.

When instructing a congregation on the inspiration of Scripture and on the authors of the Bible’s 66 books, the pastor may offer this note: To suggest that an author other than Moses wrote Deuteronomy 34 by no means undermines Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch or the inspiration of Scripture. Again, Scripture includes indications of divinely authorized additions and updating. For example, Proverbs 25:1 tells of the men of King Hezekiah adding saying of Solomon to Proverbs.

While David is the author of many psalms, it’s clear that another person put the book into the form we have it today; for example, the Psalter is divided into five books, many of which contain psalms from other authors. Exodus 13:17 mentions the “way of the land of the Philistines,” an update of an older place name since the Philistines weren’t in the picture at the time of the exodus.

And Samuel could not have written 2 Samuel, since he had already died; it’s likely that Nathan or Gad finished his work (1 Chron. 29:29).

The 16 ministers who completed Henry’s magisterial commentary, Christopher Tolkien, and Daniel Krauthammer ensured that they honored their predecessors in finishing their works. And when it comes to the Scriptures, we can trust God oversaw and inspired even those who made the updates and additions (2 Tim. 3:16).

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