And die there on the mountain that will ascend, and be gathered to your people. – D’varim/Deuteronomy 32:50
Who wants to die? Unsurprisingly, the vast majority of people do not. Perhaps the most difficult thing that a physician has to tell a patient is that their condition is terminal: that they are going to die. Yet here in this text, HaShem tells Moshe quite briskly that his time to die has come: the moment has arrived. Now Moshe has known this has been coming for some time, since he and Aharon rebuked the people for being rebellious and Moshe “struck the rock twice with his staff” (B’Midbar 20:11, ESV). Instantly, HaShem told him, “Because you did not believe in Me, to uphold Me as holy in the eyes of the people of Israel, therefore you shall not bring this assembly into the land that I have given them” (v. 12, ESV). Despite Moshe pleading with Him to be allowed to enter the Land, HaShem remained resolute: “the L-RD was angry with me because of you and would not listen to me. And the L-RD said to me, ‘Enough from you; do not speak to Me of this matter again” (D’varim 3:26, ESV).
The verse starts with the verb umut – the Qal ms imperative of the root mem-waw-tav, to die. This is not exactly a good bedside manner, a calm and steady voice encouraging Moshe to be brave and take it on the chin. On the contrary, HaShem seems positively brusque; “Get up the mountain and view the Land, then die up there!” A number of English translations try to soften the command, offering “And you shall die there”, almost as if it is a consequence rather than an action. Don Isaac Abravanel bluntly puts these words in HaShem’s mouth: “This is the last time you will ascend [the mountain]. This time you are not coming down.” Commenting upon the imperative voice, Ibn Ezra suggests that this means, “prepare yourself for death”, while Ovadiah Sforno translates the phrase as “and accept your death on the mount”, adding, “Accept death upon yourself as an atonement for having acted faithlessly,” with the explanation that, “when one accepts punishment willingly, it atones for the sin committed.”
The last verse in the text is another imperative, vehe’asef the Nif’al ms imperative of the alef-samech-peh, “to collect, gather or assemble” (Davidson), so here “and be gathered” – another command. This is another ancient idea connected with death, that the soul of the departed would join those of family members and ancestors, as Jeffrey Tigay comments, “This refers to the reunion of the spirit with those of one’s own kin in Sheol after death.” By Second Temple times, Sheol was considered to have separate areas for the good and the wicked, there to await the resurrection spoken of by Daniel – “Many of those that sleep in the dust of the earth will awake, some to eternal life, others to reproaches, to everlasting abhorrence” (Daniel 12:2, ) – so that the Sforno could assure Moshe that being gathered to his kinsfolk meant that “you will be gathered in the bond of life, with those who are fitting and proper as you are.”
What do we do when we realise that, almost without our noticing and certainly without our intention, some invisible line has been crossed and, no matter what we do, there’s no going back and we just won’t get to do some or many of the things for which we had been longing and working all these years? Our life assumptions have suddenly come crashing to the ground and our world collapses. How do we the sense of loss, failure or even abandonment that sweep over us?
After some years of being king first of Judah and then of all the tribes of Israel, David had established his capital in Jerusalem, he shared one of his aspirations: “When the king was settled in his palace and the L-RD had granted him safety from all the enemies around him, the king said to the prophet Nathan: ‘Here I am dwelling in a house of cedar, while the Ark of the L-RD abides in a tent!’ Nathan said to the king, ‘Go and do whatever you have in mind, for the L-RD is with you'” (2 Samuel 7:1-3, JPS). It is signed off by no less than HaShem’s prophet in residence; David has a green light from heaven – he can start building! “But that same night the word of G-d came to Nathan: ‘Go and say to My servant David: Thus said the L-RD: You are not the one to build a house for Me to dwell in … When your days are done and you follow your fathers, I will raise up your offspring after you, one of your own sons, and I will establish his kingship. He shall build a house for Me, and I will establish his throne forever'” (1 Chronicles 17:3-4,11-12, JPS). Suddenly all David’s hopes and plans are on the floor. He won’t even see the House he wants to build for G-d, for he will be dead and one of sons shall be king in his place before the first bricks are laid. What does David do? How does he react to this complete reversal? How does he handle his (quite natural) disappointment? Does he rant and storm, or dive into a trough of depression?
Quite to the contrary: “Then King David came and sat before the L-RD, and he said, ‘What am I, O L-rd G-D, and what is my family, that You have brought me thus far? Yet even this, O L-rd G-D, has seemed too little to You; for You have spoken of Your servant’s house also for the future'” (2 Samuel 7:18-19, JPS). David sees the situation as a blessing: “You are great indeed, O L-RD G-d! There is none like You and there is no other G-d but You, as we have always heard” (v. 22, JPS). David blesses G-d and urges Him to do what He has said: “Now, O L-RD G-d, fulfill Your promise to Your servant and his house forever; and do as You have promised. And may Your name be glorified forever, in that men will say, ‘The L-RD of Hosts is G-d over Israel'” (vv. 25-26, JPS). May G-d’s choice be proved right and G-d be glorified in that choice.
Rav Sha’ul wrote to Timothy from prison – possibly from Caesarea in the late 50s CE1 – with the apparently gloomy words, “For I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that Day, and not only to me but also to all who have loved his appearing” (2 Timothy 4:6-8, ESV). Arrested for his faith in Yeshua and detained for several years, Sha’ul is unable to visit the churches he has planted, to preach in the synagogues, teach the crowds and show the miracles that offer people a sight of the power of the kingdom. He anticipates martyrdom, seeing his days of ministry almost ended. How does he respond to these circumstances? He writes letters of encouragement and challenge both to churches and to individuals. His pen produces such masterpieces as “And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Messiah, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of G-d, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” (Ephesians 4:11-13, ESV) to the church in Ephesus; and “Therefore do not be ashamed of the testimony about our Lord, nor of me His prisoner, but share in suffering for the gospel by the power of G-d, who saved us and called us to a holy calling, not because of our works but because of His own purpose and grace, which He gave us in Messiah Yeshua before the ages began” (2 Timothy 1:8-9, ESV) to individuals. Sha’ul was not cast down or distracted from his calling, but determined to use every moment that remained to him – howsoever many they should be – to make sure that he completed the job to which he had been assigned.
Yeshua Himself, faced perhaps the hardest challenge of all since He knew exactly what was coming. “When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem” (Luke 9:51, ESV). He had warned the disciples that “He must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised” (Matthew 16:21, ESV). In the meantime, He continued to teach, to heal, to raise from the dead – to proclaim the kingdom of G-d in the vision of Isaiah that He Himself had proclaimed in the synagogue at Nazareth.
No less, then, must we face the challenges of life in the strength of the L-rd and in the power of His Spirit that He gives us. Sha’ul told Timothy, “preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching” (2 Timothy 4:1-2, ESV) and Peter urges the early church always to honour Yeshua, “always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you” (1 Peter 3:15, ESV). The hope we have is not eternal life when we have died – although we do, of course, have that – but the hope of the kingdom around us now. When we stare reversals – and even death itself – in the face, “we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us” (Romans 8:37, ESV), because as Sha’ul says, “neither death nor life, neither angels nor other heavenly rulers, neither what exists nor what is coming, neither powers above nor powers below, nor any other created thing will be able to separate us from the love of G-d which comes to us through the Messiah Yeshua, our Lord” (vv. 38-39, CJB).
1. – This is the suggestion of Dr. John A. T. Robinson, Redating the New Testament, SCM Press, London 1976, pages 71-83.
Further Study: B’Midbar 33:38-39; John 10:28-30; 2 Corinthians 4:13-15
Application: Are you in a trough of uncertainty or facing an unexpected end of season or life situation? G-d has not abandoned you, not left you to struggle unaided on your own. Reach out to Him today and feel the strength of His arms coursing through you and pulling you forward; know the presence of His Spirit and the peace of Yeshua Himself living these days of challenge with you and in you.