Face Transitions With Faith
Sunday School Lesson for February 24, 2002
Focal Teaching Passage: Deuteronomy 31:1-13; 34:1-9
Joshua Succeeds Moses (31:1-8)
As the speeches of Moses and the book of Deuteronomy come to an end, the Lord now prepares the children of Israel for a transfer of leadership. Having summoned "all Israel" together once more before their entrance into Canaan (v.1), Moses bluntly announced that, at one hundred and twenty years of age, "I am no longer able to lead you" (v.2). The reason for this announcement was the fact of Moses’ earlier sin against the Lord and the subsequent word of discipline uttered by Yahweh—"You shall not cross the Jordan" (Num. 20:12; Deut. 1:37).
Having made this declaration to the people, Moses now reassures them that they will not lack for leadership. In reality, it has been the Lord Himself who has led them all along. This fact will not change with Moses’ death. The divine promise they must cling to is that "the Lord your God himself will cross over ahead of you" (v. 3). This promise also involved the divine assurances that:
In light of these blessed assurances, Moses exhorted the people of the nation to "be strong and courageous"—two terms that imply an inner spiritual stability and fearlessness that is securely anchored to God’s unfailing promise—"he will never leave you nor forsake you." The final admonitions of this verse, "do not be afraid; do not be discouraged," represent the exact opposite of the kind of faith called for by Moses. The trust and obedience summoned from the people was to find its sole source and resting place in the Word of Yahweh alone.
Now Moses specifically addresses Joshua "in the presence of all Israel." This public recognition and commissioning was necessary in order that Moses might officially endorse him as his God-ordained successor. Eugene Merrill explains that "the whole community needed to hear again that the Lord had made provision for them and that this provision was a mater of public record" (397). This public transfer of leadership included the same challenge issued earlier to the whole nation—"Be strong and courageous"—and the same reassuring promises of divine provision—"The Lord himself goes before you . . . ." Joshua’s personal challenge will be to refuse to "be afraid" or "discouraged." Interestingly, the Hebrew word rendered "discouraged" carries the idea of being shattered or broken and, in this context, implies being literally paralyzed by fear. Thus, not only are the people of the nation ordered to place their complete confidence and trust in the Lord, Joshua, as the divinely chosen leader of the nation, is also to walk by faith as well.
The Depositing of the Scriptures (31:9-13)
At this point, Moses personally "wrote down" the "law" and presented it to the "priests" and "elders" of Israel. Some have suggested that this is a reference to the covenant text of Deuteronomy 5-26, or perhaps the entirety of chapters 1-30. At any rate, the purpose for this action was to see to it that God’s Word would be preserved for later generations of Israelites. Whereas other copies of the law were written down for the sake of the Israelites themselves (see 27:2ff.), this copy of the law was the Lord’s copy to be maintained by the priests and apparently placed inside the holy of holies alongside the Decalogue. "The holy of holies thus became a kind of sacred archives housing the documents that attested to the Lord’s relationship to his people through the years" (Merrill, 399).
Having copied the law in the prescribed manner, Moses then ordered that it should be read in the hearing of all the people of Israel including "men, women and children, and the aliens living in your towns" (v.12). That is, the reading of God’s Word was for all the people without exception in order that they might all "learn to fear the Lord" and to "follow carefully all the words of this law." Note that this public recitation of the law was to occur "every seven years, in the year for canceling debts," at the time of the "Feast of Tabernacles." The significance of this commandment lies in the timing of the reading of the law. According to Christopher Wright, the public reading of God’s law would occur in
the context of widespread liberation from debt and release of salves, based upon the historical recollection of God’s own liberation of the Israelite slaves from Egypt . . . . Thus, the law would forever be heard alongside the memories of historical redemption and in the midst of rejoicing at the generosity of God’s grace [italics his]. (296-97).
Once again we see the relationship between the law and the grace of God. It is only against the backdrop of God’s mercy that the law may be properly applied. Rather than seeing God’s law as a system of self-salvation (as the Pharisees later misapplied it!), God’s law was given to people whom He had already saved as an expression of His will for their lives.
The Death of Moses (34:1-9)
The final chapter of Deuteronomy provides the record of Moses’ death and burial by God. Just as the Lord had commanded him (32:48-52), Moses ascended "Mount Nebo," one of the mountains forming a range of peaks just east of the Dead Sea. Ironically, Moses had begun his ministry upon a mountain and now, due to his sin against the Lord, would be ending it in a similar fashion. From the top of the mountain, "the Lord showed him the whole land." While he would not physically enter it, he did live to see that God had been faithful to do as he originally promised Abraham—"a promise already two parts fulfilled in the growth of the nation and the blessing of covenant relationship and with the third part now shimmering from horizon to horizon beneath Moses’ gaze" (Wright, 312).
Verse 5 simply records that "Moses the servant of the Lord died there" at the age of one hundred and twenty (v.7) just as the divine Word had declared. Merrill observes the fact that Moses "did not fail to enter Canaan because he died, but he died because he failed to enter Canaan" (454). We are given no details regarding any of the specifics of his death, only that the Lord Himself buried him "in the valley opposite Beth Peor," a location that remains unknown (v.6). The apparent reason for the perpetual secrecy of his gravesite was to prevent the sepulcher from becoming a place of worship, and to keep the Israelites "from taking Moses’ body with them to Canaan, thus violating the divine command to disallow Moses entry there" (Merrill, 453). Following his death, the people of God "grieved for Moses" for a thirty day period, "until the time of weeping and mourning was over."
With the death and burial of Moses, the one "whom the Lord knew face to face" (v. 10), Joshua assumed the position of leadership over the nation. Verse 9 describes him as "filled with the spirit of wisdom" as a result of the fact that "Moses had laid his hands on him." This ceremony was symbolic of "the transference of covenant authority and responsibility from the one to the other. This physical demonstration either accompanied the impartation of the divine Spirit or marked the recipient as the one already endowed by that Spirit"(Merrill, 454). With the special gift of divine wisdom upon him Joshua was fully equipped to be recognized and followed as Israel’s’ new commander-in-chief. Consequently, "the Israelites listened to him and did what the Lord had commanded Moses."
Major Themes for Application and Discussion
One: The Word of God as the only appropriate foundation of faith—Throughout this study we have observed the repeated emphasis upon the Word of God, either His promises or His commandments. How would you relate this to Paul’s comment in Romans 10:17? Is it proper, then, to claim that faith is "blind"?
Two: Incarnational leadership—What does it mean to say that spiritual leadership is incarnational? What are the benefits and potential problems with this concept? Hint: Consider the following-
Three: The providence of God—When the people of Israel needed leadership and direction God provided it. Relate this to Ephesians 4:7-13.
Four: An Old Testament portrait of Christ—Where in this lesson passage do we see glimpses of the ministry of Jesus? Hint: Look for both positive and negative shadows.