Until recently, I had always heard and accepted that Joshua probably wrote the end of Deuteronomy. This is said because this chapter includes details about the death and burial of Moses, and Joshua, as Moses’ successor, would have had the knowledge and position to write about the end of Moses’ life.
Well, I recently read the paper, “The Authorship of Deuteronomy 34: Moses or a Redactor?” by William D. Barrick. This paper was presented at the Evangelical Theological Society in November of 2001, and in it the author was appealing that Mosaic authorship of the entire Pentateuch (Gen 1 – Deut 34) be a boundary for this body. I think he wrote it knowing that this was a tall order and he approached the issue with good humor in noting that his opponents (those who hold to Joshua or someone else writing Deuteronomy 34) might liken stalwart proponents of Mosaic authorship of this chapter to “the soul-mate of a ‘flat earth’ theology/science.’”1
There are three primary (although there are more, for sure) arguments given for why Moses was not the author of Deuteronomy 34, and they are basically this:
- There are timing issues in the text that do not seem to fit right if Moses is the author.
- There are references to the division of the land of Canaan that was not a reality until after it was conquered and recorded in Joshua 13-19.
- There are references to Moses, his ministry, and his works that seem to be best understood as someone, later, eulogizing Moses.
I found that the most compelling reasons to find that Moses is not the author of Deuteronomy 34 coincides with the least satisfying response, and this has to do with one of the timing issues in this chapter. I see no real problem with Moses being able to pen the story of his own death as it would happen in the all-to-near future for him. Since God wanted that included in the Scriptures, He could inspire the man who was going to experience it to write about it. The real stickler of a problem comes later in the chapter,
“The Lord buried him in a valley in Moab, opposite the town of Bethpeor, but to this day no one knows the exact place of his burial.” (Deuteronomy 34:6)
“No other prophet has been able to do the great and terrifying things that Moses did in the sight of all Israel.”(Deuteronomy 34:12)
In both verse 6 and 12, there is the sense of a significant time gap between the life of Moses and the writing of the thoughts. A long time wouldn’t necessarily need to pass before someone could realistically pen that “to this day” no one knows where Moses is buried. However, it seems that a longer time would be needed for the same author to write a statement that no prophet “has been able to do” the things that Moses did. Because there is no grammatical or linguistic reason that the actual language of the chapter gives so that, and there is no Biblical witness to the fact that Moses didn’t write this chapter, I have decided not to place too heavy a weight on this temporal objection. My answer to this objection is almost dismissively simple; if God wanted the account of Moses’ death and burial recorded, and if God wanted to include in His revealed Word that Moses would be a singular figure among the prophets of Israel, He had every opportunity and right to have Moses himself pen the words of Deuteronomy 34.
The second major objection to Mosaic authorship is found in how Moses refers to the unconquered land of Canaan.
“…the Lord showed him the whole land: the territory of Gilead as far north as the town of Dan; 2 the entire territory of Naphtali; the territories of Ephraim and Manasseh; the territory of Judah as far west as the Mediterranean Sea; 3 the southern part of Judah; and the plain that reaches from Zoar to Jericho, the city of palm trees.” (Deut 34:1b-3)
The objection basically says that the lands of Canaan were only divided up during the conquest (see Joshua 13-19); Moses would not have been able to gaze at the different territories that he was not familiar with and that had not yet been settled. I think that this objection loses much of its value when we see that Moses had at least some prior knowledge as to the specific inheritance for each tribe. Just before the account of his death, he blessed Naphtali in order that they might “take possession of the sea and the south” in Deuteronomy 33:23. He also references Israel’s blessing of Manasseh and Ephraim in Genesis 48:22 indicating that they will receive “one portion more than your brothers, which I took from the hand of the Amorite with my sword and my bow.” Then there is the recon and report of the 12 spies recorded in Numbers 13-14. There was some understanding of the land and its fortifications and other of its characteristics was gained from their expedition that Moses definitely had been made aware of (and had had plenty of time to think about while wandering in the desert for 40 years). These instances of knowledge of the land and foreknowledge of some details of the inheritance seems to be sufficient evidence to enable me to refute the objection that Moses would not have had sufficient knowledge of the allotted inheritance of the 12 tribes to make the statements in verses 1-3.
The third primary objection to Mosaic authorship of Deuteronomy 34 has to do with the grandiose language used to characterize Moses’ ministry and his relationship to the Lord. The thought is that Moses would not have referred to himself in the third person nor would he have spoken of his relationship to the Lord in the way that he did. First of all, Deuteronomy 34 is not the singular instance where Moses would have used described himself in a perspective other than the first person (see Numbers 11:11; 12:17). But if I were taking position against Mosaic authorship stating that he wouldn’t have referred to himself with such majesty, I would begin by mentioning that Paul referred to himself as the chief of sinners. And if Deuteronomy 34 was written by Moses, would he be referring to himself with such a self-important attitude that set him apart from the other prophets who would come after him, both in powerful works and in his closeness to God? Of course, the answer to this rhetorical question would be “no”. But I submit that this is not the best way to examine the text at hand. One of the primary phrases that objectors use to make their argument is,
“10 Since that time no prophet has risen in Israel like Moses, whom the LORD knew face to face, 11 for all the signs and wonders which the LORD sent him to perform in the land of Egypt against Pharaoh, all his servants, and all his land, 12 and for all the mighty power and for all the great terror which Moses performed in the sight of all Israel.” (Deuteronomy 34:10-12)
If this is an example of the type of language that is too self-complimentary for something that Moses would have said about himself, then what are we to do with Stephen’s defense before the high priest? In his defense of Christ as Messiah, he quoted Deuteronomy 18:15 where he indicates that Jesus is the prophet who Moses said would come after him who Moses indicated would be “like me.” This verse, as it is used by Stephen, directly relates Moses to Christ in this manner, and it is surely more of a grandiose statement than those referred to in this chapter by those opposed to Mosaic authorship.
It seems to me that the arguments against Mosaic authorship of Deuteronomy 34, other than the objections about how Moses would have referred to and characterized himself, are basically anti-supernaturalistic in nature. These objections seem to come from a mindset that is influenced, at least in this case, by naturalism. Because it seems that the objection is basically that Moses couldn’t have known or wouldn’t have known the necessary information needed to catalog the events. This is done in direct contrast to the basic nature of divine revelation. Divine revelation is, in the God-breathed Scriptures, is the revealing of what was previously unknown, unknowable or hidden. Furthermore, objections to Mosaic authorship are not based on the overall Biblical witness or the grammar used in this specific text as compared to the rest of the Pentateuch.
I am not saying that all people who oppose Mosaic authorship of Deuteronomy 34 categorically reject the supernatural, far from it. But I am saying that the primary objections, as I understand them, come from the same presuppositional basis, at least in this isolated case, as do the empiricists rejections of all miraculous or divine action in the world and in the Scriptures.
1 William D. Barrick, “The Authorship of Deuteronomy 34: Moses or a Redactor?” presented at the ETS Annual Meeting, Nov 14-16,2001, P. 17
Click here to read the paper that I wrote for my Old Testament Introduction class.