God tells Moses several times that it is time to die:
"Go up unto this mountain of Abarim and see the land which I have given to the people of Israel. And when you have seen it, be gathered to your fathers as your brother Aaron was gathered."[1]
"Behold the time has come for you to die."[2]
"Behold now you will sleep with your fathers."[3]
"Ascend this mountain of the Abarim, Mt. Nebo... and view the land of Canaan, which I am giving to the people of Israel as a possession; and die on the mount which you ascend and be gathered to your ancestors."[4]

The Death of Moses
By Alexandre Cabanel, mid 19th century

At least on one occasion Moses appears to have protested God's decree that he die before entering the land of Canaan. Moses reflects how he had beseeched God to let him "see the good land beyond the Jordan" but the Lord had been angry and refused.[5]

Writes Bible scholar James Kugel: "These and yet other references suggested to some [early] interpreters that Moses might not in fact have been so eager to accept the divine decree. Perhaps, on the contrary, God's repeated instructions to Moses to die indicated that Moses was unwilling."[6] The writers of the midrash convey this reluctance through the recurring theme of angels dispatched to bring about Moses' death or to take charge of his soul after death, and Moses' interaction with them. Of the many such legends in Louis Ginzberg's classic work, "Legends of the Bible," the following two are representative.[7]

  • Midrash: Moses does not want to die
    When the people and their leaders heard these words of Moses, they broke out into mournful weeping, and in the Tabernacle with bitter tears they entreated God to answer Moses' prayer, so that their cries rose even to the Throne of Glory. But then one hundred and eighty four myriads of angels under the leadership of the great angels Zakun and Lahash descended and snatched away the words of the suppliants, that they might not reach God. The angel Lahash indeed tried to restore to their place the words which the other angels had snatched away, so that they might reach God, but when Samael learned of this, he fettered Lahash with chains of fire and brought him before God, where he received sixty blows of fire and was expelled from the inner chamber of God because, contrary to God's wish, he had attempted to aid Moses in the fulfilment of his desire. When Israel now saw how the angels dealt with their prayers, they went to Moses and said, "The angels will not let us pray for you."
Early medieval poem
Hebrew & English texts

When Moses saw that neither the world nor mankind could aid him, he betook himself to the Angel of the Face, to whom he said, "Pray for me, that God may take pity upon me, and that I may not die." But the angel replied: "Why, Moses, why do you exert yourself in vain? Standing behind the curtain that is drawn before the Lord, I heard that your prayer in this instance is not to be answered." Moses now laid his hand upon his head and wept bitterly, saying, "To whom shall I now go, that he might implore God's mercy for me?" God was now very angry with Moses because he would not resign himself to the doom that had been sealed, but His wrath vanished as soon as Moses spoke the words: "The Lord, the Lord, a God full of compassion and gracious, slow to anger, and plenteous in mercy and truth; keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin."

"I want to know," God asked him, "why you are so much aggrieved at your impending death." Moses replied: "I am afraid of the sword of the Angel of Death." God: "If this is the reason then speak no more in this matter, for I will not deliver you into his hand." Moses, however, would not yield, but furthermore said, "Shall my mother Jochebed, to whom my life brought so much grief, suffer sorrow after my death also?" God: "So was it in My mind even before I created the world, and so is the course of the world; every generation has its learned men, every generation has its leaders, every generation has its guides. Up to now it was your duty to guide the people, but now the time is ripe for your disciple Joshua to relieve you of the office destined for him."

Death of Moses on Mount Nebo

Midrash: Moses dies
With God descended from heaven three angels, Michael, Gabriel. and Zagzagel. Gabriel arranged Moses' couch. Michael spread upon it a purple garment, and Zagzagel laid down a woolen pillow. God stationed Himself over Moses' head, Michael to his right, Gabriel to his left, and Zagzagel at his feet, whereupon God addressed Moses: "Cross your feet," and Moses did so. He then said, "Fold your hands and lay them upon your breast," and Moses did so. Then God said, "Close thine eyes," and Moses did so.

Then God spoke to Moses' soul: "My daughter, one hundred and twenty years had I decreed that you should dwell in this righteous man's body, but hesitate not now to leave it, for your time is run." …But the soul replied: "Lord of the world! I desire to remain with this righteous man; for whereas the two angels Azza and Azazel when they descended from heaven to earth, corrupted their way of life and loved the daughters of the earth, so that in punishment You suspended them between heaven and earth, the son of Amram, a creature of flesh and blood, from the day upon which You revealed Yourself from the bush of thorns, has lived apart from his wife. Let me therefore remain where I am."

When Moses saw that his soul refused to leave him, he said to her: "Is this because the Angel of Death wishes to show his power over you?" The soul replied: "Nay, God does not wish to deliver me into the hands of death." Moses: "Will you, perchance, weep when the others will weep at my departure?" The soul: "The Lord has delivered mine eyes from tears."' Moses: " Will you, perchance, go into Hell when I am dead?" The soul: " I will walk before the Lord in the land of the living." When Moses heard these words, he permitted his soul to leave him, saying to her: "Return unto your rest, O my soul; for the Lord hath dealt bountifully with thee." God thereupon took Moses' soul by kissing him upon the mouth.

Moses' activity did not, however, cease with his death, for in heaven he is one of the servants of the Lord. God buried Moses' body in a spot that remained unknown even to Moses himself. Only this is known concerning it, that a subterranean passage connects it with the graves of the Patriarchs. Altough Moses' body lies dead in its grave, it is still as fresh as when he was alive.


[1] Numbers 27:12 [back]
[2] Deut. 31:14 [back]
[3] Deut. 31:16 [back]
[4] Deut. 32:49-50 [back]
[5] Deut. 3:23-27 [back]
[6] James L. Kugel, The Bible as It Was (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997) [back]
[7] Louis Ginzberg, Legends of the Bible (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1956), pp. 485-502 [back]

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