Scriptures

The Dispute Over Moses’ Body!

Introduction

I think that all Bible students will understand me when I say that I have come to appreciate that some questions are important because they relate to great spiritual truths on which our salvation depends, but there are others which, whilst being essentially unimportant, arouse our curiosity, mainly because they relate to events that are extraordinary or strange or mysterious.

It’s to the latter group that the question prompted by Jude 9 belongs, it reads as follows.

‘But even the archangel Michael, when he was disputing with the devil about the body of Moses, did not himself dare to condemn him for slander but said, ‘The Lord rebuke you!’ Jude 9

Strange Picture!

Can you imagine a more unlikely trio than those brought together in this verse? Here we have mention of the archangel Michael, the Devil and Moses, the greatest leader in Israel’s history. What is more, we learn from Jude that the occasion was a confrontation between Michael and the devil concerning the body of Moses.

When did this remarkable event occur?

Well, obviously, it must have occurred sometime after the death of Moses which is reported in Deuteronomy 34.

‘And Moses the servant of the LORD died there in Moab, as the LORD had said. He buried him in Moab, in the valley opposite Beth Peor, but to this day no one knows where his grave is.’ Deuteronomy 34:5-6

In versions such as the A.V., the Revised Version, the Revised Standard Version, and certain other translations, Deuteronomy 34:6 reads as though God personally buried Moses, but the verse ceases to be a problem if we understand that an action performed at the command of a person, is sometimes described as having been performed by that person. God caused Moses to die and to be buried, therefore He ‘buried’ Moses.

In fact, later translations, such as the New Revised Standard Version, clarify the verse by giving us, ‘and he was buried in a valley’, without revealing who was responsible for the burial. But, of course, we’re tempted to speculate!

Was Moses buried by Joshua, his divinely appointed successor? Or was he, as a Jewish tradition claims, buried, by Michael the archangel himself?

The fact is that we don’t know, we’re not meant to know, nor is it important that we should know.

‘No man knows the place of his burial.’ Deuteronomy 34:6

The probable reason for keeping the location hidden is that, if it had become revealed, it may well have become a shrine and a place of pilgrimage for the Israelites.

Remember that the ‘serpent of bronze’, which Moses erected in the wilderness, Numbers 21:9-10, centuries later had actually become an object of worship, and which had to be destroyed by Nehemiah, the reformer, who scornfully described it exactly when he said I was ‘nehushtan’, ‘a piece of brass’, 2 Kings 18:4.

What is important is that we should understand that the death and burial of this great servant of God. was at God’s command, and the only truly sad aspect of the event is that, after a wearisome journey lasting for almost forty years, Moses died within sight of the Promised Land, not allowed to enter because of an act of disobedience, Numbers 20:8-12 / Numbers 27:12-14.

Why does Jude mention the dispute about the body of Moses?

This is explained in Jude.

‘Dear friends, although I was very eager to write to you about the salvation we share, I felt compelled to write and urge you to contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to God’s holy people.’ Jude 3

Jude had intended to write a letter concerning basic Christian doctrine, but, as the result of information that had reached him, he felt it necessary, instead, to deal with problems created by false teachers who had succeeded in entering the fellowship by stealth, and who were undermining the faith of others.

He describes the character of these interlopers and exposes both their motives and methods in very vivid and uncompromising language. They are arrogant, rebellious, disrespectful and thoroughly ungodly people, whose conduct, he declares, stands in stark contrast with that of Michael the archangel in his confrontation with the devil.

Jude says that, out of respect for the position of honour once occupied by the now-fallen Satan, or to give him his original name, Lucifer, Isaiah 14:12, Michael refrained from pronouncing a reproachful judgment on him, but simply said, ‘The Lord rebuke you!’ Jude 9.

The form of this reproach is significant, because the word ‘rebuke’ is a verb in the ‘optative mode’, that is, in the form used to express a wish, and, as used here, it means, ‘May the Lord rebuke you’! Michael leaves the passing of judgment on Satan to God Himself. This is a lesson we all may learn from Jude 6.

But, is there evidence that a dispute about the body of Moses actually occurred? The Bible itself doesn’t contain anything that corroborates the story. A single verse, here in Jude’s letter, is the only place in the Scriptures that mentions it. So, where did the story originate?

It’s found in one of the ‘apocryphal’ books, these are books that were written mainly during the Inter-Testamental Period, that is, in the four hundred years between the Old and New Testaments. This was the period during which prophetic witness was silent, and when, as a result, literature appeared claiming to be inspired, often under the name of some genuinely inspired and well-known servant of God.

This particular book is known as ‘The Assumption of Moses’, and, in common with all the other ‘apocryphal’ writings, it has never been regarded as inspired or authoritative by either Jews or Christians, and was never accepted as the Word of God, and never included in the ‘canon’ of either Old or New Testament Scriptures.

Indeed, the word ‘apocryphal’ itself, means ‘of questionable or doubtful authenticity’. The document was probably produced early in the Inter-Testamental Period by an unidentified Jewish writer. Among his other ‘revelations’ is the claim that, like Elijah, Moses was translated directly into heaven, and it’s this assertion that gives the book its name, ‘The Assumption of Moses’. The word ‘assumption’ in the title means ‘ascension’.

You perhaps already know that the ‘Church of Rome’ makes the same claim for Mary, the Lord’s mother and speaks of ‘The Assumption of Mary’. This doctrine states that, when she died, ‘her body was preserved from corruption and shortly afterword it was assumed.’ The Latin word, ‘assumere’ means ‘to take to’, in this case, to Heaven!

The odd thing is that, according to Catholic teaching, to believe that Mary was taken bodily to Heaven isn’t an article of faith, but it’s said to be ‘impious and blasphemous’ to deny it!

Of course, we know from Matthew 17:3, that more than 1500 years later, Moses appeared with Elijah when Jesus was transfigured on the mountain. The difference between the two, Moses and Elijah, is that the Scriptures tell us plainly that Moses ‘died and was buried’, Deuteronomy 34:5-6, whilst Elijah, like Enoch before him, was ‘translated that he should not see death’, Genesis 5:24 / 2 Kings 2:11.

However, considering what we read in Hebrews 11:23-27, where Moses is honoured as a man of faith, if at the end of his life he had indeed been taken up into heaven, we might have expected such an important fact to have been mentioned in those verses.

Probably because Daniel 12:1 seems to suggest that the archangel Michael was appointed by God to be the ‘Guardian of Israel’, the writer of ‘The Assumption of Moses’, also states that Michael was also commissioned to bury the body of Moses, and to be the guardian of his grave.

But, the book declares that Satan opposed the burial of the patriarch, and claimed that the body belonged to him, on the grounds that he claims to be the ‘lord of matter’, to this Michael is said to have replied, ‘The Lord rebuke thee, for it was God’s Spirit who created the world and all mankind’.

A Familiar Story

There is no doubt that this piece of ‘primitive Jewish tradition’, as Dean Alford, the very highly respected theological scholar described it, was known to those to whom Jude sent his letter.

It ranks with other stories of a similar nature, such as the claim that, after predicting the Fall of Jerusalem and the Babylonian Captivity, the prophet Jeremiah took the Ark of the Covenant, the Tabernacle and the Altar of Incense, and hid them in a cave on Mount Nebo, intending, after the ‘Return from the Babylonian captivity’, to retrieve and restore them.

Tradition said that, after the return from captivity, Jeremiah lived on in Jerusalem for another three hundred years, and that he even appeared to Judas Maccabees, another two centuries later, as ‘a man with grey hairs and exceeding glorious’.

Conclusion

It seems, then, that, in exposing those who were troubling the church with their false teaching, their denial of the Lord Jesus and their rejection or authority, Jude makes use of a story which, even though it lacks Scriptural endorsement, was familiar to his readers.

He used the story in order to encourage them to remember that the apostles of the Lord had warned that such men would arise, and, being aware of the danger, they should build themselves up in their faith, keeping themselves in the love of God, waiting for the eternal life that comes through the mercy of the Lord Jesus.

DAILY BIBLE VERSE

"But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed."

Isaiah 53:5

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