Monday, July 27, 2020

The Departure of Alma and Traditions about the Death of Moses

Alma counseling Helaman before his departure (
After years of diligent service preaching the Gospel among the people of Nephi, the prophet Alma counseled with his sons, prophesied about the future, and blessed the Church.

And when Alma had done this he departed out of the land of Zarahemla, as if to go into the land of Melek. And it came to pass that he was never heard of more; as to his death or burial we know not of. Behold, this we know, that he was a righteous man; and the saying went abroad in the church that he was taken up by the Spirit, or buried by the hand of the Lord, even as Moses. But behold, the scriptures saith the Lord took Moses unto himself; and we suppose that he has also received Alma in the spirit, unto himself; therefore, for this cause we know nothing concerning his death and burial (Alma 45:18-19).

The reference to Moses being buried by the hand of the Lord is seemingly a reference to the account in Deuteronomy which reads

So Moses the servant of the Lord died there in the land of Moab, according to the word of the Lord. And he buried him in a valley in the land of Moab, over against Beth-peor: but no man knoweth of his sepulcher unto this day (Deuteronomy 34:5-6).

The Book of Mormon passage is interesting because it suggests that while the Nephites were aware of the tradition that Moses was buried by the hand of the Lord, they had additional information from their scriptural heritage which indicated that Moses was “taken up” by the Spirit and that the Lord “took Moses unto himself.”

Alexandre Cabanel, The Death of Moses (Wikipedia Commons)
The enigmatic passage in Deuteronomy about the death of Moses gave rise to numerous Jewish and Samaritan stories in late antiquity. These stories have been the object of research by many scholars during the last century. "The death of Moses," writes Samuel Loewenstamm in one important study, "occupied the mind of apocryphal and midrashic writers unceasingly. They never tired of seeking new and innovative ways to understand it" (Samuel Loewenstamm, "The Death of Moses" in George W. E. Nickelsburg, Jr., ed., Studies on the Testament of Moses, Scholars Press, 1976, 185). In some of these tales Moses dies, but only after he is shown a vision of the future. In others, he cleverly evades the efforts of the angel of death to take his life, only to die later in peace to be buried by God or other heavenly beings. Other traditions focus on Moses ascent upon the mount.  "A combination of the midrashim which deny Moses' death with reports of his disappearance in a cloud and his subsequent death leads to a reconstruction of a tradition in which Moses approached God ascending a mountain and was exalted from there to heaven by the cloud of Divine Glory (Loewenstamm, 198).

In the Jewish text Pseudo-Philo which dates to the first century the Lord tells Moses that he will glorify and bury him in peace.

And when Moses heard this, he was filled with understanding and his appearance became glorious; and he died in glory according to the word of the Lord, and he buried him as he promised him. And the angels mourned at his death, and the lightnings and the torches and the arrows went all together before him . . . .And he buried him with his own hands on a high place and in the light of all the world (Pseudo-Philo 19:16, in James H. Charlesworth, The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha. Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1985, 2:328).

Another example and somewhat more elaborate version of this tradition can be found in the Samaritan Memar Marqah.

How great the hour at which the great prophet Moses stood on the top of Mount Nebo, and all the heavenly angels were doing him honour there. His Lord exalted him and He unveiled the light of his eyes and showed him the four quarters of the world. Great was the joy that was in Moses' heart when He revealed to him the sequel to the Day of Vengeance, so that he did not fear death. Great was the joy that abode in Moses' heart when he saw the angels standing about him, on his right and on his left, behind and before him. The great Glory took him by his right hand, embracing him and walking before him . . . . He turned his face toward Mount Gerizim and lay down on the ground, looking straight in front of him. God made a sleep to fall upon him and his soul departed without difficulty without him knowing (John Macdonald, Memar Marqah: The Teaching of Marqah, 2:206).

In this Samaritan text Moses is received up in glory on the mount in the presence of God and angels, but does not escape death, although it is sweet to him.

Perhaps the best known non-biblical account of Moses' death is that of Josephus who wrote at the end of the first century.

Now as soon as they were come to the mountain called Abarim (which is a very high mountain, situated over against Jericho and one that affords, to such as are upon it, a prospect of the greater part of the excellent land of Canaan), he dismissed the senate: and as he was going to embrace Eleazar and Joshua, and was still discoursing with them, a cloud stood over him on the sudden, and he disappeared in a certain valley, although he wrote in the holy books that he died, which was done out of fear lest they should venture to say that, because of this extraordinary virtue, he went to God. (Antiquities of the Jews, Book 4, Chapter 8, verse 48,  William Whiston Translation).

James Purvis thought it likely that "Josephus and Marqah were both dependent upon a common old Palestinian story of the death of Moses, Each told the story in his own way, with Marqah and the other Samaritan writers glorifying Moses to a greater degree than did Josephus" ("Samaritan Traditions on the Death of Moses" in Studies on the Testament of Moses, 110).

Josephus adds details not found in Deuteronomy, such as Moses being received into a cloud on the mount, but denied that Moses escaped death, a view with which he is apparently familiar, but denies. Examples of this alternative view can be found in other Jewish writings such as Philo of Alexandria (On the Life of Moses II:288-291). and some rabbinical sources which held that "Moses never died" (b. Sota 13b), and that in fact he "continues to minister above" (Sifre Deut 357 and Midrash Tannaim 224). It appears that "the two beliefs existed side by side in Judaism. The majority of the Jewish writers followed the biblical account and believed that Moses had died, but others accepted the belief in his bodily translation to heaven to remain there until his return to earth when the times were fulfilled" (Howard M Teeple, The Mosaic Eschatological Prophet. Philadelphia: Society of Biblical Literature, 1957, 42; see also C. Houtman, "Moses" in Karel van der Toorn, ed., Dictionary of Deities and Demons in the Bible (Leiden: Brill, 1999, 596).

The Samaritan Book of Joshua was translated into Arabic in medieval times, but is believed to be based upon a Hebrew original and Samaritan sources that can be traced to the Hellenistic period. It contains similarities to the Memar Marqah mentioned above, but also has significant details not found there. Moses' tearful farewell is described as he ascends the mountain.

They began to cry aloud and wail and weep; and after a space of time he commanded them to be quiet and to sit down. Then he departed, walking slowly up the ascent of the mountain unto which God had ordered him to ascend, and with him were Yusha, the son of Nun, and el'Azar the imam, and the assembly of the leaders who were bidding him farewell and weeping at the approach of his separation from them and clinging to him. And when the farewells were prolonged with them, and night drew near, a pillar of divine fire descended and separated between them and their master-peace be upon him--and no one knows what happened to him after this, even unto this time.

The account goes on to say that after this time, "his dealings were directly with his Lord and His angels." This account is notable in that while it tells of Moses' disappearance the prophet is never said to have died.

Angeli Giuseppe, Elijah Taken Up in a Chariot of Fire (Wikipedia Commons)

The persistence of two divergent traditions following the compilation of the Hebrew Scriptures (one where Moses died and another where he did not) has led some scholars to wonder if the roots of the tradition of Moses' translation do not derive from earlier sources which we no longer have. Loewenstamm views the passage in Deuteronomy 34:5-6 as "a toning down" or polemic against a tradition of Moses' translation already known to the biblical writer ("The Death of Moses" 198).

The prophet Elijah who ascended into heaven without tasting death (2 Kings 2:11) is portrayed as a prophet like Moses throughout the Book of Kings. The Elijah account, as many have observed, seems to have been written in such a way as to invite a comparison between the two prophets. It is noteworthy that the place of Elijah's translation is in the same general region as Moses' departure on the other side of Jordan, opposite Jericho (Deuteronomy 34:1; 2 Kings 2:5-6). According to Dale Alison, "It is not impossible that one or more contributors to Kings knew the tradition to which Deuteronomy may already be a counter, that Moses never died" (The New Moses: A Matthean Typology. Eugene, Oregon: Wipf & Stock, 1993, 42).

Gustav Dore', Elijah Taken Up into Heaven (Wikipedia Commons)

Yair Zakovitch also thinks that the account in Kings points to an older and original tradition of the translation of Moses indirectly through the account of Elijah."The tradition of Elijah's ascent to heaven also borrows from the Mosaic narratives: not from the written version of Moses' death found in Deuteronomy 34, but from an earlier stratum of the tradition." He thinks that "the original story of Moses' ascent has disappeared, but its light still shines through in the Elijah story" (
"And You Shall Tell Your Son . . ." The Concept pf the Exodus in the Bible (Hebrew University, Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 1991, 73-74, 79). Elijah, who parted the waters of the Jordan “hither and thither” as Moses did the Red Sea, was taken up by the Spirit (“the Spirit of the Lord hath taken him up” 2 Kings 2:16). This is not indicated in the text of Deuteronomy but it is said of Elijah who is portrayed in Kings as a new Moses. Zakovitch sees here an indirect reference to an earlier Moses tradition, known to the writers of Deuteronomy and Kings in which the prophet of the Exodus did not die, but was "taken up" by the Spirit.

A tradition that Moses was taken up by the Spirit was also known to the Nephites who were descendants of the house of Joseph through Manasseh (1 Nephi 6:2; Alma 10:1-3; 3 Nephi 5:20-23). Members of the Church in Helaman's day concluded that Alma, a prophet like Moses, had been translated in a similar manner. Their scriptures also indicated that the Lord took Moses unto himself, a description that is also missing from our current bibles (Alma 45:19). If these were derived from the plates of brass, which contained history, genealogy, and prophecies from their Josephite ancestors (1 Nephi 5:10-19; 3 Nephi 10:16-17), it would make sense that variations or fragments of that tradition might be found in later versions of the Moses story. Indeed, it appears that a tradition in which Moses was taken to God in the Spirit, glorified, but did not die, was had among Samaritans who claim a similar northern heritage.

[For more on Alma's departure and Mesoamerica see this earlier post].

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