Here, in the closing verses of the Torah, we read of the death of Moses. The Bible testifies that Moses was buried by none other than God Himself. As for the location of the grave of Moses, the Bible tells us that “no one knows his grave to this day.” And in fact, the gravesite of Moses remains unknown. This leads to the obvious question: Why was it necessary to conceal the gravesite of Moses?
What’s even more puzzling is that immediately before telling us that “no one knows his grave,” the verse records the precise location. It should be noted that most stories in the Bible do not include precise locations. We are usually told about the general area where events take place. The amount of detail regarding the burial place of Moses is unusual. “In the valley in the land of Moab, opposite Beth Peor.” It almost seems as though the text of the Bible is taunting us. After all, what is the point of recording such a detailed description of the location, only to then state that nobody can find it?
In the Talmud, the Jewish sages addressed this difficulty with a story. We should note that the stories in the Talmud are not necessarily meant to be taken literally, as historical accounts. The sages often used stories and parables to convey theological ideas, as was common in ancient times.
“And He buried him in the valley in the land of Moab over against Beth Peor; and no man knows of his grave to this day” (Deuteronomy 34:6). Rabbi Berekhya says: This verse provides a marker within a marker, (i.e., a very precise description of the location of his burial) and yet ”no man knows of his grave to this day”? The evil kingdom (the Roman Empire) once sent messengers to the garrison of Beth Peor and said to them: ‘Show us where Moses is buried.’ As the men stood above on the upper section of the mountain, it appeared to them as if the grave was below in the lower section. As they stood below, it appeared to them to be above. They divided into two groups, one above and one below. To those who were standing above, the grave appeared to them to be below; to those who were standing below, the grave appeared to them to be above, to fulfill that which is stated: “And no man knows of his grave to this day” (Deuteronomy 34:6). – Talmud Sotah 13b-14a
The premise of the story is simple enough. The Romans, who ruled the land of Israel and the surrounding area, decided to find Moses’ burial place based on the location described in our verse. They went to the valley in the land of Moab opposite Beth Peor, but they could not find the grave. The story ends by stating that the inability of the Roman garrison to locate Moses’ gravesite was a fulfilment of the verse that states that “no man knows of his grave to this day.” Which leaves us with our original question. Why did God choose to conceal the grave of Moses?
Moses played a unique role in the story of Israel. More than once, the Bible itself attests to his status as the greatest prophet of all time.
Hear now My words: If there will be a prophet for you, I, the Lord, make Myself known to him in a vision; I speak to him in a dream. Not so with My servant Moses; He is trusted in all My house. Mouth to mouth I speak with him, in a vision that is not in riddles; and he gazes upon the image of the Lord. – Numbers 12:6-8
There has not again arisen in Israel a prophet like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face. – Deuteronomy 34:10
While it is beyond us to fully comprehend the unique nature of the prophetic experience of Moses, we see clearly from these verses that God Himself declared that the prophecy of Moses was unlike that of any prophet before or since. More to the point, we are told that the word of God came to Moses more clearly and not in a vision. In other words, Moses was not shown a vision that he would then interpret and describe to others. This is the manner of prophecy of all other prophets. Moses was spoken to “mouth to mouth.” God declared him to be “trusted in all My house.”
In order to be sure that the law was transmitted with perfect accuracy, the prophecy of Moses needed to be different. The words of commanded law could not be Moses’ own, based on the interpretation of a vision. He would need to transmit God’s words exactly. This role of transmitter of the law began immediately after the Ten Commandments were spoken by God. Upon hearing God’s voice the people were afraid and asked that Moses relay God’s word instead.
Then they said to Moses, “You speak with us, and we will hear; but let not God speak with us, lest we die.” – Exodus 20:19
From that point forward, God told the commandments to Moses, and he would then relay them to the people. In other words, of the 613 commandments in the Torah, the people heard only the Ten Commandments from God. The rest were transmitted through Moses.
Besides being the transmitter of God’s law, Moses also served as an intermediary between the people and God at times when God was angered by the children of Israel. On a number of occasions during the time in the desert, Moses interceded and prayed to God on behalf of the people. Most notably, after the sin of the Golden Calf, Moses saved Israel from destruction.
Let’s consider Moses’ role from the perspective of the people of Israel. It was Moses who performed the plagues in Egypt. Moses raised his staff to split the Red Sea. Moses relayed the word of God to the people. He spent forty days and forty nights on Mount Sinai without eating or drinking when he ascended to receive the Torah, an impossible feat for any normal person. He saved Israel from destruction with the strength of his prayers. We could go on, but you get the point.
To the children of Israel, Moses did not seem exactly human. We need look no further than the sin of the Golden Calf.
Now when the people saw that Moses delayed coming down from the mountain, the people gathered around Aaron, and said to him, “Come, make us gods that shall go before us; for as for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.” – Exodus 32:1
This is what the sages meant by the story from the Talmud about the Roman garrison that went to look for Moses’ grave.
To those who were standing above, the grave appeared to them to be below; to those who were standing below, the grave appeared to them to be above,
To look at Moses as a normal human, he appeared as a higher being. But to look at him as a god, he appeared human.
I’d like to suggest that it is due to Moses’ unique status that his grave needed to be concealed. The temptation to view Moses as a god-like figure was great. It was certainly tempting to see him as an intermediary who could intercede with God on our behalf. It is not difficult to imagine that had the location of Moses’ gravesite been known, it would certainly have become a pilgrimage site. People would flock there to pray… to Moses, instead of God.
By concealing Moses’ gravesite God sent us an important message. And by including the precise location of Moses’ in the verse, this lesson is made clear. The reason we can’t find Moses grave is that God has ordained that we will not find it, not because we don’t know where he was buried. To prove the point, the Bible tells us exactly where it is.
Yes, Moses did in fact serve as an intermediary. This role was necessary for the accurate transmission of the law. But now that Moses is gone, our relationship to God must be directly with God.
Rabbi Pesach Wolicki is Executive Director of Ohr Torah Stone’s Center for Jewish-Christian Understanding and Cooperation and is cohost of the Shoulder to Shoulder podcast.