• The BaptistWay Bible study lesson for Aug. 18 focuses on Deuteronomy 34.
The hardest thing I’ve ever had to write was my mom’s obituary. A few weeks before she died, she looked at me and said, “Susan, you need to write my obituary.”
“Now?” I asked, mortified.
“Yes. Because I want to read it and make sure it says what I want it to say.”
So, I headed to the back bedroom where her computer was and stared at the blinking cursor feeling like vultures were landing on my shoulders. How do you write someone’s obituary before they die?
I finally decided to start with what I hoped would be true, “Mary Kay Day died peacefully at her home on (date) surrounded by her family and friends.” I continued writing about my mom’s growing up years and her marriage to my father—all the usual things one includes in an obituary.
I don’t know how long it took me. But, finally, I printed it out and took it to her. She began reading and immediately said, “No!”
“No, what?” I asked, panicked. She’d read the first line and I had already screwed something up!
I’m not going peacefully!
“Take out ‘peacefully.’ I’m not going peacefully.”
And she spoke truly. My mom did not go peacefully to her death. She fought it every step of the way. I think I know why. She felt cheated. She wanted to see her two grandchildren grow up. She did not want death to take that from her, so she fought death with everything she had. But ultimately, death won, and she had to surrender to it.
How does one die well? The question has been plaguing me ever since I started thinking about this lesson. At first, I thought: “Oh, Moses. He goes to the top of a mountain, sees the Promised Land, and dies. Good job, Moses.” But, as with all death, it’s more complicated than that.
Deuteronomy 32:48-52 briefly explains the reason Moses would die alone at the top of a mountain rather than lead the Israelites victoriously into the Promised Land. God told him it was because he “broke faith” in the Desert of Zin and “did not uphold my holiness among the Israelites,” Moses would die and not enter the land he had dreamed of since leaving Egypt.
Moses left out
The original story is found in Numbers 20:1-13. It is a story that has troubled readers for generations, and rightly so. After all Moses did for Israel and for God, he hits a rock, and it’s all over for him. He has to lead the people to the brink of the Promised Land, but he himself cannot enter. “What’s up with that?” as many of my students ask.
Interpreters offer several reasons why Moses was punished so harshly: He berated the people; he claimed he (not God) would bring water from the rock; he struck the rock instead of speaking to it. Regardless, the key is that, whatever Moses did, he did not trust God. Back in Numbers 13-14, the reason the first generation of Israel could not enter the Promised Land was the same: They did not trust God. So, God punished Moses the exact same way God punished the first generation. If you fail to trust God, you will not enter.
But emotionally the story of Moses’ punishment and subsequent death seems so unfair. Moses put up with all the Israelites’ whining and complaining 40 years. Moses interceded for them time and again. Couldn’t God cut Moses some slack? Didn’t Moses deserve the reward of the Promised Land?
I find Deuteronomy 34:1-12 even more unsettling. In verses 1-4, Moses climbed the mountain, and God showed him the entire Promised Land. Then God said: “This is the land I promised on oath to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob when I said, ‘I will give it to your descendants.’ I have let you see it with your eyes, but you will not cross over into it.”
Seeing the Promised Land
So, God brought Moses up the mountain to show him what he could not possess right before he died. Yes. He got to see it. And maybe this was a tender moment during which God allowed Moses at least that. But to me, it is bittersweet and heartbreaking that God would show Moses the land and then deny it to him. Then, verse 5 says Moses died at the Lord’s command. Moses wasn’t sick or on the brink of death. He was still full of vigor (v. 7), which means God put him to death.
Is this dying well? To be honest, I’m not sure.
What redeems Moses’ death for me is the obituary that follows in verses 10-12: “Since then, no prophet has risen in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face, who did all those signs and wonders the Lord sent him to do in Egypt—to Pharaoh and to all his officials and to his whole land. For no one has ever shown the mighty power or performed the awesome deeds that Moses did in the sight of all Israel.”
Not how you died, but how you live
The important thing is not how or why Moses died, but how Moses lived. And isn’t that true for all of us?
Did my mom die well? She suffered. She was in pain. She fought death until the very end. But ultimately, she could not choose how or when to die, only how she would live. Death is the ultimate surrender. One does not get a report on the death certificate stamped “Died well” or “Died poorly.” My mom lived well, and that is what is important.
Death is death. All of us will face it. For some, it will come suddenly and unexpectedly. For others, it will happen slowly and painfully. Some will simply fall asleep. Others will suffer. Some will take their own lives; some will have their lives taken violently from them; some will give their lives to save others.
But in the end, the question is not, “Did he or she die well?” The question is, “Did he or she live well?”