It is not difficult to imagine the scandal caused by the Hebrew Bible’s rehearsal of Moses’ burial. Vocalized as it is in the traditional text, the verb is active and has a single subject: and he buried (him) …. Indeed, the Hebrew particle that stands behind the English word him virtually assures that this reading is the intended one. It is hard in context to imagine another subject than YHWH.
There is little alternative: we should read … and (YHWH) buried him ….
Yet a witness as old as the Septuagint feels the scandal of this divine interment. So does a translation as recent as the NRSV. The former should be translated … and they buried him ... The latter reads … and he was buried …
YHWH, it appears, is not easily envisaged scraping out a crevice in the hard ground, then gently laying his friend Moses’ body into it, covering him tenderly against the ravaging hyena and the grave-robber.
Deity does not dirty its hands in such mundane, impure activity. Evasive maneuvers exist in biblical interpretation precisely because certain shocking meanings seem best avoided, even suppressed. One can hardly bow prostrate before a God with the soil of Moses’ burial clinging to his ineffable person.
Or so the logic goes.
Moses, however, experienced no ordinary intimacy with YHWH. For his part, the one self-named ‘I am who I am’ can hardly be reduced to predictable behavior. Even in the baton-passing narrative in which the formidable Joshua assumes Moses’ role, the text does not hold itself back as it delivers its little eulogy to the prophet whose grave cannot be located by those who followed him, nor by those who in time would live out the trajectory of their fathers’ Moses-shaped lives.
Never since has there arisen a prophet in Israel like Moses, whom the LORD knew face to face.
The scandal accumulates. Not only does Israel worship a dusty-handed God who buries at least one of his dead. The nation’s memory now credits Israel’s lawgiver with the forbidden and the impossible: Moses saw God and lived.
Well, in fact, Moses lived for a goodly but finite time. In due course he—like the rest of us—expired.
Yet in death Moses continued in distinctiveness. YHWH buried him. The text does not say that YHWH then shuffled off in grief, bearing unspeakable loss in his divine chest. That would be a scandal too dense and too misleading to be endorsed.
Yet such was the friendship between this man and our God that the text brings us close to the imaginative precipice where we can speculate about such a thing, even though we discard the thought upon review.
Against our modern and post-modern antinomianisms, the Law of this dead Lawgiver turns out not to be a dusty thing after all. Ironically, the opposite can for poignant reasons be spoken of the now deceased Moses and his tender, burying Friend. The dust of tender, final encounter—not as is often imagined the dust of irrelevant, enslaving verbosity—clings to them.