The End of Moses’ Work (Deuteronomy 31:1-34:12)
Succession Planning (Deuteronomy 31:1-32:47)
After the speeches, Joshua succeeds Moses as leader of Israel. “Moses summoned Joshua and said to him in the sight of all Israel: ‘Be strong and bold, for you are the one who will go with this people into the land' ” (Deut. 31:7). Moses conducts the transition publicly for two reasons. First, Joshua has to acknowledge before the whole nation that he has accepted the duties laid upon him. Second, the whole nation has to acknowledge that Joshua is Moses’ sole, legitimate successor. After this, Moses steps aside in the most complete possible way—he dies. Any organization, be it a nation, a school, a church, or a business, will be in confusion if the matter of legitimate succession is unclear or unresolved.
Notice that Joshua is not a capricious, last-minute choice. Leaders have a duty to prepare the people in their organizations to assume leadership in due time. This doesn't mean that leaders have the right to designate their own successors. That power often belongs to others, whether by appointment, election, commission or other means. It is the Lord who designates Moses' successor. Under the Lord’s direction, Moses has long been preparing Joshua to succeed him. As early as Deuteronomy 1:38, the Lord refers to Joshua as Moses’ “assistant.” Moses had noticed Joshua’s military capability not long after the departure from Egypt, and over time delegated leadership of the army to him (Deut. 31:3). Moses observed that Joshua was able to see things from God’s perspective and was willing to risk his own safety to stand up for what was right (Num. 14:5-10). Moses had trained Joshua in statecraft in the incident with the kings of the Amorites (Deut. 3:21). Praying to God on Joshua’s behalf was an important element of Moses’ training regimen (Deut. 3:28). By the time Joshua takes over from Moses, he is fully prepared for leadership, and the people are fully prepared to follow him (Deut. 34:9). For the parallel passage in Numbers, see Numbers 27:12-23.
Moses also sings his final song (Deut. 32:1-43), a prophetic text warning that Israel will not obey the covenant, will suffer terribly, but will finally experience redemption by a mighty act of God. Among other things, Moses’ words are a reminder of the dangers that may come with success. “Jacob ate his fill; Jeshurun grew fat …. He abandoned God who made him, and scoffed at the Rock of his salvation.” In times of trouble we often turn to God for help, out of desperation if nothing else. But when success comes it’s easy to scoff at God’s part in our work. We may even come to believe that our accomplishments are due solely to our own efforts, and not to God’s grace. Moses reminds the people that success can make us vulnerable to abandoning the God who made us, with disastrous results. For more on this topic, see the account of Uzziah in the TOW Bible Commentary on 2 Chronicles 26.
Then Moses exhorts the people one last time to take the law seriously (Deut. 32:46-47).
Moses’ Last Acts (Deuteronomy 32:48–34:12)
Moses’ final act before departing Israel and this world is to bless the nation tribe by tribe in the song of Deuteronomy 33:1-29. This song is analogous to Jacob’s blessing of the tribes just before his death (Gen. 49:1-27). This is apt since Jacob was the biological father of the twelve tribes, but Moses is the spiritual father of the nation. Also, in this song Moses departs Israel with words of blessing and not with words of chiding and exhortation. “Then Moses, the servant of the Lord, died” (Deut. 34:5). The text honors Moses with a title both humble and exalted, “the servant of the Lord.” He had not been perfect, and Israel under his leadership had not been perfect, but he had been great. Even so, he was not irreplaceable. Israel would continue, and the leaders who came after him would have their own successes and failures. When the people of any institution consider their leader irreplaceable, they are already in crisis. When a leader considers himself irreplaceable, it is a calamity for all.