Evidence #129 | December 22, 2020

Translation of Moses

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Scripture Central


Some Jewish and Samaritan texts point to an early tradition that Moses was translated, just as the Book of Mormon suggests.

Alma’s Mysterious Disappearance

After many years of preaching to the people of Nephi, the prophet Alma counseled with his sons, prophesied about the future, and blessed the Church. After reporting these details, Mormon notes the peculiar circumstances regarding Alma’s disappearance: “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” (Alma 45:18). Mormon then gives the following explanation:

Behold, this we know, that [Alma] 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 45:19) 

Alma the Younger and his son Helaman clasping hands. Image via churchofjesuschrist.org.

The description of Moses being “buried by the hand of the Lord” seems to be 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 account of Alma’s departure 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 that indicated Moses was “taken up by the Spirit” and that the Lord “took Moses unto himself.” Interestingly, some Samaritan and Jewish traditions from Late Antiquity lend support to this idea.

Variant Traditions about the Death of Moses

The enigmatic passage in Deuteronomy about the death of Moses gave rise to numerous Jewish and Samaritan stories. These have been the object of research by many scholars during the last century. “The death of Moses,” writes Samuel Loewenstamm, “occupied the mind of apocryphal and midrashic writers unceasingly. They never tired of seeking new and innovative ways to understand it.”1

In some versions, Moses cleverly evades the efforts of the angel of death to take his soul, only to die later in peace, literally buried by God himself or other heavenly beings.2 In these “Moses died, not at the hand of the Angel of Death, who was powerless to carry out the Lord’s mission, but rather at the hand of God himself.”3 Moses in these tales does not escape death, but it lacks any terror, is instantaneous, or more like falling asleep.

Another set of traditions describe Moses as he ascends the mountain where he is enveloped in glory. In the Jewish text Pseudo-Philo, which dates to the first century AD, the Lord tells Moses that he will glorify and bury him in peace. At these words, “his appearance became glorious; and he died in glory according to the word of the Lord, and he buried him as he promised him.” The text goes on to says that “he buried him with his own hands on a high place and in the light of all the world.”4

Testament and Death of Moses, by Luca Signorelli and Bartolomeo della Gatta. (1482)

Ascent and Glorification

Perhaps the best known non-biblical account of Moses’ death is that of the Jewish historian Josephus, who wrote at the end of the first century AD.

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.5

A much more elaborate account of Moses’ departure can be found in the Samaritan Memar Marqah. In this narrative, Moses ascends the mount and is surrounded by clouds and angels. He is then given an expansive vision of the earth and the future.

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.6

Both Josephus and the Samaritan text share the idea of Moses being surrounded in glory as he ascended the mount and being hidden from the people below, a feature not found in the biblical account. James Purvis believes 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.”7 According to Loewenstamm, “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.”8

Traditions That Moses Did Not Die

The Death of Moses. Illustration from a Bible card published 1907 by the Providence Lithograph Company. 

Josephus’ account of Moses’ departure shows that he was aware of a tradition in his day that Moses escaped death, a view that he denies. Examples of this alternative view can, however, be found in other Jewish writings, such as Philo of Alexandria9 and some rabbinical sources which held that “Moses never died”10 and that he in fact “continues to minister above.”11 It appears, notes another biblical scholar, 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.”12

The Samaritan Book of Joshua was translated into Arabic in medieval times, but some scholars believe it to be based upon a Hebrew original and Samaritan sources, some of which can be traced to the Hellenistic period.13 The text contains similarities to the account from Josephus and the Memar Marqah, but also has significant details not found in those versions. Moses’ tearful farewell is described as he ascends the mountain.

And when the time came to bid farewell to each individual army, 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.14

The Samaritan writer of the Book of Joshua, unlike the writer of Deuteronomy, does not know what happened to Moses after he was lost from view. The text 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.15 

Biblical Sources Pointing to the Translation of Moses

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 interprets the passage in Deuteronomy 34:5–6 as “a toning down” or a polemic against a tradition of Moses’ translation already known to the biblical writer.16

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.17 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 2:4–6). 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.”18

Yair Zakovitch also thinks that the account of Elijah found in Kings indirectly points to an older and original tradition of the translation of Moses. “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.”19 He thinks that “the original story of Moses’ ascent has disappeared, but its light still shines through in the Elijah story.”20

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 stated in the text of Deuteronomy, but it is said of Elijah who is portrayed in Kings as a new Moses. Note also the similarity here with the fate of Alma who was thought to have been “taken up by the Spirit” and that the Lord had “received Alma in the spirit, unto himself” (Alma 45:19). It may even be possible that the author of this passage in the Book of Mormon was familiar with the accounts in both Deuteronomy 34 and 2 Kings 2, and was intentionally alluding to both.  

Transfiguration of Jesus, by Greg Olsen. As recorded in the New Testament (Matthew 17:1–8), Jesus was accompanied at this time by Moses and Elijah. 

In addition to preserving the tradition of Moses’ burial as  found in the book of Deuteronomy, the information about Moses’ translation found in Alma 45 is consistent with non-biblical Jewish and Samaritan traditions. In a way, the Book of Mormon seems to merge the two traditions by clarifying what it meant for Moses to have been “buried by the hand of the Lord”—i.e. he was “taken up by the Spirit” (Alma 45:19). The narrator of the Book of Mormon account (whether that be Mormon or perhaps an underlying author) doesn’t seem to recognize a discrepancy in these ideas.

Whatever the case may be, it is plausible that the tradition of Moses being translated (rather than dying and being buried) was included in the plates of brass which contained history, genealogy, and prophecies from the Nephites’ Josephite ancestors (1 Nephi 5:10–19; 3 Nephi 10:16–17). This possibility is especially inviting because the tribe of Joseph (divided among Ephraim and Manasseh), shared with the Samaritans a common geographical and cultural heritage in northern Israel, thus providing a channel through which this non-biblical tradition could have been known to both groups.

Rella Kushelevsky, Moses and the Angel of Death (New York, NY: Peter Lang, 1995).

George W. E. Nickelsburg, eds., Studies on the Testament of Moses (Society of Biblical Literature, 1973).

1 Nephi 5:10–191 Nephi 6:2Alma 10:3Alma 45:18Alma 45:193 Nephi 5:20–233 Nephi 10:16–17

1 Nephi 5:10–19

1 Nephi 6:2

Alma 10:3

Alma 45:18

Alma 45:19

3 Nephi 5:20–23

3 Nephi 10:16–17

  • 1 Samuel Loewenstamm, “The Death of Moses,” in Studies in the Testament of Moses, ed. W. E. Nickelsburg, Jr. (Society of Biblical Literature, 1973), 185.
  • 2 Louis Ginzberg, The Legends of the Jews, 7 vols. (Philadelphia, PA: Jewish Publication Society, 1928), 6:952; Loewenstamm, “The Death of Moses,” 205–207; Edward Ullendorff, “The ‘Death of Moses’ in the Literature of the Falashas,” Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, 24 No. 3 (1961): 419–443.
  • 3 Loewenstamm, “The Death of Moses,” 205.
  • 4 Pseudo-Philo 19:16, in James H. Charlesworth, ed., The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, 2 vols. (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1985), 2:328; Michael Wadsworth, “The Death of Moses and the Riddle of the End of Time in Pseudo-Philo,” Journal of Jewish Studies 28 (1977): 12–19.
  • 5 Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, Book 4, Chapter 8, verse 48, in The Works of Josephus, ed. and trans. William Winston (Hendrickson: 1980), 115.
  • 6 John Macdonald, ed. and trans., Memar Marqah: The Teaching of Marqah (Berlin: Verlag Alfred Topelmann, 1963), 2:206.
  • 7 James D. Purvis, “Samaritan Traditions on the Death of Moses,” in Studies in the Testament of Moses, 110.
  • 8 Loewenstamm, “The Death of Moses,” 198.
  • 9 Philo, “On the Life of Moses,” 11:288–291, in The Works of Philo, ed. and trans. C. D. Yonge (Hendrickson, 1993), 517.
  • 10 B. Sota 13b.
  • 11 Sifre Deut 357 and Midrash Tannaim 224.
  • 12 Howard W. Teeple, The Mosaic Eschatological Prophet (Philadelphia, PA: Society of Biblical Literature, 1957), 42. See also C. Houtman, “Moses,” in Dictionary of Deities and Demons in the Bible, ed. Karel van der Toorn, Bob Becking, and Pieter Willem van der Horst (Leiden: Brill, 1999), 596.
  • 13 Moses Gaster, “The Samaritan Hebrew Sources of the Arabic Book of Joshua,” Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society Society (July 1930): 567–599.
  • 14 Oliver Turnbull Crane, ed. and trans., The Samaritan Chronicle or Book of Joshua the Son of Nun (New York, NY: John B. Alden, 1890), 30–31.
  • 15 Crane, The Samaritan Chronicle, 31. These accounts can be favorably compared to the uncertainty regarding the fate of Alma: “And it came to pass that he was never heard of more; as to his death or burial we know not of” (Alma 45:18).
  • 16 Loewenstamm, “The Death of Moses,” 198.
  • 17 Havilah Dharamraj, A Prophet Like Moses? A Narrative Theological Reading of the Elijah Stories (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2011).
  • 18 Dale Alison, The New Moses: A Matthean Typology (Eugene, OR: Wipf& Stock, 1993), 42.
  • 19 Yair Zakovitch, “And You Shall Tell Your Son . . .” The Concept of the Exodus in the Bible (Jerusalem: Hebrew University, 1991), 73–74.
  • 20 Zakovitch, “And You Shall Tell Your Son . . .,79.
Translation of Moses
Book of Mormon

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