Rorate Caeli

Saints of the Old Testament: St. Moses, lawgiver and prophet

It has been only three days since the traditional Roman Martyrology marked the deaths of the Old Testament saints Josue and Gedeon, as well as the death of St. Anna the Prophetess who lived to see the birth of the promised Messiah of Israel.  Yet another Old Testament saint -- in fact, the greatest and most significant of ancient Israel's saints -- is commemorated in the Roman Martyrology today. In recognition of his glorious memory, his name heads the list of today's martyrs and saints:
"This Day, the Fourth Day of September"

"On Mount Nebo, in the land of Moab, the holy lawgiver and prophet Moses."

The death and burial of Moses is related in the 34th chapter of Deuteronomy, an epilogue to the Pentateuch written after his death by his successor St. Josue or by one of the later prophets or historians of ancient Israel:

Then Moses went up from the plains of Moab upon mount Nebo, to the top of Phasga over against Jericho: and the Lord shewed him all the land of Galaad as far as Dan. And all Nephtali, and the land of Ephraim and Manasses, and all the land of Juda unto the furthermost sea, And the south part, and the breadth of the plain of Jericho the city of palm trees as far as Segor. And the Lord said to him: This is the land, for which I swore to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, saying: I will give it to thy seed. Thou hast seen it with thy eyes, and shalt not pass over to it. And Moses the servant of the Lord died there, in the land of Moab, by the commandment of the Lord: And he buried him in the valley of the land of Moab over against Phogor: and no man hath known of his sepulchre until this present day. (Deut. 34:1-6)

As Israel's leader, prophet, and lawgiver through whom God delivered the Israelites from bondage in Egypt in the 15th century B.C., Moses had governed Israel for 40 years.  But given man's concupiscence and tendency for idolatry, the Israelites certainly would have begun to regard their deceased lawgiver as a demigod, and would have built a shrine over the grave of Moses which soon would have become a temple of idolatry.  To prevent that, God ensured that the grave of Moses would remain secret.  The devil himself wished to use the body of Moses to lead the Chosen People astray, and apparently attempted to interfere with the holy angels whom God sent to bury Moses, but St. Michael the Archangel thwarted the devil's scheme, as St. Jude the Apostle wrote:

When Michael the archangel, disputing with the devil, contended about the body of Moses, he durst not bring against him the judgment of railing speech, but said: The Lord rebuke thee. (Jude 9)

As with all saints, the holiness of Moses and all that he achieved, and all of his miracles, were rooted in his faith in God and his hope in the Messianic promises, as St. Paul said in his Epistle to the Hebrews:

By faith Moses, when he was born, was hid three months by his parents; because they saw he was a comely babe, and they feared not the king's edict. By faith Moses, when he was grown up, denied himself to be the son of Pharao's daughter; Rather choosing to be afflicted with the people of God, than to have the pleasure of sin for a time, Esteeming the reproach of Christ greater riches than the treasure of the Egyptians. For he looked unto the reward. By faith he left Egypt, not fearing the fierceness of the king: for he endured as seeing him that is invisible. By faith he celebrated the Pasch, and the shedding of the blood; that he, who destroyed the firstborn, might not touch them. (Heb. 11:23-28)

St. Paul's identification here of the suffering and opprobrium that Moses often endured as "the reproach of Christ" reminds us that the life, deeds, and words of Moses were allegorical types that anticipated the life of Jesus Christ. Thus, God Himself told Moses that the promised Messiah would be a Prophet "like to thee":

I will raise them up a prophet out of the midst of their brethren like to thee: and I will put my words in his mouth, and he shall speak to them all that I shall command him. And he that will not hear his words, which he shall speak in my name, I will be the revenger. (Deut. 18:18-19)

So, everything that Moses accomplished was a foreshadowing of the greater things Jesus would do -- even, and especially, as Deut. 18:18 says, the giving of the Law, the Old Covenant that God ratified with Israel at Mount Sinai.  Elsewhere in the Epistle to the Hebrews, St. Paul stresses the likeness and the superiority of the New Covenant ratified by the shedding of the Precious Blood of Jesus at Mount Zion:

But now he hath obtained a better ministry, by how much also he is a mediator of a better testament, which is established on better promises. (Heb. 8:6)

"Established" in this verse is a translation (by way of the Latin Vulgate's word sanctum) of the Greek verb nenomothetetai, a word that appears only twice in the New Testament, both times in Hebrews. The other time is Heb. 7:11, where St. Paul says that the people "were given the Law" (nenomotheteto) under the Levitical priesthood which has been superseded by the Melchizedek priesthood. It's related to the Greek term nomothetes, "lawgiver," someone who hands down or issues or establishes laws -- a term the New Testament uses to refer to the actions of God and Moses in giving the Torah to Israel. From the Apostles the Catholic Church, the New Israel, learned that the Church is not bound by the regulations of the Sinaitic Torah, for the Old Covenant was superseded by the New Covenant, a better covenant, a new "Torah" as it were, "law-given" or "established as law" upon better promises. Though the two covenants do not contradict (for the old was given to prepare for the new), fidelity to the Lord is not defined by adherence to the Law of Moses, but to the teachings and commandments given by Christ and the Apostles. Salvation does not depend on circumcision, performing the Old Covenant sacraments, and being a member of the Jewish people, but on Baptism and the Catholic sacraments and formal incorporation into the Mystical Body of Christ, the Catholic Church. As God told Moses, he that will not hear Christ's words which He speaks in God's name, God will punish in His vengeance. The superiority of the New Covenant over the obsolete Old Covenant which Jesus fulfilled is further explained by St. Paul in his Second Epistle to the Corinthians, where he contrasts the glorious Old Testament with the New Testament, which has a far greater and eternal glory:

You are our epistle, written in our hearts, which is known and read by all men: Being manifested, that you are the epistle of Christ, ministered by us, and written not with ink, but with the Spirit of the living God; not in tables of stone, but in the fleshly tables of the heart. And such confidence we have, through Christ, towards God. Not that we are sufficient to think any thing of ourselves, as of ourselves: but our sufficiency is from God. Who also hath made us fit ministers of the New Testament, not in the letter, but in the spirit. For the letter killeth, but the spirit quickeneth. Now if the ministration of death, engraven with letters upon stones, was glorious; so that the children of Israel could not steadfastly behold the face of Moses, for the glory of his countenance, which is made void: How shall not the ministration of the spirit be rather in glory? For if the ministration of condemnation be glory, much more the ministration of justice aboundeth in glory. For even that which was glorious in this part was not glorified, by reason of the glory that excelleth. For if that which is done away was glorious, much more that which remaineth is in glory. Having therefore such hope, we use much confidence: And not as Moses put a veil upon his face, that the children of Israel might not steadfastly look on the face of that which is made void. But their senses were made dull. For, until this present day, the selfsame veil, in the reading of the Old Testament, remaineth not taken away (because in Christ it is made void). But even until this day, when Moses is read, the veil is upon their heart. But when they shall be converted to the Lord, the veil shall be taken away. Now the Lord is the Spirit. And where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty. But we all beholding the glory of the Lord with open face, are transformed into the same image from glory to glory, as by the Spirit of the Lord. (II Cor. 3:2-18)

St. Paul again compares Moses and Christ in the third chapter of Hebrews -- and again he stresses how the glory of Jesus surpasses the glory of Moses:

Wherefore, holy brethren, partakers of the heavenly vocation, consider the apostle and high priest of our confession, Jesus: Who is faithful to him that made him, as was also Moses in all his house. For this man was counted worthy of greater glory than Moses, by so much as he that hath built the house, hath greater honour than the house. (Heb. 3:1-3)

So much honor did God bestow upon Moses that in the vision of the Transfiguration, he appeared with the transfigured Savior of the world, along with St. Elias (Elijah), second greatest of the Old Testament prophets. Yet the important lesson for us is that when Jesus was transfigured, the souls of Moses and Elias stood silent, while the Heavenly Voice of God the Father declared, "This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased: hear ye him." (Matt. 17:5)

And of his fulness we all have received, and grace for grace. For the law was given by Moses; grace and truth came by Jesus Christ. (John 1:16-17)

All ye holy patriarchs and prophets,

Pray for us!