A Tale of Two Mountains

In Matthew 28:19-20, the author takes us to a mountain to fulfill the work of Moses in Deuteronomy 30-34.

In Deuteronomy 31:23, the LORD commissions Joshua as Moses successor. The commission contains these words: “Be strong and bold, for you shall bring the Israelites into the land that I promised them; I will be with you” (NRSV). I hear a resonance between this note and the note struck in Matthew 28:20. The Matthean Jesus finishes his journey as he began it: “And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (NRSV).

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The language in Deuteronomy 31:23 is in one sense unremarkable and in another sense striking. The first-person singular pronoun is emphatic. The future form of “to be” is a cognate of the Divine Name – YHWH. And the “with you” phrase has the root of Matthew’s preferred label for Jesus: “Immanuel” – “God with us.” It strikes me that the words to Joshua echo in the Matthean ears as the final words of the gospel are uttered.

The commission to Joshua is ratified with this promise of Divine presence. In Matthew 28:20, Yeshua (Jesus, Joshua) passes this promise on to his disciples. He makes the same promise the LORD made to Joshua a millennium before. Jesus commissions the disciples to go forward in the mission, confident in the continuing Divine presence just as the LORD commissioned Joshua to go forward.

The resonant language continues in Deuteronomy 32:44-47. This text is on the other side of the Song of Moses in chapter thirty-two. In particular, I am struck by the words in verse 46. Moses declares to “all Israel” – “Take to heart all the words that I am giving in witness against you today; give them as a command to your children, so that they may diligently observe all the words of this law” (NSRV).

I am struck by the intertextual harmonies when I put these words next to Matthew 28:20a – “and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you” (NRSV). Moses’ words to all Israel seem like a compelling summary of the Matthean program of discipleship training. The words echo the running desire of Deuteronomy that the Torah would be written on the hearts of God’s people and that they would do what they hear.

In fact, the word “shema” appears in the Deuteronomy text. And it is reflected, of course, in how the Matthean author understands the nature of discipleship. The wise person, described at the end of the Sermon on the Mount, for example, is the one who hears all of Jesus’ words and does them. The emphasis on hearing the words is striking. In the Deuteronomy text, we have the Hebrew debarim. In Matthew 7:24ff, we have the Greek logoi.

The “children” in the Matthean account are no longer limited to the biological offspring of Israel. Instead, the children of God (the true siblings of Jesus) are those who hear his words and do them. These are the “children” in Matthew 28 to whom the disciples are to teach everything that Jesus has commanded them. They are to keep hold of these words in obedience as baptized children of God.

Further similarities and resonances echo through these texts, but it is for real scholars to describe these connections in detail. For the Matthean author, we have “a tale of two mountains.” Moses comes to the edge of the Promised Land and gets a glimpse of it from Mount Nebo. He does not, however, enter into that blessing himself. That is for the next generation of Israel, led by Joshua. Someone else will need to complete the work that Moses has begun.

The new Joshua – Yeshua, Jesus – is, according to the Matthean author, the one who completes and fulfills and brings to perfection the work that Moses began. This is a theme of the Matthean account from beginning to end. And that theme is capped and crowned in the last words of the gospel account.

For those of us whose biblical imagination is not as enriched with the Old Testament as was Matthew’s, this connection takes some digging and stretching. I suspect that the connections were obvious and clear to the Matthean author and to many in the Matthean audience.

The Matthean work is not, therefore, appropriation or supersession. It is, rather – as the text argues repeatedly – fulfillment of the great arc of Israel’s history from Abraham to Jesus. Now the genealogy makes even more sense than it did before.

One may argue that the Matthean author has gotten it wrong. That is probably part of the intra-Jewish debate that drives the composition of the Matthean work. But one cannot argue that the Matthean work is somehow “anti-Jewish,” as has sometimes been the case. Rather, the argument is that those Jews who follow the new Joshua are on the path of completing the work begun with Moses.

Now, however, the Promised Land is not limited to a piece of real estate “on the other side of the Jordan.” The Matthean argument is that this Promised Land is all nations, all peoples, Jew and Gentile alike. The call of God’s people is to invite all into the name of the triune God and the way of life embodied in allegiance to that name. As we respond to that call, we remember that we are not alone.

Just as the Lord promised to accompany Joshua into that new land, so Jesus promises to accompany the disciples of every age into the new land of Resurrection hope and loving service to the neighbor. The “I am” of Matthew 28:20 should have no less significance as an expression of the Divine Name than any of the statements in the Gospel of John.

That fact can be lost on us as interpreters. It certainly was lost on me until I read more closely. The “I am” of the Divine Name is stitched into the commission to Joshua in Deuteronomy. It is sewn just as tightly into the Great Commission to all disciples in Matthew 28:20. Now that name has a Triune ring to it, but the presence is no different than that promised to great Joshua of old.

I’m not sure what this means entirely. But I do know that it matters deeply for our ongoing interpretation of the Matthean texts for the balance of the liturgical year.

This article addresses a similar perspective.

Sparks, Kenton L. “Gospel as conquest: Mosaic typology in Matthew 28: 16-20.” The Catholic Biblical Quarterly 68, no. 4 (2006): 651-663.

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