When Jesus ascended the mountain of Transfiguration with his disciples, “there appeared to them Moses and Elijah” (Matt 17:3 cf. Mk 9:4; Lk 9:30). There are several reasons for why these two biblical figures speak with Jesus. For instance, both Moses and Elijah meet with God on Mount Horeb (aka Sinai), so it is fitting that they also meet with God’s Son on a mountain. Alternatively, since Moses is the giver of the Torah and Elijah gives a double portion of his spirit to Elisha, the Gospel writers may be alluding to Yeshua as someone who also offers these gifts. Yet another (more interesting) possibility, found in both Scripture and later Jewish tradition, is that neither Moses or Elijah died natural deaths, but rather remained alive with God before meeting with the Messiah.
Elijah does not suffer an earthly death; instead, “Elijah went up by a whirlwind (סער; sa’ar) into the heavens (השׁמים; ha’shamayim)” (2 Kgs 2:11). Since Elisha sees this happen, he is imbued with Elijah’s spirit, so that the other prophets say, “The spirit (רוּח; ruach) of Elijah rests on Elisha” (2 Kgs 2:15). In a similar way, Moses imparts his divinely-given spirit to Joshua (see Deut 34:9), which provides a parallel to Elijah and, by extension, invites comparison between Elijah’s ascension and the obscurity of Moses’ death. Since both Eljiah and Moses impart a spirit to their successors, might Moses, like Elijah, have remained alive with God until the advent of the Messiah?
On a plain reading of Scripture, it would seem not: “Moses the servant of the Lord died” (Deut 34:5). However, Moses’ death is shrouded in some mystery, since “the Lord… buried him” so that “no one knows the place of his burial to this day” (34:6). Although Deuteronomy explicates that God “buried him,” some rabbis read the Hebrew for “him” (אתו; oto) to mean that Moses buried “himself” (!), which points to some kind of life after death (cf. Sifre Naso 32; Num. R. 10:17; Rashi on Deut 34:6). Others asserted that God did not bury Moses in the ground, but rather “hid him away for life in the World to Come” (Sifre Deut 301), which is why no one can find his earthly burial site.
The Gospel writers may well have shared rabbinic views about the obscure circumstances of Moses’ death and his continued presence with God. Thus, it is fitting for Moses and Elijah to meet with Jesus at his Transfiguration: just as Jesus’ metamorphosis on the mountain foreshadows his continued life through resurrection, Moses and Elijah’s presence undergird God’s ability to confer eternal life upon the righteous.
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