Moses is a lot like Batman.
Sure, he doesn't have as sweet a ride, but this guy is just as much of a cultural icon. And that's really what Moses is. Whether he existed or not, he's had a huge impact on Israelite (and Western) culture.
Think about King Arthur for the British, Paul Bunyan for Americans, or Cyrano de Bergerac for the French. These guys are such big figures that they get more than one moment on the cultural stage—that is, multiple versions of them appear across history. If you were doing a survey of King Arthur, you'd have to think both Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and all those silly Monty Python sketches.
Same goes for Moses.
Moses is the main squeeze in both Exodus and Deuteronomy. But because these books were probably penned at different historical and cultural moments, his character is majorly different in each. There was no J.K. Rowling to take care of the whole she-bang.
How is Deuteronomy Moses different from Exodus Moses?
What sticks out most to us is that in Exodus, Moses was a doer, not a talker. When God tells him that he's been chosen, Moses even requests a sidekick to speak for him—and he gets him in the form of his brother, Aaron. Deuteronomy is a whole new ballgame. For a guy who hated talking in Exodus, Moses talks for the entire book of Deuteronomy. Seriously, he won't shut up.
One other important difference: in Exodus, Moses is a character within a story; in Deuteronomy, Moses is the one telling the story. By the time we get to Deuteronomy, we already know all about Moses's early life and his path to becoming a leader. Now that he's already got the job, the book just depicts him doing the job. No more interview necessary.
But here's the thing. Even if we don't hear about it in Deuteronomy, we (as readers of the Bible) know what went down in Moses's early years. And if you remember correctly, he killed a guy. Murderers aren't usually famous for making laws, but it looks like Moses has turned himself around. His loyalty to the Israelites has led him to the borders of the Promised Land. And now Moses goes all parent on us, reminding his kids where they come from before letting them run free into the real world.
After all Moses has done for his people (remember how tired his arm got parting the Red Sea?!), he's probably pretty bummed to find out he won't be able to enter the Promised Land with his people.
Here's the deal. The Israelites were afraid to fight the giants in the Promised Land, and God was not happy. Don't they trust him? But this time Moses couldn't save the people from God's wrath. Except for the two believers, Joshua and Caleb, that generation of Israelites was doomed to wander the wilderness for forty years. Even worse, they didn't have a Winnebago.
Now Moses is part of the out crowd, and no matter how much he chastises the people—and boy does he do it a lot in Deuteronomy—he can't escape his fate. He says,
Even with me the Lord was angry on your account, saying, "You also shall not enter there." (1:37)
There = Promised Land. That can't feel good. And in case he'd forgotten, God comes down to remind him toward the end of Deuteronomy:
"[Y]ou shall die there on the mountain that you ascend and shall be gathered to your kin, as your brother Aaron died on Mount Hor and was gathered to his kin; because both of you broke faith with me among the Israelites at the waters of Meribath-kadesh in the wilderness of Zin, by failing to maintain my holiness among the Israelites. Although you may view the land from a distance, you shall not enter it—the land that I am giving to the Israelites." (32:50-52)
Why can't Moses enter the Promised Land? Because of something his people did or because of something he did? Can you read it both ways?
Moses is kind of a grump throughout Deuteronomy—always yelling at his people—but can you blame him? Check out what he's getting from God:
The Lord said to Moses, "Your time to die is near; call Joshua and present yourselves in the tent of meeting, so that I may commission him." So Moses and Joshua went and presented themselves in the tent of meeting, and the Lord appeared at the tent in a pillar of cloud; the pillar of cloud stood at the entrance to the tent. The Lord said to Moses, "Soon you will lie down with your ancestors. Then this people will begin to prostitute themselves to the foreign gods in their midst, the gods of the land into which they are going; they will forsake me, breaking my covenant that I have made with them."
Besides that, Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play? Talk about a downer.
Basically, God is telling Moses, "You've worked so hard for so long, and now you won't get to share in the blessings I'm bestowing on your people via this awesome land. Oh, and guess what else? The people are going to screw up again without you, and you won't be there to prevent me abandoning them this time. Sucks to be you." Talk about a crazy boss.
So what's really going on in this passage? Our educated guess is that the writers of this text had just suffered a calamity—destruction, death, and exile, the whole nine yards. Their explanation? God abandoned us because we abandoned him.
So where does that leave Moses? Because the writers are using Moses as a mouthpiece for their agenda, they need to keep him "pure." if he were to go into the land with the Israelites, wouldn't he on some level be responsible for their failure there? They want Moses to quit while he's ahead, and in order to do that, they have to deny him his life's goal. Sorry, Mo.
Moses at least gets to meet the guys who will make the journey, and he's in charge of relating to them God's laws, promises, blessings, and curses. They can take the land if they trust in God, but they have to follow the rules. They can't worship idols, they should remember their past, and they need to keep to the script. Otherwise, things will go downhill real fast.
As Moses speaks all of these words to the people, he knows that he won't be going into the Promised Land. That's it for Moses—this is the last time he comes into the Bible in the living flesh. (The dead flesh? That's another story.)
In the end, God does give Moses some peace and quiet—much needed after all the whining by the Israelites. Moses is buried in a secret place and is given the title of "greatest prophet." But be careful about how you think of Moses. The guy is never deified. He isn't given god-status (like Hercules), resurrected (like Jesus), or anything of the sort. He just dies.
Just dying means he's just a man. An extraordinary man, sure, but still just a man. No matter how many times his story has been revisited, he's never been anything other than human. This makes the whole story of Deuteronomy a lot more human; when Moses dies, the Israelites are given the chance to build a new world for themselves. It's time to bury the old and try to start over. This time, Israelites, you might not want to worship idols. Just in case you'd missed that warning.