September 4th, 2018

Joshua’s pre-Canaan story transitions from human effort to what only God can do.

Numbers 27:12-23


The back story

Next week we begin a study of the book of Joshua. It’s the story of how the Israelites entered Canaan, displaced its occupants, and divided the land among the twelve tribes. Did you know that Joshua was in his 80s when he led the conquest?

The typical church goer probably knows three facts about the man Joshua.

  • He “fit the battle of Jericho.” Even though at Jericho there wasn’t much of a battle as such, Joshua led the Israelites in their conquest.
  • “As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.” This is Joshua’s most famous quote, found toward the end of the book of Joshua.
  • The twelve spies. When the spies were sent into the land in advance of the invasion, all twelve reported that the land was “flowing with milk and honey” and that its defenders were terrifyingly large and well-equipped. Only two spies, Caleb and Joshua, urged the people to move forward.

Those are all pivotal stories about Joshua. But there is so much more in the Bible about him, and some additional facts we can reasonably deduce. So before we get into the book of Joshua, I want to tell you the back story, the first 80 years of his life.


Jewish tradition says Joshua was about 40 years old when the Israelites left Egypt. Pause and ponder that. Joshua was a slave in Egypt for forty years.

Feeling threatened by the dramatic population increase among the Hebrews, the Egyptians forced them into slavery to build Pharaoh’s granaries. Still, the Egyptians “made their lives bitter with harsh labor in brick and mortar and with all kinds of work in their fields; in all their harsh labor the Egyptians worked them ruthlessly” (Ex 1:12).

During that time, a Hebrew couple gave birth to a baby boy. The father’s name was Nun, and all we know about him was that he was descended from Joseph through Joseph’s younger son, Ephraim. Perhaps it was Nun’s hope that this little boy would be part of God’s rescue plan for the enslaved people, so he called him Hoshea, which means “salvation.” Though Moses later changed his name, the original name persisted for 80 years – like how John McCain’s mother called him “Johnny” until he died at 81.

About the time I was writing this part of my sermon yesterday, Linda and I were Facetiming with our grandson, who’s the smartest, strongest, cutest 9-month-old ever. Some children just stand out from the beginning. Hoshea may have been the kid who organized other kids playing games. As soon as Hoshea was put to work, I’m guessing he led work teams, even as a teenager.

Even in slavery or prisons or concentration camps, some individuals rise to the top. Every human situation creates leaders. Hoshea wasn’t standing around barking orders. If he was on the construction site, he was lifting the heavy loads, paying attention to detail to be sure the job was done right. I picture him with a Marine-like body and temperament in his twenties. He obeyed orders, but he commanded respect.

Although he is never named at this point in the story, Hoshea witnessed the drama when Moses, forty years his senior, demanded that Pharaoh let God’s people go. He was probably one of the foremen whose lives were made even more difficult by the stubborn Pharaoh. He witnessed the ten plagues on Egypt and may have been in Moses’ inner circle as he confronted the increasingly headstrong Pharaoh. When Hoshea’s father Nun sacrificed their family’s Passover lamb, it was for his life as the oldest son. He would have helped gather the family’s flocks, herds and kneading troughs, and also loaded up the silver, gold and clothes the Egyptians coughed up. Hoshea witnessed the miracle of the Red Sea parting and the drowning of the Egyptian army. He was there when God gave them water at Marah and manna in the desert.

Lesson one from Joshua’s life:  Wait and Trust. Remember, we’re talking about four decades of enduring extreme hardship, possibly even being mocked for his name, “Salvation.” He watched God work but was among the minority in trusting God when the people turned on Moses. When you’re waiting for God to act, do you trust him?


You may think I overstated the positives of the early story of Hoshea, but now let me tell you why. No sooner do the Hebrews cross the Red Sea and start breathing a collective sigh of relief that Pharaoh and his chariots and army were drowned than they face an unprovoked attack from a group of people called the Amalekites from the Negev, south of Canaan. They would become Israel’s nemesis for a half-century, right up to the time of King David. In the book of Exodus, they come out of nowhere to attack the Hebrew slaves. This journey to the promised land is not going to be an easy one.

Israel had to organize an army in a hurry. Where did they get weapons? We don’t know. How did they learn to fight? We don’t know. I have a hunch that Hoshea was not the only one with a Marine-like body. All that physical labor had created Herculean strength, but it was something else to put together an army.

This is the first time we run into Joshua by name. In fact, it’s probably here that Moses adds a syllable to his name. Instead of Hoshea (“salvation”) he’s called Y’hoshua (“Yahweh saves”). Moses says to him, “Choose some of our men to go out to fight the Amalekites. Tomorrow I will stand on top of the hill with the staff of God in my hands.”

Why does Moses choose Joshua from among 600,000 men? That’s why I say Joshua must have stood out during those early years. He already had the physical strength, the leadership instincts, the strong faith to know that it’s Yahweh who saves.

What’s interesting about this story, though, is how little credit Joshua gets for what happens. The text says that “Joshua overcame the Amalekite army with the sword,” but the focus of the story is not the battlefield. The real action takes place on the hill, where Moses lifts high the staff of God that had parted the Red Sea. As long as he held it up, the Israelites were winning. When it was clear he couldn’t hold up the staff indefinitely, Aaron and Hur hold his arms up. At the end of the day when the Amalekites are defeated, Moses builds an altar. But it’s not about Joshua and his heroic army. It’s about the “hands that were lifted up to the throne of the Lord.”

Lesson two from Joshua: You can’t fight alone. We don’t necessarily see Joshua as a man of prayer in the stories about him. But he wins his battle because someone else is praying. They get the credit, and Joshua is OK with that. He’s in the trenches with the sweat and the blood. God is the one who wins the victories.


After the battle against the Amalekites, God shows up at Mt. Sinai in thunder and smoke as he gives the Ten Commandments. Moses ascends the mountain with Aaron his brother, the priest, and his two sons, and seventy of the elders. When they get to a certain point, everyone stays behind except for Moses and “Joshua his aide” (Ex. 24:13). The word can also be translated “minister,” “assistant,” or “servant.” It’s used of Joseph, Joshua’s ancestor, when he was in Potiphar’s house. It’s used of other royal officers, of priests, and of angels. We might call him a “personal assistant.”

Moses and Joshua are out of sight so long that Aaron and the others return to the camp. In their impatience, the people persuade Aaron to fashion an idol, a golden calf. They worship and party, and they’re so loud that Joshua says to Moses, “There’s the sound of war in the camp” (Ex. 32:17). He would know. Only he doesn’t. What they hear is singing and dancing in their idolatrous revelry. What’s important about that story is that only Joshua avoids the idolatry in the camp because he’s with Moses.

The next place we find Joshua is at the Tent of Meeting, the place just outside the camp where the people would come to ask Moses about God’s will. Moses was the only one with direct access to the presence of the Lord. He would come and go, but Joshua “his young aide” never left (Ex. 33:7). Presumably he was the 24/7 guard.

On one of the occasions that people complain bitterly against Moses, God eases his burden by empowering seventy elders with the Spirit to prophesy. However, two others not among the seventy also prophesy. At that point Joshua says, “Moses, my lord, stop them!” (Num. 11:28). He sees himself as the protector of Moses’ authority, but he learns a lesson in humility as Moses says, “I wish the Lord would put his Spirit on everyone!” Jesus would later say, “The one who is not against us is for us” (Mark 9:40).

Lesson three from Joshua:  Leaders serve and servants lead. Remember, Joshua had already been the battlefield commander. He could easily transition to the role of helper without complaint. You can’t lead if you don’t serve.


About a year and a half out of Egypt, the Lord tells Moses to appoint one man from each tribe to “explore the land of Canaan” (13:2). Specifically, God says that each tribe must provide “one of its leaders.” From this, we know that Joshua has been exercising leadership in his own tribe of Ephraim even while he was Moses’ assistant.

The men are not actually called spies, at least not in the NIV. It seems from the account in Numbers 13 that they do what they do in the open. They move from place to place for forty days, probably interacting with people and even carrying back some of the fruit of the land in plain sight. Still, it must have been at least a little unnerving.

For ten of the twelve explorers it was overwhelmingly unnerving. Sure, the land was fertile and beautiful, but what they hadn’t expected to see were fortified cities and intimidatingly large men. The ten said, “We can’t attack these people; they are stronger than we are.” They so influenced the whole community that, after all this time and all the miracles God had done, the people were ready to return to Egypt.

Only two of the twelve explorers object. One is Caleb and the other, Joshua. They say of the Canaanites, “Their protection is gone, but the LORD is with us.” (Num. 14:9). Even in this story, it seems like Caleb gets a little more attention than Joshua does for his “different spirit” (14:24). Joshua doesn’t complain.

Lesson four from Joshua:  The majority isn’t always right. They’re not always wrong, either, but it sure is hard to do the right thing when everyone is against you. The very fact that the crowd is united in an impulsive act should at least cause suspicion.


The result of the explorer part of Joshua’s story is that God delays the conquest of the land for four decades. Once again, just because it’s a forty-year period, let’s pause and ponder that. We have no record in Numbers of what happened during those wilderness years except the record of monotony. The wilderness south of Israel and east of Egypt is a desolate place – I’ve been there. Nothing but dull tan rocks and sand in every direction as far as you can see or walk. The people had no activity but getting up every day to gather manna. It was like a four-decade Groundhog Day.

Well, there was another common activity – funerals. Every person over the age of 20 would die outside the promised land, except Joshua and Caleb.

Imagine if you’re Joshua and you have waited for this moment all your life. You have been faithful – fighting, waiting, serving, risking. Still, you have to wait forty years because of the sins of others. Imagine going through your forties, fifties, sixties, and seventies, and every day is the same. You’re not going or coming. You’re just waiting for people to die, for a generation to pass.

Lesson five from Joshua:  Life isn’t always fair. It’s not right that Joshua would have to delay when he and Caleb obeyed, risked, and trusted. Sometimes you suffer for the sins of others. It isn’t fair. Joshua doesn’t complain.


Moses, meanwhile, has been told by God that he will not be the one to lead the people into the promised land. In a story that at first offends our sense of proportion, Moses strikes the rock instead of speaking to it like God had told him. It was a moment of frustration and impatience, but Moses had begun transferring his confidence from God to himself. He didn’t honor God as holy, the passage says, and so God said, “You will not bring this community into the land I give them” (Num. 20:12).

And so we come to today’s reading in Numbers 27. It’s a one-on-one conversation between God and Moses – no priests, no elders, no Joshua. Moses is alone with God on the mountain at age 120 and God tells him his time is up.

Moses doesn’t say, “God, I’ve been grooming Joshua as my successor. Do you think he’s ready?” No, he says, “May the Lord, the God of the spirits of all flesh, set a man over the congregation to go out and come in before them (probably a reference to the Tent of Meeting, where Moses went in and out to meet God and convey God’s will to the people), one who will lead them out and bring them in (a reference to decisions when the people would stay put and when they would move), so the Lord’s people will not be like sheep without a shepherd.” In other words, “God, give them another me.”

What I like about that is that Moses isn’t presuming it’s Joshua; he leaves it up to God. And it’s God who chooses Joshua. Notice how he describes him:  “a man in whom is the spirit of leadership.” That’s how the NIV translates it. “Of leadership” is not in the original Hebrew text. The question is whether Joshua has “the spirit” or “the Spirit.” I think God is just responding to what Moses said to God. “God of everyone’s spirit,” Moses says, and God responds, “Joshua has the Spirit.”

But Joshua’s not going to be another Moses. Moses is to give Joshua “some of your authority” (not all of it), and Joshua will have to ask Eleazar the priest what God’s will is when there’s a decision to be made. Eleazar will use the Urim, an unknown object that functioned something like rolling dice or drawing straws, to determine God’s will. Joshua will be Moses’ successor, but he will not be another Moses. He will be the political and military leader, but not the spiritual leader as Moses was.

The book of Deuteronomy, Moses’ final speeches, includes several additional references to Joshua as Moses’ successor. This is the final one:  “Now Joshua son of Nun was filled with the spirit of wisdom because Moses had laid his hands on him. So the Israelites listened to him and did what the LORD had commanded Moses” (34:9).

Lesson six from Joshua:  The Spirit’s in charge. Jesus says the Spirit blows where he wills, and you can’t know his source or direction. It didn’t have to play out this way. Caleb could have been the new leader. He had a “different spirit.” Eleazar or any one of the other unnamed young generation could have been anointed by the Spirit and appointed by God. We, too, have to learn to let the Spirit direct.

Not about me

I have one more lesson from Joshua’s pre-Joshua life. Lesson seven from Joshua:  It’s not about the lessons.

I read one more commentary yesterday while preparing for the sermon. This writer warned against “moralism” when pondering Joshua – that is, turning his life into moral lessons for you and me. Why? If I make Joshua about “lessons,” I’m really making his story about me. His story isn’t about me. There’s a balance here, of course. When the Apostle Paul writes about this era of Israel’s life, he says, “These things occurred as examples” (1 Cor. 10:6). But when I make their story only about me, I easily forget that Joshua’s story is about God and his redemption.

Sometimes there are ways in which these stories parallel our own, but reading the Bible is not just about finding little ways to make our lives better or more successful by imitating them. There was only one Moses; Joshua was different. There was only one Joshua; you’re not another one. Joshua’s story is about finding our place in God’s story, not the other way around. The whole point of Joshua’s pre-Canaan story is the transition from Hoshea (“salvation”) to Y’hoshua (“the LORD saves”). It goes from human effort to what only God can do. Amen.

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