Joshua/Judges Week 2
From Moses to Joshua: Joshua 1:1–18
Assistant Professor of New Testament, George Fox University
Read this week’s Scripture: Joshua 1:1–18
My family owns the classic Indiana Jones trilogy on DVD and my favorite film in the series is Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989), where the dashing archaeologist and adventurer pursues the legendary Holy Grail along with his father, Henry Jones Sr. — another scholar who has spent his life obsessed with finding this sacred relic. We learn, from a flashback to Indiana’s childhood, that for many years Henry Sr. kept meticulous notes about the Grail in a diary.
After Henry mysteriously disappears, Indiana begins a journey of rescue and discovery, using the Grail diary as his guide to find both father and chalice (all the while fighting off Nazis, with a sprinkling of humor). In the end, while Henry spent decades studying the Grail and dreaming of unearthing it in all its glory, Indiana is the one who is privileged with walking the final road to the inner sanctum of a temple where the cup lies.
Taking into account that all analogies are limited and only partially applicable, I find this story helpful in understanding the book of Joshua. Moses, the “father,” so to speak, of Israel, leads his people out of Egypt and mediates the giving of Torah — the guide and blueprint for how Israel is to carry out her role in God’s great vision of restoring the world.
Part of Israel’s calling is the fulfillment of the promises to Abraham of prosperity and, in particular, the procurement of the Promised Land — the territory of the Canaanites. Moses must have spent much time thinking and dreaming about that great land “flowing with milk and honey.” It was his Holy Grail! And yet he was not destined to be the one to lead the charge as his people take hold of that land (Number 20:12). Instead, the task falls to Moses’ apprentice, a son-like figure, Joshua.
From Moses to Joshua
Joshua was a natural choice as the one to take Moses’ baton and lead the people into Canaan. At many key moments in Israel’s history, Joshua was with Moses. For example, when Moses first went up Mount Sinai to hear from the Lord, Joshua alone was permitted to travel with him up the mountain, because he served Moses as his “assistant.” Another duty that Joshua had was guarding the tent where Moses met with the Lord (Exodus 33:11).
Joshua was fit for the part not only because he was a good servant of Moses.’ Before his official conquest of Canaan, he had already done reconnaissance work on the land alongside representatives from the other tribes of Israel (Numbers 13:1–16) [see Author’s Note 1]. The command was given by the Lord for these “spies” to survey the land and its resources as well as size up the inhabitants. The group consensus, when the report was given to the Israelites, was that the people of that land were too intimidating and unconquerable.
Only Caleb and Joshua, among the 12 spies, had the courage to trust the power and promises of the Lord despite these odds and challenges. Their brave response to the people’s fears and doubts was so audacious that the congregation of Israel took up stones to kill them — only the Lord’s own intervention spared Joshua and Caleb. So Joshua was a natural choice to be the leader of the people as they cross over into the land gifted to them, because he “wholeheartedly followed the Lord” (Numbers 32:12).
At the ripe age of 120 years old (!), Moses addresses the people: my time is over. The Lord has not permitted me to enter the land, but Joshua will lead the charge and God himself will fight for you (see Deuteronomy 31:1–6). The Lord speaks a message of warning to Moses and a word of commission to Joshua.
To Moses he foretells a sad future in which Israel will fail and succumb to the temptations to worship foreign and false gods; they will break the covenant and face God’s own anger. Moses is given a testimonial song for the Israelites to sing and teach to their children to remind them of this weakness and waywardness.
To Joshua the Lord promises to be with him as the people’s leader — a promise very similar to the one that he gave to Moses when he appeared to him in a burning bush and called him to confront Pharaoh.
Be strong and courageous! Three times at the end of Deuteronomy (31:6, 7, 23) and three times in the first chapter of Joshua (1:6, 9, 18), the exhortation is given to “Be strong and courageous.” No doubt this invasion of Canaan was a terrifying and insane tactic from a human political standpoint. However, in light of the predictive warnings that the Lord gave to Moses, the importance of fortitude was needed not only for physical agility and military might, but also to avoid giving in to temptation.
In a way, the journey in the Promised Land would try the wisdom and faith of the Israelites (and of Joshua in particular). In Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Indy is forced down a path to the Holy Grail that involved successfully completing a series of tests. When he is confronted with dead bodies that failed the first “test,” he realizes that these trials are not won by demonstrations of academic knowledge or of sheer muscle.
Rather, these challenges that stand between him and his destiny (with the Grail) will require the wisdom of faith (especially in the counsel of his father’s encyclopedic diary). So also, Joshua is told not to lose his focus, but to stay zeroed in on the divine promise and the presence of God, who will guide his way and deliver him from danger.
The downfall of the people whose dead bodies littered the ground over which Indy stepped was probably twofold. First, they rushed in, blinded by ambition and greed. Second, they did not have the wisdom and direction of the Grail diary that Henry had filled with critical information for successfully passing the trials of faith.
This is nearly the same image we have in Joshua 1:1–9, where the single most important kind of training Joshua can undergo and pass on to the people is a dedication to the law of Moses, which was designed to make their efforts fruitful and successful (1:7). Ignoring this law even slightly would lead them down a dangerous path.
In 1:8, Joshua is given specific advice: “This book of the law shall not depart from your mouth; you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to act in accordance with all that is written in it.” One might expect, when the Lord is giving advice to Joshua on the brink of siege warfare, that mention would be made of military strategy and training.
However, all we get is a repeated reminder to steady attention on the law and its wise and profitable counsel. This “law” is not an army manual. It is a covenantal document that lays out the identity and character of God, his dealings with his people Israel, and the high standards he has for their obedience to him in every way.
More specifically, it sets out why they are being given the land and eventually how they are to live worship-filled lives in honor of their Lord in that land. In a way, Torah is homeless and only theoretical until Israel engages in full obedience to it in the context of its rightful residence — the land promised to Abraham and his descendants.
Turning a final time to Indy’s story, Henry is lying on the ground, wounded by a gunshot, and the Grail is all that can save him now (with its magical healing properties). Indy must set forth, guided by the Grail diary (the “law of Henry” so to speak!) in pursuit of the long-hoped-for artifact. When he comes to the first trial, he carefully whispers, over and over, the cryptic clue that will help him succeed where so many pursuers have failed. “The Breath of God …. Only the penitent man will pass.” He mumbles repeatedly as he walks carefully, “Only the penitent man will pass … the penitent man … the penitent man ….”
When Joshua is charged with following the law of Moses, he is told not to let this book “depart from his mouth” and that he should always be meditating on it. I think that Indy’s constant whispers offer a nice illustration as he knows that survival requires the kind of concentration on this prescient book, which leads him to a point of almost sacred trust in it.
Sometimes Christians reflect on the Old Testament law as a sterile and outdated burden, something that is, thankfully, superseded by the appearance of Christ. However, if we think of it as Henry’s diary — a personal record from a trusted guide that makes one fit for the task ahead, then it can be seen to be beloved and treasured.
And lest one think that Jesus preached a message only of “freedom” and “forgiveness,” without responsibility and demand, we might turn to Matthew 19:17, where Jesus says, “If you want to enter life, obey the commandments.” Also, Jesus says in John 14:21, “Whoever has my commands and obeys them, he is the one who loves me. He who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I too will love him and show myself to him.”
Joshua, Beginning to End
Why is the book called “Joshua?” Old Testament books were often named after the key character in the story, whether it is Job or Jonah, Ruth or Esther. While the story of the book of Joshua is, in one sense, about the Lord and his people, we are meant to trace Joshua’s own journey in his faith and leadership. The beginning and ending of the book give us a clue regarding Joshua’s development as God’s unique agent. In 1:1, we read that, “After the death of Moses the servant of the Lord, the Lord spoke to Joshua son of Nun, Moses’ assistant.” Moses was the Lord’s servant, and Joshua was Moses’ servant. At the end of the book, 24:29, we learn of Joshua’s own last moments: “After these things [which involved the Israelite’s renewal of the covenant] Joshua son of Nun, the servant of the Lord, died, being one hundred ten years old.” From there the mantle of leadership is carried on by judges, but that is a story for later.
One final note that is important for a Christian reading of Joshua. The name “Joshua,” as mentioned last week, means “YHWH saves [or rescues].” When the Son of God is born, he is given the name “Jesus,” which is the Greek version of the same Hebrew name Joshua. Mary is told to name him this “because he will save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21). Saint John Chrysostom has this to say regarding such a connection:
The name of Jesus (Joshua) was a type. For this reason then, and because of the very name, the creation reverenced him. What then! Was no other person called Jesus (Joshua)? But this man was on this account so called as a type; for he used to be called Hoshea. Therefore the name was changed: for it was a prediction and a prophecy. He brought in the people into the promised land, as Jesus into heaven .…”
Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: Joshua, Judges, Ruth, 1–2 Samuel
(Franke and Oden), p. 2.
We can leave aside whether or not Chrysostom is right about Joshua’s name being a prophecy or prediction. The more striking element here is the parallel between Joshua and Jesus in terms of leadership and procurement of promise. Joshua led Israel into the Promised Land — the land belonging to the Lord and given to his people, though currently occupied by hostile and powerful people.
Jesus was also sent with YHWH’s delivering power to take control of a land. While Chrysostom calls it “heaven,” I think it is better understood as a reclaiming of all of the earth and the heavens as belonging to the Lord and restored to him. Israel’s territory is conventionally called the Holy Land — holy because the Holy God has marked off that land as his special possession for his people to pay worship to him there.
Again, taking a cue from Chrysostom, “Jesus” sends his disciples out into all of creation (Mark 16:15) and makes it, as it were, a “Holy World” — a new creation coming under the possession and true ownership of the one God so that true worship can take place. So the story of Joshua son of Nun foreshadows God’s work of redemption and looks ahead to a greater conquest with the kingdom of God and “Joshua,” son of Mary through the Holy Spirit.
Questions for Further Reflection
- How do you think Joshua would have felt, having been handed the reins of leadership from Moses and looking ahead to a military conflict with the Canaanites?
- The Lord’s counsel to Joshua in 1:1–18 is to keep the “book of the law” close and meditate on it to ensure success. This passage is often mentioned in discussions of the importance of Scripture. What do you think 1:8 communicates about what Scripture is and how it benefits and affects the lives of believers? What are ways that you might incorporate a daily or weekly rhythm of meditating on Scripture into your own life or the life of your church?
- A key part of 1:1–18 is God’s promise in 1:9 that he will be with Joshua always. Can you think of other stories and contexts in Scripture (Old or New Testament) where we see this kind of promise of God’s presence repeated in light of peril and fear? Knowing this as a key aspect of God’s character, how might this be an encouragement to you today?
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The comparison of the textual context of Joshua to the Indiana Jones Last Crusade is interesting, but leaves me
at a loss as to how the writer of the text strove to preserve history and at the same time instill the Deutero historical
threads that today are difficult at best to verify archeologically. Perhaps a historical perspective of the author of the
text corroberated with the intent to preserve the theological historical identity of the Hebrews is of value first?
From Dr. Gupta:
“Historical investigation of the ‘reality’ behind the Scriptural stories is an age-old concern, and one that has its place. However, as you already well know, trying to corroborate the factual history is messy business, not because the authors were trying to be deceptive, but because they could so easily transition into literary flourishes like metaphors, metonymy, allusions, etc… With my students I use this example: imagine that someone asked me to tell the story of the first time I met my wife, Amy. I might say, ‘It was early fall and I was walking from the chapel to the cafeteria. When I laid eyes on her, the birds started chirping and I was light as a feather.”
Was this story factual or non-factual? Was it “historical”? Most people who understood what I was trying to say would know this story to be “true,” but it contains some bare facts (time of year and setting), and some metaphors. You would need to know the culturally-embeded idea that “birds chirping” conveys the idea of happiness. Being “light as a feather” would seem quite obviously metaphorical. So, even in this kind of story, the blending of fact and metaphor (literal and non-literal) is somewhat seamless and the author expects the hearer to pick up on the difference.
There is something important to note here. No one who asks me how I met my wife is really interested in dates and places per se, though they do set up the story. They want to learn about our background and relationship because of their interest in us. So, when I tell the story, I am not necessarily obsessing over all the “facts,” because of my goals and the context of the original conversation and question.
All this is to say that, while we cannot verify or prove that what Joshua talks about is the “history of Israel” in a sort of pristine factual sense, when we take into account that these were people-forming and identity-shaping stories, we may miss the point altogether if we chase down every detail for apologetic verification and do not take the time to think through the deeper themes and theological meaning in the text. I firmly believe the author(s) of Joshua and Judges were interested in telling their national “story” as they knew it – that was “history” to them and if you asked “is this the truth,” they would say “yes.” It is just a different context of conversation than those that take place when we try to verify historical facts archaeologically. Hope that helps!”