Exegetical Exercise

Image - Joshua (weaing a Jewish hat) meets an angel in a medieval miniature

Joshua meets the angelic leader of the hosts of heaven
By Anonymous (Meister 2) (Hochschul- und Landesbibliothek Fulda)
[Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

This week’s text for exegesis is the first chapter of Joshua – mainly 1-9, but the whole chapter rounds out a longer extended unit of text that begins in Deuteronomy 31. So chapter 1 begins the book of Joshua, but it is the end of a transitional section that makes the shift from Moses’ leadership of the Israelites to Joshua’s. The transitional nature of the text is interesting in itself: it acknowledges that leadership succession poses challenges, and it illustrates something of how those challenges were faced and met in this case.

There is this liminal space created in the text by the death of Moses … it talks about Moses dying and then something happens and then a little more about Moses dying and then something else and then a little more memory of Moses … it seems to me this is exactly how it is when someone dies; you do things, you take care of living, and then you stop to notice that they have died and grieve, and then a little more work, and then grief, and so on and on … the idea is to have the periods between moments of grief get a little bit longer day by day, week by week, month by month, year by year … until it is part of the background, instead of the thing that is happening right now. That seems to be what happens between Deuteronomy 31 and Joshua 1. In Joshua 1, explicitly, there’s a double underscore: “after the death of Moses” God says directly to Joshua “Moses my servant is dead.” Sort of … OK, that was then, this is now. Rashi says God is saying to Joshua … I would go with Moses if I could, but I can’t, so, now it’s on you.

The emphasis on Moses’ monumental leadership through this whole text seems significant. Joshua has been working for and with Moses for a long time; he has been loyal – one of the spies who advocated entering the land back in Numbers 13-14; he has stood firm with Moses against criticism in that episode. But really, he is not Moses, and the text says this: there was never anyone again like Moses. Joshua has to be aware of this … that he is not Moses. I would be acutely aware of it, if I were Joshua.

Maybe this is why Joshua needs so much instruction, these charges, to be “strong and courageous” (NRSV) or “strong and resolute” (JPS). It is really striking how often Joshua hears these words, and who Joshua hears these words from.

If we take the whole extended unit, starting with Moses’ announcement to the community that he is stepping down from leadership (first he says it’s because he’s old, but then we find out that God has told him he is going to die), in Dtr. 31:1, here’s how the strong and courageous/resolute language comes up:

Dtr. 31:6 – Moses to the people, including Joshua
Dtr. 31:7 – Moses specifically to Joshua
Dtr 31:23 – God to Joshua
Joshua 1:6 – God to Joshua
Joshua 1:7 – God to Joshua, with the intensifier (be very courageous/resolute)
Joshua 1:18 – the people (the Gileadites – the Reubenites, the Gadites, and the ½ tribe of Manasseh) to Joshua … it seems, on the condition that God will be with Joshua as God was with Moses. But God has already assured Joshua of this. The mention that the people are going to obey Joshua “just as we did Moses” seems a little … ambiguous to me, considering that we know the people didn’t obey Moses very well at all.

Joshua is in a sense “revealed” or displayed, to the people but I think also to himself as the next leader:
In Dtr 31:7-8 Moses delivers his charge to Joshua in the sight of all Israel
In Dtr. 31:14-15, God appears to Moses and Joshua in the Tent of Meeting in a pillar of cloud; this seems to serve as Joshua’s ordination from God
In Dtr 34:9, Joshua the son of Nun is filled with the spirit of wisdom because Moses had laid his hands upon him; and the Israelites heeded him, doing as the L had commanded Moses.
In Joshua 1, God speaks directly to Joshua – after Moses died, explicitly the beginning of the account in Joshua 1. After this, Joshua actually speaks first to the leaders of the people, and then to the people whose families will be staying east of the Jordan.

The “strong” language always raises questions for me. What does it mean to be strong, in a leadership context? I ask this question a lot, because “strong” gets mentioned in many different contexts, and in particular in the context of leadership, and these texts are clearly in the contexts of leadership … what does it mean for someone to be a “strong leader”? People will say all the time “we need a strong leader,” and I think … well, what do you mean by “strong” in this context? You’re probably not thinking of someone who’s good in a sword fight, or can break someone’s neck with their bare hands, so what exactly do you mean?

Here in Joshua, it might mean … not weak, maybe “not indecisive” or “not iffy”. Coupled with “resolute” or “courageous,” it seems to mean – but presumably isn’t the identical thing – as not backing down or away from a scary challenge. Able to bear up, not to collapse, under pressure, under assault perhaps. Able to withstand large forces. Ideally, able to withstand large forces and to prevail.

So, you brace yourself, you get yourself prepared and strengthened, and then you face up to whatever comes next.

There is language also about the land. The boundaries of the land – it’s big, from their perspective. People are going to be participating who have a chance to stay on the far side of the Jordan, and who need to come help – so Joshua’s first act as leader is to tell people to get ready – three days – and then to ensure the cooperation of the Gileadites. Just, something to note.

He has God’s assurance that God will be with him. The Gileadites make this the condition of their following Joshua, too – that God is with him, as God was with Moses. And the assurance that God is with you seems like it ought to encourage a person to be strong (at least in the sense of “not weak” or “not iffy”) and resolute/courageous. In the Hadith of Gabriel (a lot later, Islam), ihsan, doing what is beautiful, requires acting like you see God all the time, because even if you don’t see God, you know God sees you. That sense of God’s constant presence seems to be implicit here: what does it mean to be strong? It means to move forward as if you can see God, because even if you can’t see God, you know God sees you.


About HAT

Heather Thiessen (HAT) is a happily married 60-ish, Bible-reading, Presbyterian Church Sunday School teaching and choir singing, small fuel efficient car driving, still pretty much 2nd wave feminist and generally out lesbian Hoosier mom. (There are no monochrome states.) From time to time she teaches religious studies to students at a small liberal arts college in Louisville, Kentucky.
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