Joshua: The Making of a Superhero
Parashat Pinchas, Numbers 25:10–30:1
by Jared Eaton, Simchat Yisrael, W. Haven, CT, from his message at the Annual Union Conference, July 20, 2019
Adonai said to Moses, “Take Joshua son of Nun, a man in whom is the Ruach, and lay your hand on him.” Numbers 27:18 TLV
As we celebrate our fortieth anniversary, the Union is coming to the end of one generation and the beginning of a new one. Now is the moment we find out whether we continue to march boldly along the trails blazed by our pioneers or fade away into a mere footnote in the history books.
In the face of such uncertainty, with the stakes as high as they are, how can we look forward with confidence?
We are not the first to wrestle with this question. In our Torah portion we find Moses at the twilight of his career. For forty long years, Moses has led his people through every imaginable trial and, with the help of Hashem, has overcome them all. Now, Moses’s long life is drawing to an end, and God himself chooses Joshua son of Nun to lead the children of Israel. If any young leader ever had big shoes to fill, it was Joshua. And as we explore Joshua’s life, we will discover a key to having confidence as we look to the future.
Now if you were to read the story of Joshua’s leadership, you’d probably assume that he was some kind of superhero! From start to finish it's a total success story. The book of Joshua is filled with landslide victories over every enemy that Israel faces. Joshua doesn’t even need to do anything; God does the fighting for him. If this was a video game Joshua is playing on easy mode!
In addition, in contrast with the generations before and after them, Joshua’s generation is remarkably faithful to God. Joshua doesn’t have to deal with any of the rebellion and grumbling that Moses did. Israel is loyal to God and to Joshua and rewarded with victory over their enemies. The book has a happy ending with the Jews living peacefully in the land and promising Joshua that they will serve God faithfully.
This guy is a superhero. He’s perfect! Through the whole book, Joshua never makes a single mistake. He has no flaws, no faults, no failings.
Or does he? Joshua may be a superhero, but all superheroes have origins. Spider-man may be able sling webs and climb walls, but before he was bitten by a radioactive spider, he was a just skinny nerd. Captain America may have singlehandedly won World War II, but before he was given super soldier serum, he was just a skinny nerd. The Hulk may be the world’s strongest hero but before he was caught in a gamma explosion, he was . . . also a skinny nerd!
So maybe Joshua wasn’t always the superhero we see in his book. Today I want to take a look at Joshua before he was a mighty hero, back when he was still a skinny nerd learning how to be a leader at the feet of Moses. I want to dive into Joshua’s story and see how his flaws and weaknesses didn’t hold him back, but instead transformed him into one of the greatest leaders in Jewish history, and maybe find out how his example can be an encouragement to us.
We meet Joshua for the first time in Exodus 17, but Joshua doesn’t receive any kind of introduction here; he’s just thrust into the story as if we already know who he is. Perhaps the Torah wants us to focus on Joshua’s personality and character rather than on his pedigree.
But what do we know about his character? If we’re going by the nearly superhuman way he’s portrayed in his book, you would think that Joshua must have been the perfect disciple to Moses. He must have been wise and brave and a great leader, right?
It’s what you’d think, but that’s not what we find out. Let’s jump to Exodus 32, Joshua’s second appearance and the first time he speaks. Moses has gone up to Mount Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments and while he’s away the children of Israel make themselves a golden calf. God tells Moses what’s going on and Moses heads down to deal with the situation. On the way he meets Joshua who runs up to Moses and says “Do you hear that? There’s a great cry coming from the camp! It’s the sound of war! Our people are under attack!”
But Moses says, “That’s not the sound of war. It’s the sound of singing.”
This is pretty remarkable. Joshua, this guy who goes on to be one of the most successful leaders ever, is wrong the first time he speaks in Torah, and has to be corrected. Strange introduction for a great leader.
In the next chapter, Exodus 33, Moses has a tent where he goes to talk with God. Moses brings Joshua into the tent with him, and when Moses goes out to the people, Joshua stays in the tent. Joshua gets to see Moses in action, but Joshua himself remains secluded. God doesn’t speak directly to him and Joshua doesn’t speak directly to the people. We don’t get a sense that Joshua is connecting or relating very well to the people here.
Numbers 11:28 is Joshua’s next appearance and the second time we hear him speak. Moses has appointed elders over the people and two of them are prophesying in the camp. Joshua gets upset and says, “Moses, those guys are prophesying without your permission. You have to stop them!” But Moses says, “Leave them alone. Why are you angry on my account? I wish that God would put his Spirit on the entire camp.”
Pretty incredible: The second time Joshua speaks in Torah, he’s wrong again, and Moses has to correct him.
So far, Joshua’s got a pretty bad track record. In Kohelet Rabbah, the rabbis are worried that the man who one day will lead a nation of 600,000 can’t distinguish between the sound of war and the sound of worship. They’re concerned that Joshua isn’t spending time among the people and they’re worried that he isn’t spiritually mature enough for the job.
And it just gets worse. Joshua’s next appearance is the disastrous incident of the twelve spies. When the spies tell everyone that the Canaanites are too strong and that they stand no chance in a fight against them, the people start panicking. “Then Caleb quieted the people before Moses, and said, ‘We should definitely go up and capture the land, for we can certainly do it!’” (Num 13:30).
It’s Caleb, not Joshua, the next leader of Israel, who speaks up. At this moment, Joshua is silent. In the next chapter, Joshua finally speaks up and tries to encourage the people, but by then it's too late. God is already furious with the people, and they’re so panicked that they want to stone Joshua and Caleb. Maybe if he had spoken up earlier, Joshua could have changed things, but he doesn’t.
The Ramban speculates that Joshua was initially silent because he wasn’t sure whose side he was on. Eventually he would come around and trust God, but he was scared of the giants too!
Moses seems to understand this deep sense of fear in Joshua. Look at the way Moses speaks to Joshua as he’s passing on his authority to him: “Be strong, be courageous, don’t be afraid or discouraged.” And then God gets in on the act, telling Joshua four times in Joshua 1, “Be brave, be strong, don’t be afraid!”
And then even the people of Israel get on Joshua’s case! They accept his leadership, but they tell him, “We will do what you say Joshua, just be strong and courageous” (Josh 1:18).
When the people have to tell Joshua to be brave and strong, do they really have confidence that he can lead them? The Talmud doesn’t seem to think so. It teaches that when Moses died, the elders lamented, “Alas, Moses’s face is like the sun and Joshua’s is like the moon!” The moon is a pale reflection of the sun. How will Joshua lead the nation when he is just a pale reflection of Moses?
The story of the Jewish people has always been the story of how God uses the most unlikely people to do the greatest things. Perhaps God chose Joshua because he knew he could transform Joshua’s weaknesses into his greatest strengths.
Let's look back at that incident with the spies and I’ll show you what I mean. When the spies bring back a bad report, Israel divides into factions. Moses and Caleb on one side, with the ten bad spies and the rest of Israel on the other.
The only one who doesn’t take sides is Joshua. He stands in both worlds. He feels the fear of the people, but he also has the faith of Moses. And he becomes a man who understands fear but doesn’t allow it to rule him. This is what makes him such a powerful leader.
The children of Israel don’t have to complain to Joshua because they know he’s worried about the same things they are. They trust Joshua because he is one of them and they know he has their back.
Moses is the sun and Joshua is the moon and, yes, that means that Joshua in some ways is less than Moses. But the thing is, you can look at the moon, but you can’t look at the sun. Joshua was accessible and relatable to the people in ways that Moses never was.
When Moses first approached. God at the burning bush, God told Moses, “Come no closer. Take your sandals off your feet, for the place where you are standing is holy ground” (Exod 3:5).
Well Joshua had a similar experience. When he encountered the commander of God’s army, the Angel told him, “Take your sandal off your foot, for the place where you are standing is holy” (Josh 5:15).
It sounds the same, but the difference the rabbis point out is that Joshua was told to remove only one sandal.
When Moses stood before God, he took off both his sandals, because Moses lived completely in God’s world. He stood with both feet in heaven. But God told Joshua, “Leave one sandal on. You’re going to need it.”
When I read the book of Joshua, I’m encouraged as a young leader, and I think that our Messianic congregations can be encouraged as well.
I believe that our young messianic leaders are here, in the roles we are in, because God has a purpose and a mission for us. And though we may be different from those who came before us, just as Joshua was different from Moses, God will still use us in both our strengths and our weaknesses for something glorious.
To our young leaders, I say embrace who you are. Have confidence in yourself and your style of leadership.
Congregations, support and encourage your new leaders. They will be different from the men who came before them, but give them room to grow and learn and I’m confident God will do great things with us.
And I encourage us all to follow the example of Joshua, and even as we grow closer to God, to never forget to leave one sandal on. We should never become so holy that we lose the ability to reach out and relate to and understand other people. As we follow the example of Messiah Yeshua we should always remember that light shines brighter out in the open than it does under a basket, and our feet can walk the path of righteousness better when one foot is on the ground.
Illustration: Marvel Comics.