Faith & Obedience
Yehoshua exhibits consistent faith in Hashem, being one of the few in his generation not to participate in either of the nation's two biggest debacles in the Wilderness, the Sin of the Golden Calf and the Sin of the Spies. In fact, never once in all of Tanakh is Yehoshua criticized for sinning or for lacking faith.1 Moreover, Yehoshua 24:31 shares that the nation as a whole were god-fearing and served Hashem throughout Yehoshua's life. This is unique in the history of Israel. That Yehoshua is the only leader to merit such a loyal generation says much about who he was.
Several verses highlight the close relationship that Yehoshua had with Moshe:
- "משרת משה" (Shemot 24:13) – Yehoshua is referred to as Moshe's "servant" four times.2 It is not clear from the text what duties are included in "serving Moshe." Bemidbar Rabbah suggests that Yehoshua was around early and late, setting up benches and readying rooms of meeting / learning, while Yalkut Shimoni implies that Yehoshua took care of Moshe's various physical needs. Regardless, the title highlights the close connection between the two leaders, and suggests that Yehoshua might have been groomed from early on to be Moshe's successor.3
- "לֹא יָמִישׁ מִתּוֹךְ הָאֹהֶל" (Shemot 33:11) – After the Sin of the Golden Calf, when Moshe erects his personal tent outside the camp, we are told that though Moshe would return to the camp, Yehoshua "did not depart from the tent". What does this mean? What does it teach about Yehoshua?
- Torah scholar – Ralbag and Netziv explain that Yehoshua spent his days delving into the Torah taught him by Moshe.4 This diligence, Ralbag claims, is what merited Yehoshua to prophesy and lead the nation. Though we often think of Yehoshua as primarily a military leader, these sources emphasize his great Torah knowledge and devotion to Moshe's teachings as well.5
- Trusted guard – Seforno suggests that it was Yehoshua's job to watch over Moshe's tent and guard that others from Israel would not enter. Ibn Kaspi adds that this highlights the trust Moshe had in Yehoshua, allowing him full access to and responsibility over his private tent.
- Inferior to Moshe – Shadal, in contrast, suggests that the verse is not lauding Yehoshua, but rather highlighting the difference in level between him and Moshe. While Moshe went to the tent's entrance so as to hear Hashem "face to face," Yehoshua was relegated to the inside, where Hashem's voice did not reach.6
- "אֲדֹנִי מֹשֶׁה כְּלָאֵם" (Bemidbar 11:26-29) – After Eldad and Medad begin to prophesy in the camp, Yehoshua tells Moshe "אֲדֹנִי מֹשֶׁה כְּלָאֵם". From Moshe's reaction, "הַמְקַנֵּא אַתָּה לִי", it is clear that Yehoshua's accusation is motivated by a desire to protect Moshe's honor. Commentators offer several explanations of what it was that bothered Yehoshua, but all agree that he was acting to ensure that the people respect Moshe's authority and recognize his unique status:
- Content of prophecy – Eldad and Medad were prophesying about Moshe's upcoming death and Yehoshua's succession (Rashi). To Yehoshua, the loyal servant, speaking about Moshe's replacement bordered on rebellion.
- Appearance of equality – In contrast to the elders who were able to prophesy only via partaking of Moshe's spirit,7 Eldad and Medad prophesied on their own, with no connection to Moshe's abilities. This made it appear as if they might have independent capabilities that could compete with Moshe. This appearance of potential equality led to Yehoshua's zealous response. (R. Hirsch)
- Acting without permission – Alternatively, Yehoshua believed that the two were acting without permission (R"Y Bekhor Shor). Yehoshua was upset by such disregard of Moshe's authority.
See discussion below regarding Yehoshua's military leadership.
The transition of leadership from Moshe to Yehoshua is one of the only smooth transitions of leadership in all of Tanakh. Yehoshua takes on the mantle without opposition and appears to be respected from the very beginning of his tenure. How did he accomplish this?
- Yehoshua's relationship to Moshe – Yehoshua's prior role as Moshe's servant both lent him credibility in the people's eyes and helped prepare him for the task.
- Yehoshua's character/ abilities – Yehoshua's role as general in the battle against Amalek made him an obvious candidate to lead the Conquest, while his spotless record in matters of faith marked him worthy of spiritual leadership as well.
- Moshe's foresight – The nation's acceptance of Yehoshua might have had as much to do with Moshe as with Yehoshua. Moshe had the foresight to request of Hashem to choose a leader to replace him, making sure that his successor was appointed already in his lifetime and not only after his death. Moreover, the appointment was made publicly, preventing any questioning of Yehoshua's legitimacy.
- Lack of competition – Finally, given that the entire generation of the Wilderness had died out, excepting Yehoshua and Calev, there was not much competition for the job. Yehoshua was an elder not only in wisdom but in years as well, being a couple of decades older than everyone else entering the land.
"אִישׁ אֲשֶׁר רוּחַ בּוֹ"
When Hashem tells Moshe to appoint Yehoshua as his successor, He describes him as an "אִישׁ אֲשֶׁר רוּחַ בּוֹ" (Bemidbar 27:18). What does this phrase mean?
- Prophetic abilities – Onkelos, Targum Yerushalmi (Yonatan) and Ralbag all assert that Hashem is referring to the spirit of prophecy.
- Strong-willed – Ibn Ezra compares the phrase to David's words to his Shelomo, "וחזקת והיית לאיש". This might be what Bemidbar Rabbah means as well, when it writes, "שיכול להלוך כנגד רוחות של כל אחד ואחד", someone who can stand up against the opinions of others.8
- Leadership qualities – R"Y Bekhor Shor9 explains that the phrase refers more generally to leadership qualities as a whole and includes such traits as wisdom, might and fear of God.
Yehoshua, like many prophets, acts as a miracle maker, splitting the Jordan as Moshe split the sea, and later praying that the sun stand still. How did Yehoshua's miracle making compare to Moshe's?
- Splitting the Jordan: Nature vs. Miracle – In contrast to the description of the Splitting of Yam Suf, which presents the nation as walking in between two walls of water, Yehoshua's miracle created just one wall of water,10 implying that the entire riverbed dried up below that point. What might this suggest about the nature of the miracle?
- Minimized – Malbim emphasizes that, as such, this was a smaller miracle than that wrought by Moshe, for splitting a sea (rather than a river) necessitates a suspension of nature on both sides.
- Maximized – On the other hand, the fact that a massive expanse of river had dried up was likely much more impressive than had there been just a small pathway. [Nonetheless, this was likely still less impressive than קריעת ים סוף.]
- Natural – Y. Braslavi, in his article, נס כריתת הירדן, gives a natural explanation for the description and miracle. He points out that due to certain features of the riverbed in the area of Adam specifically, during periods when the Jordan overflows it is possible that trees will uproot and fall into the riverbed, blocking the water flow below, or that a landslide of eroded soil will effectively create a dam, drying up the rest of the river.11 Hashem might have similarly worked through nature in the time of Yehoshua.
- Splitting the Jordan: Why was the miracle necessary? Considering that there are many points along the Jordan which are shallow enough for people to cross,12 why was a miracle necessary at all?
- Necessary – Yehoshua 3:15 emphasizes that during the spring, when the nation crossed, the river was overflowing. This would make it all but impossible for an entire nation, including women, children and the elderly, to cross safely in a natural way. Moreover, had the nation attempted to cross naturally, they would have been vulnerable to Canaanite attack en route.
- Unnecessary – Alternatively, it is possible that a miracle was not really necessary in order to cross but was crucial to both demoralize the enemy13 and encourage the nation.14 Moreover, it helped Yehoshua gain the respect of the people, showing them that Hashem was with Yehoshua, miraculously aiding him, just as he had aided Moshe.15 [This might have been needed for Yehoshua himself as well; filling Moshe's shoes was no easy task.]
- Stopping of the sun – The very enormity of this miracle creates discomfort for some commentators. Is it possible that the celestial bodies, ever constant in their movement, really stood still? Would that not wreak havoc with the entire astronomical system? Moreover, in Devarim 34 Hashem declares the miracles Moshe wrought unparalleled. Is not the suspension of the sun's movement on par with, or perhaps even greater than, Moshe's feats? [See Stopping of the Sun at Givon for elaboration.]
- Full miracle – Many sources16 make no attempt to minimize the miracle, and assume that Hashem overturned nature so that the celestial spheres stopped in their paths, increasing the number of daylight hours.
- Minimized miracle – Hashem intervened to miraculously help the Israelites but He did not stop the sun to do so. Rather, though the sun set, Hashem ensured that its light continued to reflect and provide illumination (R. Moshe ibn Chiquitilla ) or He created an entirely new source of light (Abarbanel in explaining Rambam).
- No Miracle – Rambam (as explained by Efodi) claims that there was only a perception that time stood still. Due to the speed of the victory, the soldiers felt as if the day had been lengthened and time had stopped. Alternatively, the description of the sun's standing still is simply a metaphoric way of expressing how the forces of nature aided Israel in battle.17
Just weeks after leaving Egypt, Yehoshua already served as the nation's general-in-chief, leading the nation in battle against Amalek. However, the verses imply that the outcome on the battlefield had more to do with Moshe's raising or lowering of his hands than with Yehoshua's skills at warfare. What does this suggest about Yehoshua's military prowess?
- Skilled in warfare – Rashbam understands that Moshe's raising of his hands acted as a morale booster for the nation (much like a flag bearer), while R"Y Bekhor Shor suggests that it was a sign to those remaining in the camp to send reinforcements. According to both readings, the war was won through natural means and the victory presumably had much to do with Yehoshua's military skill.
- No skills necessary – R. Avraham b. HaRambam and Ramban assume that Moshe's raised hands were a gesture of prayer. Ramban further raises the possibility that Moshe took the staff so as to bring plagues upon the enemy. If so, it is possible that the victory was unrelated to military might and was supernatural in nature.18 Yehoshua need not have had previous experience or expertise on the battlefront as it was really Moshe's prayers and miracle-making which decided the outcome.
Later Wilderness Period
Interestingly, Yehoshua is not mentioned in the descriptions of any of the later battles in the Wilderness (against Arad, Sichon, Og, or Midyan). What does this imply?
- It is possible that despite the textual silence, Yehoshua led the military side of these battles as well, and this is simply assumed by the text.
- Alternatively, perhaps for most of the Wilderness period, it was Moshe who acted as general-in-chief,19 and Yehoshua's role in the battle with Amalek was exceptional, necessary only because during that first battle Moshe preferred to take a purely spiritual role.
Conquest of Canaan
Military Strategy – What was Yehoshua's military strategy when embarking on the Conquest? Why did he attack the cities he did as opposed to others? How was his relatively inexperienced army able to vanquish the Canaanites who had the advantage of walled cities, iron chariots, and standing armies?
- Goal of conquest – It is possible that Yehoshua's goal in fighting was to vanquish enemy armies rather than to capture and settle the land. Moreover, he intended that the nation join together only to weaken their opponents as a whole, but that then each individual tribe would complete their own conquest. This might explain why Yehoshua only fights four main battles, those necessary to assert general control over the land, paving the way for the smaller battles.
- Choice of Campsite – Why was Gilgal chosen to be the nation's main military base? Considering that the nation returned there after each battle, one might have expected a more central location for the campsite. This leads some20 to suggest that the verses refer to a different Gilgal located near Shekhem. Such a site might be attested to in Devarim 11:30 which speaks of Mt. Eival and Gerizim being "מוּל הַגִּלְגָּל אֵצֶל אֵלוֹנֵי מֹרֶה". Alternatively, Gilgal was chosen since its location near the Jordan created a bridge to the eastern bank, enabling easy recruitment of reinforcements.21
- Route of conquest – Prof. Elitzur22 suggests that in choosing the route of the Conquest, Yehoshua was guided by the desire to cut off the various Canaanite cities from each other, preventing them from forming alliances in which they might jointly assault Israel.
- As Yericho was the entry-way to the eastern bank of the Jordan, its capture prevented the Canaanites from recruiting soldiers and requesting aid from those neighboring countries, while simultaneously enabling Israel to keep contact with those who had settled there.23
- Conquering the Ai and making peace with the Givonites gave Israel control over a line of territory that cut across the middle of the country.24 This effectively prevented cooperation between the southern and northern Canaanite kings,25 forcing each side to fight alone.
- In the battle against the South, too, Yehoshua first severs the hill country from the cities of the coast, preventing them from requesting aid from one another. Thus, he first attacks Livnah, Lakhish, and Eglon (all located at the foothills of mountains) and only afterwards moves inland to conquer the mountainous Devir and Chevron.
- Compensating for military weaknesses – Y. Yadin26 points out that the verses emphasize how Yehoshua compensated for many of his military disadvantages by making use of cunning and deception:
- Uneven fighting forces – In the battles against both the southern kings and the northern kings, the verses emphasize that Yehoshua came upon his enemies "פִּתְאֹם". Without vast military experience, weapons, or massive numbers, the element of surprise was extremely important for victory.
- Lack of chariots – Yehoshua ensured that much of the conquest took place in the hill country where one of the main advantages of the Canaanite army, their iron chariots, were rendered useless.
- Attacking walled cities – In attacking the walled cities, too, Yehoshua chose not to besiege them (a very time-consuming affair), nor to attack with ladders or battering rams (due to the heavy cost in lives), but rather to use cunning:
- Yericho – Though Yericho was destroyed via miracle, it is possible that originally Yehoshua had sent spies to find a weak-point through which commando forces could penetrate the city walls. Rachav's home, built into the wall of the city, proved ideal and the spies proceeded to convince her to act as a fifth column and allow them entry. For elaboration on this theory, see Purpose of the Spies in Yehoshua 2.
- Ai – When attacking Ai, Yehoshua fools the enemy into thinking that the Israelites are fleeing, leading the enemy out of the safety of their walled cities, and allowing the ambush to enter.
- Southern cities – Here, too, Yehoshua's request of Hashem that the "sun stand still" and the day be extended might have been motivated by a desire to vanquish his enemies before nightfall when they would be able to return to the safety of their walled cities.
- Miracle and Nature – Throughout Sefer Yehoshua, there is a gradual weaning of the nation away from miraculous victory towards natural fighting. Yericho is conquered solely through supernatural means. The battle of the Ai is fought naturally but the military strategy is Divinely designed. In the southern campaign, most of the fighting is natural but supernatural help comes at the critical moment in the form of the sun standing still. Finally, the last battle against the northern kings appears to be won without any miraculous intervention at all.
- Was Yehoshua successful? Yehoshua 12 lists 31 kings vanquished by Yehoshua and the Israelites, but the very next chapter shares that much of the land had still to be inherited, "הָאָרֶץ נִשְׁאֲרָה הַרְבֵּה מְאֹד לְרִשְׁתָּהּ". How expansive was Yehoshua's conquest? Was the conquest successful? See above that Yehoshua's goal was likely not to settle the entire land, but to weaken the enemy armies, paving the way for individual conquests of the tribes.
- Initial silence in the story of the spies? – Both Yehoshua and Calev disassociate themselves from the negative report of the other spies, but perhaps surprisingly it is Calev, rather than Yehoshua, who appears to take the lead role in combating their claims. Thus, it is Calev who initially stands up to hush the people after the spies speak (Bemidbar 13:30), while Yehoshua is not mentioned until the next chapter. How are we to understand Yehoshua's initial silence?27
- Pointless to talk – Shadal and R. Hirsch claim that due to Yehoshua's position as "משרת משה", he realized that anything he would say to defend Moshe or sway the people would be ineffective. They would just attribute his stance to his loyalty to Moshe and not take his message to heart, so there was no point in speaking up.
- Different ideology – Alternatively, it is possible that Yehoshua disagreed with the ideology behind Calev's speech. Calev attempted to persuade the people that they were capable of conquest, but this suggests that victory is about military strength rather than Hashem's aid. Yehoshua, thus, speaks up only afterwards to highlight how all is in Hashem's hand, "אִם חָפֵץ בָּנוּ י״י וְהֵבִיא אֹתָנוּ אֶל הָאָרֶץ הַזֹּאת וּנְתָנָהּ לָנוּ".28
- Waiting for Moshe's guidance – While Moshe was still alive, Yehoshua might not have felt comfortable acting independently without guidance from his mentor. As such, he might hesitated, seeking a clue from Moshe as to how to respond.29 This need not be viewed as a lack of leadership, but as a sign of Yehoshua's complete trust in and obedience to Moshe.
Change of Name
In Bemidbar 13, when listing the names of the twelve spies, the text refers to Yehoshua by his original name, Hoshea, and later explains that Moshe had changed his name: "וַיִּקְרָא מֹשֶׁה לְהוֹשֵׁעַ בִּן נוּן יְהוֹשֻׁעַ". As already before this story Yehoshua had been referred to by his new name, commentators debate both when and why this change of name took place:
- Before the sending of the spies – Many assume that the change of name took place where it is mentioned, right before the sending of the spies. In earlier chapters usage of the the name Yehoshua is anachronistic, used only because that is how Yehoshua later became known. These sources differ regarding the reason for the name change:
- Prayer – Bavli Sotah, Bemidbar Rabbah and Rashi explain that Moshe changed Yehoshua's name, adding a yud to represent the name of Hashem as a prayer that Hashem should save him from the evil counsel of the other spies ("י-ה יושיעך מעצת מרגלים").30 Netziv points out that this understanding implies that Moshe knew in advance that the spies were to stumble, and questions, if so, why would Moshe have sent them?
- Promotion – Shadal, thus, suggests instead that the change of name marked Yehoshua's promotion from servant (משרת משה) to greatness (being on par with "רָאשֵׁי בְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל").
- When Yehoshua became Moshe's servant – Rashbam and R"Y Bekhor Shor maintain that the name change took place much earlier, when Moshe first appointed Yehoshua to be his servant. As evidence of such a custom, they point to Yosef and Daniel who similarly take on new names when they begin to serve the king.31 The change is mentioned first by the story of the spies only because Yehoshua is listed there by his "official" name and Tanakh needed to identify the Hoshea mentioned as the familiar Yehoshua.
Tanakh does not explicitly discuss Yehoshua's family life, but Divrei HaYamim I 7:27 might imply that he had no children. In listing the descendants of Ephraim, the chapter mentions Yehoshua but no further descendants, suggesting that he might not have had any. Bavli Megillah 14b, however, maintains that though Yehoshua bore no boys he did bear girls. The gemara presents him as marrying Rachav (after she converted) and claims that among their descendants was Chuldah the prophetess.
Yehoshua vs. Moshe
In Bavli Bava Batra Moshe and Yehoshua are compared, with Moshe being likened to the sun and Yehoshua to the moon. The analogy is an apt one, as many of Yehoshua's deeds do indeed reflect those of his teacher. Again and again, the reader feels a sense of déjà vu, as Yehoshua re-enacts events from the life of Moshe. Moreover, the text consciously calls for a comparison of the two luminaries via both explicit references and literary allusions. What are we to make of the many similarities between the lives of the two leaders? What can we learn from the differences? For a full discussion of the parallels and their significance, see Moshe and Yehoshua.