Spiritual leaders are not elected, appointed, or created by synods or churchly assemblies. God alone makes them.
—J. Oswald Sanders, Spiritual Leadership (1994)
This was the character of Joshua… He understood the dynamics of choice —once for all choice and existential choice as well.
—Francis Schaeffer, Joshua (1976)
The Choosing of Leaders
Since the creation of the world—for two and a half millennia—none of God’s prophets had been warriors, let alone war leaders. Abraham knew something of military strategy and tactics, but we only hear of him engaging in full-fledged battle once, and that was to rescue his nephew Lot (Gen. 14). Jacob mentioned his own skill with the sword and bow, but only in passing as he blessed his grandsons (Gen. 48:22). Josephus says that Moses served as general of the Egyptian army, but it’s tough to find scripture to back this up. Joshua the son of Nun is the first real war leader whom God appointed to lead His people. And the work God gave him was primarily that of making war.
Joshua’s First Battle
We first meet Joshua shortly after the Exodus. Israel was on the way to Mt. Sinai when a marauding tribe, the Amalekites, struck Israel’s flanks without warning or provocation (Ex. 17:8). Moses chose Joshua to lead the strike force that would drive off the Amalekites. Meanwhile, Moses stood on a high hill with his staff raised up to God. As long as he held the staff high, Joshua and his army were successful. When Moses arms drooped, Joshua began to lose. Because of this, two elders, Aaron and Hur, stood beside Moses and held up his arms all day long. “And Joshua discomfited Amalek and his people with the edge of the sword” (Ex. 17:13). At God’s command, Moses wrote down as Scripture what had happened that day, and he read it to Joshua after the victory.
Joshua learned a number of important lessons that day. He learned that some of Yahweh’s enemies have to be met with deadly force. He learned that in such a battle God gives the victory—or denies it. He learned that the Lord’s battles have to be fought in faith, with complete dependence upon Him. He learned the necessity of prayer. In addition to these lessons, Joshua got to see his own name recorded in Holy Scripture—in what would become the Book of Exodus. Certainly he was filled with a sense of awe and amazement.
We don’t know how old Joshua was at this time. He is later called a “young man,” but this could also be rendered “servant” or “retainer,” so it’s really hard to say. It does seem unlikely that Moses would have entrusted Israel’s first battle to a twenty-something. Later Joshua appears as a contemporary of Caleb, who was about forty at the time of the Exodus.
We don’t know where Joshua got his military training. Perhaps he had been the personal slave of some Egyptian captain or general. Certainly it would have been unusual for an Egyptian to teach a Hebrew the use of the sword. But somehow God had prepared him for this work. God always prepares His leaders.
Mt. Sinai and the Golden Calf
When Moses ascended Mt. Sinai to receive the Law, Joshua went with him—though only to the edge of the Glory Cloud that rested on the peak (Ex. 24). Moses went on up, and Joshua waited for his return. He waited forty days amid thunder and lightning. And then Joshua heard shouting rising up from the camp below (Ex. 32). When Moses returned suddenly out of the Cloud—with the Ten Commandments under his arm— Joshua said, “There’s the sound of war in the camp!” He heard with the ears of a warrior. But Moses corrected him: “I hear singing!”
When they reached the base of the mountain and the gate of the camp, they found that the people had given themselves to idolatry. They were worshipping a calf made of gold. Moses smashed the stone tables that bore the Law. He destroyed the calf as well as called the sons of Levi to execute judgment upon the idolaters. 3,000 died. Joshua saw all of this. He learned more lessons. Sin is terrible. It both pollutes and corrupts. God is holy and will be worshipped only on His own terms. Righteous anger also has its place. Some things ought to provoke a godly leader to anger and then to action. Lots of lessons.
But there’s more. While Moses was still working out the final disposition of the golden calf incident, he pitched a tent for worship outside the camp. And there, at the tent door, God descended in a pillar of cloud. God spoke with Moses face to face. Their conversation is recorded in Exodus 33. But while they were talking, Joshua was right there in the tent. He was allowed to eavesdrop on God. Again, he must have wondered. “What in the world is God up to? Why me?”
We see Joshua again some time later when God was appointing elders to help Moses with his work (Num. 11). Moses had called together seventy of Israel’s leaders. God appeared in the Cloud and stood at the Tabernacle door. He took the Spirit that rested on Moses and placed some of His power and blessing on these other men as well. When the Spirit came upon them, they prophesied. That is, they spoke the word of God by divine inspiration. Then something odd happened. A messenger came running out of the camp with an announcement. There were two men, Eldad and Medad, who had missed the ordination ceremony. They were still in the camp, but they were also prophesying. Joshua was concerned for his master’s honor and authority. He yells, “My lord Moses, forbid them!,” But with prophetic wisdom, Moses responds: “Would God that all the LORD’s people were prophets, and that the LORD would put His Spirit upon them!” (Num. 11:29; cf. Acts 2:17-18, 38-39).
Joshua took note. Leadership must not be self-aggrandizing. Spirit-filled leaders serve God and His people, not themselves. And leaders don’t always show up the way we expect. God can and does work in surprising ways. We can’t bind God’s Spirit with our rules or protocols. But those who lead in God’s kingdom do have one thing in common: they speak the word of God in the power of God’s Spirit.
On Jordan’s Stormy Banks
We meet Joshua again when Israel reached the Promised Land for the first time. He was one of the tribal leaders Moses sent to spy out the Land (Num. 14). When ten of the spies brought back an evil report, Joshua stood with Caleb to give a faithful report:
The land, which we passed through to search it, is an exceeding good land. If the LORD delight in us, then he will bring us into this land, and give it us; a land which floweth with milk and honey. (Num. 14:7-8)
The people were ready to stone them for that testimony, but God intervened. He disinherited that generation and promised they would all die in the wilderness—all except Joshua and Caleb.
Through all of this, Joshua learned to stand on the promises of God in the face of hostility and persecution. He learned to stand with God rather than with the majority. He also learned the nature of covenantal judgment. He and Caleb had been faithful, and yet they would still have to endure forty years in the wilderness with the faithless and fearful. And so Joshua learned that God’s people have to hold one another accountable. They have to encourage, admonish, and rebuke one another. The truth is that God always keeps His promises, but He may use someone else to work them out. The truth is… He doesn’t need us.
Passing the Baton
Probably no one was surprised when God finally appointed Joshua to take Moses’ place (Num. 27:15ff). And yet God Himself ordained Joshua. There were no debates, popular elections or media polls. Joshua’s authority came from God, not from men. His work would be supernatural and Spirit-driven, even though it was the work of a warrior. It would be a work of faith. And so in his final charge to Joshua, Moses said:
Be strong and of a good courage: for thou must go with this people unto the land which the LORD hath sworn unto their fathers to give them; and thou shalt cause them to inherit it. And the LORD, he it is that doth go before thee; he will be with thee, he will not fail thee, neither forsake thee: fear not, neither be dismayed. (Deut. 31:7-8)
There is an amazing footnote to Joshua’s story. Originally, his name wasn’t Joshua; it was Hoshea—“He saves.” But Moses changed his name to Jehoshua—“Jehovah saves.” The Aramaic equivalent is Yeshua; the Greek is Jesus. Joshua is a forerunner and type of Jesus the Messiah. He is the captain of the LORD’s host, the one who defeats the Lord’s enemies and brings His people into their inheritance. And in a very practical way Joshua prepared the world for the coming of Christ. Canaan was Immanuel’s land by God’s sworn oath (Gen. 15:18; Isa. 8:8). It was Joshua’s job to win that land by the sword and through faith. Both were necessary. This is tough stuff for Christians today to get their heads and hearts around. Faith does require responsibility, duty, and action from us. But at the same time, as Joshua clearly understood and rested in, the power and the victory were God’s alone.
For Further Reading:
Francis Schaeffer, Joshua and the Flow of Biblical History (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1975).
J. Oswald Sanders, Spiritual Leadership (Chicago: The Moody Bible Institute, 1994).
Rick Wade, “The Yahweh War and the Conquest of Canaan,” Bible.org, 2010. <https://bible.org/article/yahweh-war-and-conquest-canaan>
John Piper, “The Conquest of Canaan” November 7, 1981, <https://www.soundofgrace.com/piper81/112981m.htm>
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