Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Lessons from Joshua, Part I: A New Leader for a New Chapter

I’ve spent some time ruminating on the story of Joshua lately.  I suppose it’s because I have been in a time of “crossing over” recently.  As many know, in the past month, we’ve moved to a new town and begun to worship in a new church.  We are “taking possession” of a new home and my wife is “taking authority” as pastor of a new congregation.    

As the youthful protégé and faithful aide de camp for Moses, Joshua no doubt witnessed many miraculous things. When Moses would speak to God, “face-to-face” in the Tabernacle, Joshua was always close by—Exodus 33:11.  When Moses sent spies to probe the Promised Land—Numbers 13:1-24—Joshua was one of twelve chosen to go—Numbers 13:8.  While all the men chosen for this mission would have to be healthy enough to survive the rigors of covert travel in the wilderness, I have the impression that he and Caleb are the youngest in the group.  I’m not sure we’re told that specifically in the text, but it makes sense to me based on what we know about them from the Bible.  The fact that Joshua is still a able-bodied leader when all the others “of his generation” perish in the wilderness and Israel finally crosses the Jordan, might also suggest he was a young adult when the first “abandoned” crossing happened.  Maybe he and Caleb are the “token” young adults chosen for the mission—many of us know how that goes.  J

The people of Israel "cross over" [Joshua 3]
"The Children of Israel Crossing the Jordan"—Gustave Dore.
The land they survey is plentiful and bursting with potential, everyone, young and old, agrees that it’s just as God promised, but… Isn’t there always a but?? Wars are fought over but...  Denominations split over but…  Whole societies crumble over but.  For such a little word, but sure has done a lot of damage over the centuries.  

In this case, the but is people.  The spies quickly discover that although the land on other side of the Jordan is rich and plentiful, it’s also occupied territoryNumbers 13:27-29.  No one was really terribly surprised to find such good land occupied.  It wasn’t going to simply lay vacant while God’s people were off in slavery in Egypt for hundreds of years.  Opportunistic nomadic/agrarian peoples would surely move in in the interim.  However, it does have serious implications for Israel.  It means that if they want to “take possession” of the land, as God has told them to do, they will have to displace the current inhabitants.  Said inhabitants seem very robust and strong.  They’ve built fortified settlements and don’t show signs that they intend to leave anytime soon. 

As often happens, it’s what comes after the but, that complicates the situation and causes division among the spies. 

The question basically comes down to:  Can we take them?

Joshua and his friend Caleb seem to be the young “idealists” in the group who answer with an emphatic “Yes!”  They argue to seize the moment and “cross over” now, believing that if God went with them, as God promised he would, then no enemy could prevail over them—Numbers 13:30.  But Joshua and Caleb represent the minority, and ultimately the view of the majority prevails—Numbers 13:31. In the end, Israel’s elders opt to play it safe and maintain the status quoNumbers 14.

Even though the land across the Jordan is obviously fertile and offers much potential, Israel’s leaders became convinced they would be no match for the “monstrous men” living on the other side.  They feared they would be overwhelmed if they crossed over. What purpose would it serve to come “all this way” and then be trampled like grasshoppers.  No, it was just safer to stay where they were and survive. Perhaps another opportunity would come in due time when Israel would be stronger and more prepared… but “crossing over” wouldn’t be prudent at this juncture. J

And so, Israel waited… and waited, and eventually another opportunity did come—God is, after all,  a God of second chances.  But there are always consequences for unfaithfulness.  Other than Joshua and Caleb, an entire generation perishes before Israel finally gets another chance to cross over—Numbers 14:30-35.  

Moses glimpsed the Promised Land from afar, but because of his disobedience, even he was not permitted to enter—Numbers 20:1-13. At the end of his long life, Moses passes the mantle of leadership to Joshua—Deuteronomy 31:1-8—placing him in the difficult role of “following a legend.”  But true to his character, Joshua never shies away from the challenge; he accepts the mantle from Moses.

Joshua is a different kind of leader than Moses; he is not a priest or prophet, he is a warrior—and that is precisely what Israel needs for the rather violent and bloody chapter of its history that is about to begin. If Israel is to "take possession" of this land, God knows (whether God likes it or not) they are going to have to fight, and Joshua is just the man to organize and equip them for the battles that lie ahead.  It is his time to take authority and lead, and that precisely what he does...

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