If Abraham was the founder of the Jewish people, and Moses our greatest philosopher and lawgiver, then we need to view Joshua, who completed Moses' work, as the symbol of a great technocrat and soldier. Joshua's narrative echoes through history and impacts our lives until today. His book contains no lofty writing nor does it contain poetry. Instead Joshua had to deal with the messy details of everyday life. It fell to Joshua to deal not with the future but with the here and now, not with the macro, but rather with the problems of everyday living while conducting Israel's wars.
Perhaps the Talmud best describes their differences by saying: "The face of Moses was like the sun, the face of Joshua was like the moon" (Bava Batra 75a). In other words, the Talmud sees Joshua's shine as a reflection of the work that Moses had already done. But is that true? When we read Joshua's story we come to realize that he was much more than a mere reflection of Moses. In reality there are two Joshuas, the first one was Moses loyal deputy, the second "Joshua" appears with the death of Moses and the taking on of a leadership role.
We honor Joshua the servant. The Hebrew term mesharet means a loyal subordinate. He was the paradigm of a disciple plus intern; he was also the eternal optimist. Along with Caleb he wrote the minority report saying that Israel should press forward and enter the land of Canaan. Their report was rejected and for that mistake Israel would spend some 40 years wandering in the desert. The lesson learned? Actions do have consequences.
We know little about his personal life. We first learn of Joshua as a fierce fighter. He fought Israel's first battles and won. Not only was he a fierce warier, he was also a brilliant general. He taught us that leaders must never lead from behind but must always live by the dictum "acharai/after me!" Often less mentioned is that Joshua was fierce in war but generous and kind in peace.
A paradigm of leadership after Moses death, Joshua became the leader of a free Israel. From what we can gather, he was devoted to both the past and to the future; he was a leader who was willing to take calculated risks, to listen, and to act. Joshua taught us not to fight the next battle based on the last battle, but rather mix faith with innovation, and creativity with a generosity of spirit.
Joshua's life is one that raises many questions. He first enters the Biblical stage as a warier. The Bible never reveals to us the reasons that Moses picked Joshua. We also do not know how he became such a brilliant general. Long before Joshua became Israel's second leader after independence from Egyptian slavery, he had demonstrated his leadership capabilities. During the years of aimless wandering in the desert, all in the first post Exodus generation would perish and a new generation would be born into freedom and tasked with entering into the land of Israel. Of the twelve who scouted the land, only Joshua and Caleb would survive and cross the Jordan River.
Joshua was also lucky. Moses had to struggle to succeed and often failed; Joshua seems to have been above the fray. During his term of office we read of no major criticism and people generally tended to do what he asked. Had Israel learned the lessons of the golden calf? Was Joshua the savvy politician, actor or both, or simply lucky? The text is silent.
Joshua's leadership style differed from that of Moses. Moses was a spiritual leader, a father who in the words of Numbers nursed his people. Unlike Moses, Joshua, was a leader who was not on the outside of Israel looking in, but had crossed the River Jordan both physically and mentally. By crossing the river Joshua had to become a leader who by necessity would have to deal with life's less exciting but practical issues. God no longer "babied" Israel. Under Joshua the nation had to stand tall not as a child but as an adult. Joshua was Israel's first leader of a now independent and less immature nation, one whose destiny would be in its own hands.
In typical Biblical fashion we see each leader's positive and negative qualities. Joshua was a strong and optimistic leader. Yet he never appointed a successor, and after his death the nation would have to deal with a political vacuum. As a result of this leadership vacuum, the Israelites begin to sin not long after Joshua's death. Rather than completing the conquest, they lived together with the land's previous inhabitants and allowed themselves to be swayed by their neighbors' pagan beliefs. It will not be until the time of the Kings of Israel that strong leadership would return.
What does Joshua's life teach us many millennia later about leadership and war? Did Israel suffer because it quit its battles too early? Is the text telling us that a premature peace may hold dire consequences later and that leading from behind may result in dire consequences? These are open questions raised by Joshua's life and leadership.
They are questions to be debated for all eternity. Perhaps this is the reason that the Book of Joshua contains no lofty pronouncements or poetry. It is a book that teaches us that war is a dirty business, sometimes necessary but never glorious. This is a book that teaches us that nations must do what is necessary but never celebrate another's suffering.
• Peter Tarlow is the rabbi emeritus at Texas A&M Hillel Foundation in College Station. He directs its Center for Hispanic-Jewish Relations and also works as the special envoy for the chancellor of the Texas A&M System.
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