The burning bush and Red Sea parting may be some of the most well-known stories of the Hebrew Bible. But do we realize Joshua had his own exceptional signs of God’s guiding presence? This came to light recently while rereading Joshua.
Some quick background: Moses had finished his role leading the Children of Israel from Egyptian slavery, guiding them through the wilderness for a generation. Finally, the twelve tribes were within sight of the land Yahweh promised and, in one of the tougher parts of the Bible, Moses’ story abruptly ends. This is the land of which I swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, saying, ‘I will give it to your descendants’; I have let you see it with your eyes, but you shall not cross over there (NRSV, Deut. 34:4).
One of the special joys of traveling to Jordan is seeing this site of commemoration at Mt. Nebo. An immense snake sculpture stands as tribute to the Hebrew lawgiver recalling one of the many ways Moses’ obedience saved his people. As Numbers 21 relays, Moses followed God’s directive to create a brass serpent fixed on a pole for the people who had serpent bites for their disobedience. Then anyone who was bitten by a snake could look at the bronze snake and be healed! (NLT, Num. 21:9
And now, it’s Joshua’s turn. As second in command under Moses, we read: Joshua son of Nun was full of the spirit of wisdom, because Moses had laid his hands on him; and the Israelites obeyed him, doing as the Lord had commanded Moses (NRSV, Deut. 34:9)
That ‘spirit of wisdom’ Joshua demonstrated included exceptional leadership qualities we need in today’s leaders as well: courage, strength, humility, obedience, and single-minded focus on mission– to name just some the text cites. Reading Joshua is a handbook in leadership development – whether in a family, school, community organization, church, business or politics.
The surprise that stood out in this reading is an event that occurs after the Jordan crossing into Canaan. Joshua needed ‘signs’, indicators that he wasn’t alone but being guided by the unseen power the Israelites knew to be God. The people also needed it. The Lord said to Joshua, “This day I will begin to exalt you in the sight of all Israel, so that they may know that I will be with you as I was with Moses (NRSV, Joshua 3:7). The parting of the Jordan, so similar to what they had either seen firsthand or learned from their parents’ generation, was one of those.
But now that they have crossed into a land filled with tribes and Joshua’s leadership is far from over. Suddenly Joshua has a vision:
“…he looked up and saw a man standing before him with a drawn sword in his hand… “Are you one of us, or one of our adversaries?” 14 He replied, “Neither; but as commander of the army of the Lord I have now come.” And Joshua fell on his face to the earth and worshiped, and he said to him, “What do you command your servant, my lord?” 15 The commander of the army of the Lord said to Joshua, “Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place where you stand is holy.” And Joshua did so (NRSV, Josh 5:13-15).
This was one of those sweet surprises that come when we’re quietly reading our Bibles. I realized Joshua needed his own version of the burning bush Moses had seen, his own unique assurance he was never alone. He must have heard Moses share the story of suddenly seeing a bush that wouldn’t burn and then hearing that directive voice to leave the desert and confront Pharaoh to free his people. Joshua knew that was the beginning of Moses’ journey that would change not only the Hebrew people’s lives, but the world – with the Ten Commandments becoming the basis of Western civilization’s law codes for centuries.
Now Joshua needed his own sign, knowing his role was to clear the land of Canaan and fulfill the Biblical promise harking back to Abraham, the covenant promise of not only ancestors but of a land where they could live. An image of someone with a sword must have been exactly what Joshua needed to boost his courage and forge ahead.
And that’s how Biblical signs continue: precisely suited to meet our individual needs. I hope every reader of this column has discerned at least one such sign created just for you, on which you are building your life. Such signs have been for me, the greatest treasure and encouragement. Reinforcement of the importance of these spiritual markers in our lives is one of the many reasons that daily Bible reading brings such appreciable joy.
We offer a specific reading plan on the Bibleroads website. If you’ve tried reading the Scriptures straight through, beginning in Genesis and getting bogged down around Leviticus, perhaps the Dr. Horner reading plan is also for you. Here’s the Bible I’m reading through this year with its markers as an illustration of how simple it is to set up. Please let all of us know how you’re doing with any reading plan and what it has meant for you—especially those surprises, tailored for your unique spiritual journey just as they were for Joshua.