Joshua, the Foil of Jesus

Those who know the contents of the Book of Joshua may be hard put to find what is attractive in it. In fact, there is so much that is repulsive in it, with its stories of massacre mounting to genocide. So there has beena Christian avoidance of the book as a whole. But not universally; it is indeed shocking that some Christians have used the warring record of Joshua as a biblical sanction for their questionable practice.

There is also the middle position in which wise and interested people may seek the educative value of both the positive and negative elements of Joshua for their authentic Christian living. Consecrated persons in particular can learn positively, for example, the place of loyalty to God, perfect discipleship, leadership and solidarity in community. All that is negative in the pages of Joshua can reflect our own negativities to be fought and overcome, as Origen explained long ago. So, with today’s thinkers following suit, we need to recognize and rise above “our own affinities with the atrocities, violence, coercion and prejudicial characterizing as means to social betterment that are its main events.”

Whatever Is in the Name Joshua?

The positive values of the Book of Joshua may be rightly evoked around the very name of the book, namely Joshua, for the simple reason that the name Joshua is the same as the name Jesus we are familiar with in English. Knowing this, if one reads the book attentively, replacing Joshua with the name Jesus, one will have a surprising and unusual experience of the book. When we read, for example, the verse “Early in the morning Joshua rose and set out... with all the Israelites, and they came to the Jordan” (Jos 3:1), some of us at least may be struck by a sort of parallel Gospel verse about Jesus: “In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed” (Mk 1:35). That sort of correlation, casual or obviously contrasting or surprisingly confirming, would have been all the more striking for early Christians getting to know the Gospel in the background of the Septuagint that was their whole bible.

Insofar as he was the successor of Moses in his prophetic function, Joshua acted in accordance with his name (meaning Yahweh saves), given by Moses (Nm 13:16), and was acclaimed as the savior of God’s elect (Sir 46:1). But, unlike Jesus, he was not recognized as the prophet like Moses that had been prophesied by Moses himself (Dt 18:15); he was no equal to Jesus and yet he was a figure — albeit imperfect — of the latter, serving as the foil.

A Picture of Joshua

For Christians, Joshua is not so much a savior as a leader succeeding Moses, appointed by God to lead God’s people for God’s own saving purposes. His story of leadership begins in the Book of Numbers some 40 years before he appears in the Book of Joshua, when “the Lord said to Moses, ‘Take Joshua, son of Nun, a man in whom is the spirit, and lay your hand upon him; have him stand before Eleazar the priest and all the congregation, and commission him in their sight. You shall give him some of your authority, so that all the congregation of the Israelites may obey. But he shall stand before Eleazar the priest, who shall inquire for him. . .before the Lord; at his word they shall go out, and at his word they shall come in, both he and all the Israelites with him, the whole congregation.’ So Moses did as the Lord commanded him. He took Joshua and had him stand before Eleazar the priest and the whole congregation; he laid his hands on him and commissioned him — as the Lord had directed through Moses” (Nm 27:18-23). The story continues later in Deuteronomy: “Then the Lord commissioned Joshua son of Nun and said, ‘Be strong and bold, for you shall bring the Israelites into the land that I promised them; I will be with you.”’ (Dt 31:23). Later still, after the death and mourning of Moses, his story almost concludes the Deuteronomic story: “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” (Dt 34:9).

With this background in the Pentateuch, it is not surprising that the Book of Joshua opens with the commissioning of Joshua: “After the death of Moses. . .the Lord spoke to Joshua son of Nun, Moses’ assistant, saying, ‘My servant Moses is dead. Now proceed to cross the Jordan, you and all this people, into the land that I am giving to them, to the Israelites’” (Jos 1:1-2).

Shepherd Leadership of Old

This picture of Joshua can lead us to certain basic insights on (religious) leadership among consecrated people. He is a man in whom the spirit dwells, the spirit God has given him. Endowed thus, he is presented to others; for God has Moses lay his hands on Joshua in public and so mark him out for succeeding him as leader. Then there comes the moment when God gives him a personal confirmation of his consecrated leadership. In this way, God takes care that “the congregation of the Lord may not be like sheep without a shepherd,” (Nm 27:17) but find in Joshua God’s spirit yearning for their spirit. One need not be a scholar to see its resonances in the Gospels: like Abba God, Jesus himself recognizes the situation of His people being without a shepherd, and concerns himself with them as a good shepherd, and seeks to provide worthy shepherds through His disciples (Mt 9:36; Mk 6:34; Lk 10:2-3).

With such a resonance of shepherding leadership, can modern disciples go back to Joshua too to learn certain lessons of leadership? Can they appreciate his conduct as a shepherd of the people appointed by God and derive from him a model of leadership for consecrated people, (even) in the context of the growing awareness of transformational leadership among them? Besides the leadership of the few exercising authority as superiors among consecrated circles, there is also the leadership of all consecrated people in relation to those to whom they minister. Both kinds of leadership may benefit from the image of Joshua. Seeking no authority, he offered “graced companionship,” as one endowed with authority by God and so acting responsibly for God, and also as one committed with mission and so responsively active for the sake of the people.

Authority Looking to God. Joshua does not exercise his authority in a manner overbearing but conscious of its origin in God. The reason is that he had known God in a remarkably special way. We ought to remember that he was with Moses on the mountain when Moses was given the Law. Unlike others, he was with Moses in his encounters with the Lord in the tent of meeting. At times alone, he remained in the tent of meeting. When sent by Moses to reconnoiter the promised land, only he, like Caleb, proved their God of promise right by bringing a good report in accord with God’s promise of victory. This was unlike the others with their ill report of fearfulness and unbelief in God’s future.

When finally Joshua assumed the reins of leadership, he believed wholeheartedly in God who assured him: “As I was with Moses, so I will be with you; I will not fail you or forsake you” (Jos 1:5). In this faith he knew God’s presence wherever he went, and he felt persuaded to be strong and courageous knowing no fear whatever (Jos 1:9). In his fearless faith he grew from strength to strength as he learned from God to look at others, not in relation to himself but to God, whether they were for God or not (Jos 5:13-15). Accordingly, he made bold to deal with others, whether individuals like covetous Achan among his own people (Josh 7:1-26) or the whole tribes encountered in Canaan (Jos 6:1-27; 8:1-29; 10:28-43). Such a God-fearing man could be credited with calling upon the powers of nature such as sun and moon to assist him in his campaign in the name of God (Jos 10:12-15). Whatever his successes, they were not exploited for his fame; rather they redounded to God’s glory (Jos 4:14), as their remembrance served almost like a liturgical act.

Authority for Serving People’s Cause. In this way, Joshua let his authority be seen in his challenge to his people to revere God and serve Him alone; and he demonstrated it all the more in his simple and yet profound profession, whatever their choice: “but as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord” (Jos 24:15). His authenticity of authority was such that his people made the response of faith as insistently as he tested them: “Far be it from us that we should forsake the Lord to serve other gods; it is the Lord our God who brought us and our ancestors up from the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, and who did those great signs in our sight. He protected us along all the way that we went, and among all the peoples through whom we passed; the Lord drove out before us all the peoples, the Amorites who lived in the land. Therefore we also will serve the Lord, for He is our God.” (Jos 24:16-18, 21, 24). They had a sense of Joshua’s loyalty to God and humility before God — qualities that marked him out not as a celebrity but as “the servant of the Lord” (Jos 24:29), indeed a slave (doulos) for God, fully surrendered to God, and so a charismatic leader for them. As he grew to see God emerging and ever increasing in his own person and in the midst of his nascent nation, his people came to recognize in him the epitome of their religious consciousness with all their struggles and longings related to their very life and mission and so, relying on him, they could make their future along with him, doing whatever was expected of them by their God.

Authority for Serving People’s Cause. Something marvelous about Joshua’s authority was that he did not guard it jealously for his pride and prejudice. Acknowledged by the people as the doulos, God’s slave, to whom God reveals His intentions, Joshua did not lord it over them but exercised his dignified authority only on behalf of, and for the welfare of, his people just as he thought God wanted him to do. Once the land was conquered, he distributed it to the tribes in an impartial way without any favoritism, as God indicated by lots. Also he made it possible for people to feel free enough to express their feelings and demand more than what was allotted, as indeed Joseph’s clan saw fit to do (Jos 17:14-18). Further still, for himself he took only what the people gave him at his asking. The mature interaction of humility and nobility between them is memorable: “When they had finished distributing the several territories of the land as inheritances, the Israelites gave an inheritance among them to Joshua, son of Nun. By command of the Lord they gave him the town that he asked for, Timnath-serah in the hill country of Ephraim; he rebuilt the town, and settled in it” (Jos 19:49-50).

Authority’s Dynamics. Thus by way of exemplary exchange obtaining between Joshua’s authority and his people’s obedience — and in no other way — God brought about the fulfillment of what He had designed for the people. “Not one of all the good promises that the Lord had made to the house of Israel had failed; all came to pass” (Jos 21: 45). A simple verse, repeated again later (Jos 23:14) and yet little noticed, but imbued with profound power, goodness and presence of God that is worth attending to now as it was centuries ago. Anyone who has such faith in God’s word of promise, in the way Joshua believed and acted, is a worthy leader of all times, ancient or present, and worthy of love and praise.

Breaking Through Boundaries. Joshua would have the approbation of Jesus. He would be ranked by Jesus among the great leaders in the kingdom of God who alone took to and lived by the practice of the Law in their preaching and acting (Mt 5:17-19). So he would not be clubbed with other leaders condemned for their incongruity between their word and deed (Mt 23:1-4). On the contrary, he would be praised as a good shepherd who could gather the children of Israel together in their campaign for their destiny at that time, as Jesus would in His time (Jn 11:52).

When Joshua completed his mission with and for the people, he brought them together for the last time and exhorted them: “You know in your hearts and souls, all of you, that not one thing has failed of all the good things that the Lord your God promised concerning you; all have come to pass for you, not one of them has failed” (Jos 23:14). He then recounted their story of God from the time of Terah, the father of Abraham, till their moment of settlement in their new land. Then he led them to the highpoint of their celebration as a community, aware of their common destiny as never before, governed by “the Law of God” (Jos 24:26, the first occurrence of the expression in the Bible), and remade a covenant for them with God at Shechem (Jos 24:1-28).

Communities of consecrated people need to discover this service of leadership reaching the grass roots. Further, they should be awakened by Joshua’s striking action in relation to Rahab, the prostitute (Jos 6:25), who had her own role in the genealogy of the Messiah. They may well discern in the rescue of Rahab not only Joshua’s celebration of God’s goodness, but also his unsuspected definition of God’s people going beyond merely racial considerations. Jesus would re-enact all this in His typical, masterly fashion when a woman accused of adultery was brought before him alone without the male offender, and further still when he pronounced prostitutes and sinners finding their place at the festival in the kingdom (Mt 21:31).

Going Beyond Joshua

However, knowledgeable people should know that there is a dark side to Joshua’s leadership that succeeded in setting foot on the promised land which his master Moses could only see from afar. While admirable in his personal life, he would still come across to people of good will today as very blameworthy in his military exploits. Granting that he acted according to his light, yet today no one with a genuine sense of humanity can remain undisturbed by all the destruction and evil that “had to be,” according to the times. Such a record has repeated itself in the leading figures of almost every nation in every age in world history; unfortunately, it has not become a thing of the past even in our times. Military leadership continues to be a virulent structure of our national and world culture — an abomination and tragedy of our times. Genuine leadership today must be seized with the old satanic power of self, personal or communal, exercised over others at the cost of others, often enough aggressively and barbarously. If persons in consecrated living can even now model their leadership on Joshua in some typical ways (as pointed out earlier), still they need to go beyond him who was certainly a child of his times. Our times are not free from the cruel power games of Joshua’s day. But Jesus shines new light. A comparison of Joshua with his incomparably greater namesake will enlighten consecrated people and take them far in this regard.

Jesus’ Contrary Leadership

A measure of Joshua’s conquest may be indicated in its Phoenician boundary: “as far as Great Sidon. . . reaching to the fortified city of Tyre” (Jos 19:29). However, from internal biblical evidence (for example, see Jgs 1:3), this passage is more an idealistic, than historic, picture of the conquering Hebrews. As one scholar has commented, “They had never been able to subdue their territory, and they had never entered into it.” Even if Joshua had led them with his willful, fearful, violent leadership to ravage the country, what a contrast their entry was to that of Jesus with His disciples. When Jesus led His disciples to the district of Tyre and Sidon, people made Him welcome for the singular kind of overwhelmingly beneficial power they sensed in Him. He was welcomed as a warrior who had power over demons, a leader who could free them from their subjugation to fearful demons. A Canaanite woman from that region came to Him, professing such a faith in Him, loudly asking Him to heal her daughter who was tormented by a demon (Mt 15:21-22). And that is the measure of Jesus’ victory: where the might of arms of Joshua and his men had not proved truly victorious, the conquering love of Jesus Christ did.

Breaking With Destructive Leadership. Jesus himself lived at a time when His country was in subjection to Rome, the then world power at the top of the vicious circle of violence. Even so he was a free man, harboring no harm and free from any sort of vicious violence. At the same time, He could also tell the people to give to Caesar what belonged to him, while subtly reminding them of God’s rights, too, not only higher or superior but incomparably so. Thus He took the stand opposite to violent groupings like the Zealots or the subservient class like the tax collectors. If zealots followed Joshua in his zeal for God and also for his land to be conquered and possessed, Jesus offered His leadership under His Abba God, abjuring any sort of violence to others, even to the Romans who had dispossessed His people of their land and subjugated their country. He did not condemn the tax collectors as supporters of the occupying power, as he did not begrudge its power to collect taxes. And yet with unsuspected power, He drew Matthew the tax collector and Simon the Zealot to His inner circle.

Not Overruling but Winning Over. Like the converted disciples, the consecrated men and women should forswear the destructive, though perhaps good-willed, tendency of Joshua and learn the restorative spirit of Jesus in relation not only to friends, but, surprisingly, even to foes and, more surprisingly, even to ruthless powers that be. They should know His abrogation of the law of retaliation; and follow His daring call to please the wrongdoer and even oblige any demand of the occupying Roman forces, not out of fear but from self-possession and self-assurance (Mt 5:38-41). They should discover how He could air such bold, seemingly impractical and unorthodox views because of His unusual freedom from lust of money, property or power over others. In all this, they should sense marks and qualities of leadership that is not tied down by uneasy cares or petty possessions or passing issues. In this light, they had better ponder over the hallowed stories of His call to poverty and service and love; and bring to light the roots of leadership unhindered by selfish attachments or social complexes or societal compulsions.

In such leadership, there is no paraphernalia of authority, but rather humble charm of nobility, strength of character, attractiveness of useful service, reliance on the hidden lead of God. So He could pronounce: “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth” (Mt 5:5) — a strange beatitude that has been proven perennially true in the history of religious orders and congregations. And so Jesus could ask His disciples to leave all that they possessed, including land (Mk 10:29), and go on the mission of God’s new rule near and far, carrying nothing more than what they wore, but endued with a certain unusual power of doing good for the needy (Mt 10:8-10). Disowning or simply lacking all worldly authority, He granted His followers a certain social influence or moral authority or spiritual power that could withstand all evil and make them stand tall. His own words were: “Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age — houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields, with persecutions — and in the age to come eternal life” (Mk 10:29-30). Such a promise of power is attached not to any office but to persons bereft of any position, who seem to have nothing or indeed have nothing because they have chosen to deprive themselves of everything. And so the enigmatic logion: “But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first” (Mk 10:31).

Unfettered by Show of Insignia. Consecrated people need to experience such consecration of pure leadership, leading without exhibiting and enjoying any social position by birth or wealth or learning or office or authority. So everyone in consecrated life can witness to and exercise this peculiar leadership of simple living and high thinking. It is almost invisible because it is so ordinary and unassuming; but it is such invisible, never imposing leadership that turns upside down what obtains generally in the world (Mk 10:41-44; Lk 9:46-48; 22:24-27). Once they are revealed and discovered, they are enthralling, as in the old story of Peter and John telling a lame beggar: “I have no silver or gold, but what I have I give you; in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, stand up and walk” (Acts 3:6). The wondrous nature of his immediate healing, followed by his walking and leaping and praising God, is not to deter us in our own kind of leadership that God has bestowed on us. Beyond all that would appear as privileged power, Peter broadens leadership into sensible use of the manifold grace of God for serving one another with the gifts that have been bestowed upon us. “Whoever speaks must do so as one speaking the very words of God; whoever serves must do so with the strength that God supplies, so that God may be glorified in all things through Jesus Christ” (1 Pt 4:11). Aside from this there can be no foray into innovative leadership that is quite the topic of the day!

Costly Character. There is another side to such humble leadership in imitation of Him “who, though He was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave” (Phil 2:6-7). Jesus himself knew the cost of leadership that saves others. Consecrated people cannot but hear Him speak such words as these, “For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many” (Mk 10:45); and so they in their turn should follow suit. One who was humbly aware of his privileged, but costly, consecration could respond thus: “As servants of God we have commended ourselves in every way: through great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger; by purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, holiness of spirit, genuine love, truthful speech, and the power of God; with the weapons of righteousness for the right hand and for the left; in honor and dishonor, in ill repute and good repute. We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; as unknown, and yet are well known; as dying, and see — we are alive; as punished, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything” (2 Cor 6:4-10).

Inside Character. That man — Paul — knew to follow Christ and not Joshua, though at one time he had taken the sword like Joshua against Christians, his perceived enemies. If Joshua, as a child of his age, found the enemies of God outside, Jesus the Christ sees them right within each one and so much nearer than those outside. When He was told of Pilate’s killing of some Galileans while offering their sacrifice, His first response was to ask the informers to check (up) on themselves, on their store of goodness and evil, and repent and reform (Lk 13:1-3). On another occasion, unlike Joshua punishing Achan for sacrilegious stealing (Jos 7:1-26), Jesus turned the tables on the vengeful accusers of a woman caught in adultery and subtly issued them a challenge to judge themselves first (Jn 8:2-11).

And so He fought against the tempter in His own life (Lk 4:1-13) to the point where He could say the devil had no power over Him (Jn 14:30). Such was the power of His sword dealing a death blow to evil. In the process, unwilling to be defended by the sword of Peter, He summoned courage enough to suffer at the hands of His enemies, including friends turned enemies, because such was the way His Abba God led Him (Mt 26:47-54). In this way He knew to follow the leadership of God in God’s reign; and so today we ought to know Him enough to follow Him and toe His leadership with the sword of His Word sharper than Joshua’s, dislodging our vain idols and breaking through our fears. To use another metaphor, the Jordan was not the same for Joshua and Jesus. The crossing of the Jordan was for Joshua and his people the beginning of their conquest over others; but the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan was the beginning of His victory over the dominion of evil, through his Passion and Resurrection, with all of humanity and with His Abba God.

Environmental Character. Christ’s leadership, victorious over everything evil, cannot but go beyond humanity to our environment. Even when Joshua crossed the Jordan, there was joyous freedom in nature: “The sea looked and fled; Jordan turned back. The mountains skipped like rams, the hills like lambs” (Ps 114:3-4). All the more so, Christian leadership must serve the risen Christ in the joyous manifestation of His kingdom (1 Cor 15:24), which involves also the renewal of our global land.

We believe that “the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God”; and we hope that “the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God” (Rom 8:19,21). Pope Francis exhibited all this in his encyclical Laudato Si’ and gave a clarion call to change “the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor” (No. 49) into a cry of joy.

FATHER DOMINIC, S.J., writes from Secunderabad, India.