Joshua 1:1-2

After the death of Moses the servant of the Lord, the Lord said to Joshua the son of Nun, Moses’ assistant, “Moses my servant is dead. Now therefore arise, go over this Jordan, you and all this people, into the land that I am giving to them, to the people of Israel.”[i]

The book of Joshua belongs to a special class of Bible books that are named after their chief character. It is the first such book in our order of the Old Testament Canon. None of the first five books of the Bible has a proper name as its title, though they deal with some of the greatest characters of history: Adam, Noah, Abraham, Joseph, Moses, and others.

The book of Joshua tells of the conquest of Canaan by the tribes of Israel under the command of Moses’s successor, Joshua, son of Nun. This book belongs with such biblical books entitled by their main characters as Ruth, 1st and 2nd Samuel, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, and Job. The book of Joshua forms a bridge between the Pentateuch and the history of the people of Israel in the land of Israel.

From Exodus onward, the last four books have been dominated by one giant human figure, Moses. For 40 years he was the constant factor, the mediator and deliverer of his people. He was always there, always dependable, the man who spoke face to face with God as a man speaks to his friend (Exodus 33:11). The book of Joshua begins bluntly, “My servant Moses is dead” (1:2a) and life must go on.

Those blunt words are spoken by the sovereign Lord, YHWH, whose name reveals his unchanging faithfulness to his covenant promises because of his unchangeable character and purposes. Though blunt, the words are expected. Joshua had always known he would one day assume a leadership role. It was the purpose for which he was trained and for which he had prepared for decades.

And yet with those blunt words came a great demand and challenge that must have provoked a mixture of excited anticipation and inner dread we all experience when we stand on the threshold of a new chapter of our life. “Now therefore arise, go over this Jordan, you and all this people, into the land that I am giving to them, to the people of Israel” (1:2b).

The time had come to enter the promised land, to take real possession of all that their covenant God had promised Israel through the centuries. First, he told their father Abraham, “And I will give to you and to your offspring after you the land of your sojournings, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession, and I will be their God.[ii] This is why he brought them out of their slavery in Egypt. This was what their 40 years in the desert always anticipated. This was how the sovereign God of Israel would now fulfill his often-repeated promises.

This pattern began at the beginning of God’s dealings with Abraham, when, in Ur of the Chaldeans, he received his divine summons: “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.[iii] God gave Abram no road map, no detailed schedule, no explanation of how it would all happen, but Abram had everything he needed, the promise from the sovereign Lord.

The command and the promise go together throughout scripture. It is the same for Joshua. The command is to cross the river Jordan, but the promise is that God is now giving his people their promised land. Both command and promise depend upon the sovereignty of God, expressed in his wise will, and achieved by his irresistible power. It is as God’s people both believe the promises and obey the commands that they enter into the experience of deep fellowship with God.

The same is true for us today. Why do we so often fail to obey God’s commands? Because we really do not believe his promises. The two things always go together. Faith leads to obedience. Disobedience is always rooted in distrust. We will see this truth displayed often in the book of Joshua. It is a continuing challenge we all encounter in our daily experience of living the Christian life.

On one level, the story of the book is the story of Joshua’s progress and development from the description of him as “Moses’ assistant” (1:1) to his new title as God’s servant. But Joshua is not the hero of the book, as we shall see. That role is entirely occupied by the Lord himself, whom Joshua was called to serve. However, Joshua is the central human actor in the drama of the conquest of Canaan, and it’s appropriate for us to look at some of his early history before we delve into the details of this book.


Joshua makes his first appearance in the early days of the exodus, before the nation is brought together at Sinai to receive God’s law. A better translation of the Hebrew word Torah, commonly known in English as “law,” would be “instruction.” The word “instruction” stresses the relational aspect of God’s self-revelation as he reveals how his people are to live in covenant with him. Interwoven with God’s instruction are the binding effects and sanctions of his commands, which are not just advice but carry divine authority and inflict within them punishment for rebellion.

Just a few months past the exodus from Egypt, the Israelites faced an assault from the Amalekites at Rephidim, where God had provided water from the rock. Without any words of introduction, Joshua is nominated by Moses to select an army and lead the battle, which he does (Exodus 17:8-10). After Joshua overwhelmed Amalek (Exodus 17:13), God commands Moses to record the event in writing and cause it to be read to Joshua that God will be at war with Amalek until he will “utterly blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven (Exodus 17:14).

Joshua, previously unknown, is suddenly a successful military leader. But he needs constantly to be reminded that this was God’s victory, not his. It was entirely dependent on Moses’ symbolic raising of his hands to YHWH’s throne in supplication and intercession. This first recorded incident of Joshua sees the written testimony (scripture) given a central place in encouraging Joshua’s faith and reminding him where the power truly lies. The man of action is to be dependent on the Word of the Lord and on the prayers of his people.

We next find Joshua described as Moses’ “assistant” in Exodus 24:13. There he accompanies Moses up Mount Sinai to receive the tablets of the Torah. Moses does not record that Joshua was with him when he entered the glory cloud of God’s presence, but he was certainly nearer to God’s self-revelation than any of his fellow Israelites.

And when the long interview with YHWH was over, it was Joshua who descended with Moses to witness the horrors of the golden calf orgy being held in the Israelite camp. The young protege assumed the noise of the people was a sign of war, but Moses knew better (Exodus 32:17-19). Following the initial acts of judgment and God’s withdrawal of his immediate presence from the camp, Moses set up a tent outside the camp, a prototype “Tabernacle” or “tent of meeting,” where he alone can communicate with God in personal intimacy. But the privilege of proximity again belongs to Joshua:

Thus the Lord used to speak to Moses face to face, as a man speaks to his friend. When Moses turned again into the camp, his assistant Joshua the son of Nun, a young man, would not depart from the tent. [iv]

Joshua’s story is silent on how much Moses passed on to his young apprentice, but such closeness to the action and his awareness of God’s glory must have been quite formative in the young warrior’s thinking. In addition, Joshua was almost certainly present throughout much of the time that Moses was writing the Pentateuch, thus reinforcing Joshua’s appreciation for God’s written revelation.


The next time we meet Joshua, we find he still has some things to learn. God called Moses to select 70 elders, upon whom God put his spirit to enable them to share the burden of leadership Moses had been shouldering alone. This unique visitation of the Holy Spirit was evidenced by their prophesying, a unique occurrence. Two men whom Joshua did not believe should be prophesying were nevertheless prophesying. Joshua cried to Moses, “my Lord Moses, stop them” (Numbers 11:28). But Moses responds to his protege, “would that all the Lord’s people were prophets” (11:29).

Moses’ meekness showed not the slightest hint of jealousy. He had no concern for his own position or authority, but only for the people’s well-being. Joshua had to learn that leadership is never an exclusive power or privilege, that he is not to glorify Moses nor himself. It is not Moses’ or Joshua’s agenda that matters. Only God’s agenda matters. These remain essential insights for godly leadership even today.

Next comes the greatest contribution Joshua has so far made in God’s purposes for Israel. He was selected to represent his tribe, Ephraim, as one of the 12 spies sent to investigate the land of Canaan (Numbers 13:1-16). Only Joshua and Caleb return with a confident report, urging immediate occupation: “for we are well able to overcome…” (Numbers 13:30). They also plead with the whole congregation to trust into God’s grace and favor to “bring us into this land and give it to us, a land that flows with milk and honey” (Numbers 14:8).

The Israelites must trust God’s presence and promise. But the majority report of the rebellious unbelieving spies prevailed, the opportunity was lost, and Israel confined herself to the tragedy of 40 more years in the wilderness as that whole generation is condemned to die outside the land, except Caleb and Joshua (Numbers 14:30). A plague kills the 10 spies. Only Joshua and Caleb remain alive (Numbers 14:37, 38).

Eventually, the years pass and God commands Moses to view, but not enter, the promised land before his own death. Moses’ great passion is the welfare of the people. He petitions God in specific terms that become increasingly significant as the great narrative of scripture unfolds. He asks for a man “who shall go out before them and come in before them, who shall lead them out and bring them in, that the congregation of the Lord may not be as sheep that have no shepherd” (Numbers 27:17; c.f. John 10).

He asks for a shepherd, a request influenced by his years tending Jethro’s flock as well as his years leading the flock of God. And God’s answer is immediate: “Take Joshua the son of Nun, a man in whom is the spirit, and lay your hand on him” (Numbers 27:18). Joshua is publicly commissioned with some of the authority Moses had. Joshua is clearly God’s man, but his relationship will be different from that which Moses had with God.

Joshua will not have the face-to-face fellowship Moses experienced. He has a written record by which God’s will is made known, coupled with access to Eleazar the priest “who shall inquire for him by the judgment of the Urim before the Lord” (Numbers 27:21). Joshua is the first Israelite leader who, although directly commissioned by God, is dependent on the Word of God already spoken and written and the prayerful inquiry of the priest to provide the wisdom he needs to make decisions for the people.

Joshua and Eleazar are included together in the government of the nation. In numbers 32:28 they are told to ensure that the tribes of Gad and Reuben will not inherit their assigned land east of the Jordan unless they enter Canaan with the other tribes and play their part in its armed conquest, to which they agree. The fulfillment of this command with its promise dominates the book of Joshua.


The book of Deuteronomy, the second giving of the law, finds the nation of Israel encamped on the plains of Moab before the entry into the land when Moses dies. Knowing that he is approaching his death, Moses has much to pass on from God to the people. He reminds them of the exclusion of their parents’ generation by unbelief. He recalls not only God’s promise to Caleb and Joshua that they would enter, but also God’s instruction to him about the new leader: “Encourage him, for he shall cause Israel to inherit [the land]” (Deut. 1:38).

In chapter 3, Moses recalls a military victory. And this was what he said to Joshua at the time: “Your eyes have seen all that the Lord your God has done to these two kings. So will the Lord do to all the kingdoms into which you are crossing. You shall not fear them, for it is the Lord your God who fights for you” (Deut. 3:21,22). Then Moses recalls his instructions from God. “Charge Joshua, and encourage and strengthen him, for he shall go over at the head of this people, and he shall put them in possession of the land” (Deut. 3:28).

This theme of encouraging and strengthening Joshua reoccurs persistently throughout Deuteronomy and serves as an introduction to the first chapters of the book of Joshua. Deuteronomy 31 records the change in leadership from Moses to Joshua. Moses assures the nation that they will possess the land, “and Joshua will go over at your head, as the Lord has spoken” (Deut. 31:3).

The plan of succession is divine in both origin and execution. But in his words to Joshua, Moses is more specific. He instructs Joshua to be strong and courageous, not fearful, or easily discouraged, because of the sure and certain promises of God (Deut. 31:7). In the next verse Moses says, “It is the Lord who goes before you. He will be with you; He will not leave you or forsake you” (Deut. 31:8).

Saint Arthur of Hebrews notes the promises to Joshua from Deuteronomy and links it with the statement of the psalmist in Psalm 118:6: “The Lord is my helper; I will not fear; what can man do to me?” (Hebrews 13: 5, 6). This is a thread of faith in the promises of God, the antidote to fear, and these promises bind all scripture together.

In Deuteronomy 31:23, Joshua is then commissioned directly by the Lord in the presence of Moses. Again, Joshua is told to be strong and brave because he is the one God will use to bring the people of Israel into the promised land. God promises Joshua his divine presence. At the end of Deuteronomy, everything is prepared and ready for the coming conquest of the land. So that along with the death of Moses there is also a sense of expectation about what is to happen since Joshua is “full of the spirit of wisdom, for Moses had laid his hands on him” (Deut. 34:9).

Then, as we turn the page from the Pentateuch to the first of the historical narratives (also called the ‘former prophets’), we hear God’s command to get up and go over the Jordan (Joshua 1:2). The first word of original Hebrew in the book of Joshua is “and” because the writer of Joshua (possibly Eleazer the priest) intends for us to see the connection to the work that precedes it.


One thing that comes across clearly in looking at Joshua’s story through the Pentateuch is the way in which Joshua’s knowledge of God and resulting dependence upon him become the key equipping method for the work he has to do. This was not for him to learn how to be a good leader. It was for him to learn how totally dependent upon YHWH he was, and to learn the character of the God on whom he had to depend. Joshua is not the hero of this book. God alone is the hero.

As we work our way through the book of Joshua, we will learn that he is far from being a person of superhuman qualities. Otherwise, he would not have needed to be constantly exhorted to be strong and courageous. That seems to indicate that Joshua was not what we would consider a natural leader.

God chooses the foolish, the weak, the despised, those with nothing to offer so that it should be evident to all that it’s God who makes something out of nothing (1st Cor. 1:28). This book will make it clear that the Lord gave Israel the land. The Lord gave Israel rest as he delivered their enemies into their hands. Every one of his promises was fulfilled.

Consider how seemingly impossible God’s command must have appeared as Joshua and the people stared at the river Jordan and considered the conquest of the land. That was why they needed constant exhortation to listen to, or remember, and put their faith in the self-revelatory words of their God. This was to be the first generation without a prophet, dependent on the written instructions of God in the Torah and on the requirements of faith and obedience recorded in the book of the covenant.

Face-to-face conversation with the Lord was not Joshua’s constant privilege, as it had been for Moses. He had to lead the people dependent on God’s written Word and the Spirit of Wisdom, just as Christian leaders do today. We face an increasingly hostile culture armed with the good news of Christ. We depend upon the Word of God in the hands of the Spirit of God to accomplish the work of God, just as Joshua did.

St Author of Hebrews looked beyond Joshua to Jesus and the greater fulfillment in the gospel of all that was foreshadowed in the Old Testament:

For if Joshua had given them rest, God would not have spoken of another day later on. So then, there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God, 10 for whoever has entered God’s rest has also rested from his works as God did from his.

11 Let us therefore strive to enter that rest, so that no one may fall by the same sort of disobedience. 12 For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. 13 And no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account. [v]


[i] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Jos 1:1–2.

[ii] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Ge 17:8.

[iii] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Ge 12:1.

[iv] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Ex 33:11.

[v] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Heb 4:8–13.