Then God said to Moses: “Your days are approaching death. Call Joshua and stand, both of you, in the Tent of Appointment so that I can give him his charge.” So Moses and Joshua went and stood, both of them, in the Tent of Appointment.
— Deuteronomy 31:14
Moses had been thinking of retiring ever since the episode of the Golden Calf, 40 years earlier. Now, picking his successor was no problem, for Joshua had been in the wings ever since then. He had been a young man, a mere fetch-boy, when God announced that He was unwilling to continue to live in the midst of such a disloyal, faithless people. At God’s instructions, Moses set up a tent apart from the camp where He could meet with him from time to time. Moses gave the boy the job of guarding the Tent and being on constant lookout for God’s cloud-chariot.
Thus it came about that Joshua spent a lot more time in the Tent than Moses. It had taken Moses a long time to realize that something had rubbed off on Joshua during the long years when he had slept in the Tent every night and kept guard by its opening every day. Moses thought of himself as the only one in the camp with real experience of the holy, for he alone had been inside the cloud on the mountain. He didn’t take Joshua seriously until the episode of the spies. In that crisis, Joshua and Caleb had kept their independence and had reproached the people with the kind of vigor that Moses had had at the time of the calf. Moses was so weary of wrangling with the people that he hadn’t the strength to reproach them himself and was happy to let Joshua and Caleb spare his strength for pleading with God. As at the time of the Golden Calf, Moses had found just the words to prevent God from wiping the people out, but deep inside he knew he wouldn’t be able to pull off this feat a third time.
When the third time came, at the rock, Moses did indeed fail. His speech in answer to the people’s complaint consisted of a single incoherent sentence; his striking the rock with the staff was a pathetic display of impotence. God told Moses immediately that he was through, that he should commission Joshua to succeed him by laying his hands on him. This Moses did. But he did not stop being a leader.
No, first the people had to be reminded of the details of the sacrificial offerings and to be told the laws of vows; then there was the battle against the Midianites, which generated a whole string of laws pertaining to war. And how to handle the demand of Reuben, Gad and half of the tribe of Menasseh that they be permitted to settle east of the Jordan? — another problem only Moses could handle. Moses just couldn’t stop giving laws and, when there were no new laws to be given, gave three farewell lectures and reviewed all the laws yet again.
Moses, once tongue-tied, now spoke with matchless eloquence. It was as if in his last days the hand of God came down upon him once more. Moses imagined he could speak forever, that the decree had been lifted, that he, not Joshua, would supervise the conquest of the land. On the Saturday morning of his 120th birthday, he taught the people as usual until midday. But then he lost the thread of his lesson and knew his work was over.
So Moses and Joshua trudged together to the Tent. Moses blessed Joshua with strength and courage but couldn’t bring himself to bid Joshua to lead the people into the land. The best he could say was “You will go with this people to the land that God promised your fathers… and He will be with you” (Deuteronomy 31:7). “You will go with them” — as one of them, not as their undisputed head but with them and their councils and quarrels and squabbles and stubbornness, with a hundred other would-be leaders.
Then they entered the Tent, and for the first time Joshua was with Moses when God appeared. God told Moses that he was about to die and that the people would go astray after alien gods — a harsh farewell to his faithful vicar, tantamount to declaring Moses’ mission a failure! Yet Joshua knew that God’s words were some comfort to Moses, for they permitted Moses to think that Joshua and his successors wouldn’t have any more satisfaction in leading and teaching this people than had he.
Joshua had no illusions about the people, but he also knew that his task would be easier than Moses’ had been. He did not have to educate the Israelites, did not have to change a whole people’s hearts and minds; all he had to do was mobilize them to conquer the Canaanites, an external enemy, easy to identify, easy to hate. How much easier to kill Canaanites than to educate Israelites!
Raymond P. Scheindlin is a professor of medieval Hebrew literature at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America and the author of a verse translation of the book of Job.