“Moses my servant is dead…” says God. In some ways it would seem a brutal opening; but the writer of the book of Joshua just states the fact.
Joshua was expecting the news, Moses had commissioned him as his successor and also prayed a long prayer of blessing over the nation1, but then Moses had gone mountain walking and had not come back. He had been a ‘super fit’ 120 year old man whose ‘vigour had not abated…’2
Leadership change is often not easy, but moving from the founder to the first successor can be especially
fraught with problems. ‘Founder syndrome’ has become a well known term and many organisations, including (I am tempted to say especially faith based ones) fail to hand over leadership in a good way from the first to second generation of leadership. This example seems to be a good one – but then God was orchestrating the process in a way that gave little room for the founder to manoeuvre!
As I re-read the beginning of the book of Joshua, just a few days ago, it was the issue of leadership change that ‘came off the page’. The person, Moses, who had been the instrument God used to bring the ‘children of Israel’ out of Egypt and form them into the ‘Nation of Israel’, became the last hindrance to the people entering the promised land.
I am sure Moses must have asked God to change his mind but God was very clear with Moses when he said, “This is the land which I swore to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, saying, ‘I will give it to your descendants’; I have let you see it with your eyes, but you shall not go over there.”3
So when God speaks to Joshua at the start of his leadership, the implication is ‘Moses my servant is dead, so the way is now clear for the next stage of want I (God) want to do. At least that’s what I heard in my head as I read: “Moses My servant is dead; now therefore arise, cross this Jordan, you and all this people, to the land which I am giving to them, to the sons of Israel. Every place on which the sole of your foot treads, I have given it to you, just as I spoke to Moses…”4
How did it go so wrong? What could have happened that, arguably, the greatest leader Israel ever had could be barred from leading the next stage of national development when he was still fit and well? The answer is given by God in Deuteronomy 32:51 because you broke faith with Me5 in the midst of the sons of Israel at the waters of Meribah-kadesh, in the wilderness of Zin, because you did not treat Me as holy6 in the midst of the sons of Israel.
What does God mean when he says to Moses he broke faith and did not treat him as holy? Meribah was the place where Moses’ sister Miriam died and was buried and Israel camped there, even though there was no water7. The result – of lack of water and food – was another rebellion against Moses and Aaron. God’s instruction to the brothers was to take the rod Moses had used on a previous occasion, to strike a rock and bring out water, but this time to do something strange – to speak to the rock and bring forth water.8 At this point we need to remember that the rebellion is because there are insufficient resources to sustain the life of the ‘congregation’ and the people are looking back at Egypt and presenting it as a place of life rather than one of slavery.
Imagine for a moment the pressure on Moses. He is leading a group of hundreds of thousands who need water, and the attack on him is very personal; who would not be at their wits end? Moses’ words to the people show the pressure he feels “Listen now, you rebels; shall we bring forth water for you out of this rock?”9 In his anger Moses fails to obey God and just speak to the rock, but rather uses the pattern of action that worked last time – striking the rock.
I want to suggest that the problem here is two fold:
- Moses’ anger blinded him and he stops trusting God and focuses the solution back on himself and Aaron “shall we bring forth water out of this rock?” and in that Moses ‘broke faith’, ‘did not believe’
- He did not ‘treat God as holy in the sight of the sons of Israel’10
This one act, and the two reasons given in Numbers 20:12 are what stopped Moses ‘going in’ and, is explanation for the timing of the change in leadership of Israel from Moses to Joshua. The nation was ready to go in, all the other men of military age who came out of Egypt had died and the nation is ready for the new start.
For those of us who are older (I am not old, only 63!) there is always a temptation to know what works and what does not work. After all we have the experience of ‘having been this way before’. However God does not always want to do things the same way. I have no idea why it was right to strike the rock on one occasion and speak to it on another, but that was what God asked Moses to do but he let anger and frustration get in the way of obeying God and doing it differently.
For all of us, however old or young, the only way to be truly at peace and rest is to know that the God who made the heavens and the earth is the source of our life.
Finally there is the strange use of the word ‘holy’ – “Because you have not believed me, to treat me as holy in the sight of the sons of Israel…”11 I have written about my understanding of ‘holy’ before12 and as I understand it the implication is ‘to be holy is to be a source of life’ or in the case of God ‘to be the source of life’. In the situation in which Moses found himself at Meribah, he needed to be saying to the nation of Israel in word and deed – ‘God is your source of life’; it is his failure to make that clear statement that robbed him of the opportunity of taking the nation in to the promised land.
Moses had trained Joshua well and the leadership of the nation was in good hands but the lesson remains ‘Moses my servant is dead: now therefore arise, cross the Jordan, you and this people, to the land which I am giving them…’