The death of Moses, recorded in Deuteronomy 34, must have been a life changing experience for the entire nation of Israel. It is hard for us to grasp just how devastating the death of Moses must have felt to the Israelites, who had followed his leadership for the past forty years. Few figures in history have left such a lasting legacy upon the world, therefore, we struggle to grasp the meaning of his death. Some of you reading this may be old enough to remember the death of Franklin Roosevelt, others can remember the assassination of John F. Kennedy. While too young to remember either of these events, I grew up hearing from my parents and older siblings the stories about the two days these great American presidents died. The closest parallel that I can draw from me personally is the day that Ronald Reagan was shot outside of the Hilton Hotel in Washington, D.C. Events such as these send chills down our spines when we remember the fear, confusion, and despondency that occur when the leader of a nation is suddenly taken away. These are the closest parallels that we can think of to try to imagine what the Israelites must have gone through, but even they do not come close to putting us in the mindset of what the Jewish people must have been experiencing.
Moses was more than just a political or military leader to the Israelites. If it were not for his faithfulness and obedience to the call of God, Israel would still have been trapped in the bondage of slavery in Egypt. Moses was more than a political leader, he was in a sense their savior, deliverer and rescuer. His death marked the end of one of the most important phases of Israel’s history and the beginning of one of its most trying periods. There are several book of the Old Testament that begin by recording the death of a leader for instance—Judges (Joshua’s death), 2 Samuel (Saul’s death), 2 Kings (Ahab’s death) — each of these mark an important transition in the history of the nation, but none of the others comes close to capturing the emotional sadness and crisis brought about by the death of Moses.
No one in Israel was positioned to experience the death of Moses more personally than Joshua. For years, Joshua had been Moses’ faithful servant. When Moses went up on the mountain to receive the law, Joshua was there with him (Ex 24:13; 32:17). Whenever Moses went out to the tent of meeting to receive a word from God, Joshua was there with him (Ex. 33:11). When Moses needed a trusted general to lead the army of Israel into battle with the Amalekites, he turned to Joshua (Ex 17:8-16). When selecting members of from each tribe of Israel to go in a spy out the promised land, Moses chose Joshua to represent the tribe of Ephraim (Num 13:8). For over 40 years, the lives of these two men had been inseparably linked together. Now Moses was dead. The people had lost leader but Joshua lost a friend and mentor. The people had lost one of the founding figures in their nation’s history, but Joshua had lost a father figure who had invested his life in teaching Joshua how to serve God. The people had lost one of the inspirational leaders of their past, but Joshua had lost a man that he didn’t think he could ever live without.
The author of Joshua begins by abruptly stating that, “Moses my servant is dead. Now therefore arise and go over this Jordan, you and all the people, into the land that I am giving to them, to the people of Israel.” Commenting on this verse, Warren Wiersbe cited the well-known modern proverb, “God buries His workmen, but His work goes on.” (Wiersbe) I came across that statement about ten years ago, while I was preaching a series of messages through the book of Joshua. That statement initially startled and even offended me because it seemed to make God callous and indifferent. It seemed to me, at the time, to convey the idea that God was more concerned about His work than about His servants. I was convinced then, and remain so today, that there is more going on here than God merely passing the mantle of leadership from Moses to Joshua. Reading this passage merely as the historical record of the succession of one leader after the death of another misses the point the Biblical author is trying to make. In order to properly understand the intent of this passage we must read Joshua 1:1-5 as more than mere history— we must read it as theological history. This is not meant to deny that the passage contains a record of real historical events, but to read it merely as history misses the point. The historical records contained within the Bible have a unique theological purpose, they are written with the intent of showing how God keeps His promises within the context of time and space.
In Joshua 1:1-9, God wanted to make it clear that the events going on around the nation, in no way changed or invalidated His promises. The death of Moses brought out the worst fears that the people carried with them. What will happen to us? Who is going to lead us? Is Joshua really up to the challenge of leading the nation? Should we just give up and go back to Egypt? All of these question and more would have run through the minds of the Israelites as they sat stunned and dismayed in the desert. They needed hope. They needed help. They needed a Word from God and just as He had done 40 years earlier, God broke the silence and spoke to His servant, Joshua, and gave Him a set of promises. “Every place that the sole of your foot will tread upon I have given you…No man shall be able to stand before you all the days of your life…I will be with you…I will not leave you nor forsake you…you shall cause the people to inherit the land that I swore to their fathers to give them.” These words must have been like music in Joshua’s ears and they serve to remind us of some of the helpful applications of God’s eternal character.
The Promises of God Rest on His Eternal Nature
Many Biblical scholars have noted that the thrust of this passage is developed around the threefold repetition of the phrase “Be strong and courageous” in verses 5,6, and 7. While I agree that this threefold command forms the crux of God’s message to Joshua I want to point out that the command to “be strong and courageous” rest on the eternal nature and promises of God. The author of Joshua points us in that direction when invokes the name Yahweh at the beginning and end of this passage (v.1, 9). The divine name Yahweh is a declaration of His self-existence and eternal nature, therefore, I want to suggest that the author had three primary rhetorical purposes for invoking this particular name for God in this passage.
First, he used the repetition of the divine name (YHWH) to form an inclusio, which marks the beginning and ending of the first rhetorical section of the book. At first glance this may seem like nothing more than a literary device, however, closer inspection shows that it is part of the author’s larger literary goal. To see what I mean we need to compare how this book opens with the way it closes. Notice that the book begins and ends by recording the death of a leader. It opens with the death of Moses and concludes with the death of Joshua. In the opening scene, the author shows how the Lord appeared to Joshua after the death of Moses and commanded him to be “strong and courageous.” At the end of the book, Joshua speaks to the people just before his own death and raises the question of whether they will remain faithful. We will return in a moment to this observation, but for right now let it suffice to say that the opening section of Joshua is marked by the presence of an inclusion formed by the repetition of the name Yahweh and that the book as a whole is marked at both the beginning and end by the death of Israel’s leader.
Second, the author used the divine name to show the continuity between the life of Joshua and Moses. Just as Yahweh appeared to Moses at the burning bush, so now He was appearing to Joshua to call and commission him to continue the mission that was begun through Moses. As we discussed in the previous chapters, the name Yahweh was given to Moses at the burning bush and was used as the special covenant name for God. It came to symbolize not only the eternal and self-existent nature of God but also His fidelity to His covenant. Now that Moses was dead, the people in general and Joshua in particular needed to be reassured of God’s continued presence and provision. D.R. Davis notes, “Yahweh’s fidelity does not hinge on the achievement of men, however, gifted they may be, nor does it evaporate in the face of funerals or rivers.” (Davis, 18) Moses may have been dead and gone but Yahweh was still alive and ready to carry out His promises.
Finally, and most importantly, He used this name as the basis for Israel’s faith. At several strategic locations in the Pentateuch Moses used the name Yahweh to set Israel’s God apart from the gods of the pagans. By drawing upon this name in the opening statements of the Joshua, the author shows that the commands given to Joshua were grounded in the very nature of God. (Howard, 73) This brings me back to the point that I was making above concerning the rhetorical strategy employed by the author of Joshua. As I noted above, the entire book is rhetorically formulated around the death of two leaders— Moses and Joshua. The deaths of these two leaders establish not only the historical setting in which this book was written but also form an important part of the author’s rhetorical strategy. What this shows us is that the author of Joshua wants to show how God was faithful to His promises after the death of Moses and the actions that Israel will have to take if they want to continue to experience Yahweh’s blessings. At the end of the book, just before his death, Joshua calls the people together and asks them to “choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your fathers served in the region beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you dwell.” (24:15) The use of the name Yahweh throughout this book serves as a constant reminder that the promises of God rest in His eternal nature.
Since the promises of God rest upon His unchanging nature the death of a leader, even one as important as Moses, cannot not fundamentally change the relationship between God and His people. The saying that “God buries the workman, but His work goes one,” therefore is not a cold or callous statement about the indifference of God towards his servants, but rather a confession of His timeless, unchanging character. Rather than recording the mere transition of power from one leader to the next, the opening chapter of Joshua records for us the historical/theological account of how the God remains faithful to His promises from one generation to the next.” (Boice, 13-14) Every generation needs to be reminded of this truth.