Beyond the Lectionary Text: Joshua 1
by Erin M. Stout
These notes focus on Joshua 1:1-9
Joshua was in need of strength and courage.
The narrator of our passage doesn’t reveal Joshua’s feelings here…but we do hear the LORD tell him three times with increasing intensity: “Be strong and courageous” (v. 6), “Be strong and very courageous” (v. 7), and “Be strong and courageous. Do not be terrified; do not be discouraged” (v. 9). And again at the end of the chapter, the people tell Joshua, “Only be strong and courageous!” Maybe Joshua was overwhelmed with fear at the time of his commissioning. Maybe he needed to hear these words upfront in order to draw on them for strength and courage in the future. Either way, God knew he needed this message.
For one thing, Joshua had some big sandals to fill. Although he had already been apprenticed and commissioned by Moses prior to his death, Joshua was following in the footsteps of the greatest leader his people had ever known. The closing words of Deuteronomy paint a picture of Moses’ exceptional relationship with the LORD and his remarkable undertakings:
No prophet has risen in Israel like Moses, whom the LORD knew face to face, who did all those miraculous signs and wonders the LORD sent him to do in Egypt – to Pharaoh and to all his officials and to his whole land. For no one has ever shown the mighty power or performed the awesome deeds that Moses did in the sight of all Israel. (Deut. 34:10-12)
Joshua needed strength and courage to follow in those footsteps.
For another thing, Joshua was becoming the leader of a great nation – a nation with a history of grumbling, stubbornness, and rebellion. The LORD had caused the worst generation to die in the desert rather than enter into the Promised Land. But still, the LORD was calling Joshua to lead a nation whose name means “wrestles with God.” One needs courage and strength to do that!
Joshua’s task to lead Israel into the Promised Land is momentous for his people. Israel has been wandering in the wilderness waiting for this moment for forty years. But from a broader, theological perspective, Israel has been waiting for this for generations. Way back in the time of Abraham, before Israel even was a nation – before Abram had any children at all – the LORD promised that Abraham’s children would become a great nation, and that they would inherit the land of Canaan. For well over four hundred years, God’s people have been waiting. Joshua’s call is to lead God’s people into this long-awaited fulfillment. I suspect Joshua felt both the exhilaration and the pressure of leading in such a pivotal time. He needed strength and courage.
And the obstacles ahead loom large. The Promised Land is not a land filled only with giant produce. It is also filled with giant people who are well-prepared to fight (Num 13:31-33). As one historian describes it: “From personal observation Joshua knew that the Canaanites and others were vigorous people who lived in strongly fortified cities. Frequent battles kept their warriors in trim fighting condition. And for the most part the land was mountainous, a fact that would make war maneuvers difficult.”
Joshua was in need of strength and courage. And – praise God! – when the LORD calls his people, he gives them what they need.
The LORD first tells Joshua to be strong and courageous on the basis of his promise. The LORD tells Joshua, “Be strong and courageous, because you will lead these people to inherit the land I swore to their ancestors to give to them” (v. 6). The LORD had promised the land of Canaan to Abraham and his offspring by means of a covenant, whereby the LORD communicated, in essence, “May I be cut into two if I don’t keep my promise to you” (Gen. 15). From generation to generation, the LORD has proven himself faithful in keeping his word. Joshua can be strong and courageous on the basis of God’s unfailing covenant promise.
The second time the LORD speaks strength and courage to Joshua, the focus is on practicing God’s law (vv. 7-8). Obeying “all the law my servant Moses gave you” provides Joshua a tether that keeps his work in continuity with that of Moses. It puts Joshua in the proper posture of humility and submission to God’s will. And – because God’s commands provide a reflection of God’s character – following the Law of Moses keeps Joshua close to God’s heart. That’s the kind of leader God’s people need.
Finally, the LORD tells Joshua to be strong and courageous on the basis of God’s presence. “Do not be terrified; do not be discouraged, for the LORD your God will be with you wherever you go” (v. 9) Ultimately, the success of Joshua’s leadership – and the welfare of God’s people – is dependent on the abiding and guiding presence of God. When the LORD goes with his people, they have all the reason in the world to be strong and courageous. Even when they cross river and rugged terrain. Even in battle. Even in the face of giants.
Over one thousand years later, it is this same God who again calls his people to his word, and promises his presence. He is the one whose name, like Joshua’s, means “the LORD saves.” But rather than just saving his people from physical harm, he saves them from a far greater enemy: sin itself. “You are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21). He is the only one who has ever perfectly kept God’s law, and he is the one who brings all of God’s promises to fulfillment (Matthew 5:17). Just as the LORD told Joshua, “I will never leave you nor forsake you,” so Jesus promises his people, “Surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (Matthew 28:20).
1. Donald K. Campbell, The Bible Knowledge Commentary
Many commentators believe that verses 7 and 8 make up the centerpoint of this passage and provide the theme for the entire book of Joshua. In between the LORD’s first call to courage (based on promises past) and the LORD’s third call to courage (based on the promise of his continuing presence), the second call to courage different – it is a command. The LORD tells Joshua, “Do not let this Book of the Law depart from your mouth; meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do everything written in it” (v. 8). The Hebrew word for ‘meditate’ (hagah) means, literally, ‘to mutter.’ In Joshua’s day, meditating on God’s word meant speaking it quietly under one’s breath, in order to memorize it. If a person has God’s word continually in their mouth, the mind remembers it, and the heart is transformed.
In verse 7 the LORD tells Joshua, “Do not turn from from [the law] to the right or to the left, that you may be successful wherever you go.” Again in verse 8 the LORD says, “Meditate on [this Book of the Law] day and night, so that you may be careful to do everything written in it. Then you will be prosperous and successful.” The Hebrew word, sekel, can be translated, “successful.” But in its most common usage, the word means “prudent” or “wise.” Knowing and obeying God’s word will cause Joshua to be successful because it will first of all make him wise.
In C.S. Lewis’ The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, there is a scene where Lucy and her friends set sail toward what appears to be an island, only to discover that it is no island at all; it is a Darkness. The crew make a foolhardy decision to enter into the Darkness, only to discover that within the “utter blackness” is a place where dreams – the kinds of dreams that are really nightmares – come true. They turn the ship to sail out, but already they begin to hear from within the Darkness the sounds of the horrible things they most fear.
Lewis writes, “Lucy leant her head on the edge of the fighting-top and whispered, ‘Aslan, Aslan, if ever you loved us at all, send us help now.’ The darkness did not grow any less, but she began to feel – a very, very little – better.”
Then, Lucy saw something approach: an albatross. It circled the ship and then perched. “It called out in a strong sweet voice what seemed to be words though no one understood them. After that it spread its wings, rose, and began to fly slowly ahead, bearing a little to starboard. Drinian steered after it not doubting that it offered good guidance. But no one except Lucy knew that as it circled the mast it had whispered to her, ‘Courage, dear heart,’ and the voice, she felt sure, was Aslan’s, and with the voice a delicious smell breathed in her face.”
Lucy found courage and strength in this whispered voice, and Joshua found it in God’s words to him. And through his living Word, this same God still speaks courage and wisdom into our lives.
Rev. Erin (Marshalek) Stout is senior pastor at Faith Christian Reformed Church in New Brighton, MN.