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Joshua: What We Can Learn About Leadership

What can we learn about leadership from Joshua's example?

What can we learn about leadership from Joshua's example?

"If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader."

— John Quincy Adams

Joshua as Military Leader

When Joshua first appears in the Torah, he is the military head who is leading the Jews to destroy Amalek. This is a difficult war since the motivation is not coming directly from the people or leaders but from God himself. He commands the people not just to beat or overthrow Amalek, but to annihilate them, men, women, children, and even infants, along with all their animals (Exodus, 17:9).

As difficult as it must have been for Joshua to hear the commandment and make ready to carry it out himself, how much more difficult must it have been to lead the children of Israel to also undertake this mission? But the most important characteristic of leadership in a Jewish leader is faith in God and obeying his commands no matter how hard they may be.

At this time it has barely been a month after the Children of Israel had been freed from a life of slavery and since they had left Egypt, conditions which would seem to prevent any of them from being capable of understanding a mentality of fighting a war in which they were expected to kill every man, woman, child, and animal. Yet Joshua’s strength and faith in God let him rise above the rest to become their military leader and he inspired the Israelites through his steadfastness in doing all that he had been commanded (Rashi, n.d.).

Moses Asks for a Successor

When Moses realizes he will not live much longer as he has been barred from entering the land of Israel (Canaan), he asks God to choose a leader to replace him so the Israelites will not be lost without him. He asks:

"Let the Lord, the God of spirits of all flesh, appoint a man over the congregation, who will go forth before them and come before them, who will lead them out and bring them in, so that the congregation of the Lord will not be like sheep without a shepherd" (Numbers 27:16-17).


Joshua Is Chosen as the Single Leader of the Nation

In response to the request of Moses, God tells him to take Joshua and make him the new leader of the Children of Israel. Moses had wanted one of his son's to inherit his position. In the Midrash (Bamidbar Rabbah,n.d.) God tells him that:

“’He who plants the date palm [merits that he] eats of its fruits’ Your children did not occupy themselves in Torah. Yehoshua (Joshua), since he served you with all his might is worthy of serving the Jewish People”.

Rashi explains:

Moses… said, “It is time to ask for my own needs-that my son should inherit my high position.” The Holy One, blessed be He, said to him, “That is not My intention, for Joshua deserves to be rewarded for his service, for he would not depart from the tent”. This is what Solomon meant when he said, “He who guards the fig tree eats its fruit”. (Rashi, Numbers 27:16).

The Sages explain in Megeleh Amukos, Ofen Alef (Quoted in Yalkut Reuvaini, Bamidbar 27:15), that Moses hoped that the people could have two leaders or Kings, one who would serve as the King and the military leader and one who would lead in Torah and help the people come closer to God through learning and following the commandments.

This is why two expressions were used by Moses when he asked God to appoint a successor. First, he asked for a successor: “who will go forth before them and come before them.” This refers to a political leader who would lead the nation in battle. Second, he asked for a successor: “who will lead them out and bring them in.” This is meant to connote a leader who would lead them in their learning, their pursuit of wisdom, understanding of Torah and God's laws.

Moses understood that without the separation of powers, it was possible that too much power could become concentrated within a single individual leading to possible corruption. After Joshua, this model did, in fact, become the basis of Jewish leadership in subsequent generations.There was a separation of the king, who was the political leader, and the Sanhedrin, which was the Jewish high court, led by the Nasi, or chief justice. Similarly, Moses intended for one of his children to inherit the first Kingship while Joshua inherited the second.

Yet this is not meant to be. God replies that “Only one will lead them. Yehoshua will be their king and preeminent Torah scholar” (Hilchos Melachim, Chapter 4). Yet, if separation of powers was to become the model for the leadership of the nation after Joshua, why did it not begin with him? The answer to this question can be found in what was needed in a leader at the time Joshua was anointed.

Two Functions of Leadership

There are two main functions or roles that a leader must fulfill. The spiritual leader of the people is focused on elevating the people to increasing heights of wisdom, refinement, connection to the divine and helping them learn to experience holiness within the physical limitations of the world. The political leader is less concerned with ideals and more involved with the practical matters of everyday life. He helps the nation find their way through the day to day practical realities dictated by the current political system. The spiritual and political leaders need different skills to function in their specific realms. A leader who is an expert in war may not also be a master of learning and the spiritual needs of a nation.

Yet when the Jewish people went into the land of Israel to establish the beginning of a national identity, there was one person, Joshua, who fulfilled both leadership roles. When Israel was first being established, it was important to underscore the idea that at the most basic level, the goal and purpose of the two leadership roles are the same. A single leader at that moment in history emphasized the need to view the spiritual leader and political leader as seeking the same thing. Politics was intended to be a tool to implement spiritual ideas, focusing on meaning, values, beliefs and faith, not an end in itself.

In later times, politics and spirituality began to seem like two entirely separate functions with goals that did not always align and had different rules .Then it would be important to the continued survival of the nation to remember that the goal of politics and the military was to enable the ideals presented in the Torah to be fully implemented as these would be the facets that would insure the continuation of the Jewish nation. In modern times, usually those that have held leadership roles in the nation of Israel often have widely disparate backgrounds and skill sets. Yet the chief of the Jewish court and the head of the executive branch, should both be working toward the same truth.

"Leadership and learning are indispensable to each other."

— John F. Kennedy


Joshua Sets the Example

The true function and characteristics of a Jewish leader or King has been explained by Maimonides (Hilchos Melachim, Chapter 4). The leader must lead the people in all things, provide them with their material needs and lift them up in the true religion or make sure they are following God’s laws and learning his words. So Kingship or leadership is seen as an extension of the High Court whose purpose is to decide matters of Torah law fairly among the people.

A Jewish leader cannot view Kingship and Torah Leadership as separate but must see them as part of each other. This is the case whether there is one or two leaders. One of the most important characteristics of a Jewish leader is that they demonstrate how they function in their earthly roles while following the ideals upon which the nation is founded with actions not just words. It is this characteristic that showed Joshua to be the true leader to inherit the mantel from Moses.

After his victory over Amalek, Joshua could have sat back and reaped the rewards for his actions likely for the rest of his life. He might also have thought he could challenge Moses for the position or just to make himself look superior. Instead he does the exact opposite. Throughout the Torah he is described as always subordinating himself to Moses. This is shown in a number of ways:

  • Of all the people he is the sole one at the bottom of Mount Sinai waiting for Moses to return, despite the hopelessness of the rest of the nation (Numbers 14:6). This shows the characteristics of dedication, belief, faith, acceptance of Gods will as absolute and the belief that when Moses promised something he would follow through.
  • He and Caleb are the only spies who do not rebel against Moses’ urging to enter the land of Israel.
  • After the spies return, Joshua is the one who speaks up to describe the land of Israel positively though the people had been so upset by the reports of the other spies that they could have killed him for it (Numbers 14:6). This shows the characteristic of taking action when necessary despite the fact that it could result in harm to the person.
  • When someone appears to challenge Moses’ leadership, Joshua hurries to Moses’s defense (Numbers 11:28). Two youth run to tell Moses that there are two people prophesizing in the camp, calling Moses’ skill into question. Joshua gets quite angry on behalf of his teacher and the leader of the nation and Moses commends him for it. This characteristic of leadership involves loyalty and dedication to ones allies, friends and teachers.
  • Although Joshua recognizes his own abilities, he knows when he needs help and where to turn to find it. He also understands the importance of remaining close to a truly great man in order to adopt some of his characteristics. It says that Joshua never left Moses’ side and totally attached himself to Moses not just learning from him but caring for his needs as well (Woolfe, 2002).

These characteristics define a Jewish leader and thus, it is Joshua alone who fits the criteria. He is devoted to God’s commands to the point he leads the people to annihilate an entire nation, and he then has to process this enormous event with the people who don’t understand. Despite Moses wanting his own children to succeed him, God explains that Joshua fully intertwines the characteristics of political-military leadership with the spiritual ideals set forth in the Torah. Joshua’s ability to merge the two together is what permits him to lead, as faith in God leads to faith in himself and the knowledge he is doing the right thing when following what God commands him. He is also dedicated, loyal and absolute in his belief that what God says is true, which transfers to belief in his mentor Moses.

Although it had appeared that Moses was late coming down Mt. Sinai he was the only person who patiently waited at the bottom for him, certain he would return. He is willing to put life and limb in harm’s way to support God’s vision trusting it will turn out alright if he is true to what he needs to do or say. According to God the characteristic that most warrants him taking over the leadership is that he remained by Moses’ side to aid him, observe how he did things and interact with the people who came to see Moses.

Understanding of the importance of constantly learning from a mentor to know how best to handle difficult situations is the most critical aspect of Joshua’s leadership abilities. When he becomes the leader, he benefits from the firsthand knowledge of the diverse natures that exist within the nation gained from observing Moses. This knowledge helps him know how best to lead based on the needs of each individual and the nation as a whole. Although he is to lead the nation, he does so from within the community as a part of the community such that his effort is of the people not just for the people. Even while accomplishing this, he naturally merges the roles of political and spiritual leader as his teacher, Moses, had before him (Wein, 2015). In this way, he set the foundation for these two roles to be divided and held by different individuals after him. This was accomplished by ensuring that despite becoming two distinct jobs held by two different leaders, that the roles would forever be viewed as one.


Philip Budha on June 09, 2019:

thanks for this post as it was very much helpful for my bible study

Jay C OBrien from Houston, TX USA on December 03, 2017:

Hello, let me ask some fundamental questions:

Isn't it wrong to go around killing people?

If a person says God is telling them to harm others, are they delusional?

Here is another view of Joshua. Please let me know what you think.

Natalie Frank (author) from Chicago, IL on March 06, 2017:

Thanks. You two.

Ashi on March 05, 2017:


You are welcome Natalie :) Keep writing such helpful hubs :)

Good luck :)

Natalie Frank (author) from Chicago, IL on March 04, 2017:

Ashish - Thank you for your supportive comments. I appreciate the reply and hope you will continue to find my hubs to your liking and interest. Be well.

Ashi on March 04, 2017:


Excellent piece of Leadership.

I loved the way you have written.

Thanks for writing such inspirational hub :)

Bless you.