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08.07.2020 16:58    Comments: 0    Categories: Weekly Parashah      Tags: torah shabbat parashah bamidbar  pinchas  

Joshua’s Appointment

One of the most common opening formulations in the Torah, “The Lord spoke to Moses, saying,” appears in inverted form in this week’s reading:  “Moses spoke to the Lord, saying.”  This being the only occurrence of such an inversion, it calls attention to the unique elements in the description of Joshua’s appointment as Moses’ successor (Num. 27:12-23), in which this inverted formulation appears (verse 15).  We shall examine this narrative, focusing on three aspects:  words that recur, but with certain changes; what the story signfies; and the way it relates to its proximate and more distant setting in the book of Numbers.

Repetition with variation

Although the third passage in the narrative, presenting the Lord’s command (vv. 18-21), basically matches the fourth paragraph, describing Moses’ implementation of it (vv. 22-23), there are three notable differences:  an element is lacking, an element is added, and the order is changed.

Lacking is a report of Moses carrying out the instruction to “invest him with some of your majesty” (v. 20).[1] Perhaps Rabbi Ovadiah Sforno’s interpretation of these words can provide the key to understanding this lack:  “The majesty of sovereignty—give him some power in your lifetime, so that people begin to show him respect.”  In contrast to the previous actions, which were one-time acts insofar as they comprised the ceremony of installation, giving the majesty of sovereignty is a long-term process and not a component of an immediate rite.[2] Thus, conferring majesty joins the actions which follow (v. 21), all of which have to do with the long run, and therefore we are not told about these instructions being put into practice.

The addition—Moses was commanded, “lay your hand upon him” (v. 18), but in the account of implementation it says, “He laid his hands upon him” (v. 23), two hands instead of one.  Those who ascribe significance to every word in Scripture will not dismiss this difference as devoid of significance.  Indeed, the Sages addressed this point, saying:  “Rabbi Jose b. Honi said:  Of everyone a man is jealous, except his son and disciple…[His disciple is deduced] if you like, say, from He laid his hands upon him and commissioned him” (Sanhedrin105b).  Malbim explains the rationale behind Moses’ action:  “The Lord told him only to lay one hand on him, and not give him too much bounty; but Moses, being generous, blessed him by laying both his hands on him.”

Change of order—the order of actions according to the Lord’s command was to single out Joshua, lay a hand on him, and then have him stand before Eleazar and the community.  In the implementation, however, having him stand before Eleazar and the community is mentioned before the laying of hands.  Malbim ascribes great significance to this change, seeing it as deliberately done by Moses in line with the way he viewed things:  “Moses, whose way was not to do anything without consulting the people and their elders, first had him stand before them in order to ask their opinion, and then he laid his hands on him, thereby appointing him to be the one to lead the people.”  First the leader receives the people’s consent, and only afterwards is he officially empowered.


The significance of this narrative can be discussed on three levels:  the individual, the social-historical, and the legal.

On the individual level, on what basis was Joshua chosen?  What was the background to his being selected?  Joshua was the faithful disciple and servant who accompanied Moses throughout.  In Numbers he is called “Moses’ attendant from his youth” (Num. 11:28).  The Sages expanded on this (Numbers Rabbah, 21.14):

Joshua served you much and he showed you great honor.  It was he who rose early in the morning and remained late at night at your House of Assembly; he used to arrange the benches, and he used to spread the mats.  Seeing that he has served you with all his might, he is worthy to serve Israel, for he shall not lose his reward.  Single out Joshua, son of Nun—this serves to confirm the text, “He who tends a fig tree will enjoy its fruit” (Prov. 27:18).[3]

This midrash contains an important message in praise of tirelessly serving the rabbi-leader precisely in the simple tasks, that being the key to promotion.  It turns out, however, that Joshua son of Nun was not only an “attendant” but also a scholar and warrior.  He was a man of spirit, as the Holy One, blessed be He, testifies of him in our story, but at the same time was also the person whom Moses chose to lead the battle against Amalek (Ex. 17:9-13).

On the socio-historical level, what was signified in choosing a member of the tribe of Ephraim to lead the people?  During the years in the wilderness, leadership was in the hands of the tribe of Levi.  During the monarchy, leadership was mostly in the hands of the tribe of Judah, as Jacob hinted it would be:  “The scepter shall not depart from Judah” (Gen. 49:10).  But now the person chosen to be leader after Moses was from the tribe of Ephraim, the dominant tribe to compete with Judah for the position of leadership.  The fact that the tribe of Ephraim also was given a position of leadership in a certain period was important for the various parts of the people to feel a sense of partnership and not feel disadvantaged.  Indeed, a homily of the Sages juxtaposes Joshua to King David:  “Joshua was the head of the royalty that came from the tribe of Ephraim, as it says, “From Ephraim came they whose roots are in Amalek” (Jud. 5:14), which refers to Joshua.  David was the head of the royalty which came from the tribe of Judah” (Genesis Rabbah 59.6).  This is an important message to the people—to make sure fair representation is given to all and no sectors are discriminated against.

On the legal level—what status did Moses’ successor have?  Did he receive all the authorities of leader, and what were those powers?  The fact that in the future Joshua would have to turn to the High Priest—“But he shall present himself to Eleazar the priest, who shall on his behalf ask the decision of the Urim before the Lord” (Num. 27:21)—indicates a separation of powers.  On one hand, this diminished the scope of authority of the people’s leader; on the other hand, it indicates a certain democratization of government by giving prominence to decentralization of powers.  Joshua’s status can be seen as an ancient example of separation of powers in leadership of the Israelites.[4] Preventing all authority from being concentrated in one governmental body is the key to preserving the democratic nature of society.

Scripture here also establishes the status of the king with respect to the High Priest, as described by Maimonides (Ha-Yad he-HazakahHilkhot Melakhim2.5):

However, a High Priest need not come before the king unless he, the High Priest, desires to do so.  The High Priest need not stand before the king.  Rather, the king stands before the High Priest, as it says in Numbers 27:21:  “But he shall stand before Eleazar the priest.”  Nevertheless, it is a mitzvah for the High Priest to honor the king by having him seated and standing in his presence when he visits him.  The king should only stand before him when he consults the Urim and Tumim.

Moses’ words, “someone…who shall go out before them and come in before them, and who shall take them out and bring them in” (Num. 27:17), outline the leader’s sphere of action.  First and foremost they indicate the leader’s military role (“who shall go out before them”).  Further on, we also see his duties of civil administration:  “so that the Lord’s community may not be like sheep that have no shepherd” (ibid.).  These two areas would not only be under the authority of Moses’ successor Joshua, but would also be among the duties of the king, as the people would later declare to the prophet Samuel, when they asked for the establishment of a monarchy:  “Let our king rule over us and go out at our head and fight our battles” (I Sam. 8:20).


What is the context of this narrative?  How does it relate to its immediate context, and does it also relate to more distant parts of the book?

Moses’ request that the Lord appoint a successor is an understandable reaction to G‑d’s instruction, “Ascend these heights of Abarim, etc.” (Num. 27:12), but how does the Lord’s instruction itself fit into context?  We present three answers: (1) Rashi, explaining verse 12 (following TanhumaPhinehas9), sees the Lord’s announcement as a clarification intended to preclude any misapprehension on the part of Moses.  From the Lord’s words to Moses in response to the daughters of Zelophehad, “you should give them a hereditary holding” (verse 7), Moses tried to conclude that he himself would actually give them their inheritance in the land of Israel, which in turn meant that he would enter the land.

To prevent this misunderstanding, the Holy One, blessed be He, informed him that he must ascend the heights of Abarim and there conclude his role (also cf. his explication of verse 16). (2)  the Lord’s instruction is associatively connected to the guidelines given pursuant to the request by the daughters of Zelophehad, as Rabbi Joseph Bekhor-Schor explains:  “Having spoken above about inheritance, as it says, ‘If a man dies’ (verse 8), the text goes on to the subject of Moses’ death.”  (3)  A somewhat more distant association is suggested by Rabbi Isaac Abarbanel, namely, the census at the beginning of the weekly reading, which according to Abarbanel had two objectives:  counting fighters prior to going to war to conquer the land, and counting the population for purposes of dividing up the inheritance of the land.  While dealing with inheriting the land, the Holy One, blessed be He, uses the occasion to clarify to Moses that His edict is still in force and that he will not be the one to provide the people their inheritance in the land.

Alongside the relationship to the proximate context, there is also a latent connection to a more distant passage—the story of the people and their gluttonous craving (which also includes the elders being endowed with divine spirit), in Chapter 11.  There is a similarity here on three levels:  (1) thematic—matters of leadership, appointing assistants to Moses, paralleling the appointment of a successor by conferring some of his spirit (and in our story, also his glory) on them.  (2) As for the level of the plot, Joshua, son of Nun, who is the central figure of our story also figures there:  “And Joshua, son of Nun, Moses’ attendant from his youth, spoke up and said, ‘My lord Moses, restrain them!’” (Num. 11:28).  (3)  On the linguistic level, the expressions “Lord, Source of the breath of all flesh” and “an inspired man” call mind the prominent combination of flesh and spirit in the story of craving, a combination which encompasses the two separate themes:  providing food and appointing assistants to the leader.  Rosenson has aptly put it: “In the transition to this week’s reading, the spirit that enveloped the elders then is the same spirit that will imbue the next leader and instruct him in the proper path for leading his flock, characterized by the flesh.”[5]

The last association we wish to point out stems from the overall structure of the book.  In the past I put forward a thesis for revealing the structure of the book of Numbers,[6] its point of departure being the parallels between the two census takings, between the two verses, “these were the marches of the Israelites [who started out from the land of Egypt], troop by troop” (Num. 10:28, 33:1), and between the two passages beginning with “Why must we be debarred [Heb. lama nigara]” (Num. 9:1-14) and “Let not our father’s name be lost [Heb. lama yigara]” (Num. 27:1-11).

The story of Joshua’s appointment is situated parallel to the instruction to set aside the Levites to serve in the Tent of Meeting (Num. 8:5-26).  Both text share in common not only being appointed, but also the expressions to “lay hands” (Num. 8:10, 12; 27:18, 23), and “placing before” (Num. 8:13; 27:19).  This parallel sheds light on the relationships between the various bodies involved in the appointment:  (1) The one who empowers, i.e., the person whom the elected individual is supposed to represent.  In the appointment of the Levites, this was the Israelites, whom the Levites were supposed to represent; in the case at hand, Moses, for who Joshua would stand.  (2) The person before whom the appointee stood:  the person of authority.  In the appointment of the Levites, it was Aaron and his sons; in the appointment of Joshua, it was Eleazar the priest and the entire community.  Perhaps the idea being expressed here is that the leader derives his authority from two sources, from the Holy One, blessed be He, and from the people.

Translated by Rachel Rowen

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