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Some Thoughts on Leadership Transition

September 18, 2021
Joshua to Succeed Moses, Numbers 27:18-23

Much has been written and many opinions aired on Israel’s recent election and subsequent leadership transition, which prompts me to share some thoughts drawn from the upcoming Torah portion named Vayelech—Deuteronomy 31:1-30. The final chapters of Deuteronomy cover the end of the life of Moses and record the transfer of leadership of the Israelites to Joshua. In this chapter, Moses offers some final words of encouragement to the nation and to Joshua, his appointed and anointed successor, and it is on these encouragements that I would like to focus.

This Torah passage is read regularly by Jewish people on a special Shabbat, the Shabbat that falls between Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement and the holiest day of the Jewish biblical calendar, and the culmination of what are often referred to as the Ten Days of Awe. 

Around 85% of Israel’s population fasts on Yom Kippur, which falls this year on 15-16 September. This fast is a total abstention from all food and liquids, brings to an end an annual time of prayer, self-examination and repentance, and is marked by a resolve to put right all wrong relationships and be reconciled with God, our fellow human beings, and with ourselves.

We turn first to Deuteronomy 31:14: ‘Then the LORD said to Moses, “Behold, the days approach when you must die; call Joshua, and present yourselves in the tabernacle of meeting, that I may inaugurate him.”’

Earlier during the journey of the Israelites through the wilderness, the Israelites had yet again grumbled and complained because there was no water, and Moses expressed his frustration with them, striking the rock at Kadesh twice with his rod, instead of doing what the Lord had clearly commanded and just speaking to the rock. 

Moses was and had been for a long time the leader of all God’s people – but here he did not follow the Lord’s clear and unmistakable command, and in no uncertain terms he was told in Numbers 20:12: “Therefore you shall not bring this assembly into the land which I have given them.” 

Here we see illustrated the important principle that those in positions of leadership need to be held accountable to especially high standards. As we follow the news today, it appears so often that few people want to be held accountable, at times including, sadly, spiritual leaders. This does not mean of course that everyone else can do what they want without accountability—far from it. 

The Bible is clear that all people of faith are called to reflect in their lives godly characteristics. Of course, we all fail. We all need daily the empowering of the Holy Spirit, undergirded by a lively awareness that God calls us to live in such a way that we represent Him effectively in an increasingly godless world. 

As Christian believers, we are reminded by Jesus in Matthew 5:14 that “You are the light of the world.” Jesus then goes on to say in verse 16: “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.” Did you grasp the significance of Jesus’ words? Christian believers are the light of the world – not may be, or should be, or should try to be! We are light in an increasingly dark world. When we fail, or sin, when we disobey our Lord, we do not lose our inheritance as beloved children in our Father’s family. 

God has given to us His written Word, that we may never be without a witness to His love and faithfulness.

What we do lose is our effectiveness, and quite likely our peace and our joy. Our light is dim. And that breaks our Father’s heart, for He has not only called us to make a difference in this world, but has equipped us with the power of His Spirit to be obedient to His leading, and fruitful in our daily lives.

Those in leadership, however, have a level of influence in the lives of others that justifies an especially high level of accountability. As I read Moses’ words to the people in this chapter, I do not sense that there is in his heart any bitterness regarding his inability to enter the Land. Moses shows that he accepts the profoundly serious consequences for his actions and the judgment he received from the Lord, hard though it must have been to do so. 

In today’s world, where so many in leadership seem to make excuses or blame others for their own actions, Moses’ example should be a powerful lesson to us all. In Deuteronomy 34:7 we read: “Moses was one hundred and twenty years old when he died. His eyes were not dim, nor his natural vigour diminished.” It was with vigour and resolve that Moses went about the task assigned to him by God to appoint his successor. 

Try and imagine for a moment how he feels. Moses knows now that his time on earth is up, and it is vital that the Israelites have confidence in their new leader. The Israelites are facing an immense challenge. They are near the end of their forty-year-long journey from Egypt to Israel, and before long their leader will no longer be with them. Effective leadership transition is vital in all kinds of situations, as we see elsewhere in the Scriptures in the case of Elijah and Elisha, and Paul and Timothy.

Moses had been mightily used by God. But now it was time for a new leader. Whenever there is a transition from a seasoned and godly leader to his successor, a passing of the baton, questions inevitably arise in the minds of those who for so long have been used to a strong leader with his unique style, gifting and personality. 

How much this would apply in this instance! Moses would seem irreplaceable, despite all the complaining he had to deal with. He had challenged the all-powerful Pharaoh, led the Israelites out of slavery, and even spoken with God face to face—panim el panim. And now, importantly, Moses demonstrates unqualified support for and confidence in Joshua his successor. This is why Moses was one of the greatest leaders ever.

Joshua we know had been Moses’ assistant for a long time. Joshua was instrumental in the defeat of the Amalekites early on in the wilderness years; he accompanied Moses on Mount Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments from God; when the Lord told Moses to send men to spy out the land of Canaan, Joshua proved himself to have courage despite the fears of the majority. 

Joshua was around Moses all the time—learning, watching, growing, and inevitably maturing. I’m reminded of a 5-step leadership development model popularized by Dave Ferguson in his leadership book “Exponential”: I do, you watch; I do, you help; you do, I help, we talk; you do, I watch, we talk; you do, someone else watches (where the process of reproducing comes full circle).

We can be encouraged by the example of Joshua in countless situations, that those who would be godly leaders must stand for what is right even when everyone else wants to do wrong. Spiritual leaders must not be intimidated or allow fear to control them.

Rabbi Ariel Yeshurun makes an important further point: “The Talmud explains that the greatness of Joshua was that he stayed by Moses’ side day-in, day-out. Joshua didn’t perform any incredible heroics that earned him front-page headlines. But in his own quiet and consistent way, Joshua made it his priority to emulate Moshe and learn the lessons of leadership. 

“He started from rock bottom as the Talmud says: Joshua came to the synagogue early each morning to help set up the chairs! Humble acts of dedication are valued more than dramatic demonstrations of bravery. Teachers, public servants, dedicated parents are true Jewish heroes and leaders.” There are some good lessons there!

And so Joshua was ready, and he needed to be ready. Battles were ahead of him! The Israelites in the early part of this gathering to inaugurate Joshua as the new leader were told by Moses that God under Joshua would go before them and defeat their enemies, as we read in Deuteronomy 31:3-6.

But alas it is not all good news! In verses 27 and 29 Moses tells the Israelites what the Lord has just told him, namely that once in the Land the people of Israel will turn away from their covenant with God, their rebellion, corruption and idolatry so deep that He will hide His face from them.

Not exactly encouraging words for Joshua, let alone the people themselves, to hear! Sadly, we know that this is just what happened. But in our text there is—perhaps a little hidden—a promise that should be an encouragement to us all when we have failed, or lost our way spiritually, or in any number of ways seemingly caused God to hide His face from us.

God has given to us His written Word, that we may never be without a witness to His love and faithfulness. Here in Deuteronomy 31:18 the Lord said to Moses, speaking of the predicted rebellion of the Israelites once in the Land, “And I will surely hide My face in that day because of all the evil which they have done, in that they have turned to other gods.”

But almost as it were in the same breath He immediately says to Moses (verses 19-21): 

“Now therefore, write down this song for yourselves, and teach it to the children of Israel; put it in their mouths, that this song may be a witness for Me against the children of Israel. When I have brought them to the land flowing with milk and honey, of which I swore to their fathers, and they have eaten and filled themselves and grown fat, then they will turn to other gods and serve them; and they will provoke Me and break My covenant. 

 “Then it shall be, when many evils and troubles have come upon them, that this song will testify against them as a witness; for it will not be forgotten in the mouths of their descendants, for I know the inclination of their behavior today, even before I have brought them to the land of which I swore to give them.” 

God knows what the people’s hearts are like, even as he can discern the heart of each one of us. I am reminded of the words of Jesus in John 2:24-25: “He knew all men, and had no need that anyone should testify of man, for He knew what was
in man.”

I am old enough to remember the days of “Scripture in Song”—a time when countless songs and choruses were written consisting usually of well-known biblical verses. And folk certainly found them so helpful not only in singing but also in memorizing the Word of God…. and maybe even restoring their flagging faith. Songs are remembered.

This song that Moses wrote, no doubt under divine inspiration, was to be taught to the children of Israel in every age, and would be a constant reminder to God’s people of their need of Him when they strayed far from Him and turned to other gods. How gracious is God to provide for His rebellious people a precious means of remembering Him, and so of turning back to Him!

But there’s more! Moses wrote down the Law—consisting possibly of chapters 12-26, or 27-30 of Deuteronomy, or perhaps the entire book, we do not know for sure—and told the Levites and elders to read it before all of Israel every seven years at the Feast of Tabernacles, so that every generation would know and remember what God had done for them and what God required of them (verse 26).

The instruction to place the Book of the Law as close as possible to the Ark of the Covenant—again, “as a witness against” God’s people—brings into focus the importance placed by God on our hearing and knowing His Word. Since the Ark served as the only physical manifestation of God on earth, this action—for me—seems to symbolize intimacy with God through His Word.

Wrote Rabbi Jonathan Sacks: “The whole of Judaism is an extended love story between a people and a book—between Jews and the Torah. Never has a people loved and honoured a book more. They read it, studied it, argued with it, lived it… It was God’s love letter to the Jewish people, the gift of His word, the pledge of their betrothal, the marriage contract between heaven and the Jewish people, the bond that God would never break or rescind.” 

Commenting on the song written down by Moses, he added an important reminder: “There is immense power in the idea that, as Moses reached the end of his life, and the Torah the end of its narrative, the final imperative should be a command to continue to write and study the Torah, teaching it to the people and ‘putting it in their mouths’ so that it would not abandon them, nor they, it. God’s word would live within them, giving them life.”

May God’s Word live afresh in each of us in this approaching season of prayer, repentance and self-examination—the Ten Days of Awe. God graciously calls us to embrace His Word and so draw close to Him. He provides for us in His Word the means whereby we can be restored to intimacy with Him when we have fallen away. And who knows?—we may even find ourselves singing a long-forgotten song.

Keith Buxton

Keith Buxton is the former National Director for Bridges for Peace Australia.

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