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Who Was Joshua in the Bible? 10 Leadership Habits from the Life of Joshua

Photo of Daniel McCoyDaniel McCoy | Bio

Daniel McCoy

Daniel is happily married to Susanna, and they have 3 daughters and 2 sons. He is the editorial director for Renew.org as well as an online adjunct instructor for Ozark Christian College. He has a bachelor’s in theology (Ozark Christian College), master of arts in apologetics (Veritas International University), and PhD in theology (North-West University, South Africa). His books include the Popular Handbook of World Religions (general editor), Real Life Theology: Fuel for Effective and Faithful Disciple Making (co-general editor), Mirage: 5 Things People Want From God That Don't Exist, and The Atheist's Fatal Flaw (co-authored with Norman Geisler).

Who was Joshua in the Bible? Joshua was a national leader and military commander in ancient Israel. As Moses’ aide and successor, Joshua finished what God started through Moses: leading the liberated Israelites to settle in the Canaanite land God had promised them. Although a book in the Bible is named after him, Joshua shows up prior to the book of Joshua, as a disciple of Moses, a spy, and a military leader.

Numbers 27:18 describes Joshua as a “man in whom is the spirit of leadership.” As such, Joshua models leadership habits which can help guide all who aspire to godly influence. This article tells the story of Joshua by walking through 10 leadership habits we see in his life. The first letters spell the word “leadership”:

  • Learning
  • Exploring
  • Advising
  • Dissenting
  • Encouraging
  • Reminding
  • Struggling
  • Hearing
  • Imparting
  • Pointing to Jesus

Learning

Good leaders tend to be lifelong learners. People look to leaders to know what to do, and good leaders tend to know what to do because they’re learners. Sure, this can mean spending time in libraries, but it must go far beyond, as leaders continually learn from life and from other leaders.

Joshua learned leadership by learning character and conviction from Moses, with whom he spent decades being mentored. Moses’ core convictions became Joshua’s core convictions as together they experienced the wonders of God’s work as well as the frustration of people’s fickleness. The motto which most characterized Joshua’s leadership (“Be strong and courageous”) began with Moses, as Moses told Joshua to “Be strong and courageous, for you must go with this people into the land that the Lord swore to their ancestors to give them” (Deut. 31:7).

We first meet Joshua when he served as an aide to Moses. According to Numbers 13:16, Moses changed the young man’s name from Hoshea (“salvation”) to Joshua (“the Lord is my salvation”). Joshua was Moses’ assistant from his youth, and Moses regularly put Joshua in situations to cultivate his abilities, whether it be as a military leader, an explorer, or as his successor. At each juncture, Joshua learned valuable leadership habits that would form him for when Moses was no longer around.


Who was Joshua in the Bible? “We first meet Joshua when he served as an aide to Moses.” 


So, when God called Moses up to Mount Sinai to receive the law, Moses took Joshua with him (Ex. 24:13). Together, they returned to camp and discovered to their heartache that the people were worshiping a golden calf they had crafted. As Moses’ aide, Joshua would accompany Moses in the tabernacle:

“The Lord would speak to Moses face to face, as one speaks to a friend. Then Moses would return to the camp, but his young aide Joshua son of Nun did not leave the tent.” (Ex. 33:11)

We see Joshua’s fierce loyalty to his mentor when Joshua saw a couple elders who were filled with God’s Spirit prophesying in the camp. This wasn’t something Moses had sanctioned, and Joshua told him, “Moses, my lord, stop them.” Moses’ reply was a gentle rebuke: “Are you jealous for my sake? I wish that all the Lord’s people were prophets and that the Lord would put his Spirit on them!” (Ex. 11:28-29).

If we want to lead people well, we’ve got to seek out time-tested leaders and learn all we can from them. We likely read about Joshua today largely because of his teachability during the decades Moses spent discipling him.


Who was Joshua in the Bible? “If we want to lead people well, we’ve got to seek out time-tested leaders and learn all we can from them.”


Exploring

As Moses’ aide, it was natural that, when Moses led the Israelites to the foot of the promised land, he chose Joshua as one of the men to explore it. This first time the Israelites readied themselves to enter the promised land did not go well. Moses picked twelve men, one from each Israelite tribe, to scope out the land and come back with a report. All were agreed that the land was ideal, but ten of the explorers said that taking the land would be impossible. (And of course it was; the question wasn’t the strength of their army but the depth of their faith in God.) So, the community decided not to enter the land at this time. Again, Joshua was one of these twelve, but he and Caleb believed they could take the land.


Who was Joshua in the Bible? “As Moses’ aide, it was natural that, when Moses led the Israelites to the foot of the promised land, he chose Joshua as one of the men to explore it.”


In my experience, great leaders aren’t afraid to explore reality to find out what they’re really up against. It’s easy to circle the wagons and just try to maintain what you’ve got. It takes bold leadership to really scope out the landscape and imagine what might be. Such leaders are neither blindly optimistic nor grumpily pessimistic. They’re realists because they insist on exploring and seeing reality as it really is so they can get clarity on what to do next.

Advising

When Joshua and Caleb returned from exploring the promised land, they didn’t hold back on saying what they knew the Israelite community needed to hear, unpopular as it turned out to be:

Joshua son of Nun and Caleb son of Jephunneh, who were among those who had explored the land, tore their clothes and said to the entire Israelite assembly, “The land we passed through and explored is exceedingly good. If the Lord is pleased with us, he will lead us into that land, a land flowing with milk and honey, and will give it to us. Only do not rebel against the Lord. And do not be afraid of the people of the land, because we will devour them. Their protection is gone, but the Lord is with us. Do not be afraid of them.” (Num. 14:6-9)


Who was Joshua in the Bible? “The land we passed through and explored is exceedingly good. If the Lord is pleased with us, he will lead us into that land, a land flowing with milk and honey, and will give it to us.”


It may sound simple, but if we want to influence people in the right direction, we’ve got to speak up. If we’ve got convictions cultivated in the soil of faith, we need to do more than mumble when it’s time to give guidance. If we’ve got advice people need to hear, we’re not doing them any favors to blend in, let their misconceptions go unchallenged, and anxiously hope for the best.

Dissenting

Another trait we see in Joshua early on, which he would need the rest of his life, was the ability to dissent from the majority. The other ten explorers persuaded the community to turn back to Egypt, and so when Joshua and Caleb offered a counterargument, it almost cost them a lot more than just popularity: the people seriously talked of stoning him, Caleb, Moses, and Aaron—until God showed up to intervene.

One of the ways Joshua continued to dissent in heart from his countrymen was his stubborn commitment to God instead of idols: “Choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve….As for me and my household, we will serve the Lord,” he declared (Josh. 24:14-15). It wouldn’t be until they were all exiled from the promised land hundreds of years later (under Babylon) that the ancient Israelites would finally be over their attraction to idols. Yet, from the golden calf incident until his final farewell as an old man, Joshua clearly saw and kept articulating the dangers of idolatry. He didn’t need to be trendy. He needed to be clear, because too much was at stake. When he himself neared death, he would go on to punctuate his farewell address with this warning:

“If you violate the covenant of the Lord your God, which he commanded you, and go and serve other gods and bow down to them, the Lord’s anger will burn against you, and you will quickly perish from the good land he has given you.” (Josh. 23:16)


Who was Joshua in the Bible? “From the golden calf incident until his final farewell as an old man, Joshua clearly saw and kept articulating the dangers of idolatry.”


If we want to lead well, we’ve got to be willing to dissent from lies that are popular to believe and pleasing to hear. It’s more than okay to be different; sometimes it’s the only way you and those who follow you will make it when others veer off one cliff or another. At the foot of the promised land, when the rest of the community shrank back God’s promise, God gave them their desire. They were punished to wander in the desert until that generation fell and a new generation was ready to enter their inheritance. Joshua and Caleb stood fast in their convictions, and because of this, they alone of their generation made it to the promised land (Num. 26:65).

Encouraging

When Moses died, it was time to enter the promised land for real this time. Joshua had already led a successful battle against the Amalekites decades before, after they attacked the Israelites leaving Egypt (Ex. 17:8-14). Entering the promised land meant a series of military conquests led by Joshua but empowered by God (Josh. 1:1-9). When the dust settled, they would tally up thirty-one kings defeated by Joshua, starting with the narrated battles of Jericho and Ai (Josh. 6-8) and including a battle against a coalition of five Amorite kings (Josh. 10). Although Joshua made treaties (Josh. 9) and assigned land to the tribes (Num. 34), it was Joshua’s leadership as a military strategist that he is most known for.

For the battles they would fight, he needed to continually stoke courage in his people.

I’ve noticed that one of the most important jobs a leader can do is give their people courage. In other words, they encourage the people they lead. Joshua was going to need to encourage a nation that had grown accustomed to wandering for years to take up armor and take the land God had promised them. This is why Joshua’s refrain throughout the book of Joshua was “be strong and courageous.” How could they have courage as a nation of ex-slaves being told to conquer dozens of fortified kingdoms? The reason was that “God will be with you wherever you go” (Josh. 1:9). We give each other courage by reminding each other to put our faith in God.


Who was Joshua in the Bible? “Joshua was going to need to encourage a nation that had grown accustomed to wandering for years to take up armor and take the land God had promised them.”


Since Joshua would need to be the nation’s encourager-in-chief, Joshua himself needed encouragement. God had told Moses, “Encourage him, because he will lead Israel to inherit [the land]” (Deut. 1:37). As one example, after a soul-crushing defeat at Ai, Joshua found himself tearing his clothes and falling facedown before the ark of the covenant until evening and saying, “If only we had been content to stay on the other side of the Jordan!” (Josh. 7:6-7).

Just as we lead by encouraging others, we need to lift up the leaders in our lives by encouraging them. We never know what battles each other might be up against on a given day, and we can always use encouragement.

Reminding

As Joshua led the Israelites into the promised land, he regularly paused to remind them of where they’d been and how God had rescued them. As Moses had led them across the Red Sea which God had parted, now Joshua led them through the parted Jordan River during flood stage. So that they wouldn’t forget, Joshua had twelve men, one from each tribe, each take up a stone from the middle of the river to set up a memorial. The memorial still stood when the book of Joshua was written (Josh. 4:9).

During this transition into the land, Joshua led his men to undergo their people’s rite of circumcision, which this generation had not yet done. Then he led them to celebrate Passover (Josh. 5). After the battles in Jericho and Ai, Joshua led the people in a covenant renewal at the mountains where Moses had led the covenant confirmation in Deuteronomy 27 shortly before his death (i.e., at Mount Ebal and Mount Gerizim). Then, before his own death, Joshua again led his people in renewing their covenant with God and reaffirming their commitment to God’s laws (Josh. 23).


Who was Joshua in the Bible? “Joshua again led his people in renewing their covenant with God and reaffirming their commitment to God’s laws.”


One of the habits of godly leaders is to remind forgetful people of what God has done and of the vision God has given us to fulfill. We so easily get distracted by shiny new ideas when often we need more than anything to be reminded of God’s magnificent vision of a restored creation—a vision we couldn’t improve on with a thousand leadership summits.

Struggling

Every good leader has some foe they struggle against. Joshua’s battles were literal battles. For Joshua, as with us, there is a measure of peace and restfulness that waits on the other side of the struggle. Joshua 23:1 summarizes the era at the end of Joshua’s life: “After a long time passed and the Lord had given Israel rest from all their enemies around them.”


Who was Joshua in the Bible? “After a long time passed and the Lord had given Israel rest from all their enemies around them.”


Until the return of Jesus and the restoration of creation, God’s going to give us battles to fight. Thankfully, with ancient Israel already established and Jesus the Messiah already come, we are now in an era in which the people of God engage our enemies with peace and love (e.g., food and drink, according to Rom. 12:17-21) instead of with warfare. But just because “our struggle is not against flesh and blood” (Eph. 6:12) doesn’t mean we aren’t meant to engage very real and consequential battles. As the apostle Paul tells us, “Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes” (Eph. 6:11).

As long as the devil is hunting souls, we have battles to fight. Good leaders don’t abdicate the struggle. They engage the struggle knowing that God is the victor.

Hearing

As God had spoken to Moses, he also spoke to Joshua and gave him guidance on how to lead the people. After reading “the Lord said to Moses” over and over, it’s reassuring to start reading the words, “The Lord said to Joshua” (e.g., Josh. 1:1; 3:7; 4:1). As Jesus had explained, God “is not the God of the dead, but of the living” (Mark 1:27). God also spoke through Joshua, as he prophesied that the one who would rebuild Jericho would do so at the cost of his sons (Josh. 6:26; see 1 Kings 16:34).

In the same way, godly leaders carve out regular rhythms to hear from the Lord. As Joshua told the Israelites, “Come here and listen to the words of the Lord your God” (Josh. 3:9). Disciples of Jesus today have the unparalleled privilege of having God’s words in print as well as God’s Spirit in our hearts. There’s nothing preventing us from hearing from God except the mental clutter that comes from prioritizing distractions.

Imparting

As Joshua neared death, he summoned Israel together. One final time, he called them to remember God’s laws and to commit to follow God. “Be very strong,” he told them. “Be careful to obey all that is written in the Book of the Law of Moses, without turning aside to the right or to the left” (Josh. 23:6). Their allegiance needed to be rooted unwaveringly in God: “Be very careful to love the Lord your God” (Josh. 23:11).

In my experience, the godliest leaders make sure that, of anything they accomplish, the most central is that they impart godly convictions and character. They leave behind faithful followers of God. Put simply, they disciple people.

The result of Joshua’s continued insistence on following God was this: “Israel served the Lord throughout the lifetime of Joshua and of the elders who outlived him and who had experienced everything the Lord had done for Israel” (Josh. 24:31). It’s true that this faithfulness faded for many by the time of the Judges (the next book of the Bible). But for a generation and some years to follow, Israel followed God. Why? It’s largely because they had a faithful leader who led them to follow God.


Who was Joshua in the Bible? “For a generation and some years to follow, Israel followed God largely because they had a faithful leader who led them to follow God.”


Joshua had done what Moses charged him to do decades before, just prior to Moses’ death. The context is a lengthy psalm of praise and remembrance in Deuteronomy 32 which Moses recited for the people:

Moses came with Joshua son of Nun and spoke all the words of this song in the hearing of the people. When Moses finished reciting all these words to all Israel, he said to them, “Take to heart all the words I have solemnly declared to you this day, so that you may command your children to obey carefully all the words of this law. They are not just idle words for you—they are your life. By them you will live long in the land you are crossing the Jordan to possess.” (Deut. 32:44-47)

Of all they accomplish, godly leaders prioritize the habit of imparting faithfulness to the next generation.

Pointing to Jesus

There are at least a couple ways Joshua pointed ahead to the Messiah Jesus. For one thing, the Hebrew name “Yehoshua” or “Yeshua” (Joshua in English) translates into Greek as “Iesous” (Jesus in English). So, Joshua and Jesus are basically the same name, depending on whether you’re translating from Hebrew or Greek.

Another way Joshua pointed us to Jesus is explained in the New Testament in Hebrews 4. The purpose for which Joshua led the people into the promised land was to give them rest. However, the rest he gave was incomplete and temporary. Joshua’s rest was a shadow of a complete and lasting rest to come. Hebrews 4 explains that “we who have believed [in Jesus] enter that rest….For if Joshua had given them rest, God would not have spoken later about another day. There remains, then, a Sabbath-rest for the people of God; for anyone who enters God’s rest also rests from their works. Let us, therefore, make every effort to enter that rest” (Heb. 4:3, 8-11a).


Who was Joshua in the Bible? “Joshua’s rest was a shadow of a complete and lasting rest to come.”


It’s impossible to overstate the importance of this leadership habit because, someday, we will all “go the way of all the earth” (Josh. 23:14), as has Moses, Joshua, and every other earthly leader we’ve followed. Pointing people to us will end in futility as we fade from memory. Pointing people to Jesus means we will have led people into lasting restfulness.