Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Better – Joshua as Moses
Prelude: The Joshua Haftarot
The haftarah of Simchat Torah is one of only three taken from the Book of Joshua, which likely reflects the Rabbis’ discomfort with the excessively violent contents of the first half of the book and of the less than exciting nature of the second. Indeed, none of the three haftarot taken from Joshua deals directly either with the conquest narrative, which forms the major theme of the first half of the book, or with the apportioning of the land among the tribes, which forms that of the second. Rather, all the passages chosen as haftarot portray Joshua as the worthy successor to Moses and indicate the continuation of Israel’s story even after the latter’s death.
Also uniting these three haftarot is their echoing of themes found in the Torah narrative, whether leadership (as in the haftarah for Simchat Torah), the spying out of the land (Joshua 2, the haftarah for Shelach Lekha), or circumcision and Passover (Josh 5:2-6:1, 27 on the first day of Passover).
Since we read Vezot Haberachah on Simchat Torah, at the end of which Moses dies and is buried (Deuteronomy 34), the direct continuation of the story in Joshua 1 is a fitting choice as haftarah. Just as the Torah reading on Simchat Torah includes both the end of Deuteronomy and the beginning of Genesis, in this way signaling the never-ending and eternal nature of Torah, so too does the haftarah take up the Torah reading’s theme of continuity by including the first verses of Joshua, in this manner indicating the continuation of Israel’s story following the death of Moses. This continuity is conveyed not only by specifics in the narrative of Joshua, but through the quotation of and allusion to passages in the Torah associated with Moses.
The Successor of Moses
The opening of the book of Joshua (1:1) establishes Joshua as the fitting successor to Moses, who is mentioned another ten times in this chapter, by presenting him as the recipient of divine revelation. Nonetheless, a clear hierarchical distinction is made between Moses and Joshua.
While Moses is described as “the servant of YHWH (eved Yhwh)” (cf. v. 15), Joshua inherits his authority from Moses but is one step farther removed from God as “Moses’ attendant (mesharet Moshe).” Albeit, by the end of the book, Joshua is also referred to as “the servant of YHWH (eved Yhwh)” (Josh 24:29), which indicates his full assumption of the authority that had been vested in Moses as a conduit of divine law and revelation, but also appears in a chapter that makes of him a second Moses.
Joshua 1 continues with a lengthy divine exhortation to Joshua to continue in the footsteps of Moses and to finish the work of leading the people into the Promised Land (Josh 1:2-9). Just as God had been with Moses, so too would he be with Joshua (v. 5). The associations between Joshua and Moses are already found in the earlier layer(s) of this chapter, and are continued in its later layers, such as the allusions to the Torah (scroll) in vv. 7-8. Indeed, much of the language in this speech reflects various passages in the Torah, mainly from Deuteronomy.
Urging the People to Fulfill their Promises to Moses
In the following passage (Josh 1:10-18), Joshua in turn conveys God’s message to the people, acting, like Moses, as an intermediary between the human and the divine. This cements his prophetic authority as Moses’ successor. In vv. 10-11 Joshua exhorts the people to prepare for the crossing of the Jordan and the conquest of the land. In vv. 12-15 he reminds the Transjordanian tribes (Reuben, Gad, and half of Manasseh) to participate in the conquest along with their fellow Israelites, which they agree to do, both sides invoking the name of Moses.
יהושע א:יב וְלָראוּבֵנִי וְלַגָּדִי וְלַחֲצִי שֵׁבֶט הַמְנַשֶּׁה אָמַר יְהוֹשֻׁעַ לֵאמֹר. א:יג זָכוֹר אֶת הַדָּבָר אֲשֶׁר צִוָּה אֶתְכֶם מֹשֶׁה עֶבֶד יְ־הוָה… א:טז וַיַּעֲנוּ אֶת יְהוֹשֻׁעַ לֵאמֹר… א:יז כְּכֹל אֲשֶׁר שָׁמַעְנוּ אֶל מֹשֶׁה כֵּן נִשְׁמַע אֵלֶיךָ רַק יִהְיֶה יְ־הוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ עִמָּךְ כַּאֲשֶׁר הָיָה עִם מֹשֶׁה…
Josh 1:12 Then Joshua said to the Reubenites, the Gadites, and the half-tribe of Manasseh, 1:13 “Remember what Moses the servant of YHWH enjoined upon you…” 1:16 They answered Joshua, “…1:17 We will obey you just as we obeyed Moses; let but YHWH your God be with you as He was with Moses!…”
The Hexateuch Theory
Joshua’s role as Moses’ appropriate successor is thus established. He is to finish what Moses left unfinished at his death. Indeed, the fact that the Torah ends with the death of Moses before the completion of the aims of the exodus narrative in the conquest and settlement of the land has led some to posit that the existence at one time of a work that encompassed not a five-book collection (or Pentateuch) like the Torah, but a six-book collection (or Hexateuch) encompassing both the Torah and Joshua.
Moses and Joshua in Literary Competition
The book of Joshua is chock full of thematic and linguistic similarities between Joshua and Moses. Indeed, as is illustrated below, the Moses traditions and the Joshua ones intersect at so many points that the conclusion is inescapable that the one is being set up on the literary level as a reflection of the other. Sometimes this takes the form of parallel narrative events, with Joshua’s actions seeming to echo those of Moses. And at other times it appears as if Moses and Joshua are engaged in a literary game of one-upmanship or “Anything you can do, I can do better.”
Here are some of the parallels between Moses and Joshua:
In Numbers 13-14 Moses sends a delegation of twelve spies, one from each tribe, to scout out the Promised Land before the Israelites attempt to enter it. This episode ends disastrously, when ten of the twelve return with a discouraging report. Perhaps having learned from Moses’ negative experience, Joshua sends but two spies to scout out Jericho with much more positive results (Joshua 2). Advantage: Joshua.
Splitting the Sea/River
In Exodus 14-15 Moses leads the Israelites through the Reed Sea on dry land, when God splits the waters for the Israelites but causes them to return to drown the pursuing Egyptians. As depicted so brilliantly by that great biblical exegete, Cecil B. DeMille, in The Ten Commandments (1956), this has the appearance of a panicked flight from looming death as the ragtag column of the Israelites rushes chaotically across the exposed seabed in their attempt to escape the Egyptian host. While the biblical text does not state this explicitly, this image can be inferred from the fear of the Israelites before and their flight from the Egyptian army (Exod 14:10-23).
When Joshua leads the Israelites across the Jordan River into the Promised Land (Joshua 3-4), God once again causes the waters to part to allow them to cross on dry land in stately procession led by the priests bearing the Ark of the Covenant. In light of the smoother – and presumably unhurried – crossing, once again it is advantage: Joshua.
Following their arrival in the Promised Land, Joshua has the Israelite males circumcised at God’s command (Josh 5:2-9). This means that the Israelites were not circumcised in the wilderness. That Moses seems to have a problem with circumcision may be implied by the bizarre episode in which God attacks Moses on the way back to Egypt and tries to kill him, his life being saved by the quick thinking of his wife Zipporah, who circumcises their son (Exod 4:24-26). By performing the ceremony promptly and having ample time for recovery, ocne again it is advantage: Joshua.
Following their circumcision, the Israelites celebrate the Passover (Josh 5:10-12). This echoes the story of the Passover night in Egypt, when the angel of death passes over the houses of the Israelites and smites the Egyptian firstborn, while the Israelites eat a ceremonial meal (Exodus 12). Although it’s close, this time, too, the advantage is Joshua’s, since there is no question of pressing threat. It should be noted, however, that Moses also leads the Israelites in the celebration of the Passover following the exodus from Egypt and the revelation on Mount Sinai in an unhurried and calm manner (Num 9:1-14). So, perhaps this theme should more properly be viewed as a draw.
Revelation without Sandals
God’s first revelation to Moses famously takes place at the burning bush on Horeb, the Mountain of God in Midian (Exod 3:1-4:17). When Moses approaches the bush that was aflame but not consumed, God calls to him and tells him to take off his sandals, since the ground upon which he stood was holy (Exod 3:5). Shortly before the conquest of Jericho, Joshua is confronted by a figure who turns out to be the heavenly commander of God’s army (Josh 5:13-15).
Just as in the case of Moses at the burning bush, Joshua is commanded to remove his sandals, since the ground upon which he stood was holy. As in the case of Moses on Horeb, so too in Joshua’s case, the command to remove his sandals is followed by divine instructions (Josh 6:2-5). Unlike in some of the other cases considered, this one is probably a draw; unless we wish to give the advantage to Moses, since God spoke to him directly, while Joshua had to deal with a being lower than God. Whichever it is, this is another clear example of the literary dependence of these two traditions on each other.
Defeating the Egyptians/Canaanites
Whereas, in the case of Moses in Egypt, it takes ten plagues to convince the Pharaoh to let the Israelites go, in the case of Joshua at Jericho it takes little effort to conquer the city, just walking around the walls of the city for seven days while blowing on trumpets and shouting in order to get Jericho to fall into the hands of the Israelites (Joshua 6). Joshua’s further conquests (ch. 8, 10-12) are similarly easy. Once again, where Moses encounters difficulties, Joshua is able to perform his acts with little effort…and like Moses, with God’s help.
Although these examples could be multiplied, a clear pattern should already be evident. In these parallel narratives, Joshua is, more often than not, able to accomplish with ease what Moses was only able to do with great difficulty. Thus, in spite of the fact that Moses ultimately has priority as a conduit of divine law and revelation in the Torah and by extension in Jewish tradition, the text of the book of Joshua is implying that Joshua is performing many of the same actions but oftentimes more successfully.
Indeed, if Thomas Römer is correct, Joshua may even have been credited with giving Israel his own version of a six-book Torah in Joshua 24. This hypothesis is based on Joshua 24:26, in which “Joshua recorded all this in a book of divine instruction (sefer torat Elohim).” Just as Moses gave Israel a Torah, so too does it appear that Joshua did. It really is a case of “Anything Moses can do, Joshua can do better”!
Whose Story Influenced that of the Other?
But, which came first, the chicken or the egg? This timeworn question encapsulates the issues facing literary scholars investigating thematic and linguistic similarities between texts. Although most scholars would argue that the figure of Joshua is modeled on that of Moses, some argue the opposite, namely that the Moses story has been influenced by that of Joshua.
One possible solution to the chicken or egg conundrum is to argue that the Moses and Joshua traditions developed independently of one another, but were mutually influential. Even if Joshua may have been primary in temporal terms, the primacy given to Moses in later tradition has exalted the one over the other. Joshua was able to continue playing the main role in the book dedicated to his exploits, but he follows Moses, both literarily and canonically, as well as in the context of later reception history. As readers we are thus manipulated into viewing Joshua as a pale reflection of Moses.
In a similar counterintuitive vein, it has been argued that the prophet Elisha, supposedly the disciple of the prophet Elijah, who precedes Elisha in the narrative, may indeed have been the inspiration for the development of the Elijah traditions. In this manner, the last may sometimes be the first! Thus it may have been with Joshua and his (seeming) predecessor Moses.
Whichever it is, there is no doubt that very little in any of the traditions associated with them is unequivocally rooted in the historical memory of their deeds. Rather, they are both figures of literary memory, whose deeds have been shaped by the needs of those who came centuries after their time.
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Prof. Carl S. Ehrlich (Ph.D. Harvard ’91) is University Professor of History and Humanities and former Director of the Israel and Golda Koschitzky Centre for Jewish Studies at York University in Toronto. Among his more recent publications are the (co-)edited collections From an Antique Land: An Introduction to Ancient Near Eastern Literature (2009), Purity, Holiness, and Identity in Judaism and Christianity: Essays in Memory of Susan Haber (2013), and Israel and the Diaspora: Jewish Connectivity in a Changing World (2022).
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