The Midianite War: Where Is Joshua?
In chapter 27, God tells Moses that it is time for him to pass on. Moses begs God to allow him to appoint a successor before he passes, and God tells him to appoint Joshua son of Nun. Moses does this in a public ceremony involving Elazar the high priest. Then, in chapter 31, after an interlude where the laws of holiday sacrifices are described, the narrative picks up again with God telling Moses to first take vengeance on the Midianites for their trespass against the Israelites, and only then climb the mountain to die.
Considering the fact that Joshua had already been appointed as Moses’ successor, and that Joshua had previously proven his military prowess in the war against Amalek, it seems inexplicable that Joshua’s name is not mentioned at all in this account. Why wasn’t Joshua appointed to lead the fight whether as the new leader of Israel or as the general of the army as he was in the battle with Amalek?
From an academic perspective, the simple interpretation would be that the account involving Midianites and the Midianite war derives from a narrative strand that is either unaware of Joshua and the Amalekite war, or is more interested in the priestly characters of Pinchas and Elazar. However, when reading the Torah as currently redacted, the absence of Joshua in this story is stark.
Traditionalist commentators have suggested two approaches. The first, favored by Jewish commentators, is to explain why Joshua wasn’t chosen. For example, Ramban (1194, Gerona – 1270, Jerusalem) writes (Num. 31:2):
נגזר על משה רבינו שלא יעבור את הירדן, אבל מעבר לירדן עשה כל מצות ישראל, נצח שני מלכי האמורי הגדולים וחלק את ארצם בנחלה,והוא ראוי שיעשה נקמה בשונאי ה’, ואין על יהושע רק מצות הארץ
It was decreed that Moshe Rabbeinu would not cross the Jordan, however, he took charge of every mitzvah upon Israel in the Transjordan; he conquered the two Amorite kings and divided their land as inheritance, and it was fitting that he should take revenge among the enemies of God. Joshua, however, was only in charge of the mitzvot in the land [of Israel].
According to Ramban, Joshua was specifically overlooked here, since mitzvot on the east side of the Jordan were Moses’ prerogative.
An opposite solution to this problem is favored by Samaritan commentators. For example, in chapter 5 of the Samaritan Book of Joshua, the battle of Midian is retold, but this time Joshua receives a prominent role.
God revealed to the prophet Moses-peace be upon him that he should take vengeance for the children of Israel upon the people of Midian, before that he should return to his elements (meaning by this, before his decease). So he commanded Joshua the son of Nun at the time of his investing him with his successorship, that he should go forth with the company which he specifically mentioned, and with him Pinchas, the imam [=priest], for he had gained the victory and a name, and he it was who had averted the Divine anger, and not anyone else, for he had hastened to obey his Lord.
According to Samaritan tradition the answer is that Joshua was involved in the war, but the Torah simply doesn’t mention this detail, perhaps for the same reason Ramban mentions—it was Moses’ war after all.
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July 5, 2013
September 23, 2019
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