Why Was Joshua Singled out by Moses?
In preparation for the conquest of the Promised Land, Moses chooses twelve men—one from each tribe—to scout it out. From the tribe of Ephraim, Moses chooses Hoshea (הושע) son of Nun and for no apparent reason renames him Joshua (יהושע).
The Talmud (b. Sotah 34b; also quoted by Rashi on this verse) fills in details:
Regarding Joshua, Moses had already prayed for mercy on his behalf, as it says: “And Moses called Hoshea Yehoshua (Joshua) – [meaning:] May God (Y-ah) save you (yoshiacha) from the intrigue of the scouts.
According to the Talmud, Moses suspected that the scouts would rebel, and this is why he changed Joshua’s name: Moses was trying to grant his beloved pupil divine protection. The idea that a change of name can protect a person from harm is still prevalent in Judaism, where ritual name changes are often done for people who are ill or in danger. According to the Talmud, Moses changed Joshua’s name because he felt that his young pupil was in danger.
Although it is possible that Moses was simply worried that his young attendant could get captured or killed during his reconnoitering of enemy territory, , the Talmud suggests, that Moses has an inkling that something terrible is about to happen with the behavior of the scouts themselves. This may even be why he chooses Joshua for this mission in the first place—he needs at least one person whom he trusts on this mission.
Moses’ prescience about this disaster may seem surprising, but in the context of the latter half of the book of Numbers it is anything but. The Israelites have been complaining again and again on the trip from Sinai to the Transjordan and something is about to give. The scouting mission does not bode well and Moses feels that he has no choice but to send his trusted attendant.
The Problem of Re-introducing Joshua
Taken on its own, this description of Hoshea being renamed Joshua offers a touching depiction of Moses’ relationship with his student and appears unproblematic. But for the reader of the Torah as a whole this account is highly surprising.
Firstly, the Torah writes as Hoshea bin Nun, prince (nasi) of the tribe of Ephraim. It then tells us that Moses renamed him Joshua. This sounds as if a new character were being introduced here and the reader is being given background. But Joshua has already appeared a number of times before this. Joshua is the general of the army in the battle against Amalek (Exod. 17:9) and he serves as Moses’ attendant in a number of stories (Exod. 24:13, 32:17, 33:11; Num. 11:28).
Secondly, and perhaps even more striking, since the renaming happens only at this point in the Torah, it stands to reason that , in all previous stories, the character’s name “should” have been Hoshea, but this is not the case. Joshua is never once called Hoshea before this story.
The meforshim (traditional commentators) were well aware of these problems. Rabbi Yehuda ben Eliezer (Riva; 14th century) in his commentary on the verse, quotes Rabbi Moshe of Coucy (13th century), who suggests that although Moses called him Joshua only now, the Torah, written by Moses at a later period in his life, calls him Joshua throughout.
Even though we find many places above where he is called Joshua before his name was changed, nevertheless, when Moses wrote the Torah his name had already been changed. Therefore, he used the name Joshua everywhere but in the list of scouts… where he informed us that [Hoshea] was his name originally – Thus explained Rabbi Moshe of Coucy.
A different approach was taken by Hezekiah ben Manoah (13th cent.) in his comment on this verse (Hizkuni, ad loc.).
It isn’t that [Moses] called him Joshua now, rather what it means is that Moses called him Joshua already, back when he became his attendant and found favor in his eyes…
Hizkuni believes that even though the renaming is mentioned in the scout story for the first time, in reality Moses had already been calling Hoshea Joshua for a while.
Both of these approaches attempt to make sense of the timeline as presented in the Torah, where Joshua has already been introduced into the narrative under his familiar name before this unusual “re-introduction” in the scout story.
Modern academic scholarship takes a different approach to the problem of Joshua’s reintroduction and renaming. The descriptions of “Joshua the attendant of Moses” and “Joshua the loyal scout” are understood by many scholars to stem from two different sources or textual layers. Originally, these sources were freestanding. The reason Joshua appears to be introduced for the first time in the story of the scouts is because in the source from which this story derives (P) this is the first place Joshua is mentioned. To clarify, I will outline the story of Joshua’s rise in each of the sources.
In one version (what some call the E source), Joshua is described as Moses’ young attendant (Exod. 24:13, Num. 11:28). He follows his master around (Exod. 32:17) and spends most of his time in the Tent of Meeting (Exod. 33:11). When it comes time for Moses to hand over the mantel to the next leader, Joshua is the obvious choice (Deut. 31:14-15, 23).
In another version (what some call the P source), Joshua for the first time is mentioned here as a young scout who, against all odds, remains loyal to God and Moses when most of his fellow scouts have fallen into panic (Num. 14:6-10). When Moses eventually asks God who should be the next leader, God chooses Joshua,“a man with spirit” (Num. 27:18).
Although this explains the “reintroduction” of Joshua in Numbers 13, it brings up an interesting problem. If the appointment of the scouts is really the first interaction recorded between Joshua and Moses in the P source, what is it that drives Moses to rename the young scout? Why Joshua and not any other scout?
Taking an academic approach, the most convincing response is redaction-critical. Originally, the P source did not include the list of scouts (Num. 13:4-16). Not unlike the version of the story found in Deuteronomy. It would have read simply (Num. 13:3, 21):
Moses sent them from the Wilderness of Paran, by the word of the Lord, all of the men were chiefs among the Children of Israel. And they went up and they roamed the land from the Wilderness of Tzin until the road to LebohHamat.
One relatively clear sign that the list was added later is the resumptive repetition (Wiederaufnahme) of the phrase “and Moses sent them” in verse 17 – Moses did not send them twice. It was a common scribal technique in ancient times that after adding material into a text the editor would repeat a phrase from the section before the interruption in order to help reorient the readers.
Moreover, Joshua and Caleb seem to be introduced again in a later verse (Num. 14:6).
Now Joshua son of Nun and Caleb son of Jephuneh, who were among those that roamed the land, rent their garments.
If the list was original to the story, wouldn’t the reader already know that Joshua and Caleb “were among those that roamed the land”? Thus, it seems that this verse was originally meant to inform the reader—for the first time—that Caleb and Joshua were among the scouts, which demonstrates that it predates the inclusion of the list of scouts into the account.
Once a later editor decided to include this apparently preexisting list, he or a later redactor must have been struck with the problem that the son of Nun was called Hoshea here yet, later on in the story, this same character will appear with the name Joshua.
How was this to be explained? The redactor concluded that Hoshea must have been his original name but that it was changed to Joshua—and who better to do this than Moses? Consequently, in order to explain why the son of Nun was called Hoshea in the list but Joshua in the later part of the story, the redactor created the passage about Moses’ renaming of Joshua as an editorial gloss.
Working with the combined and redacted story, readers of the text, like the ancient rabbis, need to find ways of making sense of the layered account (=final form criticism). Thus, I will end where we began with the Talmud’s suggestion in Tractate Sotah. Moses renames Joshua because he was afraid for what might happen to his young acolyte on this dangerous mission.
What if Joshua is captured by enemies? What if—in a repeat of the Joseph story—the other scouts turn on him and kill him? Any and all things are possible once Moses allows the young Joshua to leave the Tent of Meeting and go off into the enemy camp. The scouts may be spying on the natives but Joshua is spying on everybody. Despite the danger, Moses makes the hard call and sends his loyal scout. Before he goes off, Moses changes the young man’s name to Joshua—a moving attempt by a teacher and father-figure to protect a protégé who will now have to fend for himself.
Editors’ Note: This piece was originally published in May of 2013. It is being reissued now after having been reorganized and touched up by the author and editorial board.
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Dr. Rabbi Zev Farber is the Senior Editor of TheTorah.com, and a Research Fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute's Kogod Center. He holds a Ph.D. from Emory University in Jewish Religious Cultures and Hebrew Bible, an M.A. from Hebrew University in Jewish History (biblical period), as well as ordination (yoreh yoreh) and advanced ordination (yadin yadin) from Yeshivat Chovevei Torah (YCT) Rabbinical School. He is the author of Images of Joshua in the Bible and their Reception (De Gruyter 2016) and editor (with Jacob L. Wright) of Archaeology and History of Eighth Century Judah (SBL 2018).
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