Joshua in the Bible

Bible Review's Supporting Roles by Elie Wiesel

Read Elie Wiesel’s essay on Joshua in the Bible as it originally appeared in Bible Review, December 1998. The article was first republished in Bible History Daily in 2013.—Ed.


Ever modest, Joshua hangs back as Moses leads him by the hand in this 15th-century stained-glass panel from the Church of St. Lawrence in Nuremberg, Germany. For Elie Wiesel, Joshua is a sad, troubled character despite his successes in battle and his unfailing devotion to Moses and God. Lacking experience in war, Joshua is sent by Moses to fight the Amalekites; when Joshua succeeds Moses, he leads the bloody conquest of Canaan. Yet this reluctant warrior retires to live out his days with only lonely memories, and when he dies, he is buried without the pomp and circumstance usually afforded a hero. Wiesel notes an immense sadness about Joshua in the Bible, a sadness caused perhaps by the noise and fury of Joshua’s life. Image: Sonia Halliday.

Joshua, the perfect disciple. Obedient and humble. The man whose devotion to his master can serve as an example to all. God’s chosen, just as Moses had been. The servant become leader, whom God and Moses do not cease to encourage—so much so that we wonder why he had such a need. Is it because, in his humility, Joshua felt so inferior to Moses that he believed himself inadequate, unqualified and even unworthy to complete a task that only his master was capable of completing satisfactorily? Joshua will inherit political and religious authority from Moses but not his prophetic style. God accomplished miracles for Joshua. He went so far as to upset the laws of nature by ordering the sun to stand still, but Joshua’s speech lacks the magic that emanates from the words of the prophets.

A great melancholy emerges from his life story, a sadness that stays with him to the end of his days. Is it because his life unfolds in the midst of noise and fury?

In truth, Joshua makes me afraid. His personality is too dark, involved in too many battles, too many confrontations. The man of blood and glory, he is the one sought out when someone is needed to throw himself into the fray, to push back or attack the enemy. To read his book is to move forward into the ashes, among disfigured corpses.

In the Scriptures, his position is assured. The image he projects is always without fault. Admirable is his devotion to Moses: Always stationed at the entrance to his tent, Joshua is the guardian of the door. He is at Moses’ side only when he is called. Never would he disturb Moses in his solitude.

Only one incident could, without surprising us, have a negative connotation: Joshua learns that two young men, Eldad and Medad, are walking around the encampment, prophesizing to the people. Annoyed by their lack of respect, Joshua hastens to inform Moses and suggests that he imprison them. But Moses, more humane and more generous than ever, rebukes him: “Are you so concerned about my honor that you think you need to protect me? May all the people become prophets!” (Numbers 11:29). That said, Moses always has confidence in Joshua, and we do too. He carries out the missions entrusted to him scrupulously, with efficiency and devotion—that is certain. Are they dangerous? Joshua knows neither fear nor doubt. When Moses names him military commander and sends him to fight against the Amalekites, he goes.

What has he done to learn how to command? No matter. He confronts the enemy, and he wins the battle. When Moses orders him to join the spies sent to cross the Canaanite frontier and bring back a precise account of the military and economic capacities of the land promised to the people of Israel, he goes. The questionnaire the scouts receive from Moses reads like an espionage document.

The commander in chief wants to know “whether the population is strong or weak, few in number or many, if the country is good or bad, if the towns are open or fortified, the land fertile or barren, if there are trees or not” (Numbers 13:18–20). The expedition takes 40 days. The text gives us the opinion of the majority and that of the minority: ten against two. Who are the ten? Eminent heads of the tribes of Israel. Their accounts are desperate and hopeless: They say the country runs with milk and honey, but the people who live there are powerful. They are stronger than we are, the towns are large and fortified, the people are gigantic. In their eyes, and in ours, we are no more than grasshoppers. The ten make up an overwhelming majority, but it is the minority of two who carry the day. Joshua, head of the tribe of Ephraim, and Caleb, head of the tribe of Judah, see things differently. Their report is optimistic. Reflecting God’s design, their view prevails—but at a price. Terrified, the people rise up with cries and lamentations against Moses and Aaron: “If only we had died in the land of Egypt…” In vain, Joshua and Caleb try to reason with and to encourage the demoralized Israelites. The more enraged among them attack the two and are ready to stone them. That overwhelming, depressing day will remain marked in the collective memory of Israel by the punishment imposed: It is the moment when God decides that of all those who came out of Egypt, only Joshua and Caleb shall enter the Promised Land. The ten skeptical scouts will die soon after, and the others rescued from slavery in Egypt will perish in the desert.

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In the book that bears his name, Joshua impresses us with his harshness: it depicts a violence, even a thirst for violence, that is found nowhere else. The conquest of the land of Canaan occurs with fire and blood. Too much destruction at every turn. The only moment of tenderness in this account is the story of Rahab in Jericho. The brave and generous prostitute saves Joshua’s spies. In exchange, legend gives her Joshua as bridegroom.

This story is not in his official biography, which, moreover, is very meager. It is only in the midrashic literature that there is interest in Joshua’s private life. His father was a just man, but childless. Nun passed his days praying to God for a son, and his prayer was answered. Moses was still alive, but very old, when Joshua was teaching the Law to the people. One day, Moses came to listen. He remained standing with the crowd. Joshua saw him and, overcome by remorse, cried out in distress. Then a celestial voice was heard: The time has come for the people to receive the teaching of Joshua. Brokenhearted, Joshua submitted. It is because he respected and venerated his Master; he loved him. Of all his qualities, it is his attachment to Moses that moves us the most.

According to the legend, Joshua was then married. He had children: only girls. Having fulfilled the mission that God and Moses had entrusted to him, Joshua retired and lived in the isolation of memory. He was old, the text tells us, and the country rested from the wars.

He died alone and was buried in a place called Har gaash—a kind of angry mountain, a sort of volcano. The Talmud comments that this illustrates the ingratitude of the people toward their leader. Why was the mountain angry? Because God, in his wrath, was ready to punish his people. Why the rage? Because no one took the trouble to come to Joshua’s funeral. Everyone was too busy. Some were cultivating their gardens, others their vineyards; still others watched over their fires.

Unbelievable, but how true: In war, Joshua had been their leader. Afterwards, the people no longer needed him, to the point that no one came to pay him their final respects, to which all mortal men are entitled, whoever they might be.
How can one not feel sadness when reading Joshua’s story?

Translated by Anne Renner.

The Book of Joshua presents the destruction of the city of Hazor. Read more about the destruction in “Hazor Excavations’ Amnon Ben-Tor Reveals Who Conquered Biblical Canaanites” and “Scorched Wheat May Provide Answers on the Destruction of Canaanite Tel Hazor.”


Elie Wiesel

The author of more than 30 novels, plays and profiles of Biblical figures, Elie Wiesel received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986. This online publication is adapted from Wiesel’s article “Supporting Roles: Joshua,” which was published in Bible Review in December 1998. The article was first republished in Bible History Daily on August 9, 2013. At the inception of Wiesel’s Supporting Roles series in Bible Review, BAS editors wrote:

We are pleased—and honored—to present our readers with the first of a series of insightful essays by Elie Wiesel, the world-renowned author and human rights advocate. Wiesel is best known for his numerous books on the Holocaust and for his profiles of Biblical figures and Hasidic masters. In 1986, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. His occasional series for BR will focus on characters in the Bible that do not occupy center stage—those who play supporting roles.


Read an interview BAR Editor Hershel Shanks conducted with Elie Wiesel and Biblical scholar Frank Moore Cross, republished from BAR, July/August 2004 >>


More “Supporting Roles” by Elie Wiesel in Bible History Daily:

Cain and Abel





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22 Responses

  1. Graygoosegosling says:

    Anyone who believes God made the sun stand still in the sky is unbelievably ignorant or gullible.

  2. brentd4 says:

    I’m surprised that not one person has identified the real purpose of the story of Joshua and how it relates to us today and into the future. Joshua’s real name in Hebrew was Yehoshau. He is the archetypal of Christ the archetype. Christ’s real name in Hebrew/Aramaic is Yehoshua, or Yeshua for short, which is equivalent to the English name Joshua. Joshua/Jesus’ name means “God is salvation.” Thus the stories of all Joshua’s in the Old Testament including Joshua the High Priest shed light on the true nature of Christ and His purposes. In Revelation we are told that when Christ returns He will be exactly like Joshua was in the conquest of Canaan.
    Revelation 19:11-16 “Now I saw heaven opened, and behold, a white horse. And He who sat on him was called Faithful and True, and in righteousness He judges and makes war. His eyes were like a flame of fire, and on His head were many crowns. He had a name written that no one knew except Himself. He was clothed with a robe dipped in blood, and His name is called The Word of God. And the armies in heaven, clothed in fine linen, white and clean, followed Him on white horses. Now out of His mouth goes a sharp sword, that with it He should strike the nations. And He Himself will rule them with a rod of iron. He Himself treads the winepress of the fierceness and wrath of Almighty God. And He has on His robe and on His thigh a name written: KING OF KINGS AND LORD OF LORDS.”

  3. Kurt says:

    Let us turn the clock back some 35 centuries. Forty years have passed since millions of Israelites were delivered from Egyptian bondage under the mighty hand of Jehovah. The prophet Moses has taken the lead. Now at the age of 120, he views the Promised Land from a distance and then dies atop Mount Nebo. His successor is Joshua, a man “full of the spirit of wisdom.” (Deut. 34:1-9) The Israelites are about to take possession of Canaan. To succeed as their leader, Joshua will need God-given wisdom. He will also have to exercise faith in Jehovah and prove to be courageous and strong.—Deut. 31:22, 23.
    The wisdom, courage, and faith shown by Joshua during the long conquest of Canaan must have strengthened the Israelites.

  4. dianes42 says:

    Stephania, I agree with you. Joshua believed and obeyed God-much unlike God’s people. That’s why they didn’t make it. This is the lesson we need today.
    Also, a loving God knew that not all of us would know Hebrew and the different translations. That;s why He gave us His Holy Spirit. His Word is spirit and therefore spiritually discerned, The Holy Spirit is the best teacher and all we have to do is ask. Even Jesus said to ” ask and it will be given unto you.”

  5. Joshua Zambrano says:

    1200 B.C. seems too late a date, 1400-1450 B.C. seems more likely as the date for the book of Joshua. See e.g. the Soleb Inscription, Hatshepsut’s mention of Hyksos being banished, and Amarna Tablets.

    Interesting article, but I disagree with the claim that God would be angry over people not attending Joshua’s funeral. Actually the Mosaic Law discouraged special mourning for the dead including cutting of flesh, e.g. Leviticus 21.

  6. Robert Gibbons Sr. says:

    Using a Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance, you can do a pretty good job. What do you think?

  7. Michael Fine says:

    Joshua’s apparent rejection after the conquest of the land reminds me of the British public voting Churchill out of office after World War II ….

  8. Aaron in the Bible | Centro de Estudios Judaicos del Sur de Puerto Rico says:

    […] Elie Wiesel’s studies of Joshua and Seth in Bible History Daily as they appeared in Bible […]

  9. stephania says:

    Joshua story was not sad at all. HE believed in the TRUE GOD. Joshua was obedient to Gods every word. RESPECTED MOSES. Joshua was one of not many GOD himself spoke about. Just like Jesus was resurrected Joshua will be too. It does not matter WHAT Human forgot him. Joshua does not need glory nor remembrance from mankind. JEHOVAH GOD remembers him. That is ALL Joshua needs IS GODS remembrance of him.

  10. est says:

    The book of Zohar says that the face of Moses is like the sun, and the face of Yehoshua is like the moon, and in Hebrew :”פני משה כחמה ופני יהושע כלבנה”. The moon does not have its own light, but what it receives from the sun. Moses led the sons of Israel 40 years in the desert, he was the shepherd of the Hebrew souls there, to shepherd the herd after the desert, one has to have belief, this is why the Zohar named Moses “ra’aya mehaimana” רעיא מהיימנא, הרועה הנאמן, the loyal shepherd.

    Yehoshua and the sons of Israel saw the land, and enter the land and inherit it, as God promised to Avraham in ברית בין הבתרים, not before he circumcised them, Yehushua and the people of israel have to live with the concrete Israel, not with the dream of Israel and reality is sometimes rough.

    The spiritual step of Moses is the highest of all, the Ari says he was the best of humans ever lived. Yehoshua came to be a leader due the fact he served Moses with deep loyalty.

    Moses inspired Yehoshua with good eye, as Rashi says with both hands: and to summarize it: Moses and Yehoshua had different realities to cope with: Moses with the belief and Yehoshua with the notion.

    Shana tova to all and good signature שנה טובה כתיבה וחתימה טובה

  11. David Paul says:

    JAllen, the reason you “have never read any commentary that took note of this parallel between the reports of the spies and the ultimate fates of their tribes” is because your explanation of the events is inaccurate. You say that the two “good report” spies were from Judah and Benjamin, but that is false. Numbers 13:8-9 show this clearly. Joshua (aka Hoshea) was from Ephraim while the spy from Benjamin was Palti the son of Raphu. If anything, this supports Two House theology, not Judah-Benjamin supremacy.

  12. Paul Ballotta says:

    Ramban’s commentary is like like “waters of Shiloah that flow along gently” and this particular interpretation I got from a modern commentary on the book of Isaiah with a yellow cover twenty summers ago at the public library in Philadelphia. Down the street was an art museum whose steps became renowned in “Rocky.” There were animal sculptures with the prominent one being the elk. That summer there were banners hanging promoting “Jurasaic Park” (produced by filmaker-sorcerer-history-spin-doctor Steven Speilberg) and I don’t recall there being anything in the book it was based on about the boy and the girl in the kitchen eating treats with a hint of guilt before the velociraptors came.
    I don’t consider Al Qaeda to be Islamic. It’s leaders have been careful not to quote the Koran while taking the concept of “jihad” out of context..
    Their message speaks volumes in their actions which we find in Genesis 3:1 when the Serpent said to Eve, “Did God really tell you not to eat?” Think of the ancient Egyptian god Seth (biblical Satan) as the desert encroaching on paradise.

  13. Paul Ballotta says:

    You are correct, Herb, about the handicap of not knowing Hebrew when interpreting the scriptures. Fortunately I’ve been able to get around with a crutch with “A Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament.” The first definition of “Elohim” is the one that is plural in number and we are given four examples:
    a. rulers, judges. either as divine representatives at sacred places or as reflecting divine majesty and power.
    b. divine ones, superhuman beings including God and angels.
    c. angels
    d. gods
    From the Middle Ages we have Maimonides’ “Guide for the Perplexed” and in chapter two he writes, “every Hebrew knows that the term Elohim is a homonym, and denotes God, angels, judges, and the rulers of countries…”

  14. Herbert Burack says:

    Your definition of “Elohim” as referring to “gods” is antithetical to Judaism. As I said, you and others lack insight and understanding of Scripture written in Hebrew. Your faulty explanations (though no fault of your own) are based upon translations of translations. One would need a complete knowledge of not only knowing how to read Hebrew but understanding its grammar and text. The “classical” and traditional commentaries who lived during the middle ages (RASHI, RAMBAN, RADAK etc) are the “only” true sources of understanding. At any rate, its nice to have a dialogue.

  15. Paul Ballotta says:

    Thank you Herb. Perhaps it was idiotic of me to equate the Hittite stag protector-god known by the logogram KAL with the Hebrew word for “all” which is spelled KL. It was my way of filling the vacuum in the book of Joshua since the bulk of it apparently never happened. There is no evidence for a sudden displacement of people in the southern Levant during this period. The central hill country did become populated with people believed to be Isrealites with the appearance of four-room houses and collared-rim jars.
    The quote that I cited from Genesis 1:31 with the divine name Elohim needs explainig. Elohim basically refers to “gods” and it is used in the story of creation because the work consists of many elements interacting with each other in uniy. The Hittite pantheon had about eighty gods in one peace treaty that included the natural elements; “the mountains, the rivers, the springs, the great Sea, heaven and earth, the winds (and) the clouds – let these be witness to this treaty and to the oath” (Ancient Near Eastern Texts, by James Pritchard, p.205).

  16. Herbert Burack says:

    Mr. Wiesel is quite an intelligent person and has lived through history’s darkest periods. I am sure he knows how to read Hebrew but I am afraid that he really lacks what the Book of Joshua is all about. As an example: “In truth, Joshua makes me afraid. His personality is too dark, involved in too many battles, too many confrontations. The man of blood and glory, he is the one sought out when someone is needed to throw himself into the fray, to push back or attack the enemy. To read his book is to move forward into the ashes, among disfigured corpses.” The truth be told, Joshua is commanded by God to root out the 7 nations and to allocate the land of Cannan to the Jewish nation. For Mr. Wiesel to lament this fact shows how he does not really understand Joshua’s prime directive. For the other comments printed below I would suggest that you all first learn Hebrew and then after 10 years go back and learn these passages in its primary language; not translations. Please do not inject your background knowledge (?) with histories that have nothing to do with the Holy scriptures such as the Book of Joshua (or any other Books of the Bible). To compare the Book of Joshua to Islamic conspiracies, Hittite culture etc is absolutely idiotic!

  17. Joshua in the Bible – Elie Wiesel | says:

    […] Sculpture by Phillip Ratner-Ratner Museum   Bible Review‘s Supporting Roles By Elie Wiesel   Joshua, the perfect disciple. Obedient and humble. The man whose devotion to his master can serve as […]

  18. Robert Feather says:

    Krzysztof raises a real biblical problem. The descriptions of a blitzkrieg conquest and the places destroyed are not supported by archaeology. There is evidence of an influx of some 60,000-70,000 people into the hill country and it has to be assumed that the story is written centuries after the events. The motivation is to demonstrate G-d’s power and support for the Israelites. My forthcoming book ‘Where Moses Stood’ details the events.

  19. Krzysztof says:

    Let’s start from: when was the Book of Joshua written or compiled? Who were the authors? Why does its description contradicts other Books: there was not total destruction at all inhabitants in the “promised land”?

  20. Allan Rchardson says:

    It is interesting that, of the twelve spies sent by Moses from the twelve tribes, only the spies from the tribes of Benjamin and Judah bring back a positive report, and only those two spies are allowed to enter the Promised land. And in later history, Benjamin and Judah (and part of the 13th tribe of Levi) form the Kingdom of Judah, while the other ten tribes (and part of Levi) form the Kingdom of Israel, which was defeated by Assyria a century before the Babylonian conquest of Judah, becoming the “Ten Lost Tribes of Israel” about which so much folklore has been created. Actually, they were probably REALLY lost, in that the members of those tribes sent elsewhere merged into the nations where they were sent, and those who were left behind merged with the immigrants moved there by the Assyrians, becoming the Samaritans, who held “variant” views from the Jews on Yahweh and how to worship Him. But Benjamin and Judah maintained their identity during THEIR later exile, and returned after an average lifetime to establish what became Judaism.

    To a fundamentalist, this “foreshadowing” would be considered prophetic; to a scientific scholar, since the Torah received its FINAL edited form during the Exile, the story may have been altered to act as a lesson about doubting God’s promises. Either way, I have never read any commentary that took note of this parallel between the reports of the spies and the ultimate fates of their tribes.

  21. Paul Ballotta says:

    It was the seer Isaiah who revealed the public sentiment at the time of the Syrio-Ephraimite war (late eigth century B.C.E.) as scorning “the waters of Shiloah which flow along gently” (Isaiah 8:6). This refers to a canal which was fed by the Gihon spring in Jerusalem. During the din of war the louder voices prevailed in a tone that was set by Judah’s enemies, the leaders of which were described as “smoking stubs of firebrands” (Isaiah 7:4). A firebrand was a stick used to stir up burning embers to produce fire.
    One doesn’t have to look far to see the violent images being broadcast via sattelite as entertainment in what I would term “Pictures of Matchstick Men” from the title of the bubblegum psychadelic song by Status Quo.
    In a footenote to history I thought it to be appropriate and add my views on international terrorism in the light of scripture. The first war fought by Israel after the depature from Egypt was against Amalek, whose memory the Lord promised to blot out from under heaven (Exodus 17:14). The first attack on U.S. soil occured on February 26, 1993 . The author Rohan Gunaratna in his book “Inside Al Qaeda” states that Ramzi Yousef was recruited, trained and financed by AL Qaeda to bomb one of the World Trade Center towers on February 23 (p.6). Why the discrepancy between the dates of February 23 and 26? It may be because the 23rd (Tuesday) was the night there was a Jewish banquet at the then Vista International Hotel (World Trade Center #3). During the trial the following year it was revealed that the previous Sunday those attackers were scouting for targets (including synagogues) and thus had not yet chosen their target a week before the attack.
    Exactly five years later, on February 23, 1998, Osama bin Laden declared jihad against “Jews and Crusaders” and stated that it was the “duty of all Muslims to comply with God’s order by killing Americans and their allies, both civilian and military ,irrespective of location” (.p.45). In other words, the cowardly tactics attributed to Amalek in Deuteronomy 25:17,18.

  22. Paul Ballotta says:

    The events of the book of Joshua take place following the collapse of the Hittite empire around 1200 B.C.E after the invasion of the Sea Peoples. Apparently Joshua had high aspirations when he was told the territory extended to “all the land of the Hitties” (Joshua 1:4). This may be a reference, however to a mythical creature in Hittite culture called the “KAL” which is the Hebrew word for “all” as in Genesis 1:31; “And saw Elohim the All which he had made and behold it was good, exceedingly.” The creature was represented as a stag, often with oversize antlers, and with its legs tapering down to a point and mounted on the tip of a scepter. It symbolized nature.
    After the Hittite empire collapsed and was replaced by the Neo-Hittie city-states, the records of the Assyrian empire refer to the city-sate region of Carchemosh as “the land of Hatti.” Carchemosh was the origin of the monumental ruler sculptures that became a fixture in Neo-Hittite culture. An example are the human-animal hybrid type not unlike the Cheribum described in Ezekiel 10.
    It does appear that this Joshua led an idealist youth (thus hope) when scripture says he never left the tabernacle (Exodus 33:11). One would recall the borderline idolatrous sculpture enthroned on the Ark of the Covenant depicting two Cherub, male and female winged beings. Could the modern equivalent be the X-Files characters Mulder and Scully and the quest for all mysteries? .

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