Israel will be marching on into the promised land soon but Moses will die before that day dawns. In today's passage the Lord announces Moses' impending death and names Moses' successor.
"Then the Lord said to Moses, 'Go up this mountain in the Abarim Range and see the land that I have given to the Israelites. After you have seen it, you too will be gathered to your people, as your brother Aaron was, for when the community rebelled at the waters in the Desert of Zin, both of you disobeyed My command to honor Me as holy before their eyes. (These were the waters of Meribah Kadesh, in the Desert of Zin.)" (Numbers 27:12-14) We studied this incident on Day 65 of our study of the book of Numbers. Aaron passed away shortly after the incident at Meribah and his son Eleazar succeeded him as high priest. Now it is soon to be Moses' turn to pass on---to be "gathered to his people" as the Bible so beautifully describes the death of a believer.
Moses, as always, is more concerned for the people than for himself, so he asks the Lord to appoint a clear successor to carry on his duties on behalf of the Israelites. He has been in the habit of putting the people of Israel ahead of himself for many years now, and today is no exception even though he's facing his own mortality. "Moses said to the Lord, 'May the Lord, the God who gives breath to all living things, appoint someone over this community to go out and come in before them, one who will lead them out and bring them in, so the Lord's people will not be like sheep without a shepherd.'" (Numbers 27:15-17)
Sheep are not driven from behind like cattle. They must have someone out ahead of them to follow. They have to be able to see their shepherd, and if Israel has no clear shepherd in front of her when Moses takes his last breath, Moses fears things will fall apart. Moses is a man with strong leadership skills and yet he has barely managed to hold the community together at times. If the Lord Himself does not name a man to take Moses' place, Moses can easily envision things beginning to fall apart immediately after his demise. The people might begin nominating candidates for the job and falling into arguments or even violent altercations while they disagree about who is the best man for the job. They might select a man who isn't godly and who won't lead them in the will of the Lord. After all, it wasn't long ago that they wanted to stone Moses and Aaron to death and choose a man who would lead them back to Egypt and slavery. It's vitally important for the Lord Himself to announce Moses' successor while Moses still lives so that the flock of Israel will know who the new shepherd is. The shepherd must be a man with a heart like the Lord's who will love the people and want the best for them. The shepherd must be a man who will hear and obey the Lord's voice.
"So the Lord said to Moses, 'Take Joshua son of Nun, a man in whom is the spirit of leadership, and lay your hand on him. Have him stand before Eleazar the priest and the entire assembly and commission him in their presence. Give him some of your authority so the whole Israelite community will obey him.'" (Numbers 27:18-20) We've been told several times that Joshua was Moses' aide. (Exodus 24:13, Exodus 33:11, Numbers 11:28) Joshua has been in the perfect position to observe how Moses consults the Lord for instructions and then carries those instructions out. Joshua also has military experience, for he led a battle against the Amalekites when the Amalekites attacked the Israelites without provocation after they came out of Egypt in Exodus 17. Joshua is one of only two men who were over the age of twenty in Numbers 14 who did not die in the wilderness and this is because he and Caleb believed the Lord when He said they would be able to take the promised land from the tribes currently inhabiting it. These two young men weren't afraid to keep going forward when all the other men of fighting age wanted to go back to Egypt. Joshua and Caleb stood in front of the entire assembly and implored the people to have faith in the Lord. So we see that Joshua is a man with an obedient spirit (he was used to following Moses' orders) and he is a man with military skills (he led a victorious battle against the Amalekites) and he is a man with leadership skills (he gave an impassioned speech to the entire community to encourage them in their faith and to inspire them to do great things in the name of the Lord) and he is a man who has a lot of faith in the Lord himself (he said in Numbers 14 that the Lord was with Israel and that Israel had nothing to fear in the land of Canaan because the Lord was on their side).
Is Moses surprised by the Lord's choice of successor? Of all the characters we've met so far in the Bible, Joshua seems the best and most obvious person to take charge after Moses' death. If someone were to ask us who we thought the Lord would choose to take Israel on into the promised land, I bet Joshua would be number one our list. I think he was at the top of Moses' list too. If someone had asked Moses who he'd like to see installed in his place, I believe he'd have named Joshua. But the Lord has the final say in this matter. Although Moses may have suspected Joshua was the man the Lord had chosen, and although Joshua was the man Moses himself wanted to take his place, Moses was not going to go ahead on his own initiative and declare Joshua his successor. It is the Lord's place to choose the shepherd of Israel. Moses leaves it up to the Lord, no matter what his personal feelings may have been on the matter.
Joshua is to be inaugurated, so to speak, in the sight of the entire community. This way there will be no doubt or dispute regarding his right to take the reins from Moses when the time comes. The ceremony is held while Moses is still living so there can be a clear and public and peaceful transfer of power. The people need to see that Joshua has the blessing of both Moses and the Lord. After Joshua takes Moses' place, he will be the one who receives instructions from the Lord regarding when Israel is to move ahead and when Israel is to remain still. He will receive his battle plans from the Lord so that the army will know when and how to advance against its enemies. If the Lord says to attack, the army will attack. If the Lord says to refrain from going on the offensive, the army is to stand down. Joshua will go to the high priest when he needs advice and the high priest will consult the Lord on Joshua's behalf. "He is to stand before Eleazar the priest, who will obtain decisions for him by inquiring of the Urim before the Lord. At his command he and the entire community of the Israelites will go out, and at his command they will come in." (Numbers 27:21)
We read of the mysterious objects known as the Urim and Thummim in Exodus 28 and Leviticus 8. These objects were stored inside the breastplate worn by the high priest and they were used to discern the will of the Lord when the high priest inquired of Him for a leader of Israel. We discussed the Urim and Thummim on July 11, 2020 on our 104th day studying the book of Exodus. If you didn't have a chance to read our post from that day, or if you would like to reread it, you can scroll to the bottom of today's blog post and find it in the archives.
"Moses did as the Lord commanded him. He took Joshua and had him stand before Eleazar the priest and the whole assembly. Then he laid his hands on him and commissioned him, as the Lord instructed through Moses." (Numbers 27:22-23) Moses is an unselfish man. His mind is not on his own fate but on the future of Israel. He wants the nation to take over the promised land and prosper in it even though he won't be there to see any of this happen. Instead of obsessing over the fact that he'll be leaving this world soon, he's focused completely on carrying out the will of the Lord and seeing to it that the flock of Israel has a shepherd in place who will continue carrying out the will of the Lord. Moses is not a perfect man; no human being other than Jesus has ever perfectly obeyed the Lord. But Moses sets a godly example for us to follow. He lives by a golden rule the Apostle Paul instructed the church to live by in Philippians 2:3-4: "Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of others."