20 So the LORD burned with anger against Israel. He said, “Because these people have violated my covenant, which I made with their ancestors, and have ignored my commands, 21 I will no longer drive out the nations that Joshua left unconquered when he died. 22 I did this to test Israel – to see whether or not they would follow the ways of the LORD as their ancestors did.” (NLT)
I don’t know if I’ll ever understand this period of Israel’s history. And by this I mean I don’t know that I understand why God allowed Joshua to die without a successor.
The Hebrews were a wily and rebellious race, fiercely independent and hard to lead. But despite all of that, and truly without painting a romanticized picture of their past, when they had a strong leader in front of them they were far more apt to stay “in bounds”. Moses was an imperfect man to say the least, to the point of missing out on his own inheritance in Canaan, and it was on his watch that an entire generation had to die due to stubborn rebellion. However, history is clear, God never wrote off the nation, as He did in Judges 2, while Moses was leading them. He tried to, He intended to, but Moses’ intercession stayed His hand of wrath.
With Joshua a similar story plays out. Joshua became the mediator between God and the nation that He loved so much. This org structure kept things running somewhat smoothly, or at least functionally. But when Joshua died there was no mediator, no intercessor, no go-between, and no buffer. Israel did what they had always done but without restraint and without an advocate and it cost them their peace, future, and promise (though it should be mentioned that ultimately God’s sovereignty was not thwarted and He still brought global redemption through this band of miscreants).
There is another interesting aspect to this story. The two leaders in this time period, Moses and Joshua, weren’t really the most polished guys in the Scriptures. They were rough around the edges, overly aggressive at times, and displayed a bent toward self-reliance in certain circumstances. But somehow they became the “fence” that hemmed in the people.
The Hebrew were just as immature and petty and silly while Moses and Joshua were leading them as when there was no national leader. The difference between Judges and the books of Joshua and Exodus was not the actions or attitudes of the people, but the presence of a leader. And, as stated earlier, leaders that were more like Fidel Castro than Franklin Roosevelt.
Leadership in these situations was less about qualification as it was about destination. Both Moses and Joshua were consumed with God, with His presence, and with His glory. Even though their pursuit of it was, at times, questionably applied. Once that pursuit was lost at a high level in the nation of Israel, after Joshua’s death, there was little more than organized chaos. Idolatry without internal consequence, cowardice without accountability, and compromise devoid of conviction marked the “days when the Judges ruled”.
So, anyone with any influence on anyone, in the context of Christianity, is important far more than any present situation could ever display. It was only after these leaders were dead and gone that the true flood of foolishness that they held at bay was seen clearly. When Joshua was leading Israel we almost get the sense that the people were making real strides toward trusting God fully, and we would continue to believe that except for the fact that the people started acting ridiculous before Josh’s body was even cold.
Leadership is about more than knowing how to counsel and having an answer for everyone. Maybe Biblical leadership is more like driving cattle from a ranch in Texas to a town in Oklahoma. You aren’t going to stop all of the bumping and chaos, and the herd is definitely not going to walk single file. But maybe, with work, sweat, blood, and courage a leader can help set the boundaries of the trip, and as long as the herd stays together they ultimately find their destination. And all of this is taking place while the cowboy is fighting his own urges to break off from the pack and just go riding off into the sunset, to see what’s out there.
Leadership is much more like hard, dirty work than it is a romantic dance in a ballroom full of soft-handed, stuffed-shirted blue-bloods. It requires discipline and guts and sleepless nights and a constant dedication to one thing: getting to the ultimate destination without losing anybody along the way. And all of this is only possible by the strength that the Spirit of God brings to the leader.
So if you lead a thousand people or just your own two children, don’t undervalue the impact that your influence has. God has put you there to help bring them home to Him in the end.