Joshua and the crucible of a divine encounter

In his book, Crucibles of Leadership, Robert Thomas talks about three types of crucibles:

  1. New territory – in which a leader is put into a new situation where they need to overcome disorientation;
  2. Reversal – which involves some kind of loss or failure;
  3. Suspension – often an unanticipated hiatus when the familiar is replaced.

Each of these three types of crucible brings with it a set of leadership challenges.

In this series of biblical examples of leadership crucibles, someone who had to deal with the crucible of new territory – in more ways than one – was Joshua.

It was on Joshua’s shoulders that the mantle of leadership fell on the occasion of the death of Moses. Much had happened to prepare him for the task. Not only had he served as Moses’ assistant, he had also taken command of the army in the battle with Amalek and had been one of two faithful spies sent to check out the Promised Land. Joshua’s emergence as leader was not a surprise. In addition to his track record, the biblical record portrays him as the answer to Moses’ prayer for a successor, so that the people he is about to leave on the edge of their goal will not be ‘as sheep that have no shepherd.’ God’s Spirit was in him. Moses was to commission him before the priest and in the presence of the people; he was to encourage him and strengthen him for his work.

The opening verses of the Book of Joshua record God’s promise to be with him and his repeated command that Joshua should ‘be strong and courageous.’ Joshua was to keep himself spiritually attuned by his attention to the Book of the Law – something of an early Psalm 1 man.

There comes a time for every leader in a new situation when the welcome parties are over, the celebrations end, and it is time to roll up the sleeves and attack the task. For Joshua, that meant preparing the people to cross the Jordan River and sending spies to take a look at Jericho.

It’s once they are all in Canaan and preparing to take Jericho that Joshua has an unusual encounter with a man who turns out to be the Commander of the Army of the Lord.

Who is this?

  • Could it be the angel of the Lord? Scripture records several appearances of the angel of the Lord where the angel is so closely identified with the Lord himself that some have suggested that these appearances are appearances of God himself (theophanies).
  • Could it be a pre-incarnate appearance of Christ? Revelation 19 depicts him at the head of the armies of heaven.

It is certainly worth noting both Joshua’s self-humbling response and the similarity between his encounter with this Commander and Moses’ encounter with God/the angel of the Lord on the occasion of his call. On both occasions, the leader was told to remove his sandals since the ground was holy ground. Anticipatory echoes too, perhaps, of Isaiah’s life-changing encounter with God’s holiness in the Temple.

The key issue for Joshua in this episode is to know who is fighting for whom. Initially Joshua wants to know if this armed figure is on his side or on the side of Joshua’s enemies. Did he ask because he thought this man looked daunting, just the kind of man you would want to know was fighting with you and not against you? Did he have any inkling about the true nature of the man, in which case, did he attempt to reconcile what he was seeing with what God had already promised about success? Whatever went through his mind, we know that he wanted to determine whose side this man was on.

But the issue of who would be fighting for whom was not what Joshua thought it was. Remember – Joshua has just emerged as the leader of his people. He knows what military success tastes like. He has an unwavering confidence in God. God had chosen him, commissioned him and encouraged him. But apparently he needed to be reminded, before the work of conquest got underway, that he was not in fact the main man! The question was not whether this man was for or against Joshua: I suppose you could almost say that Joshua had to decide whether he was for or against him!

All of which goes to show that not only did Joshua encounter the crucible of new territory; his encounter with the Commander of the army of the Lord became a defining moment for him. The leader had to acknowledged that he too needed to follow.

Spiritual leaders need to learn this same lesson, not least if they have enjoyed a wave of success and affirmation – even if that success and affirmation are God-given. The temptation for spiritual leaders to believe their own publicity or even begin to act as an independent authority, to make themselves the centre of the enterprise is a dangerous one. The danger is that God’s favour and presence are assumed while his counsel and direction are replaced with requests for his blessing.

It was not for nothing that God linked Joshua’s promised prosperity to his presence with him and his regular, thoughtful engagement with the Book of the Law. Now, in the incident of the sword-bearing Commander of the army of God, he reminded Joshua who was really in charge.

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