And He commanded Joshua the son of Nun and He said, “… and I will be with you.” – D’varim/Deuteronomy 31:23
Unless the text specifically introduces a new speaker, the verb vayomer – the 3ms Qal prefix form of the root alef-nen-resh, to say, in a vav-conversive construction (or the appropriate form for gender or groups of people) – is often used to toggle between two speakers who are in conversation. This saves having to constantly repeat the names of the speakers and represents the technique used in English books of closing the speech marks, taking a new paragraph and opening a new set of speech marks. The complication, in this case, is that the last named person is Moshe – “That day, Moshe wrote down this poem and taught it to the Israelites” (D’varim 31:22, JPS) – and that the last speaker is HaShem. That would normally imply – as Ibn Ezra affirms – that these words were spoken by Moshe. The ‘he’, Ibn Ezra claims, “refers to Moshe, speaking to Joshua at G-d’s command.” Gunther Plaut points out that this gives these words a “suprahuman tinge” as Moshe would be saying, “‘I will be with you’ even though no longer alive.”
On the other hand, the full speech quote – “Be strong and resolute: for you shall bring the Israelites into the land that I promised them on oath, and I will be with you” (v. 23, JPS) would seem to indicate that it is HaShem speaking, as Rashi suggests, “‘He’ refers to the Divine Presence, as it is stated explicitly: ‘to the Land that I have sworn to them.'” Moshe couldn’t swear the Land to the people; it wasn’t his to give! Rabbi Hirsch agrees: “All the preceding was said to Moshe in the presence of Joshua … and was followed by the direct command of G-d personally to Joshua. This stresses the principle that the supreme command at any time must be in the hands of one single leader: ‘there is only one leader to a generation not two’ (b. Sanhedrin 8a).” Jeffrey Tigay notes that this is the first time that G-d has spoken directly to Joshua.
This then brings up the matter of what the verb vaytsav– the apocopated form of vaytsavey, the Pi’el 3ms prefix form from the root tsadi-waw-hey – means here? Most commonly taken as “to command or charge”, Davidson lists several other meanings, such as “to set over, appoint, determine, decree”. The Sforno explains that, “G-d, the Blessed One, then appointed Joshua as ruler, similar to, ‘I appointed judges over My people Israel’ (2 Samuel 7:11), and ‘He has appointed you ruler over Israel’ (1 Samuel 25:30) and such similar verses.” On that basis, our text would be saying, “And He appointed Joshua son of Nun …”; although there is no explicit object of the appointment – who Joshua is appointed over – here, this seems to be a divine confirmation of what Moshe has already promised Joshua in HaShem’s name: “Then Moshe called Joshua and said to him in the sight of all Israel: ‘Be strong and resolute, for it is you who shall go with this people into the land that the L-RD swore to their fathers to give them, and it is you who shall apportion it to them. And the L-RD Himself will go before you. He will be with you; He will not fail you or forsake you. Fear not and be not dismayed!'” (D’varim 31:7-8).
So if this is the first time that G-d has spoken directly to Joshua and if He is making a statement of appointment at this point, why is it necessary? Hasn’t Joshua just heard Moshe promise both the position of leadership and G-d’s ongoing presence in rather more fulsome style? Isn’t Moshe’s promise enough? Gersonides suggests that “Joshua was in some doubt whether the things said here, which were all spoken at Mt. Horeb, still applied to him.” Frankly, that sounds a little lame. Perhaps the issue of not having more than one leader at a time comes into play here. After Moshe made the promises to Joshua, he wrote down “this teaching” and gave it to the Levites and issued new instructions about reading from the scroll in public at least every seven years. Then he called the people together, received a long song of prophecy and taught it to the people. Joshua might well be wondering what was going on. “Am I the leader or not?” he could quite reasonably be thinking; “Moshe promises me I will be, but then carries on as if he is still the leader.”
For that matter, HaShem repeated His assurances directly to Joshua shortly after Moshe had died, “No one shall be able to resist you as long as you live. As I was with Moses, so I will be with you; I will not fail you or forsake you. Be strong and resolute, for you shall apportion to this people the land that I swore to their fathers to assign to them” (Joshua 1:5-6, JPS). HaShem encouraged Joshua throughout his time as leader of the Children of Israel, speaking either directly to him or through the priests. Isaiah brings G-d’s word to the nation “But you, Israel, My servant Ya’akov … I chose you, I have not rejected you … Fear not, for I am with you, be not frightened, for I am your G-d; I strengthen you and I help you, I uphold you with My victorious right hand. Shamed and chagrined shall be all who contend with you; they who strive with you shall become as naught and shall perish” (Isaiah 41:8-11, JPS). And the L-rd spoke directly to Rav Sha’ul one night in a vision, “Do not be afraid, but go on speaking and do not be silent, for I am with you, and no one will attack you to harm you, for I have many in this city who are My people” (Acts 18:9, ESV).
What about us? How do we know that G-d has spoken to us and given us a promise to which He intends us to hold Him? There are many people, I think, who have faith in G-d’s abilities but are less clear about His intentions towards them personally. They have no difficulty believing that G-d created the heavens and the earth (although there may be some discussion about exactly how and when), split the waters of the Sea of Reeds and consumed Elijah’s sacrifice on Mt. Carmel, or that Yeshua healed the sick and raised the dead to life. They seem to accept and understand that G-d manages to move lots of money around in many bank accounts to pay the wages for and support the work of churches and mission agencies. Thy are usually comfortable with the idea that G-d hears and answers other people’s prayers and that miracles can and do happen today. But, when it comes to G-d healing them, or providing another fifty pounds to cover this week’s food budget, they are very uncertain that He will do those miracles for them. They doubt their ability to hear clearly from G-d or to distinguish between what they want – and is therefore completely un-guaranteed – and what G-d’s will for them and their lives might be. In fact, in many cases, people doubt that G-d even has a plan or a will for their individual lives.
Somehow, it all seemed so simple in the wilderness. It wasn’t difficulty knowing what to do and when; there were the pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night, manna came each morning except Shabbat. Break camp, follow the pillar, make camp; eat, drink, sleep; build the tabernacle. Easy. Later, the prophets were a visible and audible sign of G-d’s presence and word. It was much clearer when the Jeremiah stood in the entrance way to the Temple and called out to all the people, or when Jonah – bleached white by the stomach acid of the whale – walked through the streets of Nineveh, calling them to repentance. Even if we didn’t do what they said, everyone knew that a prophet had spoken. But what do we do now? How do we hear and recognise the authoritative word? We say that if we saw the writing on the wall, we’d instantly obey and move all the mountains foolish enough to get in the way – after all, G-d has spoken.
But there’s the rub. Did G-d speak or did we imagine it? Or did G-d speak and we didn’t like what He said, so we want to say we imagined it? Some folk point to Yeshua’s words about the Holy Spirit: “The Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, He will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you” (John 14:26, ESV). Others quote from the prophets: “Your ears shall hear a word behind you, saying, “This is the way, walk in it,” when you turn to the right or when you turn to the left” (Isaiah 30:21, ESV). Still others will tell you about the time they woke up cold a couple of hours after midnight one morning with a voice in their ears that was so clear and compelling that all they could say was, “Yes, L-rd,” in a fumbling sort of voice and couldn’t think straight for days until they had done what they were told. Many more feel the quickening of their heart as they read the pages of their Bible and they know that the Spirit has spoken to them, not with an audible voice, but an inner voice, from their heart to their head as it were.
But how do we know this isn’t all just subjective? We wanted to buy that new commentary on Job, so when the verse “Study to shew thyself approved unto G-d” (2 Timothy 2:15, KJV) came up, we knew that G-d had spoken. And that verse, “Anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for members of his household, he has denied the faith” (1 Timothy 5:8, ESV), was never intended for the modern world where we have benefits and a welfare state; that was just for the first few centuries. One answer is that G-d never gives up; He is the Master of Communication. Whether it is fireworks before dawn, sleepless nights, unexplained indigestion, toothache or worse, He has multiple ways of getting our attention and keeping it until we respond. Talking things through with someone else helps to reduce subjectivity; just the act of articulating your thoughts may be enough – before the other person has even responded – to let you know whether your ideas are from G-d or not. Ask yourself whether you can imagine Yeshua saying that to your face? Checking whether the verse that seems on fire for you also fired the biblical authors is good too. If it is from G-d – and He speaks much more often than most people think – then you’ll know and you’ll know too that, like Joshua, you have been commanded!
Further Study: B’resheet 28:15; John 16:13; 1 Corinthians 2:10
Application: Have you been holding out and pretending that you can’t hear G-d speaking? Or perhaps you doubt your ability to hear G-d clearly so that you’ve become paralysed with the fear of getting it wrong? Know that G-d does – and wants to – communicate clearly with you; ask and brace yourself for a retransmission, find someone you trust to share and pray with to confirm what you hear and make sure you do what He says!