Summary: God commands Joshua to lead his people into the promised land armed with "courage and obedience".
I know some people who hate movies with happy endings. Their ideal is a movie where the main character dies – painfully and fruitlessly, with any luck. And they particular hate those sickeningly sweet Disney-style movies where you’ve got some hopelessly pathetic geek or incredibly inept kids sporting team or something like that and all it takes is a bunch of trite words from a washed-out coach to transform them into a world-beater. And those trite words are always pretty similar in content, aren’t they? There’s the staple scene near the end of the film when the team miraculously made the final but still they’re standing in the locker room nervously saying “we can’t beat these guys, they’re too big, they’re too strong, they’re too skillful”. Just once I’d like to see a movie end there, with the kids just giving up, going home and the credits rolling. But this is Hollywood, so the coach jumps up and gives a stirring speech about how they can look inside for the power, work as a team, that together they can do anything, that they’re good enough to beat the world, that they just need to believe in themselves, that they need to be confident, and strong and courageous. And of course in the end they go out and win amazingly in extra time and we the audience are supposed to say hoorah! – what a triumph of the human spirit. Quite frankly, it makes me want to vomit.
The book of Joshua starts with a bit of gee-up speech of its own, but it has some major differences with Disney movies. You probably noticed the constant refrain to Joshua – be strong and courageous. Don’t give up, don’t be afraid – be strong and courageous. Well – why? Why does Israel need to be strong and courageous?
To begin with we need to do a bit of background to find out where Israel have come from not only geographically, but more importantly in their relationship with God. And what we are going to see is that their situation, this land they are about to enter to possess, all their hope for victory, they all have their beginning and end in the great and powerful God who is gracious to them.
To understand God’s plan we need to go right back to Abraham in Genesis 12 and 15 where the LORD promises Abraham’s descendants their own land. Six or seven hundred years later, the Israelites still have not taken possession of their promised land. In between, the Israelites have moved to Egypt and grown to be a sizable nation. They’ve left Egypt having walked through the Red Sea, taken a detour down the Sinai peninsula where Moses received the Ten Commandments and the rest of the Law and finally headed back north toward their promised land. And in Joshua 1, they are on the verge of entering. The trouble is, though, that they’ve been on the verge before. Some 40 years before, in fact.
You can see on the map the point marked “12 spies”. Moses had sent 12 spies, one from each tribe of Israel into the land to gather information. We heard about what happened from Numbers 13 and 14. The spies return and tell the people what an amazing, fruitful land it is. But it is full of other nations, other nations who appear like giants and who live in fortified cities. Ten of the spies say “we can’t defeat them, they’re too big”. But two – Joshua and Caleb trusted God. They too had seen the giants and the fortified cities, but they still trusted God.
The Israelites don’t trust God, however. Moses and Caleb and Joshua plead with them, but they are stubborn and faithless. And for their lack of faith they are punished. God’s anger burns against them and he tells Moses in Numbers 14: "How long will these people treat me with contempt? How long will they refuse to believe in me, in spite of all the miraculous signs I have performed among them? 12 I will strike them down with a plague and destroy them, but I will make you into a nation greater and stronger than they." But Moses pleads with the LORD and he forgives them. But as punishment, none of that generation who saw the miraculous signs God did in Egypt will enter the promised land. And so for forty years, until that generation had died out, the Israelites wandered through the desert. The LORD did not abandon them. He was before them in a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night.
The forty years are up. Moses has died after commissioning Joshua, his long time aid, to lead Israel. Throughout this time, Israel have been moving north on the east side of the Jordan river through the lands of the Moabites. They have defeated the Moabites and the Amorites and taken over their lands. These lands have been given to the tribes of Gad and Reuben and to the half-tribe of Manasseh as their inheritance from the LORD. We can see on the map how these tribes are on the east side of the river, and that gives some explanation for the comments in vss. 12-15 of today’s passage. JOS 1:12 But to the Reubenites, the Gadites and the half-tribe of Manasseh, Joshua said, 13 "Remember the command that Moses the servant of the LORD gave you: `The LORD your God is giving you rest and has granted you this land.’ 14 Your wives, your children and your livestock may stay in the land that Moses gave you east of the Jordan, but all your fighting men, fully armed, must cross over ahead of your brothers. You are to help your brothers 15 until the LORD gives them rest, as he has done for you, and until they too have taken possession of the land that the LORD your God is giving them. After that, you may go back and occupy your own land, which Moses the servant of the LORD gave you east of the Jordan toward the sunrise."