The Succession of Moses

Pinchas, Numbers 25:10−30:1

D'Var Torah By: Kristine Garroway, Ph.D

In the middle of Parashat Pinchas we find a curious passage suggesting that Moses is about to die (Numbers 27:12–22).1 In light of this fact Moses appoints a successor. Scholars have pointed out that the narratives describing the succession of Moses and the succession of Aaron share similar qualities.2 The death of both leaders results in the appointment of replacements, Joshua and Eleazer. Structurally, this appointment adheres to the following pattern: a geographical location is given, God announces the impending death and reason for the death, God appoints a successor, the successor is installed, the death occurs, and the people mourn.3 The problem with Moses’s death announcement in this portion is that he does not die. Instead, Moses’s death and mourning rituals for him are separated by over forty chapters of biblical narrative. Why the great divide?

One reason may be to separate the characters of Moses and Aaron, and highlight Moses’s unique status. The text offers many clues that the transition from Moses to Joshua is not of the same ilk as that of Aaron to Eleazar. First, unlike the office of high priest, the office of Israel’s leader is not hereditary. Legends of the Jews suggests the position is not hereditary because Moses’s sons were not worthy of this privilege; they did not engage in the study of Torah.4 Since the position was not hereditary, Moses was able to offer up suggestions. Joshua was a natural choice, since he was a man known for his dedication to Torah.5 This was not Joshua’s only stellar quality; he was also a warrior, another key characteristic that Moses sought in his successor (Numbers 27:17).6 Thus, even though Moses and Aaron were involved in the same crime and received the same punishment (Numbers 20:12), only Moses retained his uniqueness (see Deuteronomy 34:10)—death was not the ultimate equalizer.

Not only was Moses different from his brother, but he also was different from his successor. We know from previous texts that Joshua was a military man. Numbers 27:18, however, gives us fresh information telling us why God chose Joshua to succeed Moses; he is an ish asher ruach bo. Both NJPS and the translation found in The Torah: A Modern Commentary, revised edition, show this as an“inspired man.” The New Revised Standard Version and the New King James Version translate the phrase as “a man in whom is the spirit.” Some commentators link the ruach of Joshua to the ruach of God in verse 16, as Moses spoke to the Eternal saying, “Let the Eternal One, Source of the breath [spirit] of all flesh, appoint someone over the community...” If the Eternal is “the God of the spirits of all flesh,” then Joshua has been divinely ordained for leadership.7 Here, it is important to note that the endowment of the spirit is permanent, not a temporary status empowering a certain action.8 Baruch Levine suggests that ruach in verse 18 is actually an abbreviation for either ruach Adonai or ruach Elohim.Deuteronomy 34:9 further modifies this description of Joshua as ruach hochmah. This phrase is generally translated as “spirit of wisdom,” but Levine argues we can translate it as “the spirit of skill,” meaning Joshua had the necessary skills to be the leader of Israel.9

In addition to Joshua’s innate ability as an ish asher ruach bo, Numbers 27:20 states that Moses gave some of his hod, his “authority” or “vitality,” to Joshua. Here again, we see a separation between Moses and his successor. Unlike Aaron, Moses does not hand over all the vestments of his office. Instead, Moses imparts some of his hod. Sifre B’midbar 141 states that Moses did not diminish his wisdom when bestowing his hod upon Joshua. Rather, we should liken this to a torch and a candle, “...just as a torch loses none of its intensity if a candle is lighted therefrom, so little was Moses’ wisdom diminished by the wisdom he gave to Joshua.”10 This distinction will be further emphasized by the role Eleazar plays in Joshua’s succession.

We know that at various times Moses acted as prophet, priest, judge, and military leader for the Israelites. Joshua, however, will not be all these things, but will share his duties with Eleazar. When Moses lays hands on Joshua and presents him to Eleazar, the future dual leadership is established (Numbers 27:19–21). While it is clear that Joshua will be the military leader and Eleazer the priestly leader, the division of the other two offices is not as easy to distinguish. Particularly difficult to determine is the office of prophet. We learn in Numbers 27:21 that Joshua will not consult with God like Moses did. Instead, Eleazar will consult God on Joshua’s behalf through the Urim (and presumably also the Thummim).11 The prophet was the go-between between God and humans.12 From this passage it appears that Eleazar will fulfill the prophetic role. However, in Deuteronomy 34:9, we read, “Now Joshua son of Nun, was filed with the spirit of wisdom because Moses had laid his hands upon him.” This suggests perhaps Joshua inherited the prophetic role.13

The ambiguity surrounding the prophetic role highlights the fact that no one person will be able to fill Moses’s shoes. Instead, as history progresses, we will begin to see that a team of people is needed to lead Israel; the kings will have their advisors, priests, and prophets.

This model continues to guide Jewish communities today. Rabbis are invested with the authority to lead through s’michah. But their leadership goes hand-in-hand with the collaboration and support of a board of directors and other volunteers.

  1. Some scholars argue this was where Moses’s narrative originally ended (P. Budd, Numbers, Word Biblical Commentary, vol. 5, [Waco, TX: Word Books, 1984], p. 305)
  2. Baruch Levine, Numbers 21-36, The Anchor Bible Commentary (New York: Doubleday, 2000), pp. 352–54; also, see Budd, p. 306
  3. T. Ashley, The Book of Numbers, NICOT, (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1993), pp. 548-49
  4. Louis Ginzberg, Legends of the Jews, vol. 2(Philadelphia: JPS, 2003), p. 788 and note 828
  5. Ginzberg, p. 788, and note 828
  6. Ginzberg, p. 788, and note 827
  7. Ashley, pp. 551–2
  8. Budd, p. 307
  9. Levine, p. 350
  10. Ginzberg, p.789
  11. Direct access to God did not transfer from Moses to Joshua (Levine, p. 353). On the presence of the Urim and Thummim, see Budd, p. 307
  12. V. Matthews, The Social World of the Hebrew Prophets (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2001), pp.19–26
  13. The juxtaposition of Joshua’s commissioning with a description of a prophet was picked up by the Rabbis. In the Assumption of Moses 1, we learn that Moses gave a book of prophecy to Joshua (Ginzberg, Legends of the Jews, p. 790)

Kristine Garroway received her Ph.D. from HUC–Cincinnati in 2009 and recently joined the faculty of HUC-JIR Los Angeles as visiting assistant professor of Hebrew Bible. Her research concentrates on children in the ancient Near East and the Deuteronomistic Histories.

A Teacher Is to a Student as a Parent Is to a Child

Daver Acher By: Yaron Kapitulnik

How did Moses really feel about having to pick Joshua as his successor? How did he cope with the realization that his own sons were incapable of inheriting the responsibilities of leadership? Did Moses have a hidden hope that his sons would succeed him in the task of leadership?

In our Torah portion we find Moses calling out to God: "Let the Eternal One...appoint someone over the that the Eternal's community may not be like sheep that have no shepherd" (Numbers, 27:16-18). Rashi states that Moses had his own sons in mind, but God rejected this request; God said to him: "Your sons sat around and did not engage in Torah" (B'midbar Rabbah 21:14).

We should not be surprised by Moses's aspiration for his sons, after all, it is the most natural thing for a parent to want to witness his sons' succeeding him in office. Maimonides supported this notion when he understood public office to be a form of "property" that passes as an inheritance from father to son, except where the son is either incapable or unsuitable for the task (Mishneh Torah, Hilchot M'lachim Umilchamoteihem, Chapter 1:1, 7).

How could Moses wish for his sons to inherit his position when he knew they were unsuitable for the task? Aware of their lack of scholarship, is it possible he hoped they would take on the role of military and secular leadership given to Joshua while leaving the role of spiritual leader to Eleazar?

When Moses realizes his own blood descendants will not succeed him, he treats his student like a son. We read in Numbers 3:1-4, "This is the line of Aaron and Moses" but then we only receive a list including the children of Aaron. The Talmud interprets this passage to mean that Aaron's sons can be considered the "generations" of Moses because he was their teacher (Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 19b).

The Torah conveys to us that the relationship between teacher and student is as significant as that between a parent and child. As such, we can see that Moses was able to pass on the role of leadership, if not to his birth sons then to his student son, Joshua.

Throughout the ages, we as a nation, have continued to embrace this model, seeing Moses as a father figure. Yet we do not describe him as such, but rather as Moshe Rabbeinu, "Moses, our teacher"-a father after all.

Rabbi Yaron Kapitulnik is a rabbi at Temple Judea in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida.

Reference Materials

"Pinchas, Numbers 25:10–30:1
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 1,194–1,215; Revised Edition, pp. 1,072–1,094;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 545–568"