Plagues and promises have interplayed in dramatic fashion in Israel’s liberation from Egypt. Exodus events are fresh on every Israelite mind. And now, after Yahweh’s miraculous interventions, the former slaves are well on their way to the Promised Land. Nevertheless, Amalek, a local warlord, stands in their way, poised to destroy Israel’s dream of nationhood. As his military commander to confront the Amalekite army, Moses chooses a youth named Hoshea, renaming him Joshua (Num. 13:16).
Joshua’s identity seems inseparably linked to his father. Thirty references, from Exodus to Nehemiah, identify him as “son of Nun.” By way of contrast, Moses, his mentor, is never labeled “son of Amram.” Although referring to a son by his father’s name was then common practice, Joshua’s case seems to communicate more than simple genealogical information. Rather, it seems to highlight Nun as the man who reared this noble son. Perhaps, then, we should consider what compelled Moses to design his servant’s business card to read “Joshua, son of Nun.”
Nun, like his son after him and his father before him, was born into servitude. Egyptian slavery was a cruel and abusive system, utterly dehumanizing, and lacking any redeeming features. Though they toiled and struggled under increasingly harsh conditions, slaves never reaped any benefits for their labor.
We should consider what compelled Moses to design his servant’s business card as Joshua, son of Nun
I imagine that one day Nun crawls home showing signs of physical abuse. An Egyptian whip has left its mark on his back. His young lad, Joshua, is horrified. He asks questions; Nun tries to ignore him, but Joshua is persistent. Who beat his daddy, and why? He comes to comprehend what slavery is and what it is doing to his father. “Daddy,” he says, “when I grow up I’m going to fight them. I will never be a slave!” Nun detects the boiling anger building within Joshua’s adolescent heart. It would have been the ideal time for him to foster hostility.
He could have reasoned: If I bring him up heartless, he will suffer less in this abusive system. I will teach him to fight, to lie, cheat, and bribe so he can take every opportunity to deal with injustice. Nun could have instilled in his child a “beat the system” mind-set that would collect “payback” for yesterday’s abuses upon his race.
But he didn’t. He would not let circumstances derail his paternal responsibility. He would not allow present realities to control the script of his life or that of his son. Nun selected another option—to raise his boy to be a man of integrity; a man governed by sound moral principles. And so without a 66-book revelation, or some child-rearing manual for slaves, he set out to raise a man. Yes, Joshua would be such a man. Integrity would be the goal—even as a foreigner in the midst of an abusive society. Joshua would learn to be a man of high moral standards, an individual of integrity and a God-fearing person. Though he was going against conventional wisdom, he would not give in. And that is precisely what he did. By doing that, Nun raised more than a man—he raised a historical figure.
The dominant society under whose shadow we grow will mold us into its image. Its spell will shape us, either by choice or unwittingly. Most individuals follow the path of least resistance. People do not want to face opposition while executing the casual drudgeries of life. It has always been so. Hence, to dare to be different and to break established parameters is a heroic undertaking. It is never easy to step away from the huddle and to think and act outside of it. Towing the line is so much more natural. And it was profoundly so for a family of slaves whose instinctive priority in life was survival.
But that was not what Nun inculcated into Joshua’s DNA. Joshua’s lesson one was to be true to himself in spite of external forces. He learned and lived that lesson in Egypt and in the desert. Standing by his principles anywhere, regardless, became a lifestyle.
Fast-forward to the border of the Promised Land. Moses sends a scouting party of 12 men, including Nun’s son Joshua, to bring back an eyewitness report of Canaan’s bounty. I picture him returning to the Israelite camp excited about the land that he and the 11 others have surveyed. He is upbeat and optimistic. But his passion makes him odd. For of the 12 men who give their report, only one other voice shares his position. Still, when it is his turn, Joshua speaks his heart and goes on record on the side of the minority report. Undaunted by numbers, he speaks his conscience.
Nun’s son, and Caleb, his friend, stand their ground in spite of the hostile environment. Hurled abuse does not bend or crack them. It only tests and proves the character that father Nun has instilled in Joshua, his son. These sterling qualities, demonstrated under pressure, do not materialize out of a vacuum. They are the by-product of his mentorship under Nun. The lessons learned in captivity are now elevating him into a bold and visionary leader of men.
Of all the men of Israel who left Egypt old enough to fight, only two individuals entered the Promised Land (Num. 14:26-30). Those two, Joshua and Caleb, were indeed a very special class. Sadly, the camp of Israel did not have the steely resolve that Joshua possessed. He stood out because he had been raised to boldly live out his undergirding principles regardless of immediate rewards or dangers. As a father, Nun simply wanted his son to be a man of integrity. Thus he wove into his character the traits that would make him such an individual. In time, those traits set Joshua apart from among the host of Israel. Moses spotted those personal traits and chose him as his protégé from among the thousands of Israel. Years later there was yet another promotion. On that occasion God specifically named Joshua to replace Moses. Needless to say, God was also profoundly impressed by the son of Nun.
Nun probably did not raise his boy with any eyes for the spotlight. But God picked and placed him in a path of glory. Nun may not have educated his son to think of leadership. But God molded him to lead the throngs of Israel. What Nun did accomplish, was raising Joshua to practice principles of nobility even as a slave in a land of servitude. But God used those principles to make him the conqueror of the Promised Land.
A traveler watched as a gritty farmer tilled the earth in a stony, rugged, and unpromising landscape. “Tell me, sir, what does the land yield?” The rugged farmer replied: “This land produces men.” It is often the arduous circumstances of life that mold and stamp lives of distinction. Egypt’s grueling servitude and a slave’s nobility produced for Israel, and for history, one of God’s ablest men, Joshua son of Nun. God give us more Nuns.