digitally prepared for use at Gordon College and Andrews University and elsewhere]
THE SIGNIFICANCE OF JOSHUA'S
RECEPTION OF THE LAYING ON
OF HANDS IN NUMBERS 27:12-23
Because Christian rites of ordination regularly involve the imposition of
hands, scholars generally recognize the importance of understanding this
practice. Instituted early in the church's development and thus in close
proximity with its Jewish origins, the imposition of hands has been thought
by scholars to stem most likely from OT roots.l Jewish exegetes and
Pentateuchal critical scholars have often adopted the view that ordination was
performed for the first time when Moses ordained Joshua with the laying on
of hands and that Joshua's installation by Moses became the prototype of
rabbinic ordination.2 It has also been proposed that Christian ordination
originally structured itself on the model of rabbinic ordination, even though
it is also understood that it took on meaning of its own.3 Thus in both Jewish
and Christian traditions, Joshua's installation has powerfully influenced
ordination practice which includes the laying on of hands.4 1 Jean Thierry Maertens, "Un rite de pouvoir: l'imposition des mains," Studies in
Religion 7 (1978): 29. Eduard Lohse suggests that these OT roots are authenticated by the
linguistic relationships evident between Hebrew and Greek expressions for the imposition
of hands in Die Ordination im Spatjudentum und im Neuen Testament (Gottingen:
Vandenhoeck und Ruprecht, 1951), 18.
2 Lohse, Die Ordination, 29. See also J. Newman, Semikhah: A Study of Its Origin, History and Function in Rabbinic Literature (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1950), 2; Paul Galtier, "Imposition des mains," Dictionnaire de theologie catholique (1927), 7:1304; H. Revel, "Ordination," Universal Jewish Encyclopedia (1939), 8:318; Everett Ferguson, "Ordination in the Ancient Church, Part 1, " Restoration Quarterly 4 (1960): 128; M. H. Shepherd Jr., "Hands, Laying on of," IDB (1962), 2:251-252; Allen Howard Podet, "Elements in the Development of Rabbinical Ordination in the Codes" (Ph.D. dissertation, Hebrew Union College, 1964), 50-51.
3 Johannes Behro, Die Handauflegung im Urchristentum (Leipzig: A. Deichertsche
7 Charles L. Feinberg, "rmaxA (‘amar) say, speak, say to oneself (think), intend, command, promise," TWOT (1980), 1:55.
8 This phrase was used in talking to Pharoah (Exod 9:13; 10:3), when announcing
YHWH's will for Israel to leave Egypt (Exod 11:4), and when Moses dealt with the rebellion
of the golden calf (Exod 32:27).
196 SEMINARY STUDIES 39 (AUTUMN 2001)
YHWH could give a third command, "take" Joshua. Second, it is also parallel
to Moses' request in v. 16 to "appoint" a leader. YHWH responded that
Moses "take" Joshua, thus communicating to Moses that he too had a role to
play in establishing Israel's next leader. Third, the imperative "take" initiated
a process of subsequent actions, indicated by the series of waw perfect verbs
in subsection c2. Finally, Joshua, son of Nun, a man in whom there is spirit,
was the one identified as the one to be taken.
The word for "spirit" in "a man in whom there is spirit" has no article,
making it difficult to develop a simple interpretation of what spirit Joshua
possessed. "Spirit" should be linked to its parallel subsection usage in Section
B (v. 16), which identifies YHWH as the "God of the spirits of all flesh."
YHWH is thus identified as the sovereign Creator. He is the one who gives
breath or spirit; therefore, he is the one who knows what the spirit of a man
really is. Identifying Joshua as a "man in whom there is spirit" indicates that
YHWH knows who Joshua is and can guarantee Moses that Joshua possesses
the requisite spiritual qualifications and skills for leadership.9
Is this spirit Joshua possesses a reference to God's spirit, or to the fact that
Joshua was a spirited man? The answer is yes to both questions. First, Leon
Wood argues that the lack of an article attached to the word "spirit" does not
necessarily preclude a reference to the Spirit of God. He uses for support 1
Chr 12:18, where the word "spirit" lacks an article yet obviously refers to
YHWH's Spirit. Wood further argues that Moses was endowed with
YHWH's Spirit, as evidenced by the story of the seventy elders with whom
he shared some of his spirit (Num 11:16-28) and by Isaiah's reference to the
"Holy Spirit within Moses" (Isa 63:11). If Moses was endowed with the Spirit,
"one should only expect that his successor would have to be."10
9 Most scholars accept the interpretation of spirit (HaUr) as an endowment for leadership;
for example: Jacob Milgrom, Numbers Bemidbar, The JPS Torah Commentary (Philadelphia:
Jewish Publication Society, 5750/1990), 235; Walter Riggans, Numbers, Daily Study Bible
(Philadelphia: Westminster, 1983), 202; "Numbers," The Wycliffe Bible Commentary, ed.
Charles F. Pfeiffer (Chicago: Moody Press, 1962),147; A. Clarke, The Holy Bible Containing
the Old and New Testaments: The Old Testament (New York: Abingdon-Cokesbury, 1938),
1:707-708; Julius H. Greenstone, Numbers, with Commentary (Philadelphia: Jewish
Publication Society, 1948), 297; R. B. Allen, "Numbers" Expositor's Bible Commentary
(Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1990), 2:946; Martin Noth, Numbers, A Commentary, Old
Testament Library, trans. James Martin (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1968), 214-215; F. B.
Huey, Numbers, Bible. Study Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1981),93-94; J. L.
Mays, The Book of Leviticus, the Book o/Numbers, LBC (Richmond: John Knox, 1963), 133;
F. C. Cook and T. E. Espin, The Fourth Book of Moses Called Numbers, The Holy Bible
According to the Authorized Version, 2 vols. (London: Murray, 1877), 759; A. Noordtzij,
Numbers, Bible Student's Commentary, trans. E. van der Maas (Grand Rapids: Zondervan,
1983), 256-257; O. J. Baab, The Theology of the Old Testament (New York: Abingdon-
10 Leon J. Wood, The Holy Spirit in the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan,
JOSHUA'S RECEPTION OF THE LAYING ON OF HANDS 197
Second, "spirit" (HaUr) can indicate internal elements of an individual.
One particular element referred to is that of ability. YHWH endowed
Bezaleel with a divine spirit of skill, ability, and knowledge so that he
could construct the Tabernacle. In Joshua's case, spirit would refer to his
endowed leadership skill. YHWH had already chosen, authenticated, and
endowed him with a divine spirit of skill, ability, knowledge, and insight
to qualify him for the work. Additionally, the word "spirit" can depict a
person's dominant disposition of mind or attitude.11 In particular, "spirit"
is used as a synonym for "courage."12 Designating Joshua as a "man in
whom there is spirit" may in part refer not only to the spy scenario, but
also to Joshua's long service to Moses as well as to the entire
congregation.13 To describe Joshua as "a man in whom there is spirit" is
to describe him as a man full of life.14 As such, YHWH declared that
Joshua has the spirit of life and courage necessary to provide the kind of
strong leadership necessary to lead Israel into the Promised Land.
To summarize, YHWH, the God of the spirits of all flesh, identified
Joshua, a man in whom there is spirit. Joshua is thus indicated as one with
an indomitable and courageous spirit. But more, as the giver of spirit,
YHWH also identifies Joshua as one to whom he had given a special
Spirit, a Spirit that has changed him and endowed him for leadership.
1976), 49-50. Allen (2:946) states that "spirit" can also refer to the Holy Spirit, noting that
though the word HaUr (spirit) in Num 27:18 is indefinite by spelling, it "may be regarded as
inherently defInite when used as a reference to deity"; see also Clarke, 1:707-708; Greenstone, 297.
11 Spirit describing a dominant disposition can describe the following emotions: crushed
Congregation "Listen to" (Subsection c2) To review, the flow in each of the four major sections of Num 27:12-23
first identifies the section's main character, then through an imperative either
makes a request or gives a response to the previous request, and then
introduces matters concerning leadership. In section A, YHWH clarified that
Moses as Israel's current leader would soon die. In section B, Moses indicated
the desire for a leader who had the internal fortitude necessary to lead the
congregation of Israel out and back in. In section A', YHWH responded by
instructing how Moses was to install Joshua as the next leader. The imperative
level (subsection b2)of section A' established a command (take) that was
intended to initiate a series of four actions by which Moses was to install
Joshua as a leader whom the congregation would obey. The four actions were
to lay hands on Joshua, stand (present) him before Eleazar and the
congregation, commission (charge) him, and give him some of Moses' honor.
"Lay your hand on him." The first action to be initiated by the
imperative "take" was that Moses was to lay his hand on Joshua. In order
to adequately develop the significance of the hand gesture, one must first
study all the other accompanying elements. It should be noted, however,
that laying on of hands is the first of the actions indicated by the
imperative "take," even though it was not intended that this hand gesture
be the first action Moses performed in the installation. YHWH's initial
instructions to Moses indicated that Joshua's installation take place in a
public setting, thus creating a situation in which public presentation must
precede any other action. The installation, as recorded in Num 27:22-23,
confirms this conclusion, for Moses first "stood" or presented Joshua to
the children of Israel, then "laid" hands on him. By placing hand-laying
first, even though it could not be performed first, YHWH appears to be
stating that all the other actions depend on it. Structural analysis thus
provides a preliminary conclusion. Joshua's public presentation,
commissioning, and reception of some of Moses' honor were to each
somehow find their meaning or expression in the laying on of Moses'
hands. Joshua's installation is rooted in Moses' hand-laying action.
"Stand him before Eleazar the priest and before all the congregation."
The second action to follow "taking" was that of presentation. Four
observations can be made about the imperative to stand Joshua before
priest and congregation. First, the concept of "standing before" in the OT
can have the connotation of presentation.15 Joshua's formal presentation
l5 R. B. Allen, "dmafA/('amad) stand, remain, endure, etc," TWOT (1980), 2:673. Jacob is
presented to Pharoah (Gen 47:7), the cleansed leper is presented to YHWH at the door of the
Tabernacle (Lev 14:11), two goats are presented before YHWH (Lev 16:7), the scapegoat is
JOSHUA'S RECEPTION OF THE LAYING ON OF HANDS 199
had the dual purpose of giving him to the congregation and doing so in a
judicial setting which established that Joshua was legally Israel's next
leader. Second, the physical gesture of standing communicated Joshua's
acceptance of his responsibilities as well as the congregation's and
YHWH's acceptance of Joshua.16 Third, the verb "stand before" indicated
a cultic17and covenantal18 event. Fourth, the concept of standing before
the priest and "congregation" give indication that Joshua's installation
ceremony took place at the tent of meeting, the normal meeting place of
the congregation. Joshua's leadership is thus connected to the Sanctuary
and to all that it represented in maintaining contact and covenant with
YHWH. His leadership must ever espouse these important principles.
"Commission him in their presence." The third action to follow
"taking" was that of giving a commission. Moses was to "commission him
(Joshua) before their eyes" (Num 27:19).19 The verb is a piel perfect,
second masculine singular of hvc, meaning either "to command" or "to
give a charge." Numbers 27:19-22 uses both meanings, first in Moses'
commissioning of Joshua (vv. 19,23), and second in Moses' obedience of
presented live before YHWH (Lev 16:10), a person is to be presented to the priest (Lev 27:8),
an animal is presented to the priest (Lev 27:11), Levites are presented to Aaron for service
(Num 3:6; 8:13), a suspected adulteress is presented by the priest or her husband before
YHWH for judgment (Num 5:16, 18, 30). See Ashley, 552-553, where he lists ten of the
16 After seventy men died as a result of looking at the ark of the covenant, the men of Beth Shemesh asked, "Who can stand before YHWH" (1 Sam 6:20); YHWH asks, "What shepherd will stand before me?" (Jer 49:19; 50:44) implying that the shepherds are not acceptable to himself; YHWH also asks those who have performed all manner of evil how they think they can "stand before" him, meaning, they are to believe they are accepted (Jer7:10); and Esther stood before Xerxes after he Indicated acceptance of her presence (Esth 5:1-2).
17 The OT sanctuary provided the Israelites with a refuge in which to contact YHWH,
and its services gave institutional form to maintaining the covenant between YHWH and his
people. To state that the phrase "stand before" carries cultic overtones is to say that it
represents a ritual involved in Israel's worship of and maintaining contact with YHWH. The
phrase "stand before" carried a cultic connection in at least two areas: (1) "stand before" could
indicate ministry before or service to one of higher authority or to a group, or (2) stand
before" could indicate a representational element in which one representing a group "stands
before" another and intercedes in behalf of the group. In terms of leadership, if there was no
blessing from the high priest, there would be no leader. Including Eleazar the priest in the
formalities underscored the fact that Joshua's leadership of the Israelites was to be one of
cooperation with the high priest. Joshua’s rule was not to be profane; contact with YHWH
was to hold first place in his governance.
18 Joshua's installation ceremony was public, held before the entire congregation (hdAfe--a term with strong covenantal connections). It is the congregation with whom YHWH has
made a covenant; it is the congregation who requires a leader sensitive to this covenant.
19 KJV, "give a charge"; RSV and NIV, "commission"; NKJV, "inaugurate."
200 SEMINARY STUDIES 39 (AUTUMN 2001)
YHWH's command (v. 22). Why would both meanings be used in so few
verses? YHWH's control and input comprise one of the more important
messages of this pericope. Moses' commissioning (hvc) of Joshua directly
results from YHWH's command (hvc) to Moses. Moses may be the voice
of the commission, but Joshua's commission originates with YHWH.
YHWH instructed Moses to give a solemn charge to Joshua "before
their eyes," the eyes of Eleazar and the congregation. Previously in this
pericope YHWH had used the same expression to remind Moses that he
could not enter the Promised Land because he had not sanctified YHWH
at the waters "before their eyes" (Num 27:14). Moses' public sin
necessitated a change in Israel's leadership. With this reminder, Joshua's
commission emphasized a call to consistently responsible leadership to be
maintained in the view of all. The commissioning ceremony as a public
event took place at the door of the tabernacle.
What are the contents of Joshua's commission? Three passages
provide elements of the installation formula: Deut 3:21-28; 31:1-8, 14,23;
and Josh 1:1-9. These passages indicate a four-part commission. First,
Moses shared words of encouragement calculated to make Joshua firm and
resolute. Based on past experience with YHWH, Joshua was encouraged
to be strong and courageous, to not fear, or be alarmed, or be filled with
terror. Second, Joshua was commissioned to a task, not a position. He was
reminded that his task was to be twofold, that of going over the Jordan
and into the Promised Land as well as that of appropriately dividing the
land among the tribes. Third, Moses extended YHWH's promise of divine
assistance, sufficiency, and companionship. Joshua was not to attend to
his task alone. YHWH promised to fight for him, go before him, be with
him, and never abandon or forsake him. Moses may have verbalized the
commission, but YHWH personally effected it. Fourth, Moses exhorted
Joshua to read, preserve, and carefully keep the law. He was not ever to
depart from it, but to meditate on it day and night.
"Confer some of your honor on him.” The fourth action to follow
"taking" was that of conferring (Ntn) some of Moses' honor (dOh) on
Joshua.20 One catches "a glimpse of the esteem in which Moses was held"
upon the realization that the word "honor," which describes an attribute
of YHWH and of kings, also describes an attribute of Moses; "his was the
20 Milton C. Fisher, "NtanA (natan) give," TWOT (1980), 2:608-609. Because of its extensive use (around two thousand times) in the OT, Ntn has a great variety of meanings given in translation. This variety can be reduced to three broad areas: (1) give, (2) put or set, and (3)
make or constitute. Translations include: set, commit, put, lay, fasten, hang, make, appoint,
meaning of "appoint," thus the translation of "confer."
JOSHUA'S RECEPTION OF THE LAYING ON OF HANDS 201
authority of a king."21 Like kings, Moses too had both external and
internal honor (dOh). But like kings, Moses' dOh came from YHWH, a gift
YHWH instructed him to share with Joshua. However, YHWH did not
intend for Moses to pass all of his honor to Joshua, for his instructions
added a partitive Nmi (of) to dOh (j~d;Ohme). Moses was to give Joshua only a part
of his honor.22 Moses was to remain unique, like the sun, and Joshua,
never the equal of Moses, was to reflect only some of Moses' honor as the
moon reflects the sun's light.23 No matter how important Joshua was to
become, he was never to rise to the level of his mentor.24
Sharing some of Moses' honor with Joshua contributed an important
element to Joshua's leadership. In a similar fashion as sharing some of his
spirit with seventy elders (Num 11:16-27), Moses shared with Joshua a
portion of his civil and spiritual authority as well as his honor, charisma, and
prestige. Endowed to Joshua by YHWH, the gift of Moses' honor was
confirmed by YHWH's appearance in a cloud (Deut 31:15). Israel's treatment
of Joshua following Moses' death confirmed that Joshua received this gift.
Result of Moses' actions. The four waw perfect verbs of vv. 18-20, which
follow the imperative "take," culminate in the Nfamal; (so that, in order that)
clause of v. 20. Moses is to lay his hand on Joshua, cause him to stand before
Eleazar and the congregation, give him a charge, and give him some of Moses'
authority, "so that" the whole congregation would listen (fmw) to Joshua. This
reaction of the congregation was not a matter concerning the congregation,
but a matter of leadership. The appropriate response to all the actions of
Moses in establishing Joshua as leader was that of obedience.
21 Riggans, 203; see also Porter, Moses, 1-28. Porter argues that the working out of the
Moses "tradition primarily took place in Jerusalem under the kings, who adopted Moses to be the link between their new monarchy and the older national traditions which preceded it" (22). He states that Moses "is unmistakably pictured in terms drawn from the language of Hebrew royal ideology" and "that Moses is the antitype of the Davidic monarch" (11). Porter's pamphlet discusses at some length the "role of Moses as king and arbiter of his people's destiny." He, however, carries his point too far when he claims that dOh, "when applied to the human being is used exclusively of king" (18), for it also applied to Job and Daniel.
22 The OT commonly employs the partitive Nmi; for example: Gen 4:3-4; Exod 16:27; see
also Ashley, 547; Ronald J. Williams, Hebrew Syntax: An Outline, 2d ed. (Toronto:
University of Toronto Press, 1976),324.
23 Rashi, as quoted by Elie Munk, La voix de la Torah: Commentaire du Pentateuque,
vols. 4-5 (Paris: Fondation S. et O. Levy, 1975), 293; Morris Rosenbaum and A. M.
Silbermann, trans. Pentateuch with Targum Onkelos, Haphtaroth and Prayers for Sabbath and
Rashi's Commentary Translated into English and Annotated (London: Shapiro, Valentine,
1946), Numbers, 134.
24 Allen proposes an additional interpretation, that .the phrase, "some of your honor,"
suggests a gradual shift in leadership, "not unlike a coregency of son and father as king"
202 SEMINARY STUDIES 39 (AUTUMN 2001)
While the verb fmw (listen) basically means to perceive a sound, it
more importantly in this context connotes a listening that pays careful
attention to what is said.25 A call to fmw (listen) is a call to understand and
respond to what is heard.26 Calling for attention and understanding has
obedience as a consequence, as classically illustrated in 1 Sam 15:22, "to
obey (fmw) is better than sacrifice."27 After the death of Moses, at the time
Joshua actually assumed command, the whole congregation pledged that
as they had obeyed (fmw) Moses, so they would now obey (fmw) Joshua and
that all who rebelled against Joshua and did not obey (fmaw;yi-xlov;) his words
would be put to death.28
Matters Concerning the Congregation--Direction From Eleazar (subsection d2)
To review, the flow in each of the four major sections of Num 27:12-23
first identifies the section's main character, then through an imperative either
makes a request or gives a response to the previous request, and then
introduces matters concerning leadership, and concludes by introducing
matters concerning the congregation. The "congregation" remains a high
priority throughout the pericope, as evidenced by its seven appearances and
three appearances of the phrase "children of Israel." YHWH reminded Moses
in Section A (v. 14) of the congregation's sin at Kadesh. Moses, touched by
that reminder, pleaded in Section B (v. 17c) for a leader so that the
congregation would not be left as sheep without a shepherd, and YHWH
responded in Section A' (v. 21). Just how was Joshua to lead the congregation
32 Deut 28:6; 1 Kgs 3:7; Ps 121:8; Zech 8:10. George W. Coats, Moses: Heroic Man, Man of God, JSOTSupp 57 (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1988), 149-150, Snaith, Leviticus and Numbers, 147; Horst Dietrich Preuss, "xcAyA yasa’,” TDOT (1990), 6:226-227, A.R.S. Kennedy, Leviticus and Numbers, NCB (New York: Henry Frowde, n. d.), 346; George B.
Gray, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on Numbers, ICC (New York: Scribner, 1903),
400.401. Gray points out that "to go out and come in" is an idiomatic method of expressing
activity in general by reference to its commencement and conclusion and is a usus loquendi
similar in character to the frequent periphrases for all which consist of two terms for
opposed classes; i.e., the fettered and the free, the dry and the thirsty, the binder and the bound.
204 SEMINARY STUDIES 39 (AUTUMN 2001)
Moses wished his people to often remember.33 On the other hand, XVb
(come in) spoke to the coming and bringing into the land of promise.
Giving of the land as well as coming into possession of the land was
YHWH's method of establishing the covenant.34 Interpreting "Laying on of Hands.”
The instruction to Moses to "lay his hand" on Joshua has its origin
with the Almighty, "and YHWH said to Moses"(Num 27:18). YHWH's
words to Moses commenced with an imperative to "take" Joshua, a man
in whom there is spirit. Laying on of hands, as one of the subsequent
actions initiated by "taking," provided a means for Moses to become
personally involved in the process of choosing Joshua as well as providing
a means for Moses to physically manifest faith in YHWH. A review of
Joshua's life history reveals a man who had a careful and close walk with
his God. It was no common individual who received laying on of hands.
YHWH, the God of the spirits of all flesh, confirmed that this one to
receive the laying on of hands was a man in whom there was spirit. Not
only was Joshua a man with an indomitable and courageous spirit, but
YHWH had given him a special gift of the Spirit that changed him and
endowed him for leadership. Hand-laying is thus associated with a spirited
man as well as with a man filled with the Spirit of YHWH.
How does an interpretation of the phrase "standing before" apply to
"laying on of hands"? First, the hand gesture followed formal presentation
to Eleazar and the congregation (vv. 22-23). Joshua's formal presentation
had the dual purpose of giving him to the congregation and doing so in a
legal setting, thus giving judicial precedence to hand-laying. Second, hand-
laying was associated with the physical gesture of standing that
communicated Joshua's acceptance of his responsibilities as well as the
congregation's and YHWH's acceptance of Joshua. Third, cultic usage of
the term "stand before," reinforced by its association with Eleazar and the
congregation, indicated hand-laying was part of a cultic and covenantal
event. Finally, the term "stand before" also gives indication as to where
Joshua's installation ceremony took place. Presentation to priests and
meetings of the congregation generally took place at the tent of meeting.
Thus, Joshua's hand-laying ceremony apparently took place at the
courtyard gate of the tabernacle.
How does the phrase "commission him in their presence" apply to an
33 Deut 6:12; 26:8. Paul R. Gilchrist, "xcAyA (yasa’) go out, come out, go forth," TWOT
34 Horst Dietrich Preuss, "xOB," TDOT (1975), 2:27-30; Elmer Martens, "xOB (bo’) go
in, enter," TWOT (1980), 1:393-394.
JOSHUA'S RECEPTION OF THE LAYING ON OF HANDS 205
interpretation of laying on of hands? Hand-laying is associated with a
four-part commission, a commission which encouraged Joshua, described
his task, extended YHWH's promise of divine assistance to accomplish
the task, and exhorted him to keep the law. Hand-laying is thus associated
with a commission verbally spoken by a human, but effected by YHWH.
In the implementation of YHWH's orders, Moses stood Joshua
before Eleazar and the congregation, laid hands on him, and gave him a
charge, but made no mention of giving him honor or authority. Why is
this so? An answer to this question leads directly to laying on of hands.
Note first that the four actions associated with "taking" by waw perfect