Like Aaron, Moses has excluded himself from the land of Canaan by his failure to uphold God’s honour at Meribah. With Israel now poised to cross the Jordan, the time of his death is rapidly approaching – and his main concern, as always, is for the wellbeing of his people. The conquest of Canaan will place exceptional demands on them, and without exceptional leadership they will be desperately vulnerable – “like sheep without a shepherd” (verse 17). So he prays earnestly for a suitable successor.
Moses himself could not take the responsibility for making such an appointment; only God (who knows us all intimately) can choose the right person for such a vital job. And God announces His decision: the leadership will not pass to either of Moses’ two sons, but to Joshua – a man already marked out by his close relationship with God. The transfer of responsibilities will begin straight away, so that the people will get used to taking orders from Joshua before Moses departs from the scene.
Once again Moses displays exceptional leadership qualities. Instead of hanging on to his power and position until the very last moment, he takes immediate steps to ensure a smooth transition between him and his successor. After forty years, it will be hard for the Israelites to come to terms with Moses’ departure. And his will be a particularly hard act to follow, because his role has been unique and his performance of it exemplary (Hebrews 3:5). But Joshua has been called and commissioned for his task by God Himself, so he can undertake it with confidence: God is with him, and will not let him fail.
Human leadership must change from one generation to the next; but God is always the same, and He will never abandon us.