The story of the 12 spies (Numbers 13) is well-known to those who have been through Sunday School, but it’s one I looked at with fresh eyes recently. It is a story of courage and faithfulness which demonstrates two important leadership lessons:
- You must be faithful to God’s promise in the face of opposition;
- Identify and train your successor before they are needed.
In Numbers 13, the Israelites send 12 spies into the land which God has promised to them. The spies come back with a mixed report: great land, scary people. Caleb, one of the spies, full of the vision of God’s promise, tells the people that yes, it’s going to be difficult, but God has promised them the land and so they can take it! Almost all of his fellow spies reply by telling the people that it’s too difficult, and flooding the camp with rumours and fearmongering. “All the Israelites grumbled” (14:2) – such was their fear that they actually preferred returning to slavery in Egypt, rather than the potential of conflict.
Staying faithful amidst great opposition
What follows is an interesting lesson in speaking out in faith amidst great opposition. Caleb had called on the people to seize the opportunity God had provided to them (13:30) but rather than following him, the people allowed themselves to be led away from God’s promise by the other spies. Caleb and Joshua – supporting each other with their shared vision against opposition – persevered, reminding the assembly of God’s promises and protection, and asking them to stay faithful (14:6-10). At this point Moses, the people’s leader, appears to lose control. The assembly talks of stoning Caleb and Joshua, they abandon the camp – including the Ark of the Covenant – and they run to a high point nearby. Here, the locals attack them and drive them into retreat (14:10-25).
This isn’t the first time in Numbers that God’s people have lost faith and it’s not the last. In Numbers 16 there is a full-fledged revolt, with a group trying to depose Moses and Aaron. Interestingly, neither Caleb nor Joshua are mentioned again until Numbers 26. In chapter 14:29-30, God had told the Israelites:
“In this wilderness your bodies will fall – every one of you 20 years old or more who was counted in the census and who has grumbled against me. Not one of you will enter the land I swore with uplifted hand to make your home, except Caleb son of Jephunneh and Joshua son of Nun.”
In Numbers 26:65 we see that this promise is fulfilled, and in Numbers 27 Joshua is appointed as Moses’ successor.
It’s not clear how much time passes between Numbers 14 and 27, but it is long enough that a whole generation has died since the start of the book. What happened to Joshua and Caleb during that time? Did they feel like failures because their report had caused yet more turmoil? Did they feel that they had disappointed Moses and Aaron because the people were not convinced by their account? Did they think they had let God down? This cannot have been a highpoint in their life story.
Leadership out of chaos
And yet, this was their moment to shine. Caleb and Joshua displayed great courage and faithfulness in calling for the people to take an unpopular decision. They were sustained in their belief that it was God’s call that they take this risky path. Joshua had already appeared in the Bible, leading a battle under Moses’ direction in Exodus 17, and referred to as Moses’ “assistant” in Exodus 24 (NIV). In Exodus 33, it is stated that Joshua stayed in the tent after the Lord spoke to Moses “face to face”. Clearly, he was already being prepared for leadership. But this seems to be the first recorded time that Joshua (and Caleb) took initiative and spoke out in leadership.
Studying Moses’ leadership in Numbers 13 and beyond, one might think that this is a lesson in failed leadership. Moses lost control, and chaos erupted. But it was in this chaos that Joshua, his successor, stepped up. And though he is not named in the next few chapters, surely he continued to stand at his mentor’s side.
What’s important about this model is that Moses did not wait until he was on the way out to choose a successor, he began training someone while he was at the height of his responsibilities. He gave Joshua opportunities in battle and unique access to both the Israelites’ leader and to God Himself. This meant that Joshua was ready to step up to the plate when the moment for leadership arrived. We see similar situations throughout the Bible, including David preparing his son Solomon for building God’s temple (1 Chronicles 28-29); Paul raising Timothy and Titus and unexpectedly having to leave them to continue the mission without him (cross-references including Acts 16 and 1 Timothy 1); and of course Jesus preparing the disciples to continue the mission after his death and resurrection.
We live in a society that expects immediate results, and too often, leaders can forget that their mission may last beyond their lifetime. This can be unsustainable, and can create a crisis if that leader becomes unexpectedly unable to continue. So rather than recruiting followers, recruit and train future leaders who can grow, develop and expand the mission of your leadership. This might be your future successor as CEO, young people who will continue the local community outreach scheme, or friends and colleagues who are also devoted to your campaign goal.
Make sure that you begin to invest in your successor(s) long before the day you think they will need to assume ultimate leadership.