Numbers 27: Leadership Transition

Leadership Transition


Then the LORD said to Moses, “Go up this mountain in the Abarim Range and see the land I have given the Israelites. After you have seen it, you too will be gathered to your people, as your brother Aaron was, for when the community rebelled at the waters in the Desert of Zin, both of you disobeyed my command to honor me as holy before their eyes.” Moses said to the LORD,“May the LORD, the God who gives breath to all living things, appoint someone over this community to go out and come in before them, one who will lead them out and bring them in, so the LORD’s people will not be like sheep without a shepherd.” So the LORD said to Moses, “Take Joshua son of Nun, a man in whom is the spirit of leadership, and lay your hand on him. Have him stand before Eleazar the priest and the entire assembly and commission him in their presence. Give him some of your authority so the whole Israelite community will obey him. He is to stand before Eleazar the priest, who will obtain decisions for him by inquiring of the Urim before the LORD. At his command he and the entire community of the Israelites will go out, and at his command they will come in.” Moses did as the LORD commanded him. He took Joshua and had him stand before Eleazar the priest and the whole assembly. Then he laid his hands on him and commissioned him, as the LORD instructed through Moses.

1. This is perhaps the most difficult time in the life of a new organization – transition to new leadership. Peter Drucker: “Succession has always been the ultimate test of any top management and the ultimate test of any institution.”

75% of all family businesses do not make it to the third generation

58% of nonprofit chief executives and their boards had not discussed succession – even though 40% of the CEO’s intended to leave their job within two years. 

Organizations, large and small, are equally challenged and equally unprepared for leadership changes.

2. What was the need for a transition?

It was not Moses’ age – but his anger – that would keep him from entering the Promised Land. Anger that detracted from his trust of God. 

Water From the Rock: Numbers 20:1-12:

Now there was no water for the community, and the people gathered in opposition to Moses and Aaron. They quarreled with Moses and said, “If only we had died when our brothers fell dead before the LORD! Why did you bring the LORD’s community into this wilderness, that we and our livestock should die here? Why did you bring us up out of Egypt to this terrible place? It has no grain or figs, grapevines or pomegranates. And there is no water to drink!” Moses and Aaron went from the assembly to the entrance to the tent of meeting and fell facedown, and the glory of the LORD appeared to them. The LORD said to Moses,“Take the staff, and you and your brother Aaron gather the assembly together. Speak to that rock before their eyes and it will pour out its water. You will bring water out of the rock for the community so they and their livestock can drink.” So Moses took the staff from the LORD’s presence, just as he commanded him. He and Aaron gathered the assembly together in front of the rock and Moses said to them, “Listen, you rebels, must we bring you water out of this rock?” Then Moses raised his arm and struck the rock twice with his staff. Water gushed out, and the community and their livestock drank. But the LORD said to Moses and Aaron, “Because you did not trust in me enough to honor me as holy in the sight of the Israelites, you will not bring this community into the land I give them.”

Moses had been plagued with a fiery temper all his life:
Exodus 2 – killing the Egyptian
Exodus 32 – anger at idolatry and the golden calf
Numbers 11 – anger at grumbling and whining
Numbers 16 – anger at Korah’s rebellion
Numbers 20 – striking the rock is the final in a series of outbursts

The relationship of the leader to the people needed to change in the next generation. The task was different. Moses never wanted to lead. He was always in a conflict with them and always torn between saving them and destroying them. He would plead with God for them and then turn around and tell God to give up on them. His leadership was right for leaving Egypt and the Wilderness but not for the Promised Land.

3. The Forbes article by Stephen Miles on Succession Planning: How To Do It Right

Stephen Miles has written four basic steps for succession planning. How can we apply those to this passage?

a. Fully engage the stakeholders. “You need a fresh look at the company by a board that is engaged and leading the process year in and year out, not just when a crisis requires it to spring into action.” Israel knew for years that Moses was not going to enter the Promised Land – ever since he struck the rock years ago. (Numbers 20) This transition was not a surprise. Moses was thinking about it for years. More importantly, the only stakeholder that mattered (God) was fully engaged.

  1. Assess your internal candidates. All the internal candidates except Joshua and Caleb had been killed in the rebellion of Korah.
  2. Conduct a stress test and simulation. Joshua had been fighting battles and accompanying Moses into stressful situations since he was a youth.
  3. On-board the successor. “The most neglected step when it comes to succession planning is preparing for what happens after the successor is named. In this effort, directors have to remember that the search for a “ready now” candidate is a fool’s errand.” Joshua has been prepared for years. Not only that, but Moses gave him “a portion of his authority” and created a leadership team with Eleazar. Joshua was not the sole leader.

    4. What was the situation Moses described to Joshua?

    After Moses finished writing in a book the words of this law from beginning to end, he gave this command to the Levites who carried the ark of the covenant of the LORD: “Take this Book of the Law and place it beside the ark of the covenant of the LORD your God. There it will remain as a witness against you. For I know how rebellious and stiff-necked you are. If you have been rebellious against the LORD while I am still alive and with you, how much more will you rebel after I die! Assemble before me all the elders of your tribes and all your officials, so that I can speak these words in their hearing and call the heavens and the earth to testify against them. For I know that after my death you are sure to become utterly corrupt and to turn from the way I have commanded you. In days to come, disaster will fall on you because you will do evil in the sight of the LORD and arouse his anger by what your hands have made.”

    It was a description of the relationship Moses had with the people for his entire life. There had been conflict and misunderstanding from the very beginning. The people thought he wanted to “lord it over them” and he saw them as stiff-necked and rebellious. Look at their response to his killing the Egyptian. Look at their issue with him during Korah’s rebellion. As with most relationships like this they were both right.

    Farewell speeches tell us a great deal about leaders. Read Paul’s in Acts 20:25-35

    “Now I know that none of you among whom I have gone about preaching the kingdom will ever see me again. Therefore, I declare to you today that I am innocent of the blood of any of you. For I have not hesitated to proclaim to you the whole will of God. Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood. I know that after I leave, savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock. Even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them. So be on your guard! Remember that for three years I never stopped warning each of you night and day with tears. “Now I commit you to God and to the word of his grace, which can build you up and give you an inheritance among all those who are sanctified. I have not coveted anyone’s silver or gold or clothing. You yourselves know that these hands of mine have supplied my own needs and the needs of my companions. In everything I did, I showed you that by this kind of hard work we must help the weak, remembering the words the Lord Jesus himself said: ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’ ”

    Both Paul and Moses at the end were concerned about the same things all their lives: Moses with the people destroying themselves through their own corruption and Paul with false teachers coming in and destroying the young church.For both of them it was a lifelong worry and each of them impressed their concerns on their successors.


I like the stories of each exiting President leaving the next an envelope with words of welcome and advice.  This is what George Bush left for Barack Obama:

Congratulations on becoming our President. You have just begun a fantastic chapter in your life.

Very few have had the honor of knowing the responsibility you now feel. Very few know the excitement of the moment and the challenges you will face.

There will be trying moments. The critics will rage. Your “friends” will disappoint you. But, you will have an Almighty God to comfort you, a family who loves you, and a country that is pulling for you, including me. No matter what comes, you will be inspired by the character and compassion of the people you now lead.

God bless you.


Better yet is the unconfirmed story of an unnamed President discovering three envelopes in his drawer:

When the new president opens that drawer, he finds three envelopes, numbered one, two and three. A note attached says, in case of trouble open envelope No. 1. He opens it and it says, simply, “Blame your predecessor.” So he thinks about how best to do that and shortly, every issue, every problem has the same answer: It is caused by something done by his predecessor.

That worked for a while. About a year later, he was again having major difficulty with the problems of the country so, remembering the envelopes in the lower drawer, he takes out the second envelope, opens it, and finds the word “reorganize.” So, he calls in his staff, terminates some, and makes new assignments to others. Before long there was confusion about who to approach about their concerns or how to get a hearing for their new ideas.   

Like the “blame your predecessor” advice, reorganizing his staff worked pretty well for a while. About a year later there was again great turmoil. Almost at the end of his rope, the president again remembered the envelopes in the drawer. He thought to himself that the other two bits of advice had gotten him through some difficult times and perhaps there was one more good diversionary tactic left in the third envelope.

When he opened it he sat dejected at his desk for a very long time. There on the desk was the last sheet of paper with the words plainly written, “Prepare three envelopes.”

5. But look at the record of Joshua’s leadership following the death of Moses. At the beginning there is a steady repetition of “fear not” and “do not be afraid” but there are no instances of his being afraid. Everyone is rightfully concerned with his ability to fill the shoes of Moses but it turns out – as it often does – that Joshua is a different type of leader altogether and his relationship with the people is different as well.

Peter Drucker was right when he said, “True greatness is the leader who himself has strength and leaves behind strength. We tend to pick people who remind us of ourselves when we were twenty years younger. First, this is pure delusion. Second, you end up with carbon copies, and carbon copies are weak.”

Joshua was no carbon copy of Moses. His actual leadership is far different from that of Moses. There is not only no fear but no conflict with the people, no anger, no wavering or complaining to God about his role, no push back from the people about his “lording it over them”, no rebellions on the part of the people or his own family – like Moses. Nothing, really, but success in a very difficult situation – conquering enemies and dividing up the land between the tribes. Even his partnership with the high priest, the son of Aaron, is extremely productive although we hear little about it.  It is Eleazar who is authorized to obtain decisions for him by inquiring before the Lord. It is Eleazar who handles the difficult assignment of dividing up the land between the tribes. This partnership with Eleazar lasts for a lifetime as they both die at the same time.

Look at his farewell speech: The people actually recommit themselves to God.

“Now fear the LORD and serve him with all faithfulness. Throw away the gods your ancestors worshiped beyond the Euphrates River and in Egypt, and serve the LORD. But if serving the LORD seems undesirable to you, then choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served beyond the Euphrates, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you are living. But as for me and my household, we will serve the LORD.” Then the people answered, “Far be it from us to forsake the LORD to serve other gods! It was the LORD our God himself who brought us and our parents up out of Egypt, from that land of slavery, and performed those great signs before our eyes. He protected us on our entire journey and among all the nations through which we traveled. And the LORD drove out before us all the nations, including the Amorites, who lived in the land. We too will serve the LORD, because he is our God.” Joshua said to the people, “You are not able to serve the LORD. He is a holy God; he is a jealous God. He will not forgive your rebellion and your sins. If you forsake the LORD and serve foreign gods, he will turn and bring disaster on you and make an end of you, after he has been good to you.” But the people said to Joshua, “No! We will serve the LORD.” Then Joshua said, “You are witnesses against yourselves that you have chosen to serve the LORD.” “Yes, we are witnesses,” they replied. “Now then,” said Joshua, “throw away the foreign gods that are among you and yield your hearts to the LORD, the God of Israel.” And the people said to Joshua, “We will serve the LORD our God and obey him.” On that day Joshua made a covenant for the people, and there at Shechem he reaffirmed for them decrees and laws. And Joshua recorded these things in the Book of the Law of God. Then he took a large stone and set it up there under the oak near the holy place of the LORD. “See!” he said to all the people. “This stone will be a witness against us. It has heard all the words the LORD has said to us. It will be a witness against you if you are untrue to your God.” Then Joshua dismissed the people, each to their own inheritance.”

6. In the end, it is more difficult to follow Joshua than Moses. He left no successor or system of government – only twelve independent tribes.

 Read Judges 2:6-13:

And when Joshua had let the people go, the children of Israel went every man unto his inheritance to possess the land. And the people served the LORD all the days of Joshua, and all the days of the elders that outlived Joshua, who had seen all the great works of the LORD, that he did for Israel. And Joshua the son of Nun, the servant of the LORD, died, being an hundred and ten years old. And they buried him in the border of his inheritance..And also all that generation were gathered unto their fathers: and there arose another generation after them, which knew not the LORD, nor yet the works which he had done for Israel. And the children of Israel did evil in the sight of the LORD, and served Baalim: And they forsook the LORD God of their fathers, which brought them out of the land of Egypt, and followed other gods, of the gods of the people that were round about them, and bowed themselves unto them, and provoked the LORD to anger. And they forsook the LORD, and served Baal and Ashtaroth.

Why didn’t Joshua leave a successor in place?  We don’t know. We do know that he completed his mission as he saw it – to bring the people into the land and then divide the land among the twelve tribes.  After that, there was no central authority and each tribe was on its own. Yes, there was a central place of worship but that was not enough. They had been led but not taught to lead and govern themselves.  Thomas Jefferson said, “The qualifications for self-government in society are not innate. They are the result of habit and long training.”   The people had not been taught to work with each other in emergencies. So, they are easily conquered by their enemies and are unable to resist. They have abandoned what made them strong. The Lord raised up judges and they were saved from their enemies as long as the judge lived but when the judge died they returned to ways even more corrupt than those of their fathers. It is like this for generations until they finally ask for a king and that is the beginning of the end. 

The Swedish sociologist Max Weber wrote about “the routinization of charisma” which meant for an organization to survive – typically the founder – it must establish systems and rules instead of relying on the power of a personality. “Once a charismatic leadership has developed, routines in the form of rules, rituals and an order of succession are established with the objective that the authority structure will endure the loss of the charismatic leader.”  

I sometimes wonder what the story might have been if they had only been taught or learned to self-govern and not follow after other gods into corruption and prostituting themselves.  What if there had been no attraction for a king because they were able to govern themselves? I wonder how such a nation might have provided us an example – and not just a warning. 

Eleanor Roosevelt said, “…our children must learn…to face full responsibility for their actions, to make their own choices and cope with the results…the whole democratic system…depends upon it. For our system is founded on self-government, which is untenable if the individuals who make up the system are unable to govern themselves.”

Maybe that is the lesson we can learn from this transition.  It is not enough to move from one strong leader to another but from a leader to the leadership of self-government.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these <abbr title="HyperText Markup Language">HTML</abbr> tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>