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. 19Have him stand before Eleazar the priest and the entire assembly and commission him in their presence. 20Give him some of your authority so the whole Israelite community will obey him. 21He 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.”—Numbers 27:18–21
According to the NIV translation, Joshua had the “spirit of leadership.” When I read those words, they shocked me, since the word “leader” has only recently shown up in Bible translations. In Hebrew, the verse literally reads “Joshua, a man whom spirit is in him.” The question quickly rises: Is the NIV translation “spirit of leadership justified?
Translating ancient texts goes far beyond the literal wording. The Old Testament Hebrews did not have the whole Bible and their theology—not to mention their whole mindset—did not match New Testament Christian thinking. But the question is not simply “What did the ancient Hebrews understand?” but also “What did the What did the Lord mean to communicate to Moses and to us?”
One legitimate way of translating the text would be to say that Joshua was a “spirited man,” i.e. a man full of energy and what we now call “charisma.” The traditional Christian understanding is that Joshua “had the Holy Spirit in him.” The NIV translators opt for something akin to the first interpretation. An argument can be made that the original audience would have understood the phrase that way. Leaders are spirited people. But in the light of the whole context of Scripture, I believe Joshua was a person full of the Holy Spirit.
The translators do not mean to imply that the Holy Spirit is “the spirit of leadership,” but I believe that label fits perfectly. Leadership always involves the spiritual dimension. Human spirit figures heavily in all leadership, whether Christian or not. Demonic power has fueled some leaders, such as Hitler. I have spoken to liberal Christian leaders from the 1930s who said the power of evil on Hitler was palpable and undeniable. Christian leaders after Pentecost must seek the power of the Holy Spirit to accomplish God’s work. If they work purely on the power of their human charisma, eternity will judge their work as “wood hay and stubble” (1 Cor. 3:12).
Numbers 11:16-30 demonstrates this principle strongly. After God told Moses to select 70 elders of Israel to help him in leading the people, Moses gathered them together and God poured out the Holy Spirit on them and they prophesied. The Scriptures never specifically refers to the Holy Spirit as the “spirit of leadership,” but they most certainly refer to the Holy Spirit as the “Spirit of prophecy.” It is precisely through the gift of prophecy that the Holy Spirit works through leaders.
Prophets in the Bible have three principal activities. The Old Testament various words for “prophet” reflect those three functions. A “roeh” or “hozeh” denotes a prophet (seer) who primarily receives words from God through visions. A “nabi” declares prophecy through articulating the word of God to people. “Ish Elohim” (man of God) refers to prophets like Moses, Elijah, and Elisha who do mighty works in the service of God. Those three functions—sharing a vision, communicating to people, and doing marvelous deeds—are the main things leaders do.
As Christian leaders, we dare not go it alone. Truly accomplishing the work of God always requires more of us than our human talents can achieve. We need the Spirit of Leadership to anoint us.