Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Ki-Tisa 5770/ March 6, 2010

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar- Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar- Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity. Prepared for Internet Publication by the Computer Center Staff at Bar-Ilan University. Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible,


"Joshua would not stir out of the Tent"

Adi Blecher

Doctoral student in the Department of Bible


The description, almost in passing, of Joshua, Moses’ attendant – “but his attendant, Joshua son of Nun, a youth, would not stir out of the Tent” (Ex. 33:11)-- concludes a passage (Ex. 33:7-11) that describes in detail how G-d communicated with Moses and the people immediately after the sin of the golden calf.

Scripture describes how Moses would dismantle his tent from amidst the Israelite camp and pitch it outside the camp.   When the Lord sought to meet with Moses, He did it tangibly through a pillar of cloud, representing the Divine Presence which would stand at the entrance of the tent, where it was visible to all the Israelites.  The people’s response, as they witnessed this tangible encounter, is depicted as showing great respect for their leader (by rising) and for the Lord (by bowing).   Presumably when the cloud subsided after the encounter, Moses would return to the camp in order to relay the Lord’s command to the people.  This passage then concludes by relaying to us that Joshua, Moses’ attendant, “would not stir out of the Tent.”

A Role Model?

This brief remark about Joshua has been elucidated at length by the Sages, who saw in this description a model of the disciple who stands by his Rabbi and his teachings, not letting up from his studies for a moment. [1]   Whoever follows the plain sense of Scripture, however, will seek to discover what this passage about Joshua tells us in context.  The description of Joshua’s habitual behavior—this is what the verbal form lo yamish means-- contrasts with the habitual behavior of Moses, described in the first part of the verse.  Moses would go back and forth between the tent, where he would receive prophetic revelation, and the camp, where he delivered the substance of the revelation to the people.   Thus we can view the structure of the verse as follows:


The Lord would speak to Moses face to face,      but his attendant, Joshua son of Nun,

as one man speaks to another.                               a youth

And he would then return to the camp;                would not stir out of the Tent.


The most striking difference between these two figures is in their mobility.  The former would leave the Tent of Meeting at the conclusion of his meeting and return to camp, whereas the latter would not stir out of the Tent.   Several reasons have been given for Joshua remaining in the Tent, with appropriate circumstances presented for each.

Some people explain that in Moses’ absence (when he would return to the camp), Joshua would guard the Tent of Meeting. [2]   Others explain Joshua’s presence in the Tent in the context of the Divine revelation to Moses taking place “face to face.” [3]   In their view Scripture emphasizes that in spite of Joshua’s extreme closeness to Moses he was not party to the special revelation of the Lord to Moses.  These explanations take the title given Joshua – “a youth” – as meaning that he was his attendant, subordinate to his master and assisting him in various matters.   This leads us to a sharper understanding of another difference between Moses and Joshua.  The former enjoyed a uniquely elevated status in which the Lord spoke to him on a par, as it were, while the latter, “a youth,” was of a lower status. [4]   Nevertheless, these interpretations do not explain why the verse would add the word "youth", after having just called him Moses’ “attendant.”

Others explain the word “youth” as simply referring to Joshua’s age, [5] but such an explanation lacks literary justification—why note this fact?

Harold Fisch (A. Harel-Fisch) points out another difference between the two parts of the verse, between the “camp” and the “Tent.”   In his opinion, these contrasting terms reflect a contrast between the character of Moses, who “knows not only how to seclude himself in the Tent but also how to return to the camp; in other words, his character includes a popular charismatic dimension,” whereas Joshua is “the obedient establishment leader, who does not stir out of the Tent.” [6]

I am inclined to accept Harel-Fisch’s view, which sees Joshua’s behavior as stemming from a clear realization and from choice.  Yet is seems that his presentation of Joshua as offering an alternative model of leadership to Moses misses the point, in the context of two crucial words in this verse.   At the time, Joshua was an "attendant" and a “youth” who would not become leader until forty years later.

In my opinion, in order to appreciate the significance of the verse we must bear in mind its place in the context of the story of the golden calf.  These two figures, Moses and Joshua, who had been absent from the camp and who returned when the rites and celebration of the golden calf were in full swing (Ex. 32:15-19) each reacted differently to the situation.  Moses displayed his fury at the people in a number of ways, [7] yet he was ready to continue acting as intermediary between the Lord and the people, whereas Joshua was not prepared to have contact with the sinning public, but chose instead to seclude himself.

Between Youth and Maturity

The difference in their behavior stems from the twofold difference between them, in role and in age.  Contact with the people was essential for the leader Moses, whereas at this stage Joshua only needed contact with Moses.   Of greater importance is the difference in age between Moses the “man” and Joshua the “youth.”   Joshua, presented as belonging to the younger generation, tended to be harshly critical and to view reality in black and white.  In his assessment, the people at this point were blacker than black, beyond repair.   Moses, belonging to the older generation, tended to perceive the full complexity of the situation and to take a more conciliatory approach.  The difference between them is comparable to the well-known depiction of Rabbi Simeon bar Yohai and his son Eleazar at the moment they came out of the cave in which they had been studying Torah for many years. [8]   The legend describes how every place that Rabbi Eleazar set ablaze by his gaze, Rabbi Simeon would revive.

It seems that Joshua could only take such a position with sanction from Moses.  The Teacher, feeling that his attendant-disciple was not yet ready to encounter the public after the sin of the golden calf, exempted him from his traditional role of Moses' attendant who would accompany him everywhere. Thus, we see that the plain sense of this scriptural passage does not illustrate the ideal of devotion to one’s rabbi, rather another didactic ideal.  Moses is revealed here as a talented educator, sensitive to the generation gap between teacher and disciple and enabling his young disciple to express his position independently.



[1] Tosefta Sanhedrin  4.5; Temurah 16a.

[2] For contemporary commentaries along this line, see J. I.Durham, Exodus [WBC3],Waco 1987, p.443; A. Hakham, Exodus II, Da'at Mikra, Jerusalem 1991, p. 320; and M. Margaliyot, Exodus, Olam ha-Tanakh, Tel Aviv 1993, p. 199.

[3] S. D. Luzzato (Shadal’s commentary on the Pentateuch, Tel Aviv 1986), and Y. Reiss (“Bein YehushuaMesharet Moshe’ le-Moshe ‘Eved Hashem’,” Teshura le-Amos, Alon Shevut 2006, pp. 291-314; p. 294).

[4] See Reiss, who points out this difference.

[5] This follows, for example, from the Aramaic translations, which render the Hebrew na’ar as ulema (= babe; Onkelos) and tali (= youth, infant; Pseudo- Jonathan).   Ehrlich, Miqra Kifshuto, I, Berlin, 1899, agrees with ibn Ezra that Joshua could not have been less than 50 years old at the time.

[6] A. Harel- Fisch (“‘Eldad u- Meidat Mitnab’im ba-Mahaneh,’:  Iyyun Structuralisti be-Bemidbar 11,” Iyyunei Mikra u-Farshanut, Vol. 2, Ramat-Gan 1986, pp. 45-56; p. 52.

[7] Such as publicly smashing the tablets (Ex. 32:19), declaring war on those who participated in the rite of the golden calf (vv. 26-28), and removing himself from the camp (Ex. 33:7).

[8] Shabbat 33b.