Patrick Reardon considers a classic case of anxiety syndrome in the Old Testament

WHEN, AFTER the death of Moses, the leadership of Israel passed to Joshua, everyone in the camp must have experienced a sudden new energy and sense of resolve. The long trek through the desert was over. In his first statement on assuming command, Joshua announced that the Jordan would be crossed “within three days” (Joshua 1:11).


For a long time Joshua had been awaiting that hour. Many years before, when he and Caleb had been part of a twelve-man surveillance party sent to scout the land of Canaan (Numbers 13:1-27), they had been frustrated at Israel’s refusal to invade that country. Joshua and Caleb were outvoted ten-to-two (14:1-9). Their “minority report” was so badly received, in fact, that they were nearly stoned to death (14:10).

For many years Joshua had suffered from the frustration of that earlier period. He knew that the death of Moses must precede the people’s passage into the Promised Land, and he had maintained his patience all those years. Now, however, a new day of resolve had dawned. No matter that Joshua was no longer a young man; the rest of his life would be taken up by the utmost zeal in God’s purposes.

Even God’s most zealous servants in Holy Scripture, however, are still frail human beings, as manifested in their times of discouragement. Joshua was no exception to that pattern.

The text illustrating this point in the case of Joshua is his prayer in response to the defeat of the Israelites in the siege of Ai:

“Alas, Lord God, why have You brought this people over the Jordan at all-to deliver us into the hand of the Amorites to destroy us? Oh, that we had been content, and dwelt on the other side of the Jordan! Oh Lord, what shall I say when Israel turns its back before its enemies? For the Canaanites and all the inhabitants of the land will hear it, and surround us, and cut off our name from the earth” ( Joshua 7:7-9).

Though Joshua’s prayer was doubtless sincere, its inflections strike us as exaggerated and unreasonable, perhaps even melodramatic, not to say hysterical. One has the impression that Joshua was perhaps not thinking very clearly that day. It was hardly his finest hour. Indeed, the Lord’s response to the prayer seems to display even a certain measure of impatience with Joshua: “Get up! Why do you lie thus on your face?” (7:10)


The exaggerated tone and unreasonable quality of Joshua’s prayer are indicated by two considerations:

First, the general context. Within the previous few days, after all, Joshua had beheld the Jordan River dried up in order for the Chosen People to walk over on its bed. Now, nonetheless, we find him wishing that they had remained on the other side! Likewise, just prior to the debacle at Ai, Joshua had witnessed the dramatic conquest of Jericho, its walls reduced to rubble at the blast of Israel’s trumpets. But the dust of that victory has hardly settled before Joshua is rendered fearful that Israel will be wiped out by the Canaanites. This single setback at Ai seems to erase, in his mind, all remembrance of recent and more auspicious events.

Second, the immediate context. Simply put, the defeat at Ai hardly signaled the darkest hour of Israel’s history. True, it was an unexpected setback, but scarcely more. Joshua had sent out about three thousand troops; though these were overcome in battle, they sustained only thirty-six casualties. To hear Joshua tell it, however, one would think that Israel had just suffered the worst slaughter in military history.


Is this the same Joshua, we wonder, who had boldly announced to the Israelites that “in three days you will cross over this Jordan”? (1:11) Is this the level of discouragement we would have expected from the same man who could announce: “But as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord”? (24:15) The least to be said is that Joshua’s anxiety and distress over the vanquishing at Ai seems out of character with what we know of him in the rest of Scripture.

But is it out of character with a man of flesh and blood? May it not be that even Joshua’s distress serves as a source of comfort for the rest of us during our own times of anxiety? If our reactions to adversity are, on occasion, somewhat exaggerated and unreasonable, it may be useful to remember that this was true likewise of a figure so zealous and brave as the conqueror of Jericho.

Patrick Henry Reardon is a Senior Editor of Touchstone: A Journal of Mere Christianity. Touchstone is published in the United States and can be reached at