Now Joshua the son of Nun was filled with the spirit of wisdom, for Moses had laid his hands on him; so the sons of Israel listened to him and did as the Lord commanded Moses. – Deuteronomy 34:9
Joshua was appointed to a peculiar and extraordinary office. He was not the successor of Moses, for he was not a prophet or civil ruler, but the general or leader, called to head the people in the war of invasion and the subsequent allocation of the tribes.
The Holy Spirit of God has always been “the spirit of wisdom” in His people as they live in a world that is not yet in the Light.
It is again shown how perseveringly God provided for the welfare of the people. We have already seen how, at the request of Moses, Joshua was chosen to succeed him. Now, when he is about to take upon him his office, “the spirit of wisdom” was imparted to him, that it might be effectually manifested that he was appointed by God. He had been, indeed, previously endowed with excellent gifts, but he was now much more splendidly adorned with the ensigns of dignity, in order that his calling by God might be more certainly proved; for thus is God wont to furnish those, whom He calls, with capacity for action. The imposition of hands was also subjoined, which was no empty symbol of God’s grace. – Calvin’s Commentaries
Two elements influence an understanding of laying on of hands as Joshua experienced it. Describing the results of the hand-laying gesture on Joshua personally – he was filled with the spirit of wisdom. Second, describing the results of the gesture on Joshua as it related to the Israelites in general-they obeyed him by doing as YHWH had commanded.
At the textual level, the Hebrew grammar could be interpreted in a way that minimizes the import of the pneumatological reference so that rather than positing a direct causal relationship between the divine wind and Joshua’s leadership (as if it was because of the laying on of hands that he is filled with the breath of God), the former could stand more or less on its own, apart from the latter, and thus the second part of the verse would read as making a separate point: “When (or Since) Moses had laid his hands upon him, the people of Israel obeyed him….” [Walter Vogels, “The Spirit in Joshua and the Laying on of Hands by Moses,” Laval théologique et philosophique 38:1 (1982): 3-7, at 7]. Yet even if this rendition is adopted, it might suggest that it was because Joshua was full of the “spirit of wisdom” that Moses laid his hands on him and, more importantly, that he is obeyed by the Israelites. This reading is actually consistent with the parallel passage in Numbers where, “the Lord said to Moses, ‘Take Joshua son of Nun, a man in whom is the spirit, and lay your hand upon him’” (27:18). In either case, however, it ought not be overlooked that even if the divine wind is not given through Moses’ laying on of hands, Moses’ investiture – uniquely recorded in the Torah – can be understood as completing the enabling of Joshua for the task set before him: which was to lead Israel into the promised land. In this case, the “spirit of wisdom” has less to do with what is known as the wisdom section of the Ketuvim (the third section of the Hebrew Bible) and more to do with Joshua as prophet-leader like Moses (Deut. 34:10-12). From a missiological perspective, Joshua needs the full presence of the divine breath for the task ahead of him (the conquest of Canaan), just as Moses also needed divine inspiration (for the exodus from Egypt and the wilderness sojourn). Arguably if Israel is to be a witness to the nations, as urged by both the Abrahamic and Sinaitic covenants, then the people of Israel need a leader who is filled with the divine wisdom. – Dr. Amos Yong