Some of the most interesting lessons emerge from the most unlikely places. Take the listing of the names of the heads of the tribes selected to go out on a reconnaissance mission to the Land of Israel. Included among them is Hoshea the son of Nun representing the tribe of Ephraim (Num. 13:7). After all the scouts are listed, the Torah adds that: “Moses called Hoshea (meaning “God has helped”) Joshua (meaning God will help)” (Num. 13:16). To most readers this additional tidbit of information is hardly significant. But to medieval French Rabbi Joseph Bekhor Shor of Orleans, there is a message of importance here.
In order to appreciate the message, some additional information is required. Early Israelite history is replete with name changes. After he strikes a covenant with God, Abram becomes Abraham (Gen. 17:5) and Sarai becomes Sarah (Gen. 17:15). After wrestling an angel to a standoff, Jacob receives the blessing of the new name Israel (Gen. 32:29). Rachel names the son she bore while dying Ben Oni and Jacob renames him Benjamin (Gen. 35:18). The name of Yokheved’s premature son goes unmentioned in text. It was pharaoh’s daughter who names him Moses (Ex. 2:10). The only name of the patriarchs that remains unchanged, Bekhor Shor notes, is that of Isaac – and only because it was it was a name suggested by God.
Given the fact that name changes are common, the question that remains is to explain why the Torah mention Moses’ pet name for Hoshea at this juncture. (He was already called Joshua at the time of the defeat of the Amalekites, Ex. 17:9). The answer lies in the conclusion of the mission. Only Caleb and Joshua among the twelve scouts returned with good report and a positive outlook. Joshua was able to resist the pressure to conform to the majority opinion. Joshua insisted that the inhabitants of the land could be defeated despite their size and strength. His new name reflects his optimism.
Bekhor Shor concludes that his change of name was a change for the better (illuya) just as his attitude was a change for the better. It is remarkable that Moses saw something in the character of Joshua that led him to think he was destined for leadership. Leaders see the future as the possible, not the impossible. And their courage warrants God’s support.