The Meaning of Success in Joshua 1:7-8

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The rise of the prosperity gospel—a teaching which elevates earthly success and prosperity as significant signs of God’s blessing—has led to much confusion as to the role of success in the Christian life. Many Christians may read a passage like Joshua 1:7-8, where God commands Joshua to obey in order that “you may have success wherever you go,” to mean that Christians will be successful in all their endeavors (Howard 1998, 86-87), which naturally implies that a lack of success must indicate some disobedience that has caused God to withhold his promised blessing. This paper, therefore, will utilize Hebrew language study tools to examine the meaning and usage of the word תַּשְׂכִּֽיל (H7919) in Joshua 1:7-8 in light of its context and other relevant material. Attention will be given to the word’s semantic range, its usage throughout the Old Testament, and finally to how the word was translated in the Septuagint, and a conclusion will be reached as to the precise meaning of the word for the passage in question.

The word תַּשְׂכִּֽיל (tăśkîl’) is derived from שׂכל (śākal), a word that is used 60 times in the Hebrew Old Testament—3 times in the Pentateuch, 12 times in historical books, 27 times in wisdom literature, and 18 times in the Prophets. It is always a Hiphal stem, except for 1 Samuel 18:30, where it is Qal (VanGemeren 1997, 1243; Koehler, Baumgartner, Richardson, and Stamm 1999, 1328). Additionally, its noun form, שֵׂכֶל (śēkel, H7922) occurs 16 times–8x in wisdom literature, 5x in historical books, and 3x in the Prophets (Thomas 1998, 7919a). The New American Standard Bible (NASB) translates שׂכלin a variety of ways, but most frequently as “wise, wisely” (9x), “to prosper” (8x), “understand, understanding” (8x), and “insight” (8x) (Thomas 1998, 7919a). The translation “have success” is found only in Joshua 1:7-8, but it is also translated once as “succeed” (1 Kings 2:3) and once with the negative as “failed” (Jeremiah 20:11) (Thomas 1998, 7919a). The NASB’s three most common translations of שֵׂכֶל are understanding (4x), insight (4x), and discretion (3x), with “repute” (Prov. 3:4) being the closest approximation to “success” (Thomas 1998, 7922). The gloss provided by Mounce’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old & New Testament Words is simply, “understanding, wisdom, discretion” (Mounce 2006, 1047). However, even if this form, like the verb, has the semantic range of “on the one hand to understand, and on the other hand, to be successful … the first of these two meanings is by far the more important” (Koehler, Baumgartner, Richardson, and Stamm 1999, 1329).

The predominant sense of שׂכל, therefore, appears to be to understand, to have insight, and to be wise, as well as the results of having understanding, insight, or wisdom (VanGemeren 1997, 1243). Its precise definition in any given passage, however, is determined by its immediate context. This is especially true of verses where שׂכל is placed parallel to a word with a similar semantic range, as occurs, for example, with בִּין (bîn, “to understand, perceive, consider”) in Deuteronomy 32:29, יָדַע (yāda‘, “observe, realize, find out, recognize, perceive, care about, be[come] acquainted with, have sexual relations with, choose, [come to] understand, know, have insight”) in Isaiah 41:20, and דֵּעָה (dē‘â, “knowledge”) in Jeremiah 3:15 (VanGemeren 1997, 1243). Similarly, שֵׂכֶל is placed parallel to בִּינָה (bînâ, “insight”) and חָכְמָה (ḥokmâ, “skill, aptitude, experience, wisdom”) in 1 Chronicles 22:12 and Psalm 111:10 respectively (VanGemeren 1997, 1243). However, even in passages without such parallelisms, the context enlightens the specific meaning of שׂכל. For example, in wisdom literature, contrasts between opposing behaviors often help determine the correct meaning. Proverbs 21:11 reads, “When the scoffer is punished, the naive becomes wise; But when the wise is instructed [שׂכל], he receives knowledge.” The context of the verse and the contrast between the scoffer and the wise indicates a meaning of instruction or understanding rather than prosperity or success. Similarly, in Proverbs 12:8, it says, “A man will be praised according to his insight, But one of perverse mind will be despised.” Here, the English word “insight” is the translation of a construct of שׂכל and פֶּה (peh, “mouth”), which when combined with the contrast to the “perverse mind”, indicates a meaning of wisdom or insight.

It must also be mentioned that when שׂכל has the sense of prosperity or success, it is often linked to either divine favor or godly actions (VanGemeren 1998, 1243). Examples of the latter are found in Deuteronomy 29:9, where the Israelites are told they would prosper if they would “keep the words of this covenant to do them” and in 1 Kings 2:3, where David instructs Solomon that success would be the result if he would “Keep the charge of the Lord your God, to walk in His ways, to keep His statutes, His commandments, His ordinances, and His testimonies, according to what is written in the Law of Moses.” On the other hand, insight or understanding is the result of divine instruction in verses like 1 Chronicles 22:12, Daniel 1:17, and Psalm 32:8. Similarly, Jeremiah 10:21 connects a lack of prosperity to a failure to seek the Lord. The same concept is also present for the primary meaning of שׂכל, as several passages link insight to the study of God’s Word (Neh. 8:13; Ps. 119:99) or his works (Is. 41:20). Perhaps the only possible exceptions to this are found in 1 Samuel 18:5 and 18:30, which speak of David’s military success during the reign of Saul, but even in these verses David exhibits obedience to God’s anointed (“So David went out wherever Saul sent him, and prospered [שׂכל]”) and wisdom (“David behaved himself more wisely [שׂכל] than all the servants of Saul. So his name was highly esteemed”). Thus, it would appear that success or prosperity is not so much a deserved reward or blessing from God, but a natural consequence or effect of godliness. The relevance of this for the passage in question is readily apparent considering that the immediate context of Joshua 1:7-8 is meditation on and obedience to the Law.

Furthermore, although the Septuagint’s translation of Hebrew words does not by itself determine their meaning, in this case, it at least supports this alternative understanding of success. In Joshua 1:7, the Septuagint renders שׂכל as σύνειμι, which means “to be with” (Lust, Eynikel, and Hauspie 2003, σύνειμι), while in verse 8, the translation is συνίημι or “to be wise, to be prudent” (Lust, Eynikel, and Hauspie 2003, συνίημι). Thus, according to one English translation of the Septuagint, Joshua was to meditate on and obey the Law “so that you might be together in everything that you do” and “then you will be perceptive” (Brannan, Penner, Loken, Aubrey, and Hoogendyk 2012, Joshua 1:7-8). Similarly, the Constitutions of the Holy Apostles, a 4th-century A.D. compilation of early Christian teaching, conflates the command to meditate on the law in Deuteronomy 6:7 with the end of Joshua 1:8, which it renders as “that you may have understanding in all things” (Franke 2005, 4-5). This seems to indicate that the success spoken of in these verses is not financial prosperity or successful achievement of a goal, but wise, consistent behavior.

This understanding of the use of שׂכל in Joshua 1:7-8 does appear to be more accurate than any that explains the idea of success in terms of health, wealth, and achievement. In fact, שׂכלis “almost never used in the Old Testament to speak of financial success” (Howard 1998, 88). It refers instead to “succeeding in life’s proper endeavors. This happens when people’s lives are focused entirely on God and obedience to him. The focus of people’s endeavors is not to be prosperity and success but rather holiness and obedience” (Howard 1998, 88; emphasis his). Thus, one possible interpretation of שׂכל that retains the idea of success while also recognizing the limitations that stem from our connotation of the word, is to understand the passage as promising Joshua “success in his mission”; i.e., by meditating on and obeying God’s law, Joshua would successfully be strong and courageous in accomplishing God’s word and leading God’s people (Hess 1996, 80; Butler 1998, 14). God was not promising that Joshua would be successful in anything he tried, but that he would be successful in doing that which God had commanded him to do. He would not simply prosper (the way 21st-century Americans understand prosperity), but “prudently prosper” (Butler 1998, 2ff); i.e., succeeding in the way and in the things that characterize godly success.

Although the influence of the prosperity gospel may tempt 21st-century American Christians to read Joshua 1:7-8 as a promise of earthly prosperity and success in any and all endeavors, the actual meaning of the verses is something else entirely. Although the semantic range of the Hebrew word שׂכל does include the concept of success, it is not success as contemporary culture would define it, but as God defines it. It is success connected to wisdom, understanding, and insight. Any success in terms of achievement or material gain can be nothing more than coincidental if it is not accompanied by wise, consistent behavior that enables one to accomplish God’s commands and lead God’s people.

References

Brannan, Rick, Ken M. Penner, Israel Loken, Michael Aubrey, and Isaiah Hoogendyk, eds. 2012. The Lexham English Septuagint. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press.

Butler, Trent C. 1998. Joshua. Word Biblical Commentary. Dallas: Word, Incorporated.

Franke, John R., ed. 2005. Joshua, Judges, Ruth, 1–2 Samuel. Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

Goodrick, Edward W. and John R. Kohlenberger III. 1999. The Strongest NIV Exhaustive Concordance. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

Hess, Richard S. 1996. Joshua: An Introduction and Commentary. Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

Howard, David M. 1998. Joshua. New American Commentary. Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers.

Koehler, Ludwig, Walter Baumgartner, M. E. J. Richardson, and Johann Jakob Stamm. 1999. The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament. Leiden; New York: E.J. Brill.

Lust, Johan, Erik Eynikel, and Katrin Hauspie. 2003. A Greek-English Lexicon of the Septuagint, Revised Edition. Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft. Logos Edition.

Mounce, William D. 2006. Mounce’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old & New Testament Words. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

VanGemeren, Willem, ed. 1997. New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology & Exegesis. Vol. 3. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House.

Thomas, Robert L. 1998. New American Standard Hebrew-Aramaic and Greek Dictionaries, Updated Edition. Anaheim: Foundation Publications, Inc. Logos Edition.

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