According to Wikipedia, the Joshua Tree was given its name by Mormon travelers in the mid-19th century, who saw it and were reminded of a Biblical story in which Joshua lifted his hands up in prayer.
In the Hebrew Scriptures, Joshua was one of Moses’ lieutenants, and later his successor. Nothing I’ve read about Joshua made me think of the Joshua Tree, however. Frankly, the Joshua Tree’s profusion of wriggling and writhing branches seems to me more like an image out of the Hindu Pantheon — of Kali, say, or Ganesha.
I suppose those early travelers had in mind some tradition about Joshua that I never located. The closest thing to a Joshua Tree I ever found was Joshua 8:18, where God tells Joshua to stretch out the javelin in his hand. On my first day in Yucca Valley, I wasn’t paying enough attention when I walked under a Joshua Tree, and it stabbed me in the head with one of its spiny leaves — close enough to stretching out a javelin!
My favorite story about Joshua is in Joshua 10:12-14, where he speaks to the Lord — perhaps with his arms raised? — and prays, “Sun stand still, and Moon, in the valley of Abijon.” God grants the request, and the sun stood still in the heavens for about a day, enabling the Israelites to prevail over their enemies in battle.
The Bible goes on to say there has never been another day like that. Joshua could stop time, but we can’t. Even Joshua could stop it just that once. Time marches on, with or without us.
Time is strange. We can waste time, but we can’t save it. We have use the moments we’re given as they arrive. But do we?
The British novelist C.S. Lewis imagines one devil advising another how best to tempt people. The first devil says that since the present moment is most like eternity, people ought to be kept away from it. Instead, he suggests keeping them busy either thinking about the past or worrying about the future.
By contrast, the writer of the Psalms observed how time gets away from us. Even if, with good fortune and health, we live a long life (the Biblical “threescore and ten”) it is cut off soon enough, and “we fly away.” Therefore, he prays that God would teach us to number our days with wisdom.
What does that mean? Well, it depends. For me, it’s spending more time with the people around me and less time fiddling with my cell phone. Maybe for you it’s going to a soccer game, or putting on a jacket and watching the winter stars.
There’s never been another day like the one Joshua prayed for: time marches on, and, if we’re not careful, it will all be gone before we notice. But with God’s help, we’ll be able to use it wisely.
(Note: this entry is based on an article I wrote for the Hi-Desert Star.)