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Neither Side

Updated: Jul 5, 2022

It's the Fourth of July as I'm writing today, and I'm inspired to take a pause on the theme of suffering to reflect on an interesting passage in Joshua 5 and how it might connect to our understanding of God's working in our own nation. So, as always, Christian musings for today.

Joshua 5:13-15 is a short but fascinating passage wedged in-between the miraculous crossing of the Jordan and the miraculous defeat of Jericho. It's just Joshua, by himself, somewhere near Jericho. Maybe he's musing over how he's supposed to conquer a walled city with a bunch a refugees from Egypt. And, they're pretty much all younger than him. A Boomer leading a bunch of Millenials and he just doesn't know if they've got what it takes! Also, walled cities were incredibly difficult to conquer, given the technology of that time or even many centuries later. Our family once visited Salzburg in Austria, and that walled city and its castle fortress was never conquered by enemy troops despite being smack dab in the middle of Europe and its shifting countries, armies, alliances, and boundaries.

In the midst of Joshua's musings, we're told that he sees an armed man standing in front of him. This would be a bit frightening, to say the least. The man has a drawn sword, no less, so it definitely seems like this someone is prepared for action.

Joshua's mind definitely seems to be on the upcoming battle, because his opening question is, "Are you one of us, or one of our adversaries?" Are you for us or against us, he's asking. And, by adversaries, he can be thinking of Jericho or any number of Canaanite peoples that they had been fighting or planned on fighting in the future.

Now, here's where it gets really interesting. The man's response is, "Neither; but as commander of the army of the Lord I have now come."

I decided, partway through 2022, to read straight through the Bible this year. I'm now in Joshua, and so what grabbed my attention here, is that we've already seen a few theophanies (appearances of God) in the Bible at this point, primarily in Genesis. For example,

  • God appears to Abraham in a visit of three men.

  • Jacob's wrestling match

  • The burning bush

Joshua 5 is considered by many scholars to also be a theophany because it has the hallmarks of one. Joshua's response to the man's words is to fall on his face and worship. Now, in the Bible, when people start being wowed by angels and start worshipping them, they're always told to stop. No one tells Joshua to stop, and the implication is that it is the proper response to the situation. Also, the man (Jesus?) tells Joshua that he's now on holy ground and should take off his sandals, very much like the burning bush. Joshua, like Moses, is having his direct encounter. This article from Ligonier Ministries has a helpful description of this particular theophany:

So, if we take this passage as a theophany, a number of interesting implications emerge.

First, Jesus introduces himself as the "commander of the armies of the Lord." This is a powerful image, one that immediately brings Joshua to his knees. We see Christ as he really is, full of glory and power.

Second, although Joshua is embarking on a mission set forth by the Lord, Christ does not give the clear response that "God is on their side." What a dangerous phrase--one that has historically led to so much violence, judgment, and catastrophe, when we are quick to declare that God is on our side. As the Ligonier Ministries article says, Joshua's question is the wrong one to ask. Jesus clearly answers that He is on neither side. He's simply here to lead.

The question is, are the Israelites on His side. Joshua is likely all in a tangle about the task before him, but it is God ultimately who will win the war. It's not about Joshua and how savvy he is or how strong his troops are. Joshua has done everything a smart leader would do. He's already sent the spies, and knows he has the inside help of Rahab. He's already had God establish him as leader in a spectacular way, with the parting of the Jordan River. And he's obedient to the Lord. Instead of rushing in to fight, the Israelites are doing things differently. They pause to make sure that every male has observed the rite of circumcision. That's going to take a little time, and not exactly one's go-to move for strengthening up one's troops. Then, they observe the Passover.

This was Joshua's prep for his troops, and he's rewarded with a theophany.

And it's a good thing, because even though Joshua was obedient and his was a life of contemplation and action (his courage with Caleb; his staying behind in the tent with Moses while he met with God), he had some incorrect thinking. He still thought that the the burden of leadership was all his. The opening chapters of Joshua involve God constantly telling Joshua to be "strong and courageous." These were Moses' parting words to Joshua as well. It shows a certain humility, that Joshua doesn't lead from a place of arrogance. But maybe there's still a mix of pride and delusion in there, to think that with this burden of leadership, it's all up to you.

I can relate.

While I always turn to God in prayer for the easy and difficult stuff alike, I still too often go about my days as if I'm carrying a heavy burden that I don't trust God to carry for me. Like Joshua, I know that I'm sometimes taking on more than what I can handle and I know that I need the Lord, but in the day-to-day stuff, I forget to abide and truly recognize where the ultimate success will come from.

This passage is also a good reminder to other American Christians. Is God on our side?

Well, that's simply the wrong question. Especially if we think an affirmative answer to this gives us carte blanche in our behavior because we see ourselves as blessed of the Lord.

There are passages in Scripture where we're told that God is on someone's side. They're mainly in the Psalms, but the connotation is that the Lord is one's Helper. It's not about God being a weapon that whoever wields it is always in the right and will always win.

For example,

  • The LORD is on my side; I will not fear. What can man do to me? The LORD is on my side as my helper; I shall look in triumph on those who hate me. Psalm 118: 6-7

  • What if the LORD had not been on our side? Let all Israel repeat: What if the LORD had not been on our side when people attacked us?” Psalm 124: 1-2

We see some phrasing like this in the prophets as well, such as Isaiah 50:9:

  • It is the Lord God who helps me; who will declare me guilty?

That last one reminds me that one's Bible translation really matters. I've looked up passages that speak of God being on someone's side. But, when you look at the Hebrew, which some translations pick up a little better, the connotation is really about God helping His children (just like here in Isaiah), not this militant idea that God has chosen the side of a particular group of humans. This is an important distinction.

So, Joshua has asked the wrong question, but Christ clarifies for him. And, the encouraging part of Jesus' comment is, "I have now come." That's all that Joshua needs to know. Not whether or not God is on his side, but that He is here. He's arrived and is going to fulfill His purposes which--good for Israel!--will involve the fall of Jericho without really any military effort on their part.

By the way, for our modern sensibilities that can't stomach the idea of Israel taking unprompted action against Canaan, I recommend Michael Heiser's, The Unseem Realm: Recovering the Supernatural Worldview of the Bible. Even if all of Heiser's points may not be convincing, the overall thrust that the Israelites "wrestle not against flesh and blood but against principalities, principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places" (Ephesians 6:12) was compelling to me. What had the Canaanites invited into that land, through their worship of demonic forces, and what needed to be cleansed? Are these forces real or not, and if they are, what needs to be done about them?

Anyway, back to Joshua. The connection for me, as I reflect on this Fourth of July, is that American Christians are so very much like Joshua (although, not nearly enough! We would do well to learn from his obedience and his life of meditation on the glory of the Lord). We so desperately want the Lord to be on our side. But we're not so very good about surrendering and being on His. Even in the battles American Christians have fought recently, as my father pointed out in a recent sermon, God's name and presence is rarely invoked. It's like we think God is our secret Ark of the Covenant that will grant us success as we do a great work for Him. That's how the Israelites often viewed God. I know what's going to happen when I reach the books of Judges and I and II Samuel--what happens when God is viewed as a cosmic Talisman.

We suddenly find that God wasn't on our side at all because we had subtly shifted away from His.

Well, Joshua is a much better student than many of us, and he listens to the message and responds appropriately. However, he needs one more nudge.

He asks Jesus, "What do you command your servant, my lord?"

Joshua now understands what he needs to do: surrender to the Commander of the Armies of the Lord! Listen to what He has to say. Don't worry about human-focused questions about who is on who's side and who's right and who's wrong, and who needs a good cosmic thumping. The question is, are YOU surrendered to the Commander of the Armies of the Lord!

So, Joshua asks this question, probably thinking he's about to get some amazing military insights from this figure that he doesn't even understand but gets is connected to God in some way.

Instead, this is when Jesus says, "Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place where you stand is holy."

And the Bible says, "And Joshua did so." The smartest thing he'd done all day.

Guess what--there's no great secret to what God's children have to do! No magic arrow to follow so that we know what His will is or whether we'll triumph and be successful. The task is clear: worship. And if God was really here, really near, really on our side in the sense of being our Helper, we'd know whether we're having the right response if we're on our faces.

That's the proper response to any situation in which God is helping us in some way.

Lord, forgive me that I'm denser than Joshua in this. Deliver me from my rational mind that prevents me from letting go and fully trusting in You.

Maybe this reflection is not such a deviation from my normal posts, because so much of the issues I'm writing against have to again do with a Prosperity Gospel-laced triumphalism that so easily creeps in. Lord, deliver us from our addiction of wanting to always be right, always have the upper hand, and to always be the winners. Thank you for reminding us that here in the middle of summer, we need to take off our sandals. And worship.

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