The purpose of this post is to study the neutrality of the Commander of the Army of Yahweh in Joshua 5:13-15, at the time he met with Joshua as Israel prepared to battle against the king of Jericho and his soldiers. This post will be divided into two parts. The bibliography for Part 1 and for Part 2 will appear at the end of Part 2.
Israel’s Preparation to Attack Jericho
The book of Joshua begins with the people of Israel making preparations to cross the Jordan River and to enter the land of Canaan. Joshua sent two spies into Jericho to bring back some information about the land. After a stay in the house of a woman named Rahab, the spies returned with their report. Joshua ordered the priests to take the Ark of the Covenant and carry it before the people as they crossed the Jordan River. The presence of the Ark, a symbol of Yahweh’s presence with the people, was a reminder that it was Yahweh who enabled them to cross the river.
After the people crossed the river, Joshua ordered that all male Israelites be circumcised as a dedication to Yahweh. After the men were circumcised and the time of healing had passed (Joshua 5:8), the people of Israel celebrated the Passover in Gilgal. On the day after the Passover, “on that very day, they ate the produce of the land, unleavened cakes and parched grain. The manna ceased on the day they ate the produce of the land” (Joshua 5:10-12).
The Commander of the Army of Yahweh
As Joshua and the people of Israel made preparations to attack the city of Jericho, Joshua had an encounter with a man standing before him with a drawn sword in his hand who identified himself as the commander of the army of Yahweh. The narrative of this encounter is found in Joshua 5:13-15:
“Once when Joshua was by Jericho, he looked up and saw a man standing before him with a drawn sword in his hand.”
“Joshua went to him and said to him, ‘Are you one of us, or one of our adversaries?’”
“[The man] replied, ‘Neither’, but as commander of the army of the LORD I have now come.”
“And Joshua fell on his face to the earth and worshiped, and he said to him, ‘What do you command your servant, my lord?’”
“The commander of the army of the LORD said to Joshua, ‘Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place where you stand is holy.’”
“And Joshua did so.”
Greg Boyd on the Commander of the Army of Yahweh
Boyd makes four references to the words of the commander of the army of Yahweh in his book, The Crucifixion of the Warrior God: Interpreting the Old Testament’s Violent Portraits of God in Light of the Cross. The words of the commander of Yahweh’s army are important to Boyd because the commander told Joshua that he was neutral about the war between Israel and Jericho.
Boyd says that the words of the commander reflect “the Spirit of the cruciform God” telling Joshua that he was neutral in the conflict of Israel against Jericho (2017: 745). Boyd quotes Douglas S. Earl who said that “the commander’s neutrality breaks down the ‘us-them’ categories that the intended audience of this book presumably embraced.” Boyd goes on to say that the neutrality of the commander “serves as a reminder that while God must sometimes stoop to further his purposes by accommodating the ‘us-them’ mindset of his fallen people, God and his army transcend our fallen polarities, and his ideal is always for his people to transcend them as well.”
According to Boyd (2017: 746), the war of conquest reflects Israel’s willingness not to trust in God since war does not originate in the heart of God: “The Israelites were often too hard-hearted and spiritually dull to understand this. And yet, the heavenly missionary was not too proud to nevertheless continue to work in and through his fallen covenant people, bearing their sin, thereby taking on the ugly semblance of an ANE warrior deity in the inspired written witness to his faithful covenantal activity.”
In another section of his book, Boyd says (2017: 975) that the commander’s words provide “confirmation that the violence involved in the Israelite conquest was not Yahweh’s idea.” Boyd wrote, “Given that Israel and all other ANE people assumed that earthly battles participated in battles among divine beings associated with each side, as we will discuss in the next chapter, discovering that the commander of Yahweh’s army is neutral is surprising, to say the least. The fact that this encounter takes place on the eve of the assault on Jericho in which every man, woman, and child (other than Rahab and her family) as well as every animal was put to death (Josh 6:17) renders this commander’s neutrality all the more remarkable.”
Boyd also believes that the words of the commander reveal that God intended for Israel to conquer the land of Canaan without violence. He wrote (2017: 976), “my primary reason for believing Yahweh was not firmly on the side of Israel’s violent campaign is because the revelation of God on Calvary requires this as well as because of the above cited evidence that Yahweh had originally hoped his people would acquire this land nonviolently.” And again (2017: 977-978), “the revelation of God on the cross requires us to believe that God hoped to bring his people into this land without having them engage in violence, and as I have argued, this is confirmed by the . . . neutral stance of the commander of the Lord’s army (Josh 5:13–15).”
According to Boyd, the words of the commander prove that the violent conquest of Canaan was not Yahweh’s idea. Boyd wrote (2017: 976), “the appearance of this neutral angelic commander can easily be understood to provide yet another confirming indication that the extremely violent conquest was not Yahweh’s idea. How can we imagine the angelic commander of Yahweh’s army remaining neutral if Yahweh was himself the mastermind behind the Israelite massacre, especially if, as some scholars argue, this commander is actually the “angel of the Yahweh” who is a manifestation of Yahweh himself?”
Boyd also believes that the neutrality of the commander is a reflection of God’s heart: “I find it much more reasonable, and certainly much more consistent with the character of God revealed on the cross, to see in this neutral commander a reflection of the Spirit of God breaking through the fallen and cultural conditioning of the author/redactors of this narrative to provide a direct revelation of God’s heart.”
Boyd is highly dependent on Earl’s interpretation of Joshua 5:13-15. However, a careful exegesis of the biblical text in Joshua 5:13-15 will show that the neutrality of the commander of the army of Yahweh in the war between Israel and Jericho is not as evident as Earl and Boyd claim.
In order for one to gain a better understanding of the words of the commander of the army, it becomes necessary to study four important things in the passage: (1) the identity of the commander; (2) the symbolism of the drawn sword; (3) the textual problem present in the text; and (4) the structure of the text.
The Identity of the Commander of the Army
The Commander of the Army Is Michael
Early Christians identified the commander of the army of Yahweh with Michael. In Joshua, the Hebrew word for “commander” is śar. The word śar is translated in English as “prince, chief, captain, chief captain.” Michael appears in Daniel 10:21 as “your prince.” In Daniel 10:13 he appears as “one of the chief princes,” and in Daniel 12:1 he appears as “the great prince.” The reference in Daniel 8:11 is debated. The “Commander of heaven’s army” (Daniel 8:11 NLT) or “prince of the host” (Daniel 8:11 NRS) has been identified with God (Newsom 2014: 264) and with Michael (Lacocque 1979: 162).
The Commander of the Army Is Christ
Most old commentators believe that the commander of the army was the Second Person of the Trinity. Gangel (2002: 95) believes that the man who identified himself as the commander of the Lord’s army is a Christophany, that is, “a literal representation of Jesus on earth in a preincarnate form.” Payne (1962: 168) believes that the commander of the Lord’s army was a manifestation of Christ.
The Commander of the Army Is an Angel
The man who appeared to Joshua was a divine being. Since he identified himself as the commander of Yahweh’s army and not as Yahweh or the Angel of the Lord, some people believe that he was an angel sent by God. The Targum of Jonathan identifies the commander of the army as “an angel sent from before the Lord” (Azuelos 2015: 163).
The Commander of the Army Is the Angel of the Lord
Most scholars identify the commander of the army with the Angel of the Lord. Aubrey Johnson, in his study of The One and the Many in the Israelite Conception of God has shown that in most references to the Angel of the Lord in the Old Testament, the Angel of the Lord is “indistinguishable from Yahweh Himself” (Johnson 1961: 29). Routledge, in his Old Testament Theology (2008: 119) says that the angel of the Lord “is the personal representative of God, who speaks for Yahweh and is, in many cases identified with him.” However, Routledge does not cite Joshua 5:14. Eichrodt, in his Old Testament Theology (1967: 2:195) calls the Angel of the Lord “an almost hypostatic form of Yahweh’s manifestation.” He quotes Joshua 5:14 on page 196 and he seems to differentiate between the angel of the Lord and Yahweh. I believe that the Angel of the Lord is also Yahweh. The Angel of the Lord is a hypostasis of Yahweh, that is, the Angel of the Lord is the persona Yahweh assumes to reveal himself to Israel. When Moses met God on Mount Sinai the Angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of a bush, but when Moses turned aside to see why the bush was not burning up, it was Yahweh who spoke to him (Exodus 3:3-4). The Angel of the Lord appeared to Gideon under the oak at Ophrah, but it was Yahweh who commissioned him to deliver Israel from the hand of the Midianites (Judges 6:11-18).
The Commander of the Army Is Yahweh
The man who appears to Joshua as the commander of the army of Yahweh in Joshua 5:14 did not say that he was the Angel of the Lord. Some scholars believe that the commander of the army of Yahweh is the Angel of the Lord and that the Angel of the Lord is Yahweh himself, however, this identification is not universal. Preuss, in his Old Testament Theology (1995: 1:258) believes that the commander of the army is different from Yahweh. Von Rad, in his OT Theology (1962: 1:146) does not believe that the commander of the army was God; he was an Elohim-being. He wrote: “When the Elohim-beings made their appearance upon the earth, they were so much in human form that often they were not immediately recognized as Elohim.” He cites Joshua 5:13-14. I believe that the commander of Yahweh’s army and the Angel of the Lord are one and the same person and that he is also Yahweh.
Claude F. Mariottini
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
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