This is the second post on 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. If you have not read Part 1 of this post, it is important that you do so before reading this post. Here is the link to Part 1:
The Symbolism of the Drawn Sword
In my article (2010: 51), “Swords: Their Development and Use,” I wrote that the sword was a weapon of war: “The Bible generally speaks of a sword in the context of war and personal combat. Weapons played an important part in the life of Israel since the nation had to spend much time fighting wars against its enemies, first against the Canaanites and eventually against other nations, especially the Arameans, the Assyrians, and the Babylonians.”
The drawn sword appears in two other places in the Old Testament. In Numbers 22:23, the Angel of the Lord confronts Balaam with a drawn sword. In 1 Chronicles 21:16, the Angel of the Lord confronts David to punish him for taking a census of Israel.
The commander of the army of Yahweh appears before Joshua as a warrior prepared for battle. His drawn sword indicates that the war against Jericho was imminent. According to Nelson (1997: 81), the significance of the drawn sword is “to assure Joshua (and the reader) of impending victory and Yahweh’s participation in the upcoming battle.” The warlike manifestation of the commander of the army indicates that the army of Yahweh is ready to join with the army of Israel against the army of Jericho. Israel will fight against its enemies, but not alone; they will fight with the help of the army of Yahweh. According to Miller (1973: 131), the revelation of the commander of the army of Yahweh to Joshua indicates that “the ensuing conquest was sacral and that Israel’s army would be led by Yahweh’s divine army.”
The Problem with the Text
In the Hebrew text of Joshua 5:14, the response of the commander uses the negative לֹא (lō’), “not.” This reading is the more difficult reading and should be preserved. However, the Septuagint and some Hebrew manuscripts ignore the negative denial of the commander of the army and read לֹו (lō) because it expected the commander to give a positive answer. The Syriac translation drops the negation all together and only reads the commander’s statement.
The Septuagint translates Joshua 5:14 as follows: “And he said to him, I am now come, the chief captain of the host of the Lord” (Joshua 5:14 LXA). If one accepts the text of the Septuagint, then the neutrality of the commander of the army disappears. The only English translation (that I know of) that accepts the reading of the Septuagint is the NET Bible.
The NET Bible translates Joshua 5:14 as follows: “He answered, ‘Truly I am the commander of the Lord’s army’” (Joshua 5:14 NET). The NET Bible follows the proposal put forth by Alberto Soggin that the answer of the commander of the army is not negative, but emphatic. According to Soggin, the answer of the commander of the army in Hebrew uses an emphatic lamed to answer Joshua’s first question with an emphatic positive response. Thus, according to Soggin (1975: 220), the text should be translated as follows: “Certainly! Since I am the Captain of the army of Yahweh.” Again, if one accepts the emphatic lamed proposal, the neutrality of the commander of the army disappears.
The NIV translates Joshua 5:14 as follows: “‘Neither,’ he replied, ‘but as commander of the army of the Lord I have now come.” Many English translations also use “neither” to introduce the commander’s answer to Joshua’s question. However, the “neither” translation is interpreting the words of the commander of the army because his words to Joshua are ambiguous. When Joshua asked the commander, “Are you for us or for our enemies?” (Joshua 5:13 NIV). The commander of the army answered (in Hebrew), “No.” This is how the ESV translates the words of the commander: “And he said, ‘No; but I am the commander of the army of the Lord. Now I have come.’” The reading of the ESV does not imply neutrality, but ambiguity. The NIV’s use of the word “neither” implies that the commander of the army told Joshua that he was neutral in the conflict, the position that Boyd also defends. However, the “No” of the commander can be interpreted in different ways.
If one accepts Chapter 6 as the context of what happened in Chapter 5 (see the discussion below), then the commander’s response to Joshua must be understood as affirmative to Joshua’s first question and thus negative to his second question. The commander of the army of Yahweh could not be against the army of Israel. Therefore, the “no” of the commander of the army must be in reference to Joshua’s second question, “Are you for our enemies?” The commander’s answer, “no.” The commander of the army of Yahweh was not on the side of Israel’s enemy (Soggin 1972: 77).
The Structure of the Text
The structure of Joshua 5:13-6:27 has received much scrutiny from scholars. Many scholars, following the work of Wellhausen, separate the theophany in 5:13-15 from the narrative about the destruction of Jericho in 6:1-27. Some scholars believe that the theophany in 5:13-15 is related to a high place, either in Gilgal or Jericho. Some scholars believe that the passage is truncated and that the commander’s message to Joshua has been lost. Miller (1973: 130) wrote: “The episode originally contained a longer message or conversation which has now been deleted by the “collector” because of religious reasons. The remaining record indicates that there were directions about the nurture and care of the sanctuary.”
Recent scholarship has revisited Wellhausen’s proposal and has opted for the unity of the narrative. Römer (2004: 51) believes that the book of Joshua must be understood “as a literary and ideological construction in which the invention of the conquest of the land serves the theological agenda of the Deuteronomist.” To Römer, the book of Joshua follows Neo-Assyrian war ideologies warfare propaganda. However, Römer (2014: 55) believes that Joshua 6:2-5 is a continuation of the story of Joshua’s encounter with the commander of the army of Yahweh.
Dozeman (2015: 303), writing about the unity of Joshua 5:13-6:5, wrote, “The procession of the ark and the fall of Jericho in Joshua 5:13-6:27 may be separated into four unequal parts. The first section (5:13-6:5) establishes the mystical character of the story as an event of revelation, when the prince of the army of Yahweh encounters Joshua (5:13-15). The introduction shows that the imminent war against Jericho is intended to be a theophany of the divine warrior. The theme of holy war is clarified through a sequence of exchanges between Joshua and the prince of the army of Yahweh, in which Joshua becomes enlightened on the nature of holy war.
Joshua asked the commander of the army, “What do you command your servant, my lord?” Joshua received two answers to his question. The first answer was “Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place where you stand is holy” (Joshua 5:15). The second answer to his question, given to him by Yahweh himself, was instructions on how to wage war against Jericho through proper ritual procedures (6:1-5).
Dozeman (2015: 323) said that scholars often overlook the influence of the theophany of the commander of the army of Yahweh on the story of the conquest of Jericho in 6:1-27. Since the commander of the army who appeared to Joshua is Yahweh, then the commander of the army was not neutral in the war between Israel and Jericho because it is the commander of the army or Yahweh who gave Joshua instructions on how to wage war against Jericho.
Yahweh’s Instruction to Joshua
The encounter between the commander of the army of Yahweh and Joshua “reveals that the heavenly armies have been mobilized to fight alongside Israel and endorses Joshua’s leadership as the commander of Israel’s army” (Hawk 2000: 83). The expression “the army of Yahweh” appears only in Joshua 5:14. However, the plural form, “the armies of Yahweh,” appears in Exodus 12:41 and it refers to the people of Israel as they departed from Egypt. In Exodus 7:4, Yahweh calls Israel, “my armies, my people, the children of Israel.” In 1 Samuel 17:45 Yahweh is called “the God of the armies of Israel.”
After his encounter with the commander of the army of Yahweh, Joshua receives instructions from Yahweh himself on how to conduct the war against Jericho:
The Lord said to Joshua, “See, I have handed Jericho over to you, along with its king and soldiers. You shall march around the city, all the warriors circling the city once. Thus you shall do for six days, with seven priests bearing seven trumpets of rams’ horns before the ark. On the seventh day you shall march around the city seven times, the priests blowing the trumpets. When they make a long blast with the ram’s horn, as soon as you hear the sound of the trumpet, then all the people shall shout with a great shout; and the wall of the city will fall down flat, and all the people shall charge straight ahead” (Joshua 6:2-5).
In this narrative, which serves as an introduction to the conquest of the land, the commander of the army of Yahweh meets with the commander of the army of Israel. The commander of the army of Yahweh came to give Joshua instructions on how to conquer the city of Jericho. This is the intent of chapter 6:2-5. In his instructions to Joshua, Yahweh told him that his battle would be with the king of Jericho and with his soldiers. Yahweh gives Joshua instruction for how to proceed against Jericho. Hawk (2000: 85) explains the reason for the manifestation of the commander of the army: “The wars in Canaan will be initiated and conducted by YHWH’s own purposes. Israel will occupy the land only because it is the beneficiary of divine choosing and faithfulness (cf. Deut 9:4-7)”
As much as Boyd seeks to defend the neutrality of the commander of the army of Yahweh, I believe the evidence is not there to support his views. The commander of the army appears to Joshua as a warrior, with a drawn sword ready for battle. Rather than being neutral in the conflict that is about to begin, the commander of the army has come to join and lead the army of Israel in the battle against Jericho.
The commander of the army is none other than Yahweh himself. Yahweh spoke to Joshua and gave him instruction on how to defeat the enemy and bring down the walls of Jericho. Yahweh’s instructions to Joshua were very specific, “”See, I have handed Jericho over to you, along with its king and soldiers” (Joshua 6:2). The army of Israel was commanded to fight against the army of Jericho, against its king and soldiers. Nowhere in God’s instructions to Joshua was Joshua commanded to kill men, women, and children.
But atrocities happened in the war against Jericho, and many innocent people died, as it happens in every war, past and present. The present post was intended to deal only with the neutrality of the commander of the army of Yahweh. As for the violence that occurred in the conquest of Jericho and the problem of Israel’s fight against the Canaanites, I will deal with this issue in the near future and in a different venue.
Claude F. Mariottini
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
NOTE: Did you like this post? Do you think other people would like to read this post? Be sure to share this post on Facebook and share a link on Twitter so that others may enjoy reading it too!
I would love to hear from you! Let me know what you thought of this post by leaving a comment below. Be sure to like my page on Facebook, follow me on Twitter, Facebook, and subscribe to my blog to receive each post by email.
Azuelos, Yaacov, “The “angel sent from before the Lord” in Targum Joshua 5,14,” Biblica 96 (2015): 161-178.
Boyd, Gregory A. Crucifixion of the Warrior God: Interpreting the Old Testament’s Violent Portraits of God in Light of the Cross. 2 Vols. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2017.
Douglas S. Earl, The Joshua Delusion? Rethinking Genocide in the Bible. Pages 71–72, 138. Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2010 [cited by Boyd].
Eichrodt, Walther, Theology of the Old Testament. Volume 2. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1967.
Gangel, Kenneth, Joshua. Holman Old Testament Commentary. Nashville: B&H Publishing Group, 2002.
Hawk, L. Daniel. Joshua. Berit Olam. Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 2000.
Johnson, Aubrey R., The One and the Many in the Israelite Conception of God. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1961.
Lacocque, Andrew, Daniel. Atlanta: John Knox, 1979.
Mariottini, Claude F., “Swords: Their Development and Use.” Biblical Illustrator 37 (Fall 2010): 51-54. https://claudemariottini.files.wordpress.com/2013/12/sword-pdf.pdf
Miller, Jr. Patrick D., The Divine Warrior in Early Israel. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1973.
Nelson, Richard D. Joshua. Old Testament Library. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1997.
Newsome, Carol A., Daniel. Old Testament Library. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014.
Payne, J. Barton, The Theology of the Older Testament. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1962.
Preuss, Horst Dietrich, Old Testament Theology. Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1995.
Römer, Thomas, “Joshua’s Encounter With the Commander of YHWH’s Army (Josh 5:13-15): Literary Construction or Reflection of a Royal Ritual?” Pages 49-63. In Warfare, Ritual, and Symbol in Biblical and Modern Contexts. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2014.
Routledge, Robin, Old Testament Theology. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2008.
Soggin, J. Alberto, Joshua: A Commentary. Old Testament Library. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1972.
Soggin, J. Alberto, “The Negation in Joshua 5,14 (Emphatic Lamed).” Pages 219-220. In Old Testament and Oriental Studies. Rome: Biblical Institute Press, 1975.
Von Rad, Gerhard, Old Testament Theology. Volume 1. New York: Harper and Row, Publishers, 1962.