Study Joshua Like a Pro
In Joshua 5:13–15, a supernatural being who calls himself “the commander of the army of the Lord” appears to Joshua in an episode that leaves most people puzzled:
When Joshua was by Jericho, he lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, a man was standing before him with his drawn sword in his hand. And Joshua went to him and said to him, “Are you for us, or for our adversaries?” And he said, “No; but I am the commander of the army of the Lord. Now I have come.” And Joshua fell on his face to the earth and worshiped and said to him, “What does my lord say to his servant?” And the commander of the Lord’s army said to Joshua, “Take off your sandals from your feet, for the place where you are standing is holy.” And Joshua did so.
To better understand this seemingly strange episode in Joshua, let’s consult a few Bible resources as we follow these steps.
Step 1: Locate the episode in the storyline of Joshua
First, let’s look at the immediate context of this passage. You would expect the text preceding these verses to focus on military readiness; instead, we find instructions for ritual consecration: circumcision in Joshua 5:2–9, and the Passover in Joshua 5:10–12. The encounter with the Lord’s commander takes place immediately before the battle with Jericho begins, so the army is likely already prepared. This series of scenes—circumcision, Passover, the Lord’s commander, and the battle of Jericho—appears with no explanation of meaning or connection. Like a movie director, the biblical narrator expects the audience to listen actively and make connections as the story moves along.
Step 2: Connect the episode to the storyline of the rest of the Bible
Closely reading the text and consulting commentaries can help us see important biblical parallels. Sometimes we have to look back to find these connections. We know Joshua began leading the Israelites after Moses’ death. The Handbook on the Historical Books points out that this command to Joshua—“Take off your sandals from your feet, for the place where you are standing is holy” (Josh 5:15)—recalls the episode of Moses and the burning bush in Exodus 3:1–6, where God commands Moses to “take the sandals off your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground” (Exod 3:5). This exodus scene is Moses’ first encounter with God and a watershed moment on his way to becoming the leader of God’s people.
Knowing this, we can better explore the importance of Joshua’s meeting with the Lord’s commander. The New American Commentary: Joshua discusses the emphasis on holiness throughout Joshua and in these episodes in Joshua 5 in particular. This resource notes that a key aspect of preparing for the battle with Jericho is spiritual rather than military. The people are spiritually prepared through circumcision and through the remembrance of Passover (Josh 5:2–9, 10–12).
In Joshua 5:13–15, the focus shifts from the Israelites to their leader, Joshua. Ready to head into battle, he asks the Lord’S commander a military question: “Are you for us or for our adversaries?” The UBS Handbook on the Book of Joshua says the most literal translation of the response is “No,” but a better translation is “Neither.” The Lord’s commander is operating on a need-to-know basis. He gives Joshua vital, authoritative information: (1) that God’s agenda goes beyond merely being for or against Israel, and (2) that Joshua is standing on holy land.
Step 3: Return to the story
Who is the Lord’s commander? Is he God or an angel? We want to know more about him, but his response directs our attention back to the context, not the answer to our question. The Lord’s commander offers a spiritual answer to a military question; he points to the sacred status of the promised land.
This meeting is the climactic event in God’s preparation for Joshua and the Israelites to enter the promised land. Along with other spiritual preparations, it conveys that God’s agenda is paramount. Joshua and his army will find success only if they embrace that agenda.
In this passage, the biblical narrative shows rather than tells. At a crucial moment, God confronts the leader of Israel to underscore his holiness and his claim on the land. When Joshua is confronted by the Lord’s commander, he is redirected toward the issue of holiness in his leadership—whether he is for the Lord, or against him. As we embark on any endeavor, we can call on this moment in Joshua’s leadership as we examine our own lives and act in reverence and loyalty to God.
E. Tod Twist
Originally published in Bible Study Magazine July–Aug ‘14
Biblical references from ESV
ESV English Standard Version
Twist, E. T., “Holy Ground”, Study Like a Pro: Explore Difficult Passages from Every Book of the Bible (ed. J. D. Barry – R. Van Noord) (Bellingham, WA 2014).