Continuing with the exploration of the book of Joshua, this brief and cryptic episode of Joshua’s meeting with “a man … with a drawn sword” from Joshua 5:13-16 caught my attention. It is some kind of vision – but what does this vision mean?
“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?” He replied, “Neither; but as commander of the army of the Holy One 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 Holy One said to Joshua, “Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place where you stand is holy.” And Joshua did so.”
It is such a fleeting moment that later, Joshua might have wondered whether it happened at all. He sees someone, a man, standing with his sword drawn. The sword probably surprised Joshua less than it would surprise us, since the real-life context – if the book of Joshua has a real-life context, which has been questioned even since the time of the early church interpreters of the text – is in essence an army camp. If this book were a drama, that would be its setting: an impending conflict, between a new way of life and a dug-in opposition. So, in the context, the sword is less surprising than the figure, just standing there, maybe as Joshua is surveying the lay of the land, contemplating the situation.
Joshua’s question is natural enough: are you one of us, or one of them? Implicitly – am I safe with you, or should I be running for my life from you? But “the man’s” answer is hardly reassuring: “No.”
No, which? No, not one of us, or no, not one of them?
No, not one of you, no, not one of them, no, not stuck in your false dichotomy. You don’t know what you don’t know. There are forces involved here that you haven’t even considered. There is more going on here than you’ve imagined so far.
Implicitly – I’m here because what’s happening, here and now, matters.
Implicitly – the question isn’t whose side I’m on, it’s whose side you’re on.
Implicitly – despite appearances, this is not a story about “us” and “them,” and framing it that way and trying to understand who the good guys and the bad guys are and trying to decide which camp you’re “in” would be missing the point.
Implicitly – as will be explicit much later, almost at the end of this text, the point is that this is a story about decision and action; it’s a story about recognizing this moment, with its competing opportunities for loyalty and disloyalty, its offer of different ways of life and their different consequences, its sometimes incomprehensible and totalitarian demands, as holy ground – the ground on which you ask, or fail to ask, what the forces of the Living God are there to do, the ground on which you take off your shoes to worship, or leave them on and run for your life.
Which as someone else said, even later, if you save, you lose; but if you lose, you find.*
On this reading, it seems, any of us might be in a position to run into Joshua’s man. And there are some good reasons to want to give it this reading. According to Douglas S. Earl, in Reading Joshua as Christian Scripture, no less a figure than Origen recognized the ethical problems of the plain text reading of the book of Joshua. Origen saw in the problems of the plain text a call to look for the spiritual meaning of the text, a call to treat the text not as a story about literal [genocidal, geographic] conquest, which we can’t feel comfortable with, but a story about the radical demands of the conquest of one’s own character. 1
If only, Origen says, God would give him power “to trample upon the necks of the spirit of wrath and rage,” for instance.2 And if not wrath and rage – though I know that I, myself, still run into opposition from that sector – then what about winning my will and my life back from the entrenched way of life of addiction? Half measures avail us nothing, and the holy ground of deciding whom we will serve rises up to meet us day after day.
And those of us who think we’re lucky enough not to be addicted to anything might need to think again, unfortunately. Because even if alchohol or meth or frosting straight out of the can in the middle of the night again despite what we know about our blood sugar and heart condition is not our personal Jericho – is not the elephant-in-the-room of fortified opposition in our lives – the peculiar indeterminate place “near” or maybe even “in” Jericho that we call “today” or “the real world” has done plenty to distract all of us with “us” vs. “them” language, to entice all of us into the service of goods other than the greatest, and to confuse all of us about what it would mean to live and work on the side of the hosts of heaven.
I don’t expect to meet the man with the drawn sword later today, as I’m getting into my car or possibly one of these days for the sake of the earth hopping on the bike, or as I’m facing the choice about how to spend my time or my money, or as I’m about to say … whatever I’m going to say to my daughter or my partner …
but it might not be a bad idea for me to remember that what he would say if I did, and if I stopped long enough to ask “so, are you with me or against me?” is “no, are you with or against us?”
Because when we recognize that question hanging in the air, we recognize that where we are – always – is a moment of crisis, of decision, of opportunity to align ourselves with God’s real presence and activity; and recognizing that, we’re immediately on holy ground, right here, right now.
- Matthew 16:25 … among other places.
1 Douglas S. Earl, Reading Joshua as Christian Scripture (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2010) 7-8.