The Captain of the Host of the Lord

                The first five chapters of the Book of Joshua show the preparation of both Joshua and the nation of Israel to go up into the Promised Land to fight against the Canaanites. Joshua is encouraged by the Lord, and then subsequently encourages Israel, to be “strong and courageous” and to trust in Yahweh’s power to bring victory. The spies in Jericho confirm the fear of the Lord has struck all of Canaan, and Israel confidently crosses the Jordan River through the miraculous power of God. On the other side they build a memorial altar to commemorate God’s help, and then circumcise all the men of war to ensure their covenant faithfulness to the promises and observe the Passover for the first time in the Promised Land. As the conquest seems primed to start, and the last narrative breath is being drawn before the plunge into epic battle accounts, an odd narrative takes place in Joshua 5:13-15. In these three brief verses, we are introduced to a character who has been seemingly gone unmentioned to this point and then, just as surprisingly, seems to go unmentioned through the rest of Joshua! What is the point of this small aside in the narrative?

                Verse 13 finds Joshua by himself near Jericho (potentially spying again for himself?), when he finds himself face to face with an unknown man with his sword drawn. Boldly – Joshua would never be mistaken for a coward! – Joshua walks up to the man and challenges him by asking, “Are you for us or for our adversaries?” It’s an understandable question; Joshua is near an enemy stronghold, and he may have to fight this man if he is indeed a Canaanite enemy. Yet the answer from the unknown man is fascinating in that he doesn’t answer the question, but instead merely replies “No!” Joshua has indeed misunderstood who this is, because the figure identifies himself and says. “Rather I indeed come now as captain of the host of the Lord,” (which is sometimes rendered “commander of the Lord’s armies”). Joshua immediately recognizes that this being is greater than he, and falls “on his face to the earth, and bowed down,” and respectfully asks “what has my lord to say to his servant?” The captain tells Joshua to “remove your sandals from your feet, for the place where you are standing is holy.” Joshua does so, and then the narrative abruptly ends, and the battle of Jericho begins. The episode is so brief that it would almost be easy to skip over if this “captain of the host of the Lord” was not such an intriguing character!

                The initial thought might be to assign this mysterious figure as an angel, but that interpretation has issues. When John attempts to worship the angel who shows him the Revelation, the angel quickly tells him “Do not do that. I am a fellow servant of yours and of your brethren the prophets and of those who heed the words of this book. Worship God,” (Revelation 20:9). Angels seem to have very clear understanding and desire not to be confused for God, yet this mysterious figure commands Joshua to remove his sandals due to the holiness of his presence. This particular wording should call to mind the episode of Exodus 3 and the Burning Bush; there, Moses is commanded to “remove your sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground,” (Exodus 3:5). This command is issued by “the angel of the Lord” who appears amid the blazing fire in the bush on top of Mt. Horeb. In that conversation, however, the voice quickly identifies as “the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob,” leaving no doubt that this angel of the Lord is to be identified with Yahweh Himself. This same “angel of the Lord” is the one that leads Israel in the pillar of fire, and the same presence that settles on the Tabernacle in the wilderness. Indeed, the “angel of the Lord” has appeared twice in the Genesis account as well: once to Hagar in Genesis 16, and again to Abraham in Genesis 22 at the top of Mt. Moriah during the sacrifice of Isaac. In both instances, the “angel of the Lord” speaks and is identified as Yahweh Himself. In Genesis 18, three human men visit Abraham and consume a physical meal with him before they reveal themselves fully as the Lord and two of His angels. It would be rational to assume the Lord was, again, in the form of “the angel of the Lord,” and appeared as a man to converse with Abraham.

                It would seem clear, then, that “the angel of the Lord” is a figure that Yahweh takes to appear before men in such a way that they can bear to look on Him. Remember, it has been established numerous times that men cannot look directly upon the glory of the Lord (Exodus 33:20). Given the connection between Joshua’s account and the account of Moses at Mt. Horeb, it would make sense to identify “the captain of the host of the Lord” with this “angel of the Lord.” This means that Yahweh himself appeared before Joshua to encourage him before battle! It also clarifies the purpose of this passage: the real question is not whether Yahweh is on the side of Joshua or Canaan, but whether Joshua is on the side of Yahweh! As the events of Jericho and Ai will prove, Israel is only going to be victorious when they are on the side of Yahweh; violations of the covenant relationship will only result in Israel’s defeat at the hands of its enemies. The victory that is coming for Israel is not to be won through their martial skills, but the power of Yahweh alone.

                While the original readers would have read this as a sign of God’s covenant faithfulness (and we should too!), Christian readers should also see a familiar person in this idea of a being who is both Yahweh and separate from Yahweh: Jesus! The Gospel of John makes the point that “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God.” The angel of the Lord was Yahweh appearing as a man so that He could speak to His people, and Jesus was Yahweh becoming a man so that He could save His people. In these passages about the angel of the Lord we see a foreshadowing of the ultimate truth of the Gospel: God taking on the form of man so that man could, ultimately, be drawn into the will of Yahweh Himself. The question for us, then, is the same as the one Joshua had to answer: are we on the side of Yahweh?