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 Lord I have now come.Joshua 5.13-14
Imagine the day finally comes when you can organise a long-awaited football match. Your team shows up and after a hearty reunion you survey the competition gathering on the other end of the pitch. Turns out, they have an intimidating line-up. Maybe they spent more time with Joe Wicks than with Zoom and Netflix. Hmmm… this match could be ugly.
Then someone appears out of nowhere and you can tell that this is a true player. He is dressed for action. If you could nab this fellow for your team, a triumphant outcome would be almost guaranteed. Who is he? Where did he come from? Why is he here? You decide to approach before the other team’s captain notices his daunting presence.
“So, mate—are you here to play on our team or theirs?”
This little scenario is meant to capture something of what happens to Joshua after he has led God’s people across the Jordan and into Canaan. He has a big job to do. Battle after battle await. Nearby Jericho is tucked within sturdy walls.
Joshua has every reason to be confident in his task. God has been clear not only in the instructions, but also in the encouragement (“be strong and courageous”). But he looks up one day and sees a warrior who seems to have stepped out of some epic fairy tale, a soldier of myth and legend. His sword is drawn.
“Are you one of us or one of them?” Joshua asks (paraphrased, of course).
This mysterious figure is none other than the commander of the Lord’s divine armies. He did not step out of a fairy tale, but out of the divine realm of a cosmic war. He did not show up to bless the army of Israel like a medieval priest on the Scottish/English border. He did not pat Joshua on the back and offer himself as available and at Israel’s service.
He represents God. And God does not view himself as “one of us” or “one of them.” He is uncategorisable. And God is on only one side: his own.
Throughout history, human powerbrokers have sought divine aid for carrying out their self-fashioned strategies. Mortal leaders have sought divine blessing on their well-laid plans. If heaven backs the operation, then it is incontestable. Who can argue with God? So kings, rulers, generals, and conspirators alike have attempted to co-opt God to legitimate their agendas.
“God is on our side!”
Which usually beckons the choral reply: “No, he is on our side!”
Yet if someone decided to pause and ask God himself about whose side he is on, he is likely to say what he says in Joshua 5.
God interrupts the “us-vs-them” polarity. Like Joshua, we often oversimplify the complex problems and debates of our day and cut a tidy line that identifies a “them” against an “us.” And we may be tempted to assume that God can be easily placed within our dichotomies and effortlessly positioned into our tightly packaged ideas of right and wrong, true and false, us and them. We can then safely assume God’s backing once we have dismissively demonised the other. No need to ask his side, because of course he is for us. Right, God?
When God shows up, he refuses to accommodate. He disrupts the boundary lines, bursts the categorical enclosures. The question to ask is not “Is God one of us or one of them,” or “Is God on our side or their side?”
Here is the real question: “Are we on God’s side?” Because that is the only side God is on.
Joshua had every reason to assume he was squarely placed on God’s side. He had received divine instructions, and he was following them carefully. He had been mentored by Moses. He had the instructions of the Law. He had the full support of the people.
But even with all this undergirding his confidence, Joshua made a category mistake. He mistook God’s representative outside of Jericho as “one of us” or “one of them.”
God is the ultimate Other. And later in the biblical story this Other will become flesh and take on the name “Joshua” (aka “Jesus”). He will become one among us. But he cannot be placed at the disposal of our agendas, domesticated as an upstanding Nazarene ready to behave (“Is not this the carpenter’s son?”), or enlisted as a member of the team we captain.
Are we on his side? Or are we assuming he should get with the programme and join ours?