Joshua and the Angel
I am always curious when I saw strange grammar in Sacred Scripture, because it always points to something important. For example, in Jn 8:58, Jesus said, “Before Abraham was, I am.” That’s clearly wrong tense, and yet it points to something profound. Jesus is referring to Ex 3:14 where Moses asked the Lord His name, and the Lord replied, “I am.” (See this essay for a better explanation.) From this, we understand Jesus’ grammatically incorrect comment: He is the eternal God, the same who revealed Himself to Moses. The reason for the strange grammar is, perhaps, to emphasize that the God “who is” is so transcendent above our way of thinking that human language is feeble to describe Him. One of my favorite examples of this strange grammar is spoken by an angel in Joshua:

13 When Joshua was by Jericho, he lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, a man stood 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?" 14 And he said, "No; but as commander of the army of the LORD I have now come." And Joshua fell on his face to the earth, and worshipped, and said to him, "What does my lord bid his servant?" 15 And the commander of the LORD's army said to Joshua, "Put off your shoes from your feet; for the place where you stand is holy." And Joshua did so. (Jos 5:13-15)

Joshua asked a simple question: Are you for us or are you for the enemy? That is, are you A or are you B? The implication is that the situation is a dichotomy – which side are you on? The angel said, “no.”

The angel explained that he was commander of the Lord’s army (i.e., the Lord has a legion of angels who are like an army). Furthermore, as far as sides go, they weren’t on either side, but rather were on the Lord’s side. Or so we think from this description; were our thinking correct, then the situation is not a dichotomy, but a trichotomy with three sides: A, B, and C, with C being the Lord’s side. But that is not what the angel was saying. The angel did not reply, “neither;” the angel said, ”no.” It’s a curious and seemingly nonsensical answer to the question as asked.

Like the story of Jesus mentioned above, this is a situation where the way of God is quite transcendent above our way of thinking, such that human language is again incapable of expression. In the petty world of humans, Israel and Jericho were two sides in a battle over land-conquest. For Joshua, leader of Israel, this battle was all that mattered – Israel’s future was contingent on this battle and many lives will be lost. From the human way of thinking, this was quite serious. It really was – this was life and death for thousands of people.

The angel did not offer a third way. The angel only stated who and what he was. He was commander of the Lord’s army and he has come. This is the way of the Lord and it is existential. It has nothing to do with battles and sides and violence and human events. It isn’t us versus them, it isn’t a third way. It is the very nature of God, which is the Divine Existence. And Joshua fell prostrate and worshiped. (Many have wondered if this was an angel or if this was the Lord Himself. Feel free to form your own opinion.)

The angel then ordered Joshua to remove his shoes because the ground was holy, apparently by the angels’ presence. Like the story of Jesus above, this was also a reference to the burning bush narrative; see Ex 3:5. We are once again referred to that great existential story of the God “who is.”

Our conclusion from this very short story is now clear. Our lives are full of never-ending tensions, conflicts, battles. We spend our days in anxiety, struggling to identify with the right side of every conflict, because human life in this world is an endless litany of conflicts. Even Christianity itself seems to offer just one more conflict: heaven or hell, God or not-God – which side should I take? God, who created us for happiness in a divine life, is none of this. He calls us to himself, outside of this world of conflict, into a transcendency of existential union in love. This is beyond moral choices, beyond our human images of right and wrong and the human conflicts that arise as a result. There is no conflict in God.

In our story of Joshua, it would seem self-evident that God was on Israel’s side. He told them to conquer Jericho. He told them how to conquer Jericho. He even pulled a miracle so that they could conquer Jericho. And conquer they did. But God was on no one’s side. Battles and land-conquest are the things of humans, not the things of God. God merely uses the things of humans to teach us, in this case the lesson being that He is God. You can balk at God using wholescale slaughter as a means of teaching, but consider the times were primitive and brutal. God meets us where we are, even if we are war-mongering barbarians.

As we go through life worrying about what side to take, who to stand for, and which choices are best, we Christians should try to remember that our life’s work is not to make the right choices, but simply to exist with God.

3 And Moses said to the people, "Fear not, stand firm, and see the salvation of the LORD, which he will work for you today; for the Egyptians whom you see today, you shall never see again. 14 The LORD will fight for you, and you have only to be still." (Ex 14:13-14)

1 O LORD, my heart is not lifted up, my eyes are not raised too high; I do not occupy myself with things too great and too marvelous for me. 2 But I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a child quieted at its mother's breast; like a child that is quieted is my soul. (Ps 131:1-2)