Commentary on Joshua 5:9-12
On this Fourth Sunday in Lent, the Revised Common Lectionary recommends Luke’s Parable of the Prodigal Son as the Gospel lesson; it must be one of the most well-known of Jesus’s teachings. The Old Testament lesson calls our attention to four fairly peripheral verses in Joshua 5. The connection between these two biblical passages is not immediately apparent. We might venture to conclude that just as one son gets more attention in the Luke 15 parable, one of these lessons will likely receive more attention on this Sunday.
Yet, we have here in this ancient story from Joshua an interesting moment in the life of ancient Israel. The people of God have been on a long journey through the wilderness and finally arrive at their destination. It is a celebratory story.
Where are we in the book of Joshua?
Many folks may only remember the story of Jericho (and perhaps the character Rahab) from the book of Joshua. It is therefore helpful to place this story within the larger narrative of the book. Joshua 5:9-12 is the middle of a story. There are verses within this chapter both before and after our four focal verses.
Our featured story of the Passover celebration at Gilgal occurs almost immediately after the Israelites cross the Jordan River, a reenactment of the Exodus event. They camp at Gilgal and perform the ritual of circumcision which they have apparently not performed while in the wilderness. These events echo Exodus 12 and demonstrate Israel’s transition into a new land.
Our focal verses narrate the celebration of Passover at Gilgal in the plains near Jericho. Then, they eat the land’s produce (and not the manna that had been their food), so the manna ceases. Our story occurs just before the familiar Jericho episode in which the people attack and conquer this Canaanite city as their first big military triumph in their new land.
The Passover and the manna: God provides
The biblical tradition of Passover goes back to Exodus where it celebrates Israel’s protection from the tenth and final plague, the death of the firstborn. Its celebration here—their first in the land—marks well this transition as the people of God. They have been protected through their journey in the wilderness. The celebration bookends their journey: it is celebrated for the first time as they leave Egypt for their new land and celebrated here upon their arrival to that land.
Even though this story does not contain the violence often associated with the book of Joshua, it is important to note that the arrival of Israel into the land is both a fulfillment of a promise and the source of great violence for the people who already live in this land. We cannot read these stories as if the land is empty, as if the Israelites found themselves in unoccupied territory that is free for the taking. We must acknowledge the presence of the Canaanites even if they are not explicitly present in today’s story.
After years of wandering when the people of Israel arrive in the land, the manna ceases. They are no longer in need of the daily nourishment directly from heaven; the land can provide for their needs now. God’s provision for the people continues but in a different form.
The rest of the story (Joshua 5:13-15)
I wonder if you have ever stumbled across a tendency within yourself or within humanity to see the world as only open to two possibilities. Have you witnessed a tendency to view the world in terms of “this” or “that,” as though there were always exactly two options in any given situation?
Joshua lifts his eyes and sees a person standing there with a sword in his hand. Joshua, a newcomer to the area, is anticipating what lies ahead in the city of Jericho, probably tired from the arduous journey. And standing before him is an unfamiliar person with a sword.
In his fear and trepidation, Joshua asks a question. A wooden translation of the Hebrew might be, “Are you to us or to our enemies?” In other words, “Are you for us or for our enemies?
It seems like a legitimate question. Joshua fears his personal safety and wants to know which side this person is on. Joshua, for whatever reason, has fallen into the binary trap, into dichotomous thinking. He’s dividing reality into “us and them”. There are only two ways of being according to Joshua.
In case you think I’m reading too much into Joshua’s question and accusing Joshua unfairly, when he is simply asking a question, the answer to Joshua’s question shows us clearly that Joshua has asked the wrong type of question. The text says that this unfamiliar person replies, “NO.”
Well, that’s not an answer to this type of question. When given a choice between “this” or “that,” you don’t say NO. You choose a side!
It’s not the right answer—or is it?
The person’s reply immediately bursts open this binary way of thinking within Joshua. The answer Joshua receives invites him to stop thinking in us/them ways. The answer will not give in to Joshua’s assumption about us and them. It’s not about us versus them. It’s not about choosing this or that.
But the person continues. “No, I am the captain of God’s hosts or armies.” Now we learn that this is no ordinary person, this is a messenger from God. Again, the answer highlights Joshua’s simplistic us/them thinking. There is another option. It is not just “for us” or “against us”. There is also “from God.” A third category, another option.
“No, I am not for you, and “No, I am not for your enemies.”
“I am with God.”
When you are with God, you don’t have time for this us/them mentality. Other options exist. God is not interested at this moment in the story in choosing sides, in getting involved in our tendency to think about us versus them.