13 When Joshua was by Jericho, he lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, a man was standing 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 I am the commander of the army of the Lord. Now I have come.” And Joshua fell on his face to the earth and worshiped and said to him, “What does my lord say to his servant?” 15 And the commander of the Lord’s army said to Joshua, “Take off your sandals from your feet, for the place where you are standing is holy.” And Joshua did so. (Joshua 5:13–15 ESV)
Note how the angel answers the question, “are you for us, or for our enemies?”
It’s not that God isn’t taking sides — this is the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, the God who delivered Israel out of slavery in Egypt, who will soon deliver Jericho into the hands of Israel, the God who has promised to give Israel a land already full of people (seven nations, to be precise), and to drive those people out. This is a very partisan God, this Lord God of Israel.
And yet, the commander of the army of the Lord (שַׂר־צְבָֽא־יְהוָה, literally “[the] chief of [the] host of YHWH”) does not give Joshua any assurance of whose side he is on. Rather, he commands Joshua to take off his shoes, because this ground where the Commander of the Army of the Lord is standing is holy ground.
That God is present here (yes, as an armed man leading an army, an army that will fight exclusively for one side in the next few chapters) is more important than which side God is fighting on. Granted, the Commander of the Army of the Lord appeared to Joshua, and not (at least not here) to one of the Canaanite leaders. But I have the feeling that wouldn’t matter. He (he?) would still command whoever he met to remove his shoes.
Because the place — the place where Joshua is standing — is holy.
I’m reminded, in this non-answer from the Chief of God’s host, of how Jesus frequently dealt with questions. He almost never answered anyone or anything directly. Rather, Jesus would frequently upend the question, or redirect it. When asked who is a neighbor, he described what it meant to be a neighbor. When asked about the lawfulness of paying taxes (both to Caesar and the temple), he told his disciples to rely upon found treasure (a coin from the mouth of a fish) and reminded those around him whose money it was to begin with.
And so the Chief, when asked “for us or agin’ us?” responds “No.” Not neither, not both, but an answer that suggests Joshua is asking the wrong question to begin with.
Because we are to consider, with awe, not whether God is on our side or not (even as God is), but the simple reality that God is in our midst.
Which means we are to be equally in awe when God is clearly against us, as he will be when Canaanites and Philistines oppress, and much later, when Babylonian, and then Roman armies, show up to besiege, batter, starve, and destroy Jerusalem. To starve us, kill us, disposes us, send us into a distant exile.
And so it with the Cross, an act of violence, of terror, of torture, a demonstration of murderous state power, of a mob demanding to be heard and obeyed (because they want neither justice nor proper vengeance). That cross is clearly against us, convicts of us all of our sin, whether it is active complicity or stoney silence.
Awe at the horrible work of our hands and our frightened, angry, hateful hearts.
Yet the Cross is also an act of love, mercy, forgiveness. Of God staring into our fear, anger, and hate and saying, “it stops with me.” The Cross is for us too. The Cross says, “I forgive you, murderers and torturers, lawyers and judges, politicians and rulers, soldiers and jailers, betrayers and deniers, you who are the mob enraged for no reason save that you have not gotten what you think you deserve. I forgive you, you who weep, who are silent, you who do or say nothing because you have no power, you who flee and run and look away.”
Awe at the amazing mercy of a God who will cry out in agony, “Forgive them, Father, for they do not know what they are doing.”
For us or against us? It is the wrong question.
Take of your shoes. Grovel and worship. Because this place, this place of suffering, death, mercy, and forgiveness, is holy. We are holy. God is here.
God is in our midst.