“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?’ 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?'” ( ESV – Read the chapter)
Now, in the first part of this commentary, I talked about Joshua’s response to the commander of the Lord’s army and our need to submit our plans to the Lord if we want to have any hope of meaningful success. I said something in that first commentary, though, that bears unpacking here. I said the appearance of the commander of the Lord’s army changed not just Joshua’s response and the way the rest of the story played out, it also changed our whole framework for understanding it. Let me explain.
Many people both in and outside the church struggle with this story. Here Israel comes out of Egypt and goes on a killing spree of all these innocent Canaanite people–at the command of the Lord no less–in order to make a new home for themselves. Either they got God’s character totally wrong and used their twisted interpretation to justify this awful act of violence, or the God we serve isn’t who we’ve been taught to think He is.
I say there’s another way here. Israel wasn’t to be leading the charge here and every time they tried they made a terrible mess of things. The commander of the Lord’s army had come to make sure things happened according to His plan.
But wait! That statement only seems to resolve the tension in the worse of the two possible directions above. What gives? No, it doesn’t. Instead, because we know God was in charge of this whole operation Himself, it forces us to entirely reconsider how we would perhaps naturally view it. In order to do this, as I have said before, we have to get God’s character right.
What we know about God’s character first and foremost is that He is loving. How does that filter work here? He was lovingly providing a home for His chosen people to grow and develop and see His plans for them (and through them for us!) unfold per His designs. This doesn’t answer the hard part, though. We need more.
The second (in order, not importance) part of God’s character that we know is that He is just. This means He always does what is right. Every time. Without fail. Including this time. In order to get our minds around this, though, there are two things we need to know. First, we have to know the whole story. Second, even when we know the whole story as far as Scripture presents it, we may not know the whole story.
Let’s tackle those in turn. We need to know the whole story of Scripture before we pass judgment on any one part of it. In this case, God promised this land to Abraham’s descendants more than 400 years prior to this time. Given that He is the creator and thus owner of all the land (another piece of God’s character we have to understand), He can assign it to whomever He pleases and we don’t really have the authority or even moral status to question Him. He’s God and we’re not. And it’s His land, not ours.
More than this, though, when God promised the land to Abraham, He said something important. He wasn’t giving it to Abraham right then. He was giving it to his descendants. The reason was the land already had inhabitants then. These inhabitants were up for judging because they were terribly evil in their beliefs and practices. But, God didn’t want to do it then. He wanted to give them and their descendants (the people of the land in Joshua’s day) more time to repent and avoid judgment. So He gave them 400 years.
Think about that. God gave this people who were incorrigibly evil more than 400 years to get their act together. I think that’s more than a little patient, don’t you? By the time He has Israel in place to move into the land He had promised to give them, they are not an invading force so much as an instrument of divine justice no different really from how He would later use Assyria and Babylon to enact judgment against the people of Israel a few hundred years later after giving them way more than a reasonable amount of time to repent and get back on track.
The other thing to keep in mind here is this: There may be more to the story that we don’t know and can’t know, but which perfectly justifies everything God commands the people to do in their conquest of the land of Canaan. If we assume as a baseline that God is loving and just, then when we come across things that just don’t make sense, we can lean into that character, assume we’re missing something key to understanding things, trust in His character, and move on in faith. We don’t have to let stories like this one throw us off the rails. If God is who the whole picture of the Scriptures proclaims Him to be, we can trust Him even when we don’t understand Him fully.
There is life to be found there. Israel had to learn that lesson as a nation as did many individual God followers in the Scriptures. When we learn it ourselves we will find the life that is truly life waiting ahead of us to be enjoyed. What we need is to follow Joshua’s example and bow down in submission and worship to the God who is good so that we can experience that life.