The scene was just inside the Promised Land. Israel had crossed the Jordan River. The battle of Jericho lay ahead. When Joshua was by Jericho, he saw a man with a drawn sword (Joshua 5:13-6:5).
Joshua issued what sounds like a sentry’s challenge: friend or foe? He asks, “Are you for us, or for our enemies?” I like the NIV’s answer: “neither.” Literally, the answer in Hebrew is no, but it seems to be no to both questions. Yet, we learn that the speaker is the commander of the LORD’s army.
How could the answer be neither? Wasn’t God on Israel’s side? Weren’t they the people of God? But it may help us to reflect on Israel’s behavior after coming out of Egypt. They had made a golden calf — that’s not on God’s side. They had the internal rebellion of Korah — that’s not on God’s side. They had quarreled with Moses at Meribah because of no water — that’s not on God’s side. Some were enticed into idolatry with worship to the Baal of Peor — that’s not on God’s side. And the immediate context of this encounter informs us that they hadn’t practiced circumcision during the wilderness wanderings until they entered the Promised Land.
The question for Joshua and Israel was not: is God on our side? The proper question when talking about God is: are we on God’s side? And that may take some introspection. It may take some humble listening to what God says. Joshua reflects the proper response. Upon learning that the one with the drawn sword is the commander of the Lord’s army, Joshua asks: “What does my lord say to his servant?” Joshua listens and follows instructions.
Abraham Lincoln in his second inaugural address reflects on that human tendency to invoke God for our side. His speech notes the irony created by the Civil War:
Both read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces; but let us judge not that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered; that of neither has been answered fully.
We need to be careful about glibly enlisting God for our side. Joshua’s encounter reminds me of the proper question. Am I on God’s side?