At least according to the scholar whose outline of the book I am following and that I used in introducing the book to you some Lord’s Days back, verse 13 of chapter 5 begins the second major section of Joshua. This section extends from 5:13 to 12:24 and is the narrative of Israel’s military conquest of Canaan. The leitwort, or leading word of this section is the Hebrew verb “to take,” as the subject is Israel’s “taking” the land. This seven chapter section contains all the military history recorded in the book.
The chapter division as we have it between chapters 5 and 6 suggests a new beginning at 6:1. However, 5:13-15 narrate the Lord’s appearance to Joshua; what he said to him on that occasion is given us in 6:1-5. These two paragraphs, then, belong together as the narrative of one event, a precursor to the attack on Jericho. On the other hand, there is an obvious reason why vv. 13-15 were left in the 4th chapter. This short paragraph also looks back to the nation’s circumcision and Passover celebration because it too concerns holiness in the presence of God. Here too spiritual concerns take precedence over military strategy. [Howard, 155]
It appears that Joshua had walked away from the camp some distance, perhaps to be by himself to think through his strategy for the upcoming battle, perhaps to seek a vantage point from which he could get a good look at Jericho. No doubt he was wondering what he was supposed to do next. “The city [loomed] before Israel, silent and impenetrable, a formidable obstacle in the path” of Israel’s conquest of Canaan.
Elsewhere in the Old Testament when a supernatural being appears with drawn sword he is an adversary rather than a friend; he threatens death rather than offers help. In fact the precise language found here is found only in two other places in the Old Testament: in the case of the angel of the Lord who blocked the way before Balaam and his donkey and in the case of the plague visited upon Israel when David numbered the people and encountered the angel of the Lord on Mt. Zion. So the question Joshua asks is a natural one.
The enigmatic answer suggests that Joshua’s simple categories are insufficient to identify the person standing before him.
The “army of the Lord” could be a reference to the army of Israel but it is probably a reference to the angelic host, as elsewhere in the Old Testament (e.g. Psalm 103:21). It would have been, of course, a great encouragement to Joshua to know that his army wouldn’t be the only one fighting against Jericho and that the Lord’s host was going to be fighting on their side! The fact that its commander stood with a sword in his hand meant, at least, that the Lord’s army was ready for battle!
Before the Lord delivered his instructions it was imperative that Joshua realize who it was who stood before him! The command to take off his sandals is, of course, reminiscent of a similar scene in the life of Moses, when the Lord spoke to him out of a burning bush. We know now that this is a theophany, an appearance of God himself. This is not a mere man. This is a manifestation of Yahweh himself in a human form. That point is confirmed in 6:2 when the one speaking to Joshua is explicitly said to be Yahweh. At the burning bush, Moses was also told that God intended to deliver his people and bring them to the Promised Land.
This first verse is an aside. It establishes the context for the instructions that follow. It was no easy task in those days before gun powder to take a walled city. Joshua must have been wondering how it was to be done. But the Lord had his own plan.
The prominence of the number seven in these instructions — seven days, seven priests, seven trumpets, seven times on the seventh day — indicates the completeness of the triumph the Lord will give Israel. [Howard, 169] In the literature of the ancient near east several examples have been found of an action repeated for six days followed by a decisive event on the seventh. And, of course, a number of Israel’s festivals lasted seven days. [Hubbard, 196-197] The trumpet blasts announce Yahweh’s presence. Since Jericho was dedicated to destruction as an act of divine judgment on its sin, it will be the Lord who will destroy the city and these instructions are designed to highlight that fact. The ceremonial actions of the army emphasize how little it will contribute to the victory apart from its confidence in the Lord and his power. The ark represented the presence of the Lord who would himself visit doom on the city. [Hubbard, 188]
With no explanation, the Lord delivered his strange instructions to Joshua and declared what the result would be when Israel had done what the Lord commanded. The victory was not to be won by conventional means. [Hawk, 92] This would not always be the case, but the first battle in Canaan would make the point that would be true of all subsequent battles: no matter how a battle was waged or a city was taken, it would be the Lord who would give the victory.
When the Lord appeared to Joshua outside of Jericho, he gave him very explicit instructions for the movement of the army. But those instructions made no reference to anything remotely like a military strategy. They didn’t identify a time of day or direction or strategy for the army’s attack. The army would be required neither to besiege the city nor attempt to surmount its walls. It had only to wait until the walls fell down at the command of the Lord. The army, far from maneuvering in some conventional military fashion, had instead only to conduct what was in effect a ritual of faith in the presence and power of the Lord, a presence and power indicated by the ark, the priests, and the trumpets.
There is something fundamental here. Remember, we are talking about gaining possession of the Promised Land. Israel’s capture and possession of Canaan is, in the Bible, a picture of or a typology of salvation. Canaan, in this respect, stands in for heaven; at least so far as theological principles are concerned. Israel got Canaan the way we get heaven. In other words, we are being given here basic lessons in the way of salvation. These odd instructions — although more odd to us in the 21st century than they would have seemed to Joshua and the Israelites in the mid-15th century B.C, they were even then utterly unconventional and unexpected — were no one’s idea of how to conquer a fortified city. The people of Jericho certainly would have been amazed to see what they saw Israel doing. What in the world were these strange people thinking?
It is not too much to say, however, that nothing is as characteristic of the Bible’s teaching about salvation and the Christian life as its utter lack of convention. What the Bible teaches about salvation and the life of faith is invariably unconventional, by which I mean it always confounds ordinary expectations. There is nothing in the Bible’s teaching about the way of salvation or, for that matter, the Christian life, that conforms to the way men and women naturally think about such things.
You remember Paul’s remark to this effect in 1 Corinthians 1. The message he had been preaching in Corinth, the message of salvation through faith in Jesus Christ who died on the cross for our sins, Paul admitted, was an outrageous blasphemy to the Jews and simply ridiculous to the Gentiles. The Jew found the very idea of God in the person of a human being nothing short of blasphemy, much as a Muslim does today. And the Gentiles laughed at the notion that the citizens of the vaunted Roman Empire should depend for their lives on the life and death of an amateur Jewish rabbi from some backwater town in one of the most bothersome provinces of the Roman world, all the more when crucifixion, the manner of his death, was the punishment the Romans reserved for common criminals.
Nothing has changed since Paul’s day. Different peoples in different times and places have found the Christian message offensive or ridiculous for different reasons, but it always defies conventional thinking; it always requires people to think in ways utterly different than those to which they are accustomed. The Christian message will always strike most people as about as likely as attacking a fortified city by marching around it for seven days blowing trumpets! We call our message the gospel, the good news, as if everybody were going to welcome it and be delighted to hear it; but most people, once they understand it, find any number of reasons not to believe it and actually to object to it.
It has been so from the very beginning. As I’ve told you before, someone has remarked that there was perhaps no more unlikely thing in the history of mankind than that Israel in the 15th century B.C. would have had a commandment not to worship idols. The entire world worshipped idols. Polytheism was the ancient world’s philosophy of life and idols were the means by which the gods took their place among men, by which men served the many gods of the ancient pantheon, and by which they received benefits from them. To believe that there was but one God and that he could not be worshipped or served by means of an image was, for a citizen of the ancient world, the equivalent of believing that the sun set in the east and rose in the west; it was the contradiction of what everyone knew. Or so it was until a person realized just what sort of being the living God actually is.
In the ancient Far East it was the same. Richard Mouw recollects his once serving on an interreligious panel in which his counterpart, a Buddhist, representing a very ancient faith, originating five centuries before the appearance of Christ, expressed very succinctly her basic disagreement with Christianity. She said that on the Christian view we are all sinners in need of redemption while on her Buddhist view we are presently ignorant people who need enlightenment. [Mouw, Abraham Kuyper, 91] Precisely! Still today hundreds of millions, if not billions of people — in the west as well as the east — think that man’s problem is ignorance, not sin. That conviction is fundamental to all the ways in which they think about life. A message about deliverance from sin and guilt before a Holy God, therefore, is alien to their worldview; it makes no sense to them and usually positively offends them.
In the early days of Christianity after Pentecost it was much the same. Christians spread out over the world proclaiming that there was but one living and true God, that he had become a man in Jesus of Nazareth, and that he and he alone was the savior of the world. Every part of that message offended the sense, the taste, and the culture of the Greco-Roman world. They had long believed in many gods. Their polytheistic religion lay at the root of their civic rituals, their self-identity as people of the Mediterranean world. Their religious philosophy was so deeply engrained in the culture that the repudiation of it by the Christians was regarded as deeply unpatriotic, if not actually seditious.
What is more, the notions of both the incarnation and the resurrection of Christ, so crucial to the Christian message, were not just ridiculous, they was positively repulsive to the Greco-Roman mind. In their worldview, the material world, including the human body, was the inferior dimension of existence, the source of all the lower, ugly, and disreputable aspects of human behavior. The idea that human beings would be physical creatures forever, therefore, was preposterous to them. Salvation was the escape of the soul from the body; resurrection, in their view, would amount to the soul’s re-imprisonment. And, for the same reason, the notion that God would consent to dwell in a human body was preposterous.
As Celsus, one of the first Romans to write against the Christian faith, argued,
“What is the purpose of such a descent on the part of God? Was it in order to learn what was going on among men? Doesn’t God know everything?”
For Celsus it was obvious, something every educated man understood, that the way to God was through the ascent of the mind of man, not the descent of God himself. [cf. Wilken, Spirit of Early Christian Thought, 10]
In every culture, at every time, the Christian message has proved to be a direct assault on the received wisdom of the society, on its conventional ways of thought. And what was true in the ancient world is still true today. Now, the typical American is not a polytheist and hasn’t any particular prejudice against the material world. But his worldview is equally alien to the message of the Bible and the Christian faith. For Americans today as for Canaanites in Joshua’s day the Christian message — by which I mean the actual message of the Bible — is the equivalent of attacking a walled city by walking around it seven times blowing trumpets. Think about it.
Christianity is the message that the one living and true God entered the world to secure the salvation of sinful human beings. Jesus summed up the inexorable implication of that message when he said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life, no one comes to the Father accept through me.” There is probably no more outrageous idea to the modern American, democratic mind than that naked exclusivism: one God, one way to God, one Savior, one salvation, one way of life. Modern Americans are pluralists and relativists. They believe that, at least in the religious dimension, truth is whatever works for you. If you want to start an argument, when invited to your next cocktail party try saying loudly in a room full of people, “Jesus Christ is the only way to God; every other religion and philosophy that does not have Jesus at its center must be fundamentally mistaken because Jesus is the center of reality as both its Maker and its Redeemer.” Such a statement is widely regarded as arrogant, intolerant, and utterly unsophisticated. Who are we to think that we alone have the truth? The very idea!
I don’t say that Americans usually think very clearly about any of this, or could mount a convincing argument for their position. Few, if any, could. It is a position so self-contradictory that it is rarely seriously evaluated. After all, what is being asserted is that it is an absolute truth that there is no absolute truth! It is more prejudice than careful thought, more bombast than argument. But, be that as it may, pluralism — the notion that there is no single truth for anyone and everyone — is now America’s conventional thinking. It is deeply-seated in the American mind. It is what everyone who isn’t a Christian assumes to be true. It is what they think they know!
And we are just getting started. Part and parcel of the Christian message is the way of life that proceeds from faith in Jesus Christ, that is, Christian ethics. That ethical system, to take one example, requires sexual purity before marriage and fidelity in marriage. It is the repudiation of both promiscuity — sex outside of marriage — and homosexual sexuality as betrayals of the order of human life as God created it. The modern American thinks it obvious that the Bible’s sexual ethics are repressive, discriminatory, and inhumane. To forbid men the enjoyment of pornography and to forbid sex to anyone outside of heterosexual marriage, to forbid to homosexuals the fulfillment of their desires, seems to an increasing number of Americans simply bizarre.
Did you read recently the remarks New York governor Andrew Cuomo, himself supposedly a Roman Catholic, made on an Albany radio station? He was speaking of those whose views he considers extreme and how such people really have no place in New York State.
“Who are they? Are they these extreme conservatives who are right-to-life [and] anti-gay? Is that who they are? Because if that’s who they are and they’re the extreme conservatives, they have no place in the state of New York because that’s not who New Yorkers are.”
Why does a man who confesses to be a Christian, a member of a church that has never approved of either abortion or gay marriage, think or say such a thing? Because he is a man of his time! He thinks conventionally. He takes his cue from the culture. For him the sexual revolution has now been thoroughly mainstreamed. It is the way he has been taught to think about life. It is a way of thinking reinforced by what he was taught at school, by what he reads in the newspaper, and by what he watches on television. The ethics of biblical Christianity — that not long ago were largely taken for granted in American life — are absurd to him. They defy all of the conventions he takes entirely for granted. He is no different from Celsus or a million others through the ages who have found Christianity simply, literally unbelievable.
I say, it is an easy point to prove: the Christian faith has always been and is today utterly unconventional. It requires people to believe what they are not inclined to believe, indeed what they have no intention of believing. They alternate between thinking aspects of our message deeply offensive, unscientific, or merely preposterous. But in one way or another they think our understanding of God and salvation equivalent to taking a walled city by blowing trumpets while walking around it seven times. Absurd! How is that going to work? What is that going to accomplish? No matter what the conventions of a culture, some of them will invariably stand in the way of faith in Jesus Christ as the King of Kings and the Savior of the world.
And why all of this instinctive rejection of the Christian message? Well that is a question very easy to answer. It is that people have never encountered the God who appeared to Joshua outside of Jericho. They have no personal knowledge of the sort of being God actually is! They have never realized that they must take off their shoes because, finding themselves in God’s presence, they are standing on holy ground. They have never thought of God as he is revealed to be in the Word of God. No matter their view of God — eastern, western, ancient, or modern — it is not the God who is, who made the world, who rules it as his dominion, and, in particular, it is not a God who stands before us with a drawn sword.
The imagined gods of the ancient world demanded very little. They were as likely to be selfish and petulant as any human being. They were small-minded, easily pleased, and cared little or nothing about how anyone lived his or her life. They were not omnipotent. They were altogether made in the image of man. They looked pretty much like us and lived pretty much like us at least in the imagination of their worshippers. They were also largely indifferent to human suffering. The gods of the east do even less and demand even less than the gods of the ancient near east and the Greco-Roman world. They are, as C.S. Lewis famously put it, there if you want them, like a book on the shelf, but they take no real interest in your life or, for that matter, in the life of the world, and they will not intervene either to punish or to save.
The God of the modern west, such as he is, is very much like that. He’s there to help if you want his help; he’s there to console, if you need consolation. But a God of judgment, a God of inflexible moral will — that is, a God who’s will determines what is right and what is wrong for everyone — a God who cares how we live our lives, a God who warns, who punishes, and who saves, a warrior God and a God who gives himself for the life of sinners; I say that God is no one’s idea of God until he or she meets God himself. At that moment, whatever God says goes; whatever he demands becomes our duty; and however he offers salvation to sinners is obviously the only salvation there is or can be. It matters not how utterly alien all of this is to the conventional thinking of our time; one sight of the living God and everything changes; one encounter with the Almighty and all previous thinking is swept away in a moment.
That is what happened, for example, to the Apostle Paul. He thought in an entirely conventional way for a Jew of his time. He thought of salvation as mostly human achievement with some help from God added as necessary. He found the very idea of Christians worshipping a man and their claim that God had become a man for man’s salvation preposterous and repugnant, so much so that, like Andrew Cuomo, he didn’t think people who thought such things belonged in Palestine and he did his very best to drive them out! And then he met the risen Jesus Christ, was ordered, in effect, to take off his shoes, and in a moment all his conventional ways of thought evaporated like the morning mist. He found himself before a person so glorious, so commanding, whose authority was so impossible to deny that Paul had no choice but to obey, to re-order his life, and to spend the rest of it serving the cause of the Jesus Christ he had once scorned as the foolish invention of some religious charlatans.
The idea of “fitness” in our day is almost entirely understood in terms of physical health and strength. [Hubbard, 207-208] I go to the gym three times every week and scores, if not hundreds, of people are at work losing weight, or exercising their hearts and lungs, or adding muscle. They have been taught to think that it is important to be physically fit. But the idea of spiritual fitness, of holiness of life, of purity before God is an idea invisible in our modern American culture. Nobody thinks about that. Americans may have some belief in God — most people do — but their belief is more a vague and distant feeling; so far as they understand him, God is never intimidating, never demanding, and certainly never imposing in his holiness, holiness before which we are exposed as deeply and pervasively unholy. One can think himself or herself good enough for God only until he or she actually encounters God as he actually is; only until he or she realizes what kind of being God is. Then, like Joshua, it is on one’s face before the Lord.
It might occur to us to take off our shoes to be polite, or to keep from tracking dirt, or simply because we find it more comfortable to go barefoot, but the idea of taking off our shoes before God because he is so holy and because it would be an offense for us to come into his glorious presence as if somehow we belonged there; that is not how the modern American thinks about God. Nor does he think that the six winged seraphs that Isaiah saw would use two of their wings to cover their faces and two of their wings to cover their feet before the presence of God.
But that is the truth about God. He really is that different from us and that far above us. His life is really marked by that limitless majesty. His eyes, we read in the Word of God, are too pure to behold iniquity. Our sins, we read in the Word of God, have made a separation between ourselves and God. And here is the most unconventional thought of all. Here is a thought that never occurs to people in the modern western world, self-confident, self-congratulatory, permissive, indulgent, and self-worshipping a people as we have become. We are guilty before this God; deeply and pervasively morally defective. In the mirror of God’s majestic holiness we are impure, unlovely, and guilty of all manner of wrongs. Our situation is hopeless. We cannot take the Promised Land by storm. We haven’t the means.
But there is a way for sinners to be made right with God; there is a way for people like us — selfish, petty, small-minded, and persistently disobedient to God’s commandments — to become not only God’s friends but his beloved children. The distance that separates us from God is, to be sure, far too great for us to cross, but it not too great for God. In love he crossed it himself to reach us, when he sent his Son into the world to die for us and our salvation, to endure the just deserts of our sin in our place and on our behalf.
It is this God, this God of terrible majesty and implacable justice, the same God who was about to destroy the sinful city of Jericho, who in immeasurable love came down to rescue people like ourselves from the fate we so thoroughly deserved. It is this mighty God, the Creator of heaven and earth, who gave himself for us that we might have life and have it to the full. This is what the true and living God is actually like! This is why to know him is life itself.
To the inhabitants of Jericho it must have seemed passing strange that Israel simply marched around their city day after day. What was that going to achieve? Did they suppose that this was going to scare them out of Jericho? And what was that gold box with the angels on top that the priests carried around the city day after day? Well that was the symbol of the presence of the Lord with his people to do for them what they couldn’t do themselves. The fact is, Jericho did fall, Israel did take possession of the Promised Land, and Jesus did rise from the dead. That is how we know that God is the savior of those who trust in him. That is how Israel got possession of the Promised Land and that is how people take heaven still today. “The wages of sin is death but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.”
Conventional ways of thought — what people are simply sure they know to be true — come and go and are changing all the time. You young people, when you get to college or if you are there already, you will encounter conventional ways of thought. You need to remember that these conventional ways of thought, what people are sure they know, are changing all the time. The conventions of today’s American thought are quite new, they have become the conventions of American thought within the last thirty years or more recently still, and will soon be replaced by others. And when they are, that a new generation of Americans will be just as confident in their conventional ways of thought as this this generation is confident in theirs. What does not change, what is the same yesterday, today, and forever, is the living God himself, his Word that endures forever, his promise, and his love. And so it is that while people in the world hold confident opinions about this or that, opinions that are very different from the confident opinions people used to hold not so long ago, our faith today is the same as Joshua’s, the same as Paul’s, the same as the faith has always been of those who know that the Lord is God! When one encounters the Lord of Hosts one cannot believe anything else.