The book of Joshua has many cruxes, and the passage about the commander of YHWH’s army in Josh 5:13-15 is one of them. The scene reminds the reader of the event that Moses encountered when he was keeping his father-in-law’s flock near Horeb. There, Moses received the vocation to save Israel from Egypt. The commander of YHWH’s army likewise appeared in front of Joshua and said, “Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place where you stand is holy.” Then he disappeared with no other words of revelation. Why did he appear if he was not to deliver any other words?
Warfare propaganda, warfare rituals, and Joshua
“Esarhaddon, king of the lands, fear not … I am Ishtar of Arbela, I will flay your enemies and deliver them up to you. I am Ishtar of Arbela. I go before you and behind you”.
Martti Nissinen, Prophets and Prophecy in the Ancient Near East (SBJWAW 12; Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2003), 102.
And the LORD said to Joshua, “Do not be afraid of them, for tomorrow at this time I will hand over all of them, slain, to Israel; you shall hamstring their horses, and burn their chariots with fire.”
As you can see, they are similar. But the point we should pay attention to is not just their similarities. The issue is this: “do they reflect historical realities?” Did YHWH really promise Joshua to “hand over all of them, slain, to Israel” Probably not. If we understand the Assyrian document above as their propaganda, we must treat the book of Joshua the same, as they share the same literary genre. Römer claims that those expressions are regularly attested in warfare ritual documents. Let’s look at another example.
“The rest of the people, who had fled to save their lives … Adad, the violent, the son of Anu, the valiant, uttered his loud cry against them; and with flood cloud and stones of heaven, he totally annihilated the remainder.”
K. Lawson Younger Jr., Ancient Conquest Accounts: A Study in Ancient Near Eastern and Biblical History Writing (JSOTSup 98; Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1990), 210.
Josh 10:11 is comparable with the passage above.
As they fled before Israel, while they were going down the slope of Beth-horon, the LORD threw down huge stones from heaven on them as far as Azekah, and they died; there were more who died because of the hailstones than the Israelites killed with the sword.
Indeed, the two documents share some commonalities, and that is why Römer argues that Joshua is a writing that expresses theological agendas embracing the Assyrian empire’s warfare ideology and ritual. For Römer, Josh 5:13-15 is particularly true to his argument.
The Text of the commander of YWHW's army as a warfare ritual document
Check out the text first
Josh 5:13 Once when Joshua was by Jericho, he looked up and saw a man standing before him with a drawn sword in his hand. Joshua went to him and said to him, “Are you one of us, or one of our adversaries?” 14 He replied, “Neither; but as commander of the army of the LORD I have now come.” And Joshua fell on his face to the earth and worshiped, and he said to him, “What do you command your servant, my lord?” 15 The commander of the army of the LORD said to Joshua, “Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place where you stand is holy.” And Joshua did so.
The passage, indeed, is enormously intriguing, but it ends pretty abruptly. The commander of YHWH’s army must have appeared with grave words of God, but he disappeared without any important revelation or actions. He merely told Joshua to remove his sandals. If Moses didn’t hear any words other than “remove your sandals,” would it not be weird? The final form of the text indicates that such an incident just happened to Joshua, and the passage ends.
For Römer, to understand the text correctly, the reader should recover the original from the final form of the passage as the text we have is the result of the editorial process. So he emends the text as follows:
…… Josh 5:14 He replied, “Neither; but as commander of the army of the LORD I have now come.” And Joshua fell on his face to the earth and worshiped, and he said to him, “What do you command your servant, my lord?” Josh 6:2 The LORD said to Joshua, “See, I have handed Jericho over to you, along with its king and soldiers. 3 You shall march around the city, all the warriors circling the city once. Thus you shall do for six days,……
Römer argues that Josh 5:15 (remove your sandals) and Josh 6:1 (Jericho was shut up inside and out) are added parts, and Josh 6:2 should come right after Josh 5:14. Though the commander of YHWH’s army in ch. 5 is changed to YHWH in ch. 6, but that cannot be a problem as descriptions of YHWH’s agents are often interchangeable with YHWH in the Hebrew Bible. Moreover, his emendation makes the appearance of the commander of YHWH’s army more natural as he, in ch. 6, delivers God’s words about how God will conquer Jericho.
Now we need to think about the meaning of the text, and the question, “why here?” would give us a hint. As mentioned, Römer believes that the book of Joshua expresses Israel’s warfare propaganda in the form of ancient warfare ritual documents. For Römer, the case of Josh 5:13-15 is self-evident because an Assyrian warfare ritual document also shows similar pronouncements we find in Josh 5:13-15.
Ištar… said to me: “fear not!”…… The very same night as I implored her, a visionary (šabrû)… reported to me…: “Ištar who dwells in Arbela entered,… holding a bow in her hand. She had drawn a sharp-pointed sword, ready for battle…… Ištar, the highest of the gods, called you and gave you the following order: ‘you are prepared for war, and I am ready to carry out my plans.’ you said to her: ‘Wherever you go, I will go with you!’ but the lady of ladies answered you: ‘you stay here in your place … until I go accomplish that task.’ ”
Nissinen, Prophets and Prophecy, 147–48.
The passage above records an Assyrian prophet’s words delivered to an Assyrian king. Of course, we do not take this prophecy as actual facts but as a warfare ritual document that contains the conquerer’s ideology. That means the reader of the book of Joshua should also take Josh 5:13-15 in the same manner.
Let’s compare these two documents. Ishtar, just like the commander of YHWH’s army, holds weapons, though he also got a bow in addition to a sword. Like YHWH’s commander, Ishtar is also getting ready for a battle. The Assyrian king would follow the goddess and fight together, but Ishtar tells him to stay still until she accomplishes her work. That is also what happened to Joshua and Israel. To win the battle of Jericho, they didn’t do much but merely marched around the city.
If we follow Römer’s reading, we can find the passage very similar to the Assyrian warfare ritual document. In other words, it is not unreasonable to read Josh 5:13ff ad Israelite warfare ritual document. Römer believes that the text justifies Joshua’s monarchic position in Israel as the Assyrian warfare ritual document supports their kingship propaganda.
The book of Joshua assigns much of its contents to records about YHWH’s war against Canaanite states. Most lay readers without knowledge of the critical biblical scholarship would understand those records as historical facts. But there is no space for God’s interference in the concept of history as social science because it is impossible to prove their historical factualities.
Understanding the book of Joshua as historical facts is “a way of understanding” or an interpretation. But how convincing is that?
It was natural for the post-exilic community of Israel, who suffered from defeat and captivity, to attempt to produce literature that imagines a glorious Israel drawing on Assyrian conquering ideology and their warfare ritual documents.
We actually do the same. As we have dealt with the theological issues that the Coronavirus brought through many theological writings, the post-exilic Israel must have needed their own stories rebuilding their community in the land of Canaan to establish the community’s identity and ideology. In the process, Assyrian documents, as conquerers’ products, should have helped Israel efficiently formulate their agendas.
Understanding Joshua as history is just an interpretation, not the only way to read the text. I contend that reading the text as history would mislead the reader because many passages in Joshua are self-evidently non-historical. For example, Joshua’s battle to save Gibeonites in Josh 10 indicates that God stopped the sun and moon until Israel defeated Amorites’ allied forces.
Such a record reflect an ancient people’s understanding of the cosmos, in which the earth is the center of the universe and God can freely control the sun and moon back and forth. But to stop the sun and moon, what should actually happen? The earth should stop rotating, and the moon should stop revolving around the earth. This didn’t happen and needed not to happen to win the battle at Gibeon. According to the text, Israel already won the battle before the sun and moon stopped moving.
The reader of Joshua (or the Bible) has to try to understand the text from different perspectives other than history. In that regard, Römer’s reading is helpful. But I think it is also an interpretation, which cannot be absolutized. How can we understand the text of Josh 5:13ff? Answers can vary. More important than all answers is whether or not you can ask the question, “what if the text is not historical fact?” to yourself.