Joshua’s Mysterious Barefoot Encounter

The Bible is full of repeat stories. Peter Leithart describes how he used to train his children during family worship to notice these recurring patterns by saying things like “Wow! This is the first time in the Bible this has happened.” He might read the story of Moses meeting Zipporah and say, “This is the first man to meet his wife at a well!”—which for his children meant, “Actually, this has happened before!”

Something similar is going on in Joshua 5:13–15, the story of Joshua’s encounter with a mysterious stranger calling himself “the commander of the army of the LORD.” Even on a surface reading the story will sound familiar to most Bible readers. But a more patient reading can also bring us face to face with someone even greater than Joshua.

Joshua as the New Moses

The most obvious repeat comes when the commander tells Joshua, “Take off your sandals from your feet, for the place where you are standing is holy” (Josh. 5:15). One is immediately reminded of the burning bush, where the voice told Moses the same thing (Ex. 3:5).

The Bible is full of repeat stories.

And this repetition should hardly surprise us. Joshua was the man chosen by God to be Moses’s successor (Num. 27:12–23Deut. 31:1–8). He was charged with leading Israel into the Promised Land after Moses failed to believe God at Meribah (Num. 20:10–13). Given the clear parallels between the men, it makes sense that God would encounter Joshua in a similar way with a similar command.

Indeed, assuming Joshua was familiar with the story of Moses at the bush, hearing this command would likely have served to strengthen his faith in God’s promise: “Just as I was with Moses, so I will be with you” (Josh. 1:5).

End of the Exodus

The parallels continue when we consider the historical context of this story.

Moses’s barefoot encounter comes at the beginning of the exodus. It’s where he’s commissioned to go back to Pharaoh and begin leading Israel out of Egypt into the Promised Land (Ex. 3:7–10). It is immediately followed by an odd story of circumcision (Ex. 4:24–26), while the exodus itself is immediately preceded by the first Passover (Ex. 12–13).

The author wants us to view this story as in some ways the end of the exodus, with Moses and Joshua’s barefoot encounters serving as bookends.

Joshua’s barefoot encounter comes after he has just brought God’s people into the Promised Land, having led the people miraculously through the Jordan, just as Moses had led the people miraculously through the Red Sea 40 years earlier (Josh. 3Ex. 14). It’s immediately preceded by a story of circumcision (Josh. 5:1–9), as well as Israel’s first Passover in Canaan (Josh. 5:10–12).

The author wants us to view this story as the end of the exodus, with Moses and Joshua’s barefoot encounters serving as bookends (a kind of exodus sandwich). This is also signaled by the fact that in the verse immediately prior, we’re told that the manna God had been providing for 40 years finally ceased falling (Josh. 5:12). In short, this story marks the end of one era and the beginning of another.

Who Is This Mysterious Commander?

But perhaps the most interesting (and debatable) parallel between the two barefoot encounters is the identity of the person saying “Take off your sandals.”

Exodus 3:2 identifies the one who spoke to Moses as “the angel of the LORD.” And as is often the case with the angel of the LORD, it seems that this is no ordinary (created) angel but is actually identified with the LORD himself. He doesn’t just speak for Yahweh; he speaks as Yahweh. When this “angel” speaks, he says “I am the God of your father(s)” (Ex. 3:6). We see the same pattern with Hagar (Gen. 16:7–13), Jacob (Gen. 32:24–31; 48:15–16Hos. 12:4), and Manoah (Judg. 13:17–23)—the angel speaks as though he were Yahweh.

The angel of the LORD doesn’t just speak for Yahweh; he speaks as Yahweh.

But is this really who spoke to Joshua? After all, the speaker identifies himself as “the commander of the army of the LORD” (Josh. 5:14), not as “the angel of the LORD.” Should we automatically conclude these were different messengers? I don’t think so.

First of all, the parallels between the two events are striking enough that it should create a strong presumption for it being the same messenger in both cases.

Second, if we ignore the chapter division and view Joshua 6:1 as parenthetical, Joshua 6:2 could then be construed as referring to the commander when it states, “And the LORD said to Joshua.” While not certain, this would fit with the pattern we’ve seen of the angel of the LORD speaking as Yahweh. It would also explain why this story appears to end so abruptly. Given the parallel with the burning bush, we’d expect the commander to continue speaking after telling Joshua to remove his sandals, just as he did with Moses. On this rendering, he does—in Joshua 6:2.

Face to Face with the Greater Joshua

But finally, the broader exodus context also supports this reading. Moses’s meeting with this “angel,” unique though it was, wasn’t a one-off encounter. The voice promised to be with Moses and the children of Israel, guiding them to a land flowing with milk and honey (Ex. 3:12, 17). And he kept his word. After the angel leads them to Mount Sinai (in the visible form of a pillar of cloud!; Ex. 14:19–20), God says:

Behold, I send an angel before you to guard you on the way and to bring you to the place that I have prepared. Pay careful attention to him and obey his voice; do not rebel against him, for he will not pardon your transgression, for my name is in him. (Ex. 23:20–21)

It’s hard not to ask, “What manner of angel is this, who is able to pardon transgressions (or not)? Who can pardon transgressions but God alone?” It wouldn’t be the last time someone asked a question like that (cf. Mark 2:7).

What manner of angel is this, who is able to pardon transgressions (or not)?

As it turned out, the people did rebel against the angel—many times. But the angel remained faithful to his promise to Abraham (Gen. 15:13–16). He brought them into the land, and then appeared to Joshua right way, bearing the sword he had guarded them with (Ex. 23:20Josh. 5:13).

Who is this mysterious angel commander, able to pardon transgression and receive Joshua’s worship without protest (Josh. 5:14; cf. Rev. 19:10; 22:9)?

It’s because of parallels like these that Christians throughout the ages have answered, “Tis the LORD, O wondrous story! Tis the LORD, the King of glory!” In other words, it’s the one whose name means Joshua and saves his people from their sins (Matt. 1:21). The “angel who redeems us from all evil” and brings us into true and lasting rest (Gen. 48:16Matt. 11:28Heb. 4:8–10). The one who commands heaven’s armies, and whom men and angels worship (Rev. 19:11–14Heb. 1:6Matt. 14:33). Jesus Christ, the Son of God, 14 centuries before Bethlehem.

The Bible is indeed full of repeat stories. So remember this mysterious commander from Joshua 5, because it won’t be the last time you see him.


First published 03.07.20:

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