Prior to the first battle after Israel entered the land of Canaan, Joshua encountered a mysterious warrior. This warrior identifies himself as the commander of the Lord’s army. Who is this commander and what does his appearance indicate? Let’s get some help in understanding Joshua’s encounter with this mysterious warrior from the Teach the Text Commentary. Keep reading to check out what this text teaches us.

Big Idea

The Lord assures his people that he is present and will give them victory.

Key Themes of Joshua 5:13–15

  • The appearance of God as the commander of Israel’s armies indicates that he fights Israel’s battles.
  • The Divine Warrior reveals his identity as the holy emissary of God.
  • Joshua acknowledges the Divine Warrior and humbly submits to his instructions.

Understanding the Text

The Text in Context

After the spiritual preparation of circumcision and Passover is completed (5:1–12), the people are ready to enter the land at the Lord’s command. Yet there is one more necessary element—the presence of the Lord (5:13–15). The sudden and mysterious appearance of the “commander” recalls Moses’s experience at the burning bush (Exod. 3). These verses (5:13–15) function naturally as a transition to chapters 6–12. The commander is the true leader who will accomplish on behalf of Israel the victories described in chapters 6–12. Moreover, the passage shows that Joshua is dependent on the Lord’s presence for success. Joshua’s question, “Are you for us or for our enemies?” (5:13), reveals what is of utmost importance to him. The Lord’s revelation as the holy commander of the Lord’s armies confirms Joshua’s faith and Israel’s victory.

Interpretive Insights


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?”

Joshua 5:13

The scene shifts from Gilgal to Jericho (4:19), where Joshua may have been on a reconnaissance mission, viewing the enemy stronghold. Yet the important sighting is the revelation of the commander. “Behold” commonly introduces a vivid depiction of imminent, surprising events. The figure appears to be a man, and only at his answer to Joshua’s question does Joshua realize he stands before the divine presence. Military dress included a belt and side sheath. A sword was a common weapon for a champion combatant (1 Sam. 17:51); that it is drawn indicates he is positioned for battle (contrast Judg. 8:20). Joshua’s first action shows no sign of timidity, indicating that he thinks the man is an unidentified warrior. If he were an opponent, then a duel between warriors may have ensued (2 Sam. 2:14–15).


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?”

Joshua 5:14

Joshua’s question is irrelevant since the commander is a different order of being altogether. The title occurs twice in Joshua (5:14, 15). “Commander of the army” (sar hatsaba’) describes human and divine leaders of armies (1 Sam. 17:55; Dan. 8:11). The divine title “the LORD Almighty” (or “LORD of hosts,” yhwh tseba’ot), indicates his sovereign rule over Israel’s armies (1 Sam. 17:45). The commander is the Divine Warrior who defeats Israel’s enemies (21:44; Exod. 15:3).

The allusion in verse 15 to the burning bush revelation suggests that the commander is the same “angel of the LORD” who speaks to Moses, identified as “the LORD” (Exod. 3:2–6; see below). The verse alludes to “the angel of the LORD” with drawn sword who appears to Balaam (Num. 22:22, 31). Joshua bows subserviently, indicating that the commander is Joshua’s superior. The exhortation for Joshua to remove his shoes because of holy ground means that the identity of the “man” is the Lord God (5:15). That the stranger accepts worship suggests that he is worthy of worship (cf. Acts 14:12–15; Rev. 19:10). “Reverence” translates hawah, indicating obeisance (Ruth 2:10; NIV: “bowed down”) or worship (2 Chron. 20:18).

Joshua matches his act of reverence with submission to the commander’s will. By using the ambiguous term “lord” the text maintains the reader’s concentration on the commander’s identity.


And the commander of the LORD’S army said to Joshua, “Take off your sandals from your feet, for the place where you are standing is holy.” And Joshua did so.

Joshua 5:15

This directive clarifies that the identity of the commander is God. It recalls the burning bush (Exod. 3:1–12) that confirms the role of Joshua as Moses’s successor and encourages his confidence in the Lord’s directive. “Sandals” represents a person’s power or authority (Deut. 25:9; Ruth 4:7–8), indicating Joshua’s submission. Also, sandals are soiled by refuse and are not worn on sacred ground.

The place is “holy” (qodesh) because of the Lord’s presence. This particular term occurs once more, to describe the booty retrieved from Jericho that is dedicated to the Lord’s service (6:19). The essential meaning of what is “holy” is defined by God himself and his character, since he alone is inherently holy (24:19). Etymologically the term means “wholly other, sacred” in the sense of being apart from what is human and what is ordinary. It also has the related meaning “possessing moral purity,” for God is ethically perfect, having no sin.

Theological Insights

God is the essential actor in the destiny of Israel. It is God’s will and power that secure for Israel a place in the land. Joshua meets the true commander of Israel. Joshua’s experience is not a vision but a meeting with the Lord as though he is a man (theophany). That the event echoes the burning bush revelation shows that whether it is Moses or Joshua in leadership, the determining factor for success is the Lord. Human leaders come and go, but the Lord’s faithful commitment does not wane (Prov. 19:21).

The theology of holiness is a fundamental principle underlying the book. Holiness is overtly important to understanding what is transpiring when the commander encounters Joshua. Consecration of the people has occurred (3:5; 5:1–12), and the people are now fit to move forward as holy vessels to achieve a task that is a necessary expression of the Lord’s character. That the Lord is intrinsically holy and humans are intrinsically sinful (Ps. 143:2) creates a “problem” that must be addressed by God when he relates to his creation (Ps. 99). Divine holiness demands his response to sin and sinful people by judgment (Ps. 9). The whole world collapses in moral chaos otherwise. Indeed, humans recognize the “rightness” of justice (Gen. 18:25; Job 34:10). The explicit appearance of the commander who reminds Joshua of his holiness reinforces the cause of empowering the people.

Moreover, the response of God to Joshua’s question shows that God is not partisan (Deut. 32:4). His purposes are not subject to human agendas. He does not choose Israel for ethnic reasons or for Israel’s worth. If Israel fails to live in holy obedience, it too faces God’s wrath. This is shown at Ai when Israel suffers for Achan’s disobedience (chap. 7).

Teaching the Text

The most important teaching point is what the passage says about the Lord. First, it shows that God closely superintends the lives of his people. His surprising appearance shows that the Lord, although not always seen or evident, is present with Joshua as he has promised. Second, the Lord gives his people assurances through dramatic miracles (Jordan River) but also through encounters of the spoken word. The special assignment and times require the miraculous events of the conquest. The Lord grants Joshua this meeting to encourage him to move forward in faithful obedience.

The concept of the holiness of God especially stands out in this passage. Confusion reigns today as to what “holy” means. Yet understanding the meaning of holiness is critically important to understanding God’s character since he alone by nature is holy. The Lord stands in stark contrast to humans in their very nature. The Lord is not simply greater in degree than Joshua but is of an entirely different order, as his holiness demonstrates. Holy living encompasses every aspect of Israel’s life.

Also essential to Israel’s success is the response of Joshua, who humbly accepts his subservient role. Joshua recognizes that he has no station apart from God’s grace. The commander’s refusal to answer Joshua’s question as to whose side of the conflict he stands for testifies to God’s independence and freedom from human manipulation. Unlike pagan nations, whose deities’ affection was won by ritual means, the Lord’s people must be subject to his will (Ps. 143:10; Rom. 12:2).

Illustrating the Text

God is involved in the lives of his people.

In 1990 singer Bette Midler released this song written by Julie Gold. The popular song proclaims, “God is watching us from a distance.” The good news is that this song is wrong. God is not watching us from a distance but is intimately and compassionately involved in the lives of his people. This is the proclamation of the Bible not only in Joshua 5 but from Genesis to Revelation. The Lord did not create us and then walk away. Rather, he is present. The implication of this reality is that we can look to the Lord each and every day. God hears our prayers and responds to our needs.

There is danger in claiming that God is on any particular nation’s side.

In his eulogy for Abraham Lincoln, Reverend Matthew Simpson remarked,

To a minister who hoped the Lord was on our [the Union’s] side, he [Lincoln] replied that it gave him no concern whether the Lord was on our side or not. “For,” he [Lincoln] added, “I know the Lord is always on the side of the right,” and with deep feeling he added, “But God is my witness that it is my constant anxiety and prayer that both myself and this nation should be the Lord’s side.”

Godly leadership is marked by humility.

This children’s story (Charlotte’s Web, by E. B. White) is about a spider named Charlotte who lives in a barn, just above the stall of a pig named Wilbur. Wilbur is concerned that one day, when he is fat enough, the farmer will turn him into bacon. Charlotte uses all her resources to try to rescue Wilbur. Dave Gibbons writes: “As the story draws to a close, Charlotte the spider is in the barn dying, and she can hear the roar of applause for Wilbur [as he wins a prize and his life is saved]. Charlotte finds great joy in knowing that her life has meant the success of another, her close friend, Wilbur. Though no one will remember her, the things she has done, and the sacrifices she has made, she is satisfied, having loved her friend in life and in death.”

A Commentary to Help You Teach the Text

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