If we give it a chance, this small word might be a window into our own arrogance as human beings and as Christians.
This word, “neither,” shows up at a very important place in the biblical text, a place we would not expect it.
Joshua 1–5 is essentially the story of Israel preparing for Holy War. Joshua is ordained as the chosen successor to Moses, they are purifying themselves (slicing up some foreskins), and getting ready for battle. They march toward Jericho. This means war.
At the very end of all this preparation, as they are at the doorstep of Jericho, we find the following account:
“13Now when Joshua was near Jericho, he looked up and saw a man standing in front of him with a drawn sword in his hand. Joshua went up to him and asked, “Are you for us or for our enemies?” 14 “Neither,” he replied, “but as commander of the army of the LORD I have now come.”
The word “neither” in this context should make us pause. I mean, that’s not exactly the word you want to hear from your God before you go into a Holy War. For anyone who thinks in black & white, either/or categories, this word makes us insecure or even upset. Like the word “perhaps,” it belongs to the category of both/and, not either/or. It doesn’t let us land, it keeps us unsettled.
As Caputo says, both the fundamentalist Christian and the fundamentalist atheist hate the word “perhaps.” As in, does God exist? Perhaps. Our need for certainty hates it.
And in this case, we find the same thing about the word “neither.” We find the same refusal to be certain about where we stand. Is God for us or against us? Neither. But there is something in us that just needs to know. But we never get a straight answer, just an ambiguous “neither.” Make no mistake about it, God is never on “our” side. He is on his own side.
We see this reality played out again and again in Israel’s story as they try to tame God as if he is some lucky charm they can bring out whenever they are in trouble. As soon as Israel thinks they have God figured out and put him in their back pocket, that’s when God comes at them with ferocity and power, not as a lion to defend them, but as a lion to devour them.
We have much to learn from this word. When we come to the place where we arrogantly claim that we have figured God out and that he is, it turns out, on our side, we must remember that chilling response to Joshua. Whenever we begin to presume to rest in our certainty that God is obviously Republican, or Liberal, or Baptist, or whatever specific doctrines we perch upon to point the finger at others, we are on very dangerous ground. Are you for or against us, God? Neither.