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Friday, September 28, 2007

Joshua 5—Circumcision, Passover and the Heavenly Commander

Ancient Egyptians circumcising adolescent boys

Circumcision is a custom observed among various peoples of the world. Almost always it is performed at puberty, when a boy officially becomes a man. That is the way it was observed by the ancient Egyptians of Moses’ day, and by all of Israel’s neighbors except for the non-Semitic Philistines. That is also how it is practiced today among Muslims of the Middle East.

Circumcision was an ancient rite in the Near East. Abraham was not given instructions how to perform it on Isaac, because he was already familiar with it. Its hoary antiquity is reflected in the conservative use of flint (rather than metal) knives for the cutting. But the form of the rite as practiced by Israel was unique in two ways. Other peoples performed (and still perform) the rite shortly after a boy baby is born. The mode characteristic of ancient Israel, performed on the 8th day after birth, was unique in its timing. It was also unique in its purpose, for it did not mark puberty and the entrance of a boy into the male adult community, but the identification of a boy baby with the covenant with Abraham, which covenant also entailed the gift to Abraham's descendants of the land of Canaan (Gen. 17:8). For the best and most complete summary of the biblical and Jewish traditions on circumcision see Nahum Sarna, JPS Genesis, Excursus 12.

A Jewish circumcision by a môhel in Jerusalem

God commanded Abraham and his descendants to circumcise their sons on the eighth day of life (Gen 17:10-14). And in obedience to God's covenant, both John the Baptist and Jesus were circumcised on the 8th day (Luke 1:59; 2:21).

The new generation of Israelite males circumcised at Gilgal (1-9).
Josh. 5:1-9 Now when all the Amorite kings west of the Jordan and all the Canaanite kings along the coast heard how the LORD had dried up the Jordan before the Israelites until we had crossed over, their hearts melted, and they no longer had the courage to face the Israelites. 2 At that time the LORD said to Joshua, “Make flint knives and circumcise the Israelites again.” 3 So Joshua made flint knives and circumcised the Israelites at Gibeath Haaraloth*.

4 Now this is why he did so: All those who came out of Egypt—all the men of military age—died in the desert on the way after leaving Egypt. 5 All the people that came out had been circumcised, but all the people born in the desert during the journey from Egypt had not. 6 The Israelites had moved about in the desert forty years until all the men who were of military age when they left Egypt had died, since they had not obeyed the LORD. For the LORD had sworn to them that they would not see the land that he had solemnly promised their fathers to give us, a land flowing with milk and honey. 7 So he raised up their sons in their place, and these were the ones Joshua circumcised. They were still uncircumcised because they had not been circumcised on the way.

8 And after the whole nation had been circumcised, they remained where they were in camp until they were healed. 9 Then the LORD said to Joshua, “Today I have rolled away the reproach of Egypt from you.” So the place has been called Gilgal to this day

*Hebrew: "hill of the foreskins".
Yet here, in chapter 5 of Joshua, adult men—who had been part of Israel’s fighting force and were neither eight days old nor at puberty—were commanded to be circumcised! Why were they being circumcised at this time?

(1) Because they had not yet been circumcised. The text tells us that, although the generation of males who left Egypt forty years earlier had been circumcised, those boys born during the forty-year wandering in the deserts of Sinai had not.

(2) Because only members of the community of Abraham's descendants and Abraham's covenant were to be the recipients of God's gift of the promised Land of Canaan. God’s promise to Israel of the possession of the land of Canaan, west of the Jordan, was originally made to their ancestor Abraham as part of a covenant that God made with him (read Genesis 17, especially (17:8)). One of the terms of that covenant was that Abraham and his descendants would circumcise their boy babies on the eighth day. Failure to do so meant that the people were no longer heirs of the covenant and its promise of the land.

(3) Because they were about to eat the Passover, which required all male participants to be circumcised. Just as God sent a severe warning to Moses on his way back from Midian to Egypt that he could not lead the people out of the land unless he too circumcised his boy babies (see Exodus 4:18-31), and just as Moses directed that all the Israelite males (including the slaves) in Egypt be circumcised before they could eat the Passover (Exodus 12:43-49), so here — before they ate the first Passover in the land—on the threshold of conquest Israel is commanded to rectify the situation by circumcising all their males, including in this case uncircumcised adult males, a very painful procedure which would leave them vulnerable to attack for a few days (compare the situation of Shechem in Gen 34:25-31!). Had the Canaanites attacked Israel at Gilgal on the day after the circumcision, it could rightly be called “Shechem’s revenge” for what Simeon and Levi once did! But God caused fear to fall upon the surrounding peoples because of the Jordan miracle, so that Israel was safe during the healing period.

In verse 2 many English translations include the words “[for] a second time” (Hebrew ‏שֵׁנִית shenit). But the NIV is probably right to follow the ancient Hebrew manuscripts from the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Hebrew manuscript underlying the ancient Greek version (the Septuagint) in omitting those words. All ancient witnesses to the text, however, include the word “again”, indicating that circumcision had been done once in Egypt and would now be done again. It does not mean that these particular men were being re-circumcised. Verses 5-8 argue against such an assumption.

Circumcision in heart. There is a certain irony in this picture. The later prophets referred to stubborn unbelief and disobedience to God’s word as being “uncircumcised in heart” (Jer 9:26; Ezek 44:7, 9). Yet during the wilderness wanderings referred to in this chapter it was the older generation of males, who had been physically circumcised in Egypt, who displayed uncircumcised hearts through their constant disobedience to God and Moses. The boys born in the period of wanderings were not circumcised physically, yet God killed off the older generation and promised to bring this new generation of males into the Promised Land! Perhaps no more vivid illustration can be found of the powerlessness of a religious rite in itself—unaccompanied by genuine faith on the part of the one subjected to it—to produce a godly person. But that the rite itself cannot be scoffed at or ignored is quite obvious from what was now done at Gilgal.

“Rolled away, rolled away, rolled away!” (Song with hand gestures!) In verse 9 God announces that by completing the journey from enslavement in Egypt through the deserts and across the Jordan into the Promised Land he has “rolled off you [plural] the reproach of Egypt”. Since the Egyptians practiced circumcision, “the disgrace of Egypt” (Hebrew ‏חֶרְפַּת מִצְרַיִם) probably means that the Israelites, now re-established as the covenant people in the Land of Promise, had been delivered from their national disgrace of enslavement and homelessness, not that they had been unable to practice this rite in that land (cf. v.5).

If then this verse refers to the culmination of God’s forty-plus years of redemptive actions, the ceremonies at Gilgal clearly mark a successful conclusion and a new beginning.

There is wordplay at work in the use by God of a Hebrew verb (‏גַּלּוֹתִ gallôtî) that sounds like the name Gilgal to denote his “rolling away” of the shame and disgrace of Egyptian bondage.

The stone at the tomb rolled away. I cannot but think of the fact that when God rolled away the stone covering the empty tomb in which Jesus’ crucified body had lain for two days—and the very same Hebrew verb is used for this in the Modern Hebrew edition of the New Testament in Mark 16:3-5; Luke 24:1-3 (‏כְּבָר נָגֹלָּה)—he also “rolled away” the shame and disgrace of the mortal results of the sin of the human race. For as Paul puts it, “the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 6:23). And as Paul also explains in Romans 6-8, through our identification by faith with the Lord who died and rose again, we who believe experience the power of temptation and sin “rolled away” as well. Jesus’ resurrection accomplished both the forgiveness from sin’s penalty (eternal death) and the release from the enslaving power of sinful habits in our lives.

In Paul's view, believers in Jesus are spiritually circumcised (“circumcised in heart”) through our identification by faith with Jesus in his death and resurrection:
“In him you were also circumcised, in the putting off of the sinful nature, not with a circumcision done by the hands of men but with the circumcision done by Christ, having been buried with him in baptism and raised with him through your faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead” (Colossians 2:11-12).
Thank God that Jesus circumcised my heart the moment I believed in him!

First Passover in the Land (10-12)
Josh. 5:10-12 On the evening of the fourteenth day of the month, while camped at Gilgal on the plains of Jericho, the Israelites celebrated the Passover. 11 The day after the Passover, that very day, they ate some of the produce of the land: unleavened bread and roasted grain. 12 The manna stopped the day after they ate this food from the land; there was no longer any manna for the Israelites, but that year they ate of the produce of Canaan.
Not much is said about the festivals of the LORD in the historical books of the OT. Most of what is said about them occurs in the Pentateuch (the Torah). But the narrator makes a point here of indicating that the Israelites celebrated the Passover (pesaḥ) on the eve of launching their first act of conquest of the land west of the Jordan River.

The Passover celebration appears in a context of a major transition in their existence. The crossing of the Jordan serves as an important narrative and historical boundary. Before they were wandering nomads, from now on they will become settlers, albeit first conquering ones. They taste here for the first time the matsos made from the grain of the new land that would be theirs. They say farewell to their former existence, which is here symbolized by the manna, that ceases to be provided for them by God.

When the Passover was instituted in Egypt, it was said to mark the beginning of Israel's annual calendar. So it appropriately marks here their beginning as a nation living in its own land. Like the heap of stones erected in Gilgal, it marks a beginning and also serves as a statement of faith that the battle for Canaan that has now begun will be won eventually by god's power and in fulfillment of God's promise to Abraham and to Moses.

For Christians' too the OT Passover symbolizes a radical boundary in a Christian's life. What is that boundary? Do we too experience a decisive change in our identity at our Passover? What is it?

The Heavenly commander (13-15)
Josh. 5:13-15 Now 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.” Then Joshua fell facedown to the ground in reverence, and asked him, “What message does my Lord have for his servant?” 15 The commander of the LORD’S army replied, “Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy.” And Joshua did so.
This is a very mysterious and difficult passage. Let us look first at some of the details and see if we can make anything out of them. Then we will step back and look at the incident in the big picture of Joshua and ask why it is included at this point and what its function is in the flow of the narrative.

First, the narrator wants us to know where this took place. Joshua was “near Jericho”. Gilgal itself was certainly “near” Jericho, but the text does not say he was at Gilgal; so it must mean that he approached the outskirts of the city alone to survey it. He was acting here as a military commander.

Secondly, there is this “Commander of the LORD's army” who suddenly appears as a man with a drawn sword. A man! Nothing in the text suggests he looked superhuman—no Darth Vader heavy breathing, no light sword, no wings, no big "S" on the front of his tunic. Just a man. But he had a drawn sword! That is threatening, or at least could be. Who is he? And why is he here at this time? Joshua asked the same question that you or I would under these circumstances. His own answer is that he has come as the "commander of the army of the LORD (Yahweh)". What does that mean?

Who is he? In the earliest Jewish traditions this figure was considered to be the archangel Michael, and many modern interpreters—Jewish, Catholic, Protestant, liberal and evangelical—agree. If he is an angel, he is not named, because in the early parts of the OT angelic beings are never given names. This only begins in the period of the Babylonian Captivity (the Book of Daniel) and of course carries over into the NT. Since Joshua would not have known the names of any of God's angels, the commander merely indicates his role: commander of Yahweh's armies. The fact that he receives special reverence, indeed of a type that we usually associate with God, is not unusual. Messengers in the ancient world were accorded the same respect as the kings who sent them.

There is a long history among conservative Protestant Christian interpreters of seeing in this commander the “angel of the LORD" who appears elsewhere in the Old Testament, and who is addressed and treated in the way that one would address and treat God himself. Therefore, it is concluded, this must be God himself. God seems to have visited Abraham and Sarah in the form of three “men”. See also Gen. 18:2; 32:24.

So which is it? Frankly, I don't see that it makes a whole lot of difference to our understanding of this passage. Whether he is an angel or God himself in the form of a man, he speaks for God and acts for God. What he does is in no way independent of God's will. He is simply put an extension of God on earth.

He announces his role with the words “I have come now as the 'commander of Yahweh's army'”. The Hebrew translated “commander of the Yahweh's army” (‏שַׂר־צְבָא־יְהוָה ) can just as well be translated “Yahweh's general” or “the general sent by Yahweh to take the command”, in which case the army commanded did not need to be an angelic one. So what army does this individual command: an army of angels, or the Israelite army assembled at Gilgal? By presenting himself here with a drawn sword is he telling Joshua: “I, not you, am the true commander of Israel's armies”? Or is he here to reassure Joshua: “God's invisible army of angels will be fighting by your side”? It could be either, although any army of invisible angels might help us visualize how Jericho's walls were knocked down. One thing is clear: The purpose is not to put Joshua in his place ("See here! I'm in charge!"), but to reassure him that God will see to it that everything goes as it should.

When Joshua sees him, what does he ask? And what is the angel's answer? It is possible to misunderstand this exchange ("Are you for us or for …?"). Joshua is not asking him, as one might ask a baseball fan, “Are you rooting for our team or for our opponents?” In which case the answer “Neither” would mean the man has no preference. I have no doubt, that in most of the wars of history God has not been on any one side, in the sense that he found all virtue only on one side. But in this case God's angel clearly had a preference, as God himself did. He wanted Israel to conquer Jericho.

So then, what Joshua's question means is “Are you a soldier in the army of Jericho, come to fight against me? Or are you one of our Israelite soldiers who draws his sword because you do not recognize who I am?” The angel's reply then makes sense: “I am neither a solder of Jericho or an Israelite soldier! I am the commander of God's army sent by God. You are to follow my leadership, and the victories will come.”

Why is he here at this time? After the heavenly messenger has identified himself, Joshua bowed before him in a gesture of surrender—“worshiped him” is not a required translation here—and inquired what message God had for him (v. 14). In ancient Near Eastern military contexts—which of course this also is—surrendering enemies prostrate themselves before their conqueror. I believe that is the significance of Joshua's act here. He recognizes that God through this figure (angel or not) is assuming command of the army of Israel, and he concedes that right by this prostration.

But the commander himself is the “message”. So, all that he says in reply is that Joshua must remove his sandals because this place where he meets the commander is holy ground. It is not "holy" because God is standing on it, but because in this place Joshua is receiving God's commission.

What earlier scene in the Bible does this now remind you of? That's right: Moses at the burning bush (especially, Exodus 3:5). That was also a commissioning scene. So although Joshua had already been functioning as Israel's leader, as Moses was, and had received messages and instructions from God, he is here officially commissioned to lead the Holy War for the Promised Land. It is more than a commission to conquer Jericho: like the other incidents in this chapter (the circumcision, the Passover, the cessation of the manna) that signal an end to what had gone before nd a new beginning, this meeting with a heavenly commander and commissioning on holy ground relates to all that will follow in the book and in a sense in the entire OT history of Israel.

When God leads you to a ministry, no matter what that ministry is, the place and time when God speaks to you is your "holy ground". It does not require that you build an altar on it. But it can always be a reminder to you in later times of opposition: it was then and there that I heard God speak to me!

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