MAKING HOLINESS AND WORSHIP TOP PRIORITY PREPARE GOD’S PEOPLE FOR VICTORY IN SPIRITUAL WARFARE
Jerome Creach: Transitions from one age to the next and from one generation to another are gradual. The interests and values of successive groups overlap. In light of that common fact, Joshua 5:2–12 makes a startling claim: not a single member of the wilderness generation entered the land! This definitive break was anticipated, of course, by stories of faithlessness in the wilderness (Num. 14:30; Deut. 1:35). But now Joshua 5:2–12 shows that wilderness epoch came to a clear and decisive end. Following the account of Israel crossing the Jordan, this segment of the book functions much like a curtain fall in the theatre: it tells the reader that the Israelites who were forbidden to enter Canaan have exited the stage, and now a new generation has entered to possess the land. Joshua 5:2–12 works in tandem with the book’s opening emphasis on the death of Moses to show that the wilderness period is officially complete (Josh. 1:1–2). It does so through two vignettes:
- first, Joshua circumcises those Israelites born in the wilderness, making clear that all those who left Egypt with Moses and were circumcised by him are dead (5:2–9);
- then Joshua leads the newly circumcised Israelites in the first Passover in Canaan (5:10); that celebration triggers an end to the manna that sustained Israel in the wilderness (5:11–12; Exod. 16:15).
Richard Hess: With the establishment of Joshua’s authority and with the Israelites encamped west of the Jordan in the Promised Land, the narrative pauses to reafﬁrm the covenantal relationship between Israel and God. The chapter considers
(1) the fear of Israel’s enemies due to God’s mighty acts;
(2) Joshua as covenant initiator;
(3) circumcision as an identiﬁcation with the covenants of Abraham and Sinai; and
(4) the ceremony as a separation from Egypt and the desert and an identiﬁcation with the covenanted land of Canaan.
The enemies of Israel are struck with fear at the news of Israel’s God and his deeds; Joshua acts as leader of the people; Israel as a nation joins in a covenant ceremony that prepares them for the coming mission. Finally, the land of Canaan ‘welcomes’ Israel by providing the nation with its produce.
David Howard: Three episodes make up the chapter in the Hebrew Bible, and they continue in the spirit of chap. 4, since they are all concerned with ritual preparations or holiness in one way or another, not with military preparedness or with “getting on with the action.” That such spiritual preparations preceded the actual “conquest” of the land illustrates the priorities we have noted: God was going to give Israel the land, and Israel’s task was to be sure it obeyed and was adequately prepared spiritually. Thus, the real “action” of the book is delayed by several important—even essential—preliminaries:
- the admonitions to Joshua about keeping the law and to the Transjordan tribes about keeping unity within the nation ( 1),
- memorializing God’s miraculous help ( 4), and
- sanctifying the people ( 5).
The tasks ahead of battle were far too important to enter lightly—to enter unprepared in any way, including spiritually. Interestingly enough, the ritual ceremonies in this chapter are highlighted and emphasized in that they are bracketed by two seven-day periods: the first involved crossing of the Jordan, and the second involved marching around Jericho (6:15). Each of these seven-day periods was climaxed by a mighty work of God: the stopping of the Jordan’s waters in the first instance and the destruction of Jericho in the second. . .
The first episode in chap. 5 is the ceremony of circumcision. Circumcision was an original sign of the covenant with Abraham (Gen 17:11), and it was to be done for every male in every generation. However, it was not done during the wilderness wanderings (v. 5). This is ironic, since Moses, Israel’s leader at the time, had had an experience earlier in which the Lord had tried to kill him because he had not circumcised his own son (Exod 4:24–26), yet he had apparently not been too concerned to encourage circumcision in the wilderness, because an entire generation had now crossed the Jordan who were not circumcised. This episode marks the beginning of Israel’s true identification with the land of Canaan, and it contrasts the present generation of Israelites very starkly with the preceding generation, which rebelled against Moses and the Lord. . .
The celebration of the Passover marked a significant turning point in Israel’s life, since immediately following this, they began to live off of the land they were about to possess. The miraculous provision of manna in the wilderness stopped now. This momentous event, closing off an epoch in Israel’s history, is emphasized by several repetitions in the verses here. The event also is presented in such a way as to recall the first Passover, recounted in Exodus 12. This text, then, is a transitional one, looking back to two important parts of Israel’s history—the first Passover and the provision of manna— and also looking forward to life in the land, when Israel would live off of its produce. . .
The concluding episode in chap. 5 is somewhat different from the earlier ones, but it is linked with them in that it concerns holiness (the word “holy” is used for the first time in the chapter in v. 15), just as the earlier episodes concern the people’s proper ritual preparation and relationship with God. All of the chapter’s episodes reflect the same outlook noted in connection with 1:7–8, that spiritual concerns—not military preparations—were to be of first importance to the Israelites in their tasks ahead. This principle, of course, is one that still stands today: God wants our undivided loyalties and our holiness. Indeed, Lev 19:2 (“Be holy because I, the LORD your God, am holy”) is quoted by the apostle Peter (1 Pet 1:16) as still valid for Christians.
This brief episode forms the introduction to the conquest narratives that follow, since it tells of the commander of the Lord’s army meeting with the commander of Israel’s army. There is no clear resolution to this episode, but the obvious implication here is that the Lord will fight for Joshua and Israel as long as they maintain the proper priorities, and this is played out in the following chapters.
(:1) DISHEARTENED ENEMIES —
THE TESTIMONY OF GOD’S AWESOME POWER REDUCES THE MOST POWERFUL OF ENEMIES TO DEMORALIZED DEFEATISTS
A. Powerful Enemies
- Kings of the Amorites
“Now it came about when all the kings of the Amorites who were beyond the Jordan to the west”
- Kings of the Canaanites
“and all the kings of the Canaanites who were by the sea”
David Howard: Those standing in awe and terror of Israel here are all the kings of the Canaanites and the Amorites, two of the seven peoples mentioned in 3:10. Here, they appear to stand for all seven groups.
Thomas Constable: This reference to the Amorites and Canaanites groups all the native tribes together. The people who possessed the South and the mountains of the land were mainly Amorites. Many of them had lived in Transjordan, and were the mightiest of the warriors among the pagan tribes. Those who lived in the North, in the lowlands by the Mediterranean Sea, and in the Valley of Jezreel, were mainly Canaanites. The Canaanites were typically traders rather than warriors.
The writer sometimes put all the native peoples in one or the other of these two groups. This depended on the area in which they lived (South or North, highlands or lowlands), or the general characteristic of the people that occupied most of that area (warlike or peaceful). Reference to the Amorites and Canaanites is probably a merism, a figure of speech in which two extremes represent the whole (e.g., “heaven and earth” means the universe).
B. Testimony of God’s Awesome Power
“heard how the Lord had dried up the waters of the Jordan before the sons of Israel until they had crossed”
C. Demoralized Defeatists
“that their hearts melted, and there was no spirit in them any longer, because of the sons of Israel.”
Very important for otherwise they would have been bold to strike the Israelites at once while they were vulnerable and recuperating from the circumcision procedure.
Helene Dallaire: One can imagine these rulers planning their response to Israel and working on their military strategy, should the invaders approach their territory (cf. Ps 2:1–2). The tension mounts as conflict is now inevitable. And for Israel, there is no turning back. The waters of the Jordan River have returned to flood stage, and retreat is impossible and out of the question.
Richard Hess: This description of the Canaanite reaction follows the miracle of chapter 4. It explains why the Canaanites did not attack at once, and thus allows time for the circumcision of the Israelites, a period of weakness when they would be susceptible to defeat (see Gen. 34). Its usage of language previously associated with the ﬁrst exodus foreshadows the signiﬁcance of circumcision (v. 4) and explains why the Israelite offensive actions against both Jericho and Ai went unopposed by Canaanite forces.
Van Parunak: Application: We are often fearful in engaging in spiritual warfare, and need to remember that the Lord is able to intimidate our adversaries even more.
I. (:2-7) MAKING HOLINESS TOP PRIORITY (DEMONSTRATED HERE IN SUBMISSION TO CIRCUMCISION) PREPARES GOD’S PEOPLE FOR VICTORY IN SPIRITUAL WARFARE
A. (:2-3) Obeying the Command to Circumcise the People – Covenant Commitment
“At that time the Lord said to Joshua, ‘Make for yourself flint knives and
circumcise again the sons of Israel the second time.’ So Joshua made himself
flint knives and circumcised the sons of Israel at Gibeath-haaraloth.”
Ex. 4:25 – flint knives were the surgical instrument of choice
Thomas Constable: quoting Jay Fawver and R. Larry Overstreet:
“Flint knives [cf. Exod. 4:25] are sharpened by chipping away at the edge of the stone, so that clean, sterile stone is exposed, since bacteria and viruses cannot grow in rock. Circumcision was thus performed with an instrument possessing comparable sterility to today’s surgical scalpels. In view of the likelihood of infection following this operation with a contaminated instrument, use of the flint knife was enormously beneficial and therefore commanded by the Ultimate Healer (or in this case the preventer).”
B. (:4-7) Explaining the Need for Circumcision at this Juncture – Covenant Failure
- (:4) All the circumcised men had died in the wilderness because of disobedience
“And this is the reason why Joshua circumcised them: all the people who
came out of Egypt who were males, all the men of war, died in the
wilderness along the way, after they came out of Egypt.”
- (:5) Their children who were born in the wilderness had not been Circumcised
“For all the people who came out were circumcised, but all the people
who were born in the wilderness along the way as they came out of
Egypt had not been circumcised.”
- (:6) Disobedience Disqualified Them From Entering the Promised Land
“For the sons of Israel walked forty years in the wilderness, until all the
nation, that is, the men of war who came out of Egypt, perished because
they did not listen to the voice of the Lord, to whom the Lord had sworn
that He would not let them see the land which the Lord had sworn to
their fathers to give us, a land flowing with milk and honey.”
- (:7) Reinstitution of the Privilege of the Covenant Sign
“And their children, whom He raised up in their place, Joshua
circumcised; for they were uncircumcised, because they had not
circumcised them along the way.”
John Rea: The people had not purposely neglected the rite since Sinai, but apparently God had prohibited its practice because the nation was under his judgment. The people had rebelled against Jehovah repeatedly, had practiced idolatry, and had refused to enter the land (Num 14:1-10) promised them in the Abrahamic covenant (Gen 15:18; 17:8); hence they were forbidden to place on their children the sign of the Abrahamic covenant, which in spirit and in reality they had broken.”
Robert Hubbard: The real question is why Yahweh commands that circumcision be done now. Amid Israel’s risky intrusion into Canaan, why perform a religious rite that would sideline Israel’s soldiers for days of painful recovery? . . .
But, in my view, the best explanation factors in all the motifs of vv. 4–7: the dead generation’s failure and judgment, Yahweh’s gift of land, and the younger generation’s uncircumcised status. The uncircumcision symbolizes the whole sorry period of landless wandering and the cynical interpretive spin that Egypt gave it. The “reproach of Egypt” would be Egypt’s biting ridicule that Yahweh had royally snookered poor Israel, promising the moon but leaving their high hopes bogged down in the desert sands (see Ex. 32:12; Num. 14:13–16; Deut. 9:28). Through circumcision (and in Canaan, too!), this generation confirms its obedient spirit and gives Yahweh warrant to declare the past humiliation dead and buried, never to be thrown accusingly at Israel again. In essence, Yahweh welcomes this generation to his covenant and grants it a fresh start in his land. Henceforth, Israel will call the site where Yahweh “rolled (it) away” Gilgal, the name evoking memories of Yahweh’s historic declaration.
II. (:8-12) MAKING WORSHIP TOP PRIORITY (DEMONSTRATED HERE IN THE CELEBRATION OF THE PASSOVER) PREPARES GOD’S PEOPLE FOR VICTORY IN SPIRITUAL WARFARE
A. (:8) Vulnerability (and time to reflect/worship) During the Healing Process
“Now it came about when they had finished circumcising all the nation, that
they remained in their places in the camp until they were healed.”
Trusting God can put us in a vulnerable position.
Goins: Imagine yourself as an Israeli soldier who has just been circumcised, waiting to get better, looking at this city in front of you, and thinking, “Why couldn’t we have done this on the other side of the river? We can’t move for a few days, and if they come after us, we’re sitting ducks.” It was a tremendous act of faith to remain in their places, waiting to heal. Joshua had to exercise faith in performing this amazing act on all these men. The people had to wait, obey the Lord, and trust him even though they were weak, in pain, and vulnerable to attack at this time. But the spiritual reality is that in weakness they were made strong.
B. (:9) Victory Vindication
“Then the Lord said to Joshua, ‘Today I have rolled away the reproach of Egypt
from you.’ So the name of that place is called Gilgal to this day.”
Kenneth Gangel: The word for reproach (herpa) refers to shame or disgrace. Even though the people had been delivered from Egypt geographically, they had wandered around with the stench of Egypt upon them throughout all these forty years. The Abrahamic covenant and the Mosaic covenant lay idle while awaiting this revival at Gilgal. Recognizing national apostasy, Moses had exhorted the Israelites to repent before the Lord, implying the figure of circumcision (Deut. 10:16). Now by faith they had crossed into the promised land and showed their willingness to accept God’s covenant terms again by submitting to circumcision, so the shame of their idolatry and lust for Egypt was finally rolled away. The old name meaning “circle” now took on new significance connected with the word roll.
C. (:10) Observance of Passover
“While the sons of Israel camped at Gilgal, they observed the Passover on the
evening of the fourteenth day of the month on the desert plains of Jericho.”
Robert Hubbard: The last recorded observance of Passover took place at the beginning of Israel’s second year out of Egypt (Num. 9). Thus, as Israel’s first Passover in the new land, this celebration signals a new beginning for their national life. Indeed, the narrator highlights two notable events in successive days to confirm the dawning of a new day for Israel. . .
In other words, in these brief events, sunset falls across Israel’s sorry past forty years while a joyous new day dawns on the Israelite camp. Yes, battles lie ahead, but for the moment Israel pauses to reflect on Passover, celebration of salvation in the past, and to relish the present goodness of their new land and of the God who had brought them there.
Kenneth Gangel: The celebration of Passover was important because the Israelites needed a reminder of God’s commitment to them. Their dramatic and miraculous deliverance from Egypt provided a powerful demonstration of God’s love for the nation and his intention to settle them in the promised land. Since most of the Israelites present were not even born at the time of the exodus, this memorial celebration became crucial.
D. (:11-12) Diet Upgraded – First Fruits of the Promised Land
“And on the day after the Passover, on that very day, they ate some of the
produce of the land, unleavened cakes and parched grain. And the manna
ceased on the day after they had eaten some of the produce of the land, so that
the sons of Israel no longer had manna, but they ate some of the yield of the
land of Canaan during that year.”
Kenneth Gangel: Just in case they needed another demonstration of God’s care and provision for them, they began to eat food from Canaan, no longer dependent on the miracle manna provided in the wilderness. The God who had saved them from Pharaoh and provided for them in the desert would certainly give them victory and food in Canaan.
Helene Dallaire: For forty years, the Israelites had been sustained by manna provided daily by the hand of God. The day had finally come for them to graduate from this strict and dull diet to a regimen that included unleavened bread, roasted grain, and fresh produce from the land—probably the first harvest of the season. This changed eating habit signified that Israel would now have access to seasonal harvests to create scrumptious and delectable recipes. The nomadic lifestyle of the desert was finally being substituted with a sedentary one in a land flowing with milk and honey.
David Guzik: God always provides, but He is perfectly free to change the source of His provision from time to time. We need to trust in Him, not in His manner of provision, or we will stumble when those change.
Gordon Matties: Celebration of Passover signifies identification with the people who came out of Egypt. But more, it marks this newly formed “people” as having been shaped by a particular memory. This people knows its identity by remembering and enacting the story it tells. And it knows its God in the same way. In other words, this God has a story and is known by that story. To participate in Passover, in memory of the exodus experience, is to learn from that story, to identify with it, and above all to embody commitment to the God celebrated in that story.
III. (:13-15) THE VISION OF THE COMMANDER IN CHIEF REINFORCES THE PRIORITY OF WORSHIP AND HOLINESS
A. (:13-14a) The Surprising Visitor – Vision of the Commander in Chief
“Now it came about when Joshua was by Jericho, that he lifted up his eyes and
looked, and behold, a man was standing opposite him with his sword drawn in
his hand, and Joshua went to him and said to him, ‘Are you for us or for our
adversaries?’ And he said, ‘No, rather I indeed come now as captain of the host
of the Lord.’”
This will not ultimately be a conflict between the Israelites and the Canaanites … it is the Lord Himself who is in charge and who will win the conflict as we submit to His leadership.
Name “captain of the host of the Lord” is a reference to the invisible realm of angels that were present there to fight the realms of darkness and achieve victory for the people of God.
David Guzik: The question really wasn’t if the LORD was on Joshua’s side. The proper question was if Joshua was on the LORD’s side.
Kenneth Gangel: What a fascinating scene! Surely by this point Joshua thought he had done everything possible to get ready for the conquest of Canaan. But he still didn’t have a battle plan from God. He had worked through his fears, crossed the Jordan River, consecrated the people, celebrated the Passover, eaten from the land, and now he was ready to take up the sword and charge ahead into battle. But God had one more hurdle for Joshua to clear before he could fight, even before he dared hear about God’s battle plan. . .
The commander put everything in perspective. This was not Joshua’s war; it was God’s war. God assumed sovereign control of this operation from the beginning. The commander would not help but take over, and Joshua would become his servant. We will soon read the account of the conquest (Josh. 6-11) and discover that all the military strategy was divinely directed. God sent them against the center of the land, first capturing Jericho and Ai, thereby securing the passes to the central ridge and driving a wedge between the northern and southern sections of Canaan. They then moved south to conquer the Amorite coalition and finally wipe out the northern confederacy.
B. (:14b) Reinforcing the Priority of Worship
“And Joshua fell on his face to the earth, and bowed down, and said to him,
‘What has my lord to say to his servant?’”
Thomas Constable: quoting Alva McClain: “The conquest of Canaan is too often treated as an enterprise of the Israelites, carried out with great cruelties, for which they claimed divine sanction. The Old Testament presents the matter in an entirely different light. The war is a Divine enterprise, in which human instruments are employed, but so as to be entirely subordinate to the Divine will.”
C. (:15) Reinforcing the Priority of Holiness
“And the captain of the Lord’s host said to Joshua, ‘Remove your sandals from
your feet, for the place where you are standing is holy.’ And Joshua did so.”
Goins: What Joshua experienced alone on the plain of Jericho can be true for us as well. No matter what we’re facing, no matter how complicated or difficult the problem in our life is, it just provides more opportunity for God to demonstrate his power. He is King Jesus, the Captain, the Commander-in-Chief. He is the one who gives us orders, asks us to listen and take him seriously, and then he gives us his strength to live one day at a time.
Helene Dallaire: “Holy ground” always indicates that Yahweh is present, and that a major event is about to unfold. In this case, Israel is about to conquer Canaan, and Jericho is on the verge of being destroyed.
Gordon Matties: The passage prepares readers for Jericho, which we will discover is paradigmatic for the entire narrative of Joshua, and which the Lord summarizes in retrospect at the end of the book: It was not by your sword or by your bow (24:12). The sword in the commander’s hand and the bared feet on holy ground, therefore, represent the kind of war that readers should anticipate. They “become signs of the kind of muster, the kind of arms to be employed in this war. Human weapons, like human instrumentality, will play a minor role, if any, in the battles to follow” (Hauch: 124). This episode suggests that not even Joshua will be the military leader, but Yahweh. The human role will be obedience and trust (Hauch: 125). Richard Nelson puts it nicely: “The narrative ends with a barefoot Joshua—like Moses at the burning bush (Exod 3:1-6)—who has been given nothing to do” (2003: 60).
To this point nothing has gone wrong. Readers have noticed only reversals of earlier stories: of the Transjordan tribes and of the episode at Baal Peor. The Israelites did as Joshua commanded is the keynote of obedience in 4:8. Joshua does as the stranger has commanded (5:15). But a subplot remains. Will the Transjordan tribes be authentic paradigms of all-Israelite faithfulness, as Rahab is a paradigm of the acknowledgment of all the peoples of the earth (4:24)? Or will obedience and trust be compromised? It all depends on how Israel models itself after Joshua’s response to the divine messenger. Will all Israel, like Joshua and Moses, take off their shoes? Or will they, like the impatient people at the foot of Sinai, make gods for themselves?
Robert Hubbard: Chapter 5 lays out Israel’s transition to the land and preparations for doing Yahweh’s war. It ends with the surprising, climactic arrival on scene of Yahweh and his invisible army. Jericho senses the severe threat, seals itself off, and trusts its fate to its walled defenses. So, an ancient combat scene once again repeats itself—an invading army poised at the gates and a city sealed for a siege. In Boling’s words, “All is at last in readiness for the warfare.”