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Bible Commentaries
Joshua 5

Coffman's Commentaries on the BibleCoffman's Commentaries


This important chapter recounts:

(1) the near-panic that settled over the Canaanites (Joshua 5:1);

(2) the circumcision of the males of the Israelites, a rite that had been neglected for many of them during the wilderness wanderings (Joshua 5:2-9);

(3) the third instance of Israel’s observing the Passover (Joshua 5:10-12); and

(4) the great Christophany in which “the Captain of the Hosts of Jehovah appeared to Joshua” (Joshua 5:13-15).

Verse 1

“And it came to pass when all the kings of the Amorites that were beyond the Jordan westward, and all the kings of the Canaanites, that were by the sea, heard how that Jehovah had dried up the waters of the Jordan from before the children of Israel, until we were passed over, that their heart melted, neither was there spirit in them any more, because of the children of Israel.”

“Until we had passed oven” Along with, “that he would give us,” in Joshua 5:6, these usages of the first person plural identify the author as an eye-witness and participant in the events here narrated. Plummer speaks of those who have “emended the text,”(F1) but our own view of “scholarly emendations” is that they are absolutely irresponsible and should be rejected. Who has licensed any “scholar,” of whatever ability, to change the Sacred Text from what is written to that which he believes God SHOULD HAVE written? Of course, we receive Joshua himself as the author of the Book that bears his name. The oldest traditions that have descended through history affirm this, and the speculative guesses of 20th century unbelievers are no sufficient ground for denying it.

“Amorites… Canaanites” “All of the various peoples of Canaan “are here grouped together under the names of `Amorites’ and `Canaanites.’“(F2) “Roughly speaking, the Amorites represented the dwellers in the highlands district, and the Canaanites referred to the dwellers on the maritime plain.”(F3) Sometimes, “Canaanites, in a broader sense, means Palestine in general.”(F4)

The panic in view here doubtless came about, as Jamieson suggested, from the fact that, “The kings had probably reckoned on the swollen river as being, for a time at least, a sure barrier against the invasion, but they were completely paralyzed by what happened, which was incontestable proof that God was on the side of the invaders.”(F5)

As the hosts of Israel were deployed upon the plains of Jericho, their status was marvelously different from what it had been in the wilderness. Matthew Henry described it thus:

“The church in the wilderness has now come up from the wilderness, leaning upon her beloved, and looks forth as the morning, fair as the moon, clear as the sun, and terrible as an army with banners. How terrible she was in the eyes of her enemies, and how fair and clear she was in the eyes of her friends.”(F6)

Verses 2-5

“At that time, Jehovah said unto Joshua, Make thee knives of flint, and circumcise again the children of Israel the second time. And Joshua made him knives of flint, and circumcised the children of Israel at the hill of the foreskins. And this is the cause why Joshua did circumcise: all the people that came forth out of Egypt, that were males, even all the men of war, died in the wilderness by the way, after they came forth out of Egypt. For all the people that came out were circumcised; but all the people that were born in the wilderness by the way as they came forth out of Egypt, they had not been circumcised.”

“The reason why circumcision was omitted in the wilderness was that a sentence of death was upon that generation of murmurers (Numbers 14:28 ff).”(F7) The rebellion of Israel which led to God’s rejection of that entire generation also resulted in a number of other conditions:

(1) Very little is recorded in the Books of Moses concerning what that whole generation did. Critics have been very vocal about that, but the lesson is simple enough. What any generation does after they have rebelled against God is of little or no consequence in the eyes of the Lord. Even the things that are recorded, for example, in the Book of Numbers, are written, not for their intrinsic importance, but for the “learning” of subsequent generations (See 1 Corinthians 10:11).

(2) They also omitted the observance of the Passover. Why? “During that time the Covenant was abrogated.”(F8) There is also the general impression throughout Numbers that the whole sacrificial system was largely ignored during that period. Indeed, some have supposed that the ceremony involving “the ashes of a red heifer” was a kind of “short form” utilized by Israel during the wanderings, instead of a strict observance of all the sacrifices laid out in the Book of Leviticus.

(3) The verses before us indicate that not even the rite of circumcision was observed during this terrible 40-year period during which even those who were not condemned to die in the wilderness were nevertheless under the curse of God’s displeasure. “Your children shall bear your whoredoms” (Numbers 14:33).

The one redeeming fact about the awful punishment that befell Israel in the wilderness was that God, from the very first, promised to renew the nation to its former favored position when the years of the sentence against them were ended. Here is the great importance of what happened in these verses. Israel, by renewal of their faithful observance of such things as circumcision and the Passover, after having been assured of God’s favor by their miraculous passage of the Jordan River, were now once again possessors of the Covenant. The sentence of God against them was now fully executed by the passing of the 40 years, and their feet were firmly planted in Canaan!

These verses do not teach that any person was circumcised a second time. The mention of the whole nation as being circumcised “a second time” applies only to those for whom the rite had been omitted during the wanderings.(F9) Keil pointed out that the punishment of the sons of the murmurers (those under twenty years of age) was very similar to that pronounced upon their fathers, except in this one thing, that, “The sons were not to die in the wilderness, but enter Canaan after their fathers were dead.”(F10) Keil also pointed out that the total number circumcised by Joshua still left a great many Israelites who did not need to be circumcised and that these were fully capable of protecting the nation in case of any heathen attack during their recovery period from the circumcision.(F11) Besides, there was that panic which had immobilized all of Canaan. Jamieson estimated that at least 50,000 able-bodied soldiers remained who did not need to be circumcised on the occasion here.(F12)

We have discovered no reasonable explanation of why “flint knives” were used for the circumcision reported here, other than the obvious fact that it seems to have been traditional. Although, we do not trust the Septuagint (LXX) with any great credibility here, it is written therein that, when Joshua was buried (Joshua 24:30), “They put with him into the tomb in which they buried him, the knives of stone with which he circumcised the children of Israel at Gilgal.”(F13)

Pink observed here that good military strategy would have demanded that Joshua move quickly to take advantage of the panic that had spread with the news of their crossing Jordan, adding that, “God’s people follow not the ways nor employ the devices of the world.”(F14) That truth surely appears here in the circumcision of the people, carrying with it the inevitable remembrance of how Simeon and Levi had taken advantage of the Shechemites in just such a situation (Genesis 34:18-30).

Verses 6-9

“For the children of Israel walked forty years in the wilderness, till all the nation, even the men of war that came forth out of Egypt, were consumed, because they hearkened not unto the voice of Jehovah: unto whom Jehovah sware that he would not let them see the land which Jehovah sware unto their fathers that he would give us, a land flowing with milk and honey. And their children, whom he raised up in their stead, them did Joshua circumcise: for they were uncircumcised. because they had not circumcised them by the way. And it came to pass when they had done circumcising all the nation, that they abode in their places in the camp till they were whole. And Jehovah said unto Joshua, This day have I rolled the reproach of Egypt from off you. Wherefore, the name of that place was called Gilgal, unto this day.”

These verses make clear that the circumcision by Joshua pertained only to those persons for whom it had been omitted during the wanderings.

“The reproach of Egypt here is enigmatical. It would seem that the reproach was the non-covenant status of Israel as a mixed multitude, not yet adequately formed into a religious community.”(F15) There would also appear to be a possible reference here to the paganism the Jews had encountered in Egypt, and in some degree adopted (See Stephen’s speech in Acts 7). There is a stigma that exists for all people of any age who are NOT in covenant relations with God. Boling stated that the “reproach” had something to do with “freedom from the scorn and indignity of slavery.”(F16)

There are several interesting facts about the Gilgal mentioned in Joshua 5:9. The usual explanation makes the name a derivative from “circle of stones,” the alleged meaning; but the passage here gives another derivation, and we believe that preference belongs here. Although, “the exact location of it is not known,”(F17) Josephus confidently affirmed that it was located 10 furlongs (about 6,600 feet)(F18) from Jericho.

Verses 10-12

“And the children of Israel encamped in Gilgal; and they kept the passover on the fourteenth day of the month at even in the plains of Jericho. And they did eat of the produce of the land on the morrow after the passover, unleavened cakes and parched grain, in the selfsame day. And the manna ceased on the morrow, after they had eaten of the produce of the land; neither had the children of Israel manna any more; but they did eat of the fruit of the land of Canaan that year.”

There are only three instances of Israel’s observance of the Passover up to and including the example here.(F19) The other occasions are recorded in Exodus 12:1-15, in which is the account of their observance of it in Egypt; and the other took place on the first anniversary of the original Passover (Numbers 9:5). In this connection, Dummelow tells us that only three subsequent observances of the Passover are recorded in the Bible, these being: (1) that ordered by Josiah (2 Kings 23:21-23); (2) Hezekiah’s (2 Chronicles 30); and (3) that of the returned exiles (Ezra 6:19).(F20) Despite these limited references to it, however, “Critics freely admit that there may have been annual observances of the Passover throughout substantial portions of Jewish history.”(F21)

“Ate of the produce of the land” (Joshua 5:11). The English Revised Version of 1885 rendered this “the old corn (grain)” of the land, and, it is apparently not absolutely certain that the current rendition is accurate. Plummer stated that, “Whether new or old, we have no means of telling.”(F22) If it was the new corn (grain), it would have been barley, for the wheat harvest came six weeks later. To us it would seem that not a lot of importance attaches to the question.

The cessation of the manna on the very day that Israel ate of the produce of the land of Canaan, however, is of very great significance. Why did it cease? Henry suggested these reasons: (1) this prompt cessation of manna showed that it was not by chance or mere coincidence that it had been supplied; (2) Israel did not need it any longer; (3) it showed that Christians should not expect extraordinary supplies in situations where supplies may be had in an ordinary way.(F23) The mention of unleavened cakes here is natural. The eating of unleavened bread for an entire week was celebrated in connection with the Passover; and, despite that it was a special festival, it was so closely associated with the Passover, that, in time, the feasts became practically united in the minds of the people.

It is of the greatest importance that a comprehensive and detailed knowledge of the whole Pentateuch is understood by the author of Joshua to be in the possession of all the people. “He assumed that the facts (about the Passover, the Unleavened Bread, etc.) were already well known from the Mosaic law, and he did not, therefore, think it necessary to give any fuller explanations.”(F24)

The sudden cessation of the manna, and of the pillar of cloud by day, and the pillar of fire by night has its counterpart in the New Dispensation. Plummer noted that:

All extraordinary demonstrations of God’s Providence ceased with the crossing of Jordan, and in the history of the church, nothing is more remarkable than the way in which miraculous gifts of God - healing, prophecy, and the working of miracles - ceased when Jesus Christ ascended into heaven.(F25)

It was in keeping with this amazing truth that Paul himself prophesied the cessation of tongues, prophecy, supernatural knowledge, etc. (1 Corinthians 13:8). In fact, to the specific things mentioned we must also add all of the charismatic gifts listed in 1 Corinthians 12:1-11. There was a childhood age of the church, in which all kinds of wonders attended her establishment, but the church moved out of that beginning era. “The whole counsel of God, once made known in Christ, the spiritual laws, like those of the natural world, would move in their natural course.”(F26) There would be no further need for special heavenly interruptions such as that seen during the age of miracles.

Verses 13-15


“And it came to pass when Joshua was by Jericho, that he lifted up his eyes and looked, and, behold, there stood a man over against him with his sword drawn in his hand: and Joshua went unto him, and said unto him, Art thou for us, or for our adversaries? And he said, Nay; but as the prince of the host of Jehovah am I now come. And Joshua fell on his face to the earth, and did worship, and said unto him, What saith my Lord unto his servant? And the prince of Jehovah’s host said unto Joshua, Put off thy shoe from off thy foot; for the place whereon thou standest is holy. And Joshua did so.”

There cannot be any doubt about the Divinity of the Prince of the Host of Jehovah who appeared to Joshua in this scene. The very fact of Joshua’s worshipping him, coupled with the acceptance of that worship, proves the Divine nature of this Visitant. If this Holy One had been any created being, he would have forbidden Joshua to worship him, as did the angel for the apostle John (Revelation 19:10; Revelation 22:9). There are a number of these remarkable appearances in the O.T. Dummelow identified the Person here with “The Angel of Jehovah (Exodus 3:2),” adding that, “The Angel of Jehovah is not a created angel but Jehovah Himself in the act of self-manifestation.”(F27) “There can be no doubt that this was God Himself seen as human form.”(F28) “This is none other than the Angel of the Lord, the Lord himself (Exodus 23:20-21), the pre-incarnate Christ in visible form.”(F29) There is a second reason for ascribing divinity to this Prince of the hosts, and that is seen in His command for Joshua to “take thy shoe from off thy foot,” indicating that the ground was holy where he stood. We take the words here to apply to BOTH feet. “The hosts here are not the hosts of Israel, but the angelic hosts of heaven.”(F30)

Some commentators understand this experience of Joshua as a subjective vision, nothing more or any different from that which may be seen today, “by modern man in his place of worship, or driving in an automobile or riding in an airplane. Usually there are no bystanders, but if so, they recognize only that the central character in the event is having an experience in which they do not share.”(F31) Such explanations are totally unacceptable. The subjective dreamers in cases like Morton mentioned cannot walk up to the “vision,” address a question to it, and then fall down and worship it! No, this is merely another instance of the ingenious cavil of unbelievers who will NOT believe the sacred record. When one encounters this type of explanation for events which are dearly supernatural, he should remember that such explanations are NOT based upon logic, insight, or knowledge of any kind, but are purely the last recourse of critical writers who do not believe in any miracles, anything supernatural, or predictive prophecy of any kind, and who have never been known to refer to a given passage as “the Word of God.” Notice too that the “central character” of this vision is understood to be, not God in human form, but Joshua. It should be remembered that Joshua, not God, took off his shoes!

Critics have bemoaned the fact that no specific instructions were here given to Joshua, although he had clearly asked for instructions. Blair thought that “by making Joshua 6:1 a parenthesis, the narrative containing instructions for Joshua continues onward from Joshua 6:2.”(F32) Cook also declared emphatically that, “Joshua 6:1 is parenthetical… the narrative continues in Joshua 6:2.”(F33) That heavenly instructions indeed came to Joshua and supernaturally guided him in the conquest is evident in all that followed.

(1) The fall of Jericho in the manner revealed was an unqualified miracle;

(2) The master strategy of splitting Canaan in two by a frontal assault on the middle of it (taking Jericho); and

(3) The reduction of the remaining factions one at a time has never been improved by any or all of the generals of human history.

Thus, despite the fact of our ignorance of just HOW or WHEN God revealed all of the instructions which Joshua evidently followed, he did indeed have Divine guidance in the conquest of Canaan.

The Sovereign, the General, the Captain, the Prince of the armies of Jehovah appeared here with a drawn sword. What does this mean? It means that the war Joshua was then engaged in was NOT Joshua’s war, it was GOD’s war! The Almighty God, completely disgusted at last with the unprecedented wickedness of the peoples of Canaan, was at that moment determined to destroy them. God, long before, had reached a similar decision with the antediluvian world, and the Great Deluge took them all away (except for Noah and his family). The extermination of these peoples in Canaan by the hand of the Israelites was no less merciful than the destruction in the flood. No problem arises from its being, in fact, different. The mercy in both instances lay in the truth that it was no longer possible for the love and honor of God to survive in the rotting cultures that were destroyed.

“Art thou for us, or for our adversaries…?” As Matthew Henry declared, “This implies that the conflict between Israel and the Canaanites, between Christ and Beelzebub, will admit of no neutrality. As Christ himself said it, `He that is not for us is against us.’“(F34)

Bibliographical Information
Coffman, James Burton. "Commentary on Joshua 5". "Coffman's Commentaries on the Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/bcc/joshua-5.html. Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. 1983-1999.
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