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Bible Commentaries

Keil & Delitzsch Commentary on the Old Testament
Joshua 5




Circumcision of the People, and Celebration of the Passover at Gilgal - Joshua 5:1-12

When the Israelites had trodden the soil of Canaan, Joshua beganimmediately to make arrangements for conquering the land, and destroyingits inhabitants. As the Lord had only promised his His assistance on condition that the law given by Moses was faithfully observed (Joshua 1:7.), it was necessary that he should proceed first of all to impose it as an inviolable obligation, not only upon himself, but also upon all the people entrusted to his charge, to fulfil all the precepts of the law, many of which could not be carried out during the journey through the wilderness, whilst many others had only been given with special reference to the time when the people should be dwelling in Canaan. The first duty which devolved upon him in this respect, was to perform the rite of circumcision upon the generation that had been born in the wilderness, and had grown up without circumcision, so that the whole congregation might be included in the covenant of the Lord, and be able to keep the passover, which was to be celebrated in a few days in the manner prescribed by the law.

Verses 1-9

Circumcision of the People. - Joshua 5:1. Whilst, on the one hand, theapproach of the passover rendered it desirable that the circumcision ofthose who had remained uncircumcised should be carried out withoutdelay, on the other hand the existing circumstances were most favourablefor the performance of this covenant duty, inasmuch as the miraclewrought in connection with the passage through the Jordan had thrown theCanaanites into such alarm that there was no fear of their attacking theIsraelitish camp. To indicate this, the impression produced by this miracleis described, namely, that all the kings of Canaan had been thrown intodespair in consequence. All the tribes of Canaan are grouped together hereunder the names of Amorites and Canaanites, the tribes in possession ofthe mountains being all called Amorites, and those who lived by the sea,i.e., by the shore of the Mediterranean, Canaanites (vid., Joshua 1:4): for theAmorites upon the mountains were the strongest of all the Canaanitishtribes at that time (see at Genesis 10:16); whilst the name Canaanites, i.e., thebent one (see at Genesis 9:25), was peculiarly appropriate to the inhabitants of the lowlands, who relied upon trade more than upon warfare, and were probably dependent upon the strong and mighty Amorites. The application of the expression “beyond Jordan” (Eng. Ver. “on the side of”) to the country on this side, may be explained on the ground that the historian was still writing from the stand-point of the crossing. But in order to prevent any misunderstanding, he adds “towards the west,” as he had previously added “towards the sunrise,” in Joshua 1:15, when speaking of the land on the eastern side. That we have the report of an eye-witness here is evident from the words, “until we were passed over:” the reading of the Keri, עברם (till they were passed over), is nothing but an arbitrary and needless conjecture, and ought not to have been preferred by Bleek and others, notwithstanding the fact that the ancient versions and some MSS also adopt it.

Joshua 5:2-8

At that time (sc., the time of their encampment at Gilgal, and when the Canaanites were in despair) Joshua had the people “circumcised again, the second time.” The word שׁנית (a second time) is only added to give emphasis to שׁוּב, or as an explanation of it, and is not to be pressed, either here or in Isaiah 11:11, as though it denoted the repetition of the same act in every respect, i.e., of an act of circumcision which had once before been performed upon the whole nation. It merely expresses this meaning, “circumcise the people again, or the second time, as it was formerly circumcised” (i.e., a circumcised people, not in the same manner in which it once before had circumcision performed upon it). When the people came out of Egypt they were none of them uncircumcised, as distinctly affirmed in Joshua 5:5; but during their journey through the wilderness circumcision had been neglected, so that now the nation was no longer circumcised, and therefore it was necessary that circumcision should be performed upon the nation as a whole, by circumcising all who were uncircumcised. The opinion of Masius and O. v. Gerlach, that the expression “the second time” refers to the introduction of circumcision, when Abraham was circumcised with all his house, is very far-fetched. צרים חרבות are not “sharp knives,” but “stone knives,” which were used according to ancient custom (see at Exodus 4:25), literally knives of rocks (the plural zurim is occasioned by charboth, as in Numbers 13:32, etc.; the singular might have been used: see Ewald, §270, c.).

Joshua 5:3

Joshua had the circumcision performed “at the hill of the foreskins,” as the place was afterwards called from the fact that the foreskins were buried there.

Joshua 5:4-7

The reason for the circumcision of the whole nation was the following: all the fighting men who came out of Egypt had died in the wilderness by the way; for all the people that came out were circumcised; but all that were born in the wilderness during the journey had not been circumcised (ממּצרים בּצאתם, on their coming out of Egypt, which only came to an end on their arrival in Canaan). They walked forty years in the wilderness; till all the people - that is to say, all the fighting men - who came out of Egypt were consumed, because they had not hearkened to the voice of the Lord, and had been sentenced by the Lord to die in the wilderness (Joshua 5:6; cf. Numbers 14:26., Numbers 26:64-65, and Deuteronomy 2:14-16). But He (Jehovah) set up their sons in their place, i.e., He caused them to take their place; and these Joshua circumcised (i.e., had them circumcised), for they were uncircumcised, because they had not been circumcised by the way. This explains the necessity for a general circumcision of all the people, but does not state the reason why those who were born in the wilderness had not been circumcised. All that is affirmed in Joshua 5:5 and Joshua 5:7 is, that this had not taken place “by the way.” The true reason may be gathered from Joshua 5:6, if we compare the statement made in this verse, “for the children of Israel walked forty years in the wilderness, till all the men that were capable of bearing arms were consumed … unto whom the Lord sware that He would not show them the land promised to the fathers,” with the sentence pronounced by God to which these words refer, viz., Numbers 14:29-34. The Lord is then said to have sworn that all the men of twenty years old and upwards, who had murmured against Him, should perish in the wilderness; and though their sons should enter the promised land, they too should pasture, i.e., lead a nomad life, for forty years in the wilderness, and bear the apostasy of their fathers, till their bodies had fallen in the desert. This clearly means, that not only was the generation that came out of Egypt sentenced to die in the wilderness because of its rebellion against the Lord, and therefore rejected by God, but the sons of this generation had to bear the whoredom, i.e., the apostasy of their fathers from the Lord, for the period of forty years, until the latter had been utterly consumed; that is to say, during all this time they were to endure the punishment of rejection along with their fathers: with this difference alone, that the sons were not to die in the wilderness, but were to be brought into the promised land after their fathers were dead. The sentence upon the fathers, that their bodies should fall in the desert, was unquestionably a rejection of them on the part of God, an abrogation of the covenant with them. This punishment was also to be borne by their sons; and hence the reason why those who were born in the desert by the way were not circumcised. As the covenant of the Lord with the fathers was abrogated, the sons of the rejected generation were not to receive the covenant sign of circumcision. Nevertheless this abrogation of the covenant with the generation that had been condemned, was not a complete dissolution of the covenant relation, so far as the nation as a whole was concerned, since the whole nation had not been rejected, but only the generation of men that were capable of bearing arms when they came out of Egypt, whilst the younger generation which had grown up in the desert was to be delivered from the ban, which rested upon it as well, and brought into the land of Canaan when the time of punishment had expired. For this reason the Lord did not withdraw from the nation every sign of His grace; but in order that the consciousness might still be sustained in the young and rising generation, that the covenant would be set up again with them when the time of punishment had expired, He left them not only the presence of the pillar of cloud and fire, but also the manna and other tokens of His grace, the continuance of which therefore cannot be adduced as an argument against our view of the time of punishment as a temporary suspension of the covenant.
But if this was the reason for the omission of circumcision,

(Note: This reason was admitted even by Calvin, and has been well supported by Hengstenberg (Diss. ii. pp. 13ff.). The arguments adduced by Kurtz in opposition to this view are altogether unfounded. We have already observed that the reason for the suspension is not given in Joshua 5:7; and the further remark, that in Joshua 5:5 (“all the people that were born in the wilderness by the way as they came forth out of Egypt, them they had not circumcised”) the book of Joshua dates the suspension not from the sentence of rejection, but expressly and undoubtedly (?) from the departure from Egypt, has no force whatever, unless we so press the word all (“all the people that were born in the desert”) as not to allow of the slightest exception. But this is decidedly precluded by the fact, that we cannot imagine it possible for God to have established His covenant with the people at a time when they had neglected the fundamental law of the covenant, the transgression of which was threatened with destruction (Genesis 17:14), by neglecting to circumcise all the children who had been born between the departure from Egypt and the conclusion of the covenant at Sinai. We are also prevented from pressing the little word “all” in this manner by the evident meaning of the words before us. In Joshua 5:4 and Joshua 5:5 the Israelites are divided into two classes: (1) All the people that came out of Egypt and were circumcised; and (2) All the people that were born in the desert and were uncircumcised. The first of these died in the wilderness, the second came to Canaan and were circumcised by Joshua at Gilgal. But if we should press the word “all” in these clauses, it would follow that all the male children who were under twenty years of age at the time of the exodus, either died in the desert or were circumcised a second time at Gilgal. Lastly, it does not follow from Joshua 5:6 that the circumcision was suspended for exactly forty years; for the forty years during which Israel journeyed in the desert until the murmuring generation was consumed, are to be interpreted by Numbers 14:33-34, and amounted, chronologically considered, to no more than thirty-eight years and a few months. On the other hand, the other very general view which Kurtz adopts - namely, that the circumcision was omitted during the journey through the desert on account of the hardships connected with travelling, and because it was impossible to have regard to particular families who might wish for longer rest on account of their children who had just been circumcised, and were suffering from the wound, just at the time when they had to decamp and journey onward, and they could not well be left behind - throws but little light upon the subject, as the assumption that the people were constantly wandering about for forty years is altogether an unfounded one. The Israelites were not always wandering about: not only did they stay at Sinai for eleven whole months, but even after that they halted for weeks and months at the different places of encampment, when they might have circumcised their children without the slightest danger of their suffering from the wound.)

it did not commence till the second year of their journey, viz., at the time when the murmuring nation was rejected at Kadesh (Num 14); so that by “all the people that were born in the wilderness” we are to understand those who were born after that time, and during the last thirty-eight years of their wanderings, just as “all the people that came out of Egypt” are to be understood as signifying only those men who were twenty years old and upwards when they came out. Consequently circumcision was suspended as long as the nation was under the ban of the divine sentence pronounced upon it at Kadesh. This sentence was exhausted when they crossed the brook Zared and entered the country of the Amorites (compare Deuteronomy 2:14 with Numbers 21:12-13). Why, then, was not the circumcision performed during the encampment in the steppes of Moab either before or after the numbering, since all those who had been sentenced to die in the wilderness were already dead (Numbers 26:65)? The different answers which have been given to this question are some of them wrong, and others incomplete. For example, the opinion held by some, that the actual reason was that the forty years had not yet expired, is incorrect (see Deuteronomy 2:14). And the uncertainty how long they would remain in the steppes of Moab cannot be adduced as an explanation, as there were no circumstances existing that were likely to occasion a sudden and unexpected departure from Shittim. The reason why Moses did not renew the circumcision before the end of his own life, is to be sought for in the simple fact that he would not undertake an act of such importance without an express command from the Lord, especially as he was himself under sentence to die without entering the promised land. But the Lord did not enjoin the renewal of the covenant sign before Israel had been conducted into the promised land, because He saw fit first of all to incline the hearts of the people to carry out His commandment through this magnificent proof of His grace. It is the rule of divine grace first to give and then to ask. As the Lord did not enjoin circumcision as a covenant duty upon Abraham himself till He had given him a practical proof of His grace by leading him to Canaan, and by repeated promises of a numerous posterity, and of the eventual possession of the land; and just as He did not give the law to the children of Israel at Sinai till He had redeemed them with a mighty arm from the bondage of Egypt, and borne them on eagles' wings, and brought them to Himself, and had thereby made them willing to promise gladly to fulfil all that He should say to them as His covenant nation; so now He did not require the renewal of circumcision, which involved as the covenant sign the observance of the whole law, till He had given His people practical proofs, through the help afforded in the defeat of Sihon and Og, the kings of the Amorites, and in the miraculous division of the waters of Jordan, that He was able to remove all the obstacles that might lie in the way of the fulfilment of His promises, and give them the promised land for their inheritance, as He had sworn to their fathers.

Joshua 5:8

When the rite of circumcision had been performed upon them all, the people remained quietly in the camp till those who were circumcised had recovered. “They abode in their places,” i.e., sat still as they were, without attempting anything. חיה, to revive (Genesis 45:27; Job 14:14), or recover (2 Kings 1:2; 2 Kings 8:8, etc.). The circumcision of the people could not be performed earlier than the day after the crossing of the Jordan, i.e., according to Joshua 4:19, not earlier than the 11th day of the first month. Now, as the passover was to be kept, and actually was kept, on the 14th (Joshua 5:10), the two accounts are said to be irreconcilable, and the account of the circumcision has been set down as a later and unhistorical legend. But the objections made to the historical credibility of this account - viz., that the suffering consequent upon circumcision made a person ill for several days, and according to Genesis 34:25 was worst on the third day, so that the people could not have kept the passover on that day, and also that the people could not possibly have been all circumcised on one day - are founded upon false assumptions. In the latter, for example, the number of persons to be circumcised is estimated, most absurdly, at a million; whereas, according to the general laws of population, the whole of the male population of Israel, which contained only 601,730 of twenty years of age and upwards, besides 23,000 Levites of a month old and upwards, when the census was taken a short time before in the steppes of Moab, could not amount to more than a million in all, and of these between 280,000 and 330,000 were thirty-eight years old, and therefore, having been born before the sentence was pronounced upon the nation at Kadesh, and for the most part before the exodus from Egypt, had been already circumcised, so that there were only 670,000, or at the most 720,000, to be circumcised now. Consequently the proportion between the circumcised and uncircumcised was one to three or three and a half; and the operation could therefore be completed without any difficulty in the course of a single day. As regards the consequences of this operation, Genesis 34:25 by no means proves that the pain was most acute on the third day; and even it this really were the case, it would not prevent the keeping of the passover, as the lambs could have been killed and prepared by the 280,000 or 330,000 circumcised men; and even those who were still unwell could join in the meal, since it was only Levitical uncleanness, and not disease or pain, which formed a legal impediment to this (Numbers 9:10.).

(Note: For the basis upon which this computation rests, see Keil's Commentary on Joshua, p. 139 (Eng. trans. 1857).)

But if there were about 300,000 men of the age of forty and upwards who could not only perform the rite of circumcision upon their sons or younger brother, but, if necessary, were able at any moment to draw the sword, there was no reason whatever for their being afraid of an attack on the part of the Canaanites, even if the latter had not been paralyzed by the miraculous crossing of the Jordan.

Joshua 5:9

When the circumcision was completed, the Lord said to Joshua, “This day have I rolled away the reproach of Egypt from off you.” “The reproach of Egypt” is the reproach proceeding from Egypt, as “the reproach of Moab,” in Zephaniah 2:8, is the reproach heaped upon Israel by Moab (cf. Isaiah 51:7; Ezekiel 16:57). We are not to understand by this the Egyptian bondage, or the misery which still cleaved to the Israelites from Egypt, and the still further misery which they had suffered during their journey, on account of the displeasure of Jehovah (Knobel), but the reproach involved in the thoughts and sayings of the Egyptians, that Jehovah had brought the Israelites out of Egypt to destroy them in the desert (Exodus 32:12; Numbers 14:13-16; Deuteronomy 9:28), which rested upon Israel as long as it was condemned to wander restlessly about and to die in the wilderness. This reproach was rolled away from Israel with the circumcision of the people at Gilgal, inasmuch as this act was a practical declaration of the perfect restoration of the covenant, and a pledge that the Lord would now give them the land of Canaan for their inheritance. From this occurrence the place where the Israelites were encamped received the name of Gilgal, viz., “rolling away,” from גּלל, to roll. This explanation and derivation of the name is not to be pronounced incorrect and unhistorical, simply because it merely preserves the subordinate idea of rolling, instead of the fuller idea of the rolling away of reproach. For the intention was not to form a word which should comprehend the whole affair with exhaustive minuteness, but simply to invent a striking name which should recall the occurrence, like the name Tomi, of which Ovid gives the following explanation: Inde Tomos dictus locus est quia fertur in illo membra soror fratris consecuisse sui (Trist. iii. 9, 33). Knobel is wrong in maintaining that the name should be explained in a different way, and that this Gilgal is the same as Geliloth (circles) in Joshua 18:17 (see the explanation given at Joshua 15:7). The word gilgal, formed from גלל, to roll, signifies primarily rolling, then a wheel (Isaiah 28:28); and if by possibility it signifies orbis also, like גּליל, this is neither the original nor the only meaning of the word. According to Josephus (Ant. Joshua 18:1, Joshua 18:4), Israel encamped fifty stadia, i.e., two hours and a half, from the Jordan, and ten stadia, or half an hour, from Jericho-that is to say, in the plain or steppe between Jericho and the Jordan, in an uninhabited and uncultivated spot, which received the name of Gilgal for the first time, as the place where the Israelites were encamped. No town or village ever existed there, either at the period in question or at any later time. The only other places in which this Gilgal can be shown to be evidently referred to, are Micah 6:5 and 2 Samuel 19:6, 2 Samuel 19:41; and the statement made by Eusebius in the Onom. s. v. Galgala, δείκνυται ὁ τόπος ἔρημος ὡς ἱερὸς θρησκευόμενος , which Jerome paraphrases thus, “Even to the present day a deserted place is pointed out at the second mile from Jericho, which is held in amazing reverence by the inhabitants of that region,” by no means proves the existence of a town or village there in the time of the Israelites. Consequently it is not to be wondered at, that in spite of repeated search, Robinson has not been able to discover any remains of Gilgal to the east of Jericho, or to meet with any Arab who could tell him of such a name in this locality (see Rob. Pal. ii. pp. 287-8 and 278). On the situation of the Gilgal mentioned in Joshua 9:6; Joshua 10:6, etc., see at Joshua 8:35.

Verses 10-12

The Passover at Gilgal. - When the whole nation had been received again into covenant with the Lord by circumcision, they kept the passover, which had no doubt been suspended from the time that they left Sinai (Numbers 9:1.), on the 14th of the month (Nisan), in the evening (according to the law in Exodus 12:6, Exodus 12:18; Leviticus 23:5; Numbers 28:16; Deuteronomy 16:6). The next day, i.e., on the 16th, or the day after the first feast-day, they ate unleavened loaves and parched corn (“roasted grains,” see at Leviticus 2:14) of the produce of the land (עבוּר,

(Note: Rendered “old corn” in the Eng. version.)

which only occurs in Joshua 5:11 and Joshua 5:12, is synonymous with תּבוּאה

(Note: Rendered fruit in our version.)

in Joshua 5:12), i.e., corn that had grown in the land of Canaan, as the manna entirely ceased from this day forwards. “The morrow after the passover” is used in Numbers 33:3 for the 15th Nisan; but here it must be understood as signifying the 16th, as the produce of the land, of which they ate not only on that day, but, according to Joshua 5:12, throughout that year, cannot mean the corn of the previous year, but the produce of this same year, i.e., the new corn, and they were not allowed to eat any of that till it had been sanctified to the Lord by the presentation of the wave sheaf on the second day of the passover (Leviticus 23:11). According to Leviticus 23:11, the presentation was to take place on the day after the Sabbath, i.e., the first day of the feast of Mazzoth, which was kept as a Sabbath, or the 16th of Nisan, as the seven days' feast of Mazzoth commenced on the 15th (Leviticus 23:6; Numbers 28:17). “On the morrow after the passover” is the same as “on the morrow after the Sabbath” in Leviticus 23:11, the term passover being used here not in its original and more restricted sense, in which it applies exclusively to the observance of the paschal meal, which took place on the evening of the 14th, and is expressly distinguished from the seven days' feast of Mazzoth (Exodus 12:23, Exodus 12:27; Leviticus 23:5; Numbers 28:16), but in the broader sense, which we have already met with in Deuteronomy 16:2, in which the name was gradually extended to the whole of the seven days' feast. The writer assumed that the facts themselves were already well known from the Mosaic law, and therefore did not think it necessary to give any fuller explanation. Moreover, the words, “they did eat of the fruit of the land,” etc., are not to be understood as signifying that they began to eat unleavened bread for the first time on the 16th Nisan (they had already eaten is as an accompaniment to the paschal lamb); but unleavened bread of the produce of the land, the green corn of that year, was what they ate for the first time on that day. Especial prominence is given to this by the words, “in the self-same day,” because not only did the eating of the new corn commence on that day, but from that day forward “the children of Israel had manna no more.” This statement is evidently related to Exodus 16:35, and must be understood, according to that passage, as merely signifying, that on that day the gift of the manna entirely ceased (see Pentateuch, pp. 366ff.).

Verses 13-15

Appearance and Message of the Angel of the Lord. - Joshua 5:13-15. When Joshua was by Jericho, בּיריחו, lit., in Jericho ( expressing immediate proximity, the entrance as it were into some otherobject, vid., Ewald, §217), - that is to say, inside it in thought, meditatingupon the conquest of it-he saw, on lifting up his eyes, a man standingbefore him with a drawn sword in his hand; and on going up to him, andasking, “Dost thou belong to us or to our enemies?” he received this reply:“Nay (לא is not to be altered into לו, which is the readingadopted in the Sept., Syr., and a few MSS), but I am the prince of the army of Jehovah; now I am come.” The person who had appeared neither belonged to the Israelites nor to their enemies, but was the prince of the army of Jehovah, i.e., of the angels. “The Lord's host” does not mean “the people of Israel, who were just at the commencement of their warlike enterprise,” as v. Hofmann supposes; for although the host of Israel who came out of Egypt are called “the hosts of the Lord” in Exodus 12:41, the Israelites are never called the host or army of Jehovah (in the singular). “The host of Jehovah” is synonymous with “the host of heaven” (1 Kings 22:19), and signifies the angels, as in Psalm 148:2 and Psalm 103:21. With the words “now I am come,” the prince of the angels is about to enter upon an explanation of the object of his coming; but he is interrupted in his address by Joshua, who falls down before him, and says, “What saith my lord to his servant?” so that now he first of all commands Joshua to take off his shoes, as the place on which he stands is holy. It by no means follows that because Joshua fell down upon the ground and ישׁתּחוּ (Eng. Ver. “did worship”), he must have recognised him at once as the angel of the Lord who was equal with God; for the word השׁתּחוה, which is connected with the falling down, does not always mean divine worship, but very frequently means nothing more than the deep Oriental reverence paid by a dependant to his superior or king (e.g., 2 Samuel 9:6; 2 Samuel 14:33), and Joshua did not address the person who appeared to him by the name of God, אדני, but simply as אדני, “My lord.” In any case, however, Joshua regarded him at once as a superior being, i.e., an angel. And he must have recognised him as something more than a created angel of superior rank, that is to say, as the angel of Jehovah who is essentially equal with God, the visible revealer of the invisible God, as soon as he gave him the command to take off his shoes, etc. - a command which would remind him of the appearance of God to Moses in the burning bush, and which implied that the person who now appeared was the very person who had revealed himself to Moses as the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. (On the meaning of the command to take off the shoes, see the exposition of Exodus 3:5.) The object of the divine appearance was indicated by the drawn sword in the hand (cf. Numbers 22:31), by which he manifested himself as a heavenly warrior, or, as he describes himself to Joshua, as prince of the army of Jehovah. The drawn sword contained in itself this practical explanation: “I am now come with my heavenly army, to make war upon the Canaanites, and to assist thee and thy people” (Seb. Schmidt). It was not in a vision that this appearance took place, but it was an actual occurrence belonging to the external world; for Joshua saw the man with the drawn sword at a certain distance from himself, and went up to him to address him, - a fact which would be perfectly incompatible with an inward vision.


Copyright Statement
The Keil & Delitzsch Commentary on the Old Testament is a derivative of a public domain electronic edition.

Bibliography Information
Keil, Carl Friedrich & Delitzsch, Franz. "Commentary on Joshua 5:4". 1854-1889.

Lectionary Calendar
Monday, November 20th, 2017
the Week of Proper 28 / Ordinary 33
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