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Bible Commentaries

Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible
Joshua 5

 

 

Introduction

Commentary on The Book of Joshua - chapters 5-8.

In this section the circumcision of the men of Israel is accomplished, followed by the observance of the Passover. Then commences the initial parts of the invasion. First Jericho is taken, and then a contingent moves up the pass to capture Ai, only to be driven back because of their arrogance in taking only a limited number of soldiers for the purpose. As a result the sin of Achan is discovered in that he had kept for himself what had been dedicated to YHWH. Joshua having repented of his failure, and Achan having been dealt with for his blasphemy, Joshua takes the whole army back up the pass and Ai is captured, and the army of Bethel defeated. Joshua then arranges a covenant ceremony at Shechem.

Chapter 5. Circumcision and Passover - The Captain of YHWH’s Host.

The Canaanites having been devastated by learning of the passage of the children of Israel through Jordan, Joshua is ordered to circumcise such of the people of Israel as were uncircumcised, so that they might eat the Passover, which they were now to observe. Meanwhile, the people having a sufficiency of corn from the land, the manna ceased. As Joshua was considering how to take Jericho a man appeared who said that he was the captain of the host of YHWH, who encouraged and directed him as to what to do with regard to the conquest of the land, and particularly of Jericho.


Verse 1

Commentary on The Book of Joshua - chapters 5-8.

In this section the circumcision of the men of Israel is accomplished, followed by the observance of the Passover. Then commences the initial parts of the invasion. First Jericho is taken, and then a contingent moves up the pass to capture Ai, only to be driven back because of their arrogance in taking only a limited number of soldiers for the purpose. As a result the sin of Achan is discovered in that he had kept for himself what had been dedicated to YHWH. Joshua having repented of his failure, and Achan having been dealt with for his blasphemy, Joshua takes the whole army back up the pass and Ai is captured, and the army of Bethel defeated. Joshua then arranges a covenant ceremony at Shechem.

Chapter 5. Circumcision and Passover - The Captain of YHWH’s Host.

The Canaanites having been devastated by learning of the passage of the children of Israel through Jordan, Joshua is ordered to circumcise such of the people of Israel as were uncircumcised, so that they might eat the Passover, which they were now to observe. Meanwhile, the people having a sufficiency of corn from the land, the manna ceased. As Joshua was considering how to take Jericho a man appeared who said that he was the captain of the host of YHWH, who encouraged and directed him as to what to do with regard to the conquest of the land, and particularly of Jericho.

Joshua 5:1

And so it was that when all the kings of the Amorites, who were beyond Jordan westward, and all the kings of the Canaanites who were by the sea, heard that YHWH had dried up the waters of 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.’

News of the crossing of Jordan had reached the ears of the Amorites and the Canaanites east of Jordan, that is those in Canaan itself. The fact that the Canaanites are described as ‘by the sea’ suggests that at this stage the Philistines had not yet arrived. The news devastated them. This confirmed all that they had heard about the God of these people, and His amazing power. They were filled with fear and lost heart, terrified of the prospect that they must now face. God had thus sent His hornet to prepare the way (Exodus 23:28; Deuteronomy 7:20 compare Joshua 24:12). These descriptions were intended to signify all the peoples in Canaan, both the Canaanites who were the plain dwellers and the Amorites who were mountain dwellers.

“Until we were passed over.” The ‘we’ indicates that the writer was alive at the time of the crossing of the Jordan, and there is no sound reason for doubting that almost the whole book comes from his hand. It would probably be some priestly scribe to whom Joshua committed the task of recording the victories of YHWH, at least partially under his direction.


Verse 2

‘At that time YHWH said to Joshua, “Make yourself knives of flint and circumcise again the children of Israel the second time.” ’

This did not mean circumcising those who were already circumcised for a second time (see Joshua 5:7), but reintroducing circumcision as something to be carried out on those who had not been circumcised during the journey through the wilderness and what followed.

Circumcision was an ancient rite practised in both Egypt and Canaan, and Abraham, having arrived from the north, was told to adopt the practise as a sign of YHWH’s covenant with him (Genesis 17). No one who was uncircumcised was to be allowed to eat the Passover (Exodus 12:44; Exodus 12:48). Thus Abraham circumcised the whole of his family tribe ‘the first time’. Then from Abraham to the Exodus the rite of circumcision on the eighth day after birth was carried out on every male child as a continuation of that ceremony. But the journey from Egypt had interrupted the rite, for no circumcision took place in the wilderness. Thus it had to commence as a group matter ‘a second time’. It had possibly not been seen as helpful for people to be circumcised while constantly travelling due to the days of soreness that followed, and we must presume that Moses considered that YHWH Himself had given them a dispensation from it for the period.

Joshua used flint knives for the performance of the rite, even though it was at a time when the use of metal was well known and metal knives were to hand. It is clear from this that the ceremony was seen as so sacred, and so ancient, that the original methods had to be followed. Moses’ failure to circumcise his son had led to almost fatal illness until the situation was remedied (Exodus 4:24-26). A flint was also used there. The use of flint knives, freshly prepared from new flints, meant that the knives were naturally the equivalent of having been sterilised, which metal knives would not have been.

Circumcision was an ancient institution not limited to the family tribe of Abraham and was practised in Egypt in the Old Kingdom period. But there it was carried out during boyhood rather than at infancy. A sixth dynasty Egyptian tomb relief depicts a boy being circumcised, probably with a flint knife, and two prisoners of a Canaanite king depicted on a 12th century BC Megiddo ivory, were also circumcised. But it is clear that in Abraham’s family tribe circumcision was not practised up to Genesis 17, and it was not generally practised in Mesopotamia from where Abraham came. Modern medicine has shown the value of circumcision in protecting the health of those who live in semi-desert conditions as it helps to prevent foreign bodies becoming trapped under the foreskin.


Verse 3

And Joshua made for himself flint knives, and circumcised the children of Israel at the hill of the foreskins.’

The action is depicted as Joshua’s but he would no doubt be assisted by able and worthy men. The flint knives had to be fashioned and then all the uncircumcised males circumcised. During this period they would have been vulnerable (see Genesis 34:25). But YHWH had put such fear in the hearts of the Canaanites that they had nothing to fear.

“At the hill of the foreskins.” Literally ‘Gibeath-ha-araloth’. A name given to a hill where the practise was then carried out. It was possibly where the remnants were buried.


Verse 4-5

And this is the reason why Joshua circumcised. All the people who came out of Egypt who were males, even all the men of war, died in the wilderness by the way, after they came out of Egypt. For all the people who came out were circumcised. But all the people who were born in the wilderness by the way, as they came out of Egypt, they had not been circumcised.’

The first ‘all the people’ is a generalisation. Joshua and Caleb at least were present. The point is rather to explain why so many were uncircumcised.

All the circumcised males of twenty years old and upwards sentenced by YHWH to die, had died during the forty years, but many of those under twenty who would also have been circumcised would still be alive. However, those born in the wilderness journeying had not been circumcised. It need not specifically mean that no one was circumcised after the leaving of Egypt, only that it was not the general practise. This lack of circumcision would also be true of the children of the mixed multitude (Exodus 12:38), many of whom would not have been circumcised even in Egypt (although circumcision may have been required of them when they joined the covenant community). Thus those present with Joshua included many older men who had been circumcised and possibly some older men and certainly a large number of younger men and boys who had not. These were the ones to be circumcised as the covenant was renewed on entering the land.

The reason for not circumcising their infants may well have been because of the discomfort it would cause for everyone when they were journeying day by day. They would have been continually accompanied by infants in pain and discomfort who were being subjected to the extreme rigours of the journey. The fact that it had to take place on the eighth day (Leviticus 12:3) meant that it could not be left for a more convenient time.

“By the way, as they came out of Egypt.” Compare Deuteronomy 24:9; Deuteronomy 25:17. Once again we have evidence how well Joshua knew the words of Moses.


Verse 6

For the children of Israel walked forty years in the wilderness, until all the people who were men of war, who came out of Egypt, were consumed because they did not obey the voice of YHWH, to whom YHWH swore that he would not let them see the land which YHWH swore to their fathers that he would give us, a land flowing with milk and honey.’

This is to explain the situation for those unaware of it. All who were over twenty years old at the first abortive entry into Canaan thirty eight years before, had been sentenced to die in the wilderness, with one or two notable exceptions (Numbers 14:28-35). This was because of their disobedience on that occasion, and their refusal to enter the land of Canaan when God told them to. Thus He had sworn that they would not see the land which had been promised to them when they left Egypt (Numbers 14:23). ‘Milk and honey’ represented staple foods and sweetness, a sign of the desirability of the land. But it was only a desirable land when it had sufficient rain. Thus its desirability depended on God’s provision.


Verse 7

And their children whom he raised up in their stead, them Joshua circumcised, for they were circumcised, because they had not circumcised them by the way.’

Here it is specifically stated that those who were now to be circumcised were those born ‘by the way’ i.e. on the journey, those who replaced the condemned generation and had not been circumcised.

These rather complicated verses were trying to explain briefly, to those who assumed circumcision as practised on the eighth day after birth, the reason why a circumcision ceremony was necessary, . They were trying to present succintly a very complicated situation. We must not overpress the detail.


Verse 8

‘And so it was that when they had finished circumcising all the nation, they stayed in their places in the camp until they were whole.’

Having undergone the rite of circumcision all the males under forty were in some discomfort and had to rest up in the camp. It has been questioned whether a general would have carried out such an operation on his troops in such a situation, but he knew that the people of Jericho were afraid and remaining in their city, that there was no evidence of any other troop movement through the hills, and that YHWH had just revealed His power by the crossing of the Jordan. Thus such a necessary operation in order to celebrate the first Passover in the land was quite reasonable in such a situation.


Verse 9

Joshua 5:9 a.

‘And YHWH said to Joshua, “This day I have rolled away the reproach of Egypt from off you.” ’

The general idea was that circumcision had now finally made them a circumcised nation, as a free people within the covenant, in their own land. They were now YHWH’s people in YHWH’s land.

“The reproach of Egypt” may signify:

· That attitude of disobedient Israel which clung to Egypt (Exodus 16:3; Exodus 17:3; Numbers 11:5; Numbers 20:5; Numbers 21:5; Deuteronomy 1:27). Thus they were now seen as a new nation with any desires for Egypt removed from them.

· That they were now at last really a free and sanctified people in a free and sanctified (because YHWH’s gift to His people) land, within the covenant of YHWH which had now been renewed, with their slave past and Egyptian ‘unclean’ connections and religious influence behind them (compare Hosea 9:3).

· It may refer to that reproachful charge that was seen as originating with the Egyptians, and could now be seen as totally refuted, that YHWH had led the Israelites out of Egypt only to destroy them in the wilderness (compare Exodus 32:12; Numbers 14:13-16; Deuteronomy 9:28).

· Or it may refer to a tendency on the part of some Israelites not to have circumcised their infants because of Egyptian influence (who circumcised at puberty) and to the fact that many of the youngsters of the mixed multitude who came from Egypt had never been circumcised.

Joshua 5:9 b.

‘For this reason the name of the place is called Gilgal to this day.’

The name Gilgal means ‘a rolling’. Thus it is here seen as referring to the rolling away of the reproach of Egypt. This is almost certainly the taking of an old name and giving it a new meaning, for there were already a number of Gilgals in Canaan, or it may less probably mean that this was a new name given for this reason, used earlier because it had become the name of the place at the time of writing.


Verse 10

And the children of Israel encamped in Gilgal, and they kept the passover on the fourteenth day of the month in the evening, in the plains of Jericho.’

There are six mentions of the keeping of the Passover in the Old Testament, Exodus 12; Numbers 9:2-5 (at the first movement towards the land); 2 Chronicles 30:15-17 (Hezekiah’s revival); 2 Kings 23:21-23 (Josiah’s revival); Ezra 6:19-22 and here, all important occasions. But there is no good reason for doubting that it was observed every year. As Numbers 9:2-5 demonstrates that the Passover was observed in the wilderness it would seem that the requirement for circumcision (Exodus 12:48) was suspended when they were ‘by the way’ (on their journey), (although it may have been because at that stage, within two years of leaving Egypt, only infants would have been uncircumcised). There was in fact no specific provision in the Law of Sinai about circumcision in relation to the Passover, and the only previous provision in respect of the Passover was for slaves and new adherents to be circumcised before they could observe the Passover, for the aim of the provision about circumcision in Exodus 12:44; Exodus 12:48 was so that only those dedicated to YHWH should partake. It simply assumed true Israelites were being circumcised in accordance with the provisions in Genesis 17. Thus when circumcision was seemingly suspended for Israelites during the period in the wilderness the proviso there would no longer be a suitable test. It would only apply once they were in the land and being circumcised once again. Deuteronomy 16 demonstrates that the final intention was that Passover should be celebrated at the central sanctuary and that the ritual was flexible.


Verse 11

And they ate of the produce of the land on the morrow after the passover, unleavened cakes and parched corn, on the selfsame day.’

That is they celebrated the Feast of Unleavened Bread the next day with unleavened cakes and parched or roasted corn which was the produce of the land. It was a day of triumph. The grain needed to make these cakes, and the corn, may have come from storeplaces in the plain of Jordan whose owners had taken shelter in Jericho. The amount was unimportant. It was the fact that mattered. The rules in Leviticus 23:10-14 would not apply because they had not reaped a harvest. They still also had the manna which did not cease until the next day.

“The produce (of the land).” The particular noun (‘avur) is only used here and in the next verse. It was used in this context probably because its consonants connect with the word for ‘cross over’ (‘avar) referring to the crossing of the Jordan.

“The morrow after the passover.” This may be 15th or 16th Nisan, the former a Sabbath. But it does not say when the corn was collected. The womenfolk could have collected it from abandoned storeplaces while the men were recuperating.

We do not know whether the wheat harvests had been collected in by the Canaanites by this time. The ever-threatening presence of the Israelite army may well have hindered it so that it was only partly collected. And if it was fully collected much would have been available outside the city in the storehouses.


Verse 12

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 ate of the fruit of the land of Canaan that year.’

Manna was ‘wilderness food’. The ceasing of the manna was the final sign that their wanderings were over. From now on they would eat of the good things that the promised land provided. So the crossing of the Jordan, followed by circumcision indicating a new birth for the nation (compare Isaiah 48:1 ‘are come forth out of the waters of Judah’ where the ‘breaking of the waters’ at birth may well have been in mind), together with the celebration of Passover, the feast of deliverance, now resulted in full provision for the future.

For this compare Exodus 16:35 where it was declared that after forty years the manna would cease when they reached the borders of Canaan.


Verse 13

And so it was that when Joshua was by Jericho, he lifted up his eyes and looked, and, behold, there stood a man 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?” ’

Joshua was probably on a surveying expedition to look at the possibilities for attacking and capturing Jericho when he came across an armed man with sword drawn. So he challenged him whether he was a man of Israel or a Canaanite. Possibly he saw him as one who may have come out to challenge an Israelite champion to single combat as Goliath would later (1 Samuel 17:4).

“With his sword drawn in his hand.” This is central to the thought. Compare Numbers 22:23; Numbers 22:31 where it was the Angel of YHWH Himself Who stood with a drawn sword in His hand. Once he learned a little more about the man, this vision would probably spring to Joshua’s mind. In Scripture the drawn sword is an instrument of impending judgment (1 Chronicles 21:16; Ezekiel 21:2-5; also Ezekiel 5:2; Ezekiel 5:12; Ezekiel 12:14; Isaiah 21:15; . This figure was therefore indicating that YHWH was about to bring His awful judgment on the Canaanites, as represented here by Jericho. YHWH Himself would fight against Jericho, but against Jericho as the first of every city in Canaan (compare 2 Samuel 24:16-17; 1 Chronicles 21:16). In the words of Ezekiel 21:9, ‘a sword, a sword, it is sharpened and also furbished. It is sharpened that it may make a slaughter, it is furbished that it may be as lightning.’


Verse 14

Joshua 5:14 a

‘And he said, “No, but as Captain of the host of YHWH am I now come.” ’

To Joshua’s astonishment the man replied that He had come as Captain of YHWH’s host. At the mention of YHWH’s host Joshua’s mind may well have gone back to the ‘ten thousands of holy ones’ described by Moses (Deuteronomy 33:2). So he may have seen this Man as having come, with YHWH’s hosts backing Him, to fight alongside Israel and bring God’s judgment on Jericho, with Jericho being seen as representative of all the Canaanites, because their iniquity was now full (compare Genesis 15:16). It indicates that the cry of Canaan’s deep sinfulness, with its distorted religion, sexual perversions and child sacrifices, had reached to heaven.

We can compare this to some extent with Elisha who was also surrounded by the invisible host of YHWH (2 Kings 6:17), and his vision of the chariots of God who were there to fight on behalf of Israel, the ones who were Israel’s true chariots (2 Kings 2:12). In both cases the idea was of God’s power behind His chosen servant. Compare also the angels of God who met with Jacob on his return to Canaan, ‘God’s host’ (Genesis 32:1-2). But the drawn sword stresses that here the emphasis was on judgment rather than protection.

Alternately, however, and possibly preferably if not as spectacularly, we may see ‘the host of YHWH’ as referring to ‘My hosts, My people, the children of Israel’ (Exodus 7:4) with the idea being that this man was claiming to be their supreme general, indicating that He was therefore Joshua’s superior officer, the Captain of the host of Israel, ‘the Angel of YHWH’ in contrast with Joshua, ‘the servant of YHWH’, and that He had come to lead them with the sword of judgment already drawn. In this case we have the picture of Israel as YHWH’s avenging host under YHWH’s direct command who must now bring judgment on Canaan for its evil ways.

Joshua 5:14 b.

“And Joshua fell on his face to the earth, and performed worship, and said to him, “What does my Lord say to his servant?”.’

Compare Balaam’s response to the Angel of YHWH, ‘he bowed his head and fell on his face’ (Numbers 22:31). Joshua’s act of worship demonstrated that he now knew that this was the Angel of YHWH, YHWH Himself revealed in human form. He was aware of His numinous presence, and, filled with awe, he yielded to Him in total submission. “What does my Lord say to his servant?”


Verse 15

And the Captain of YHWH's host said to Joshua, “Put off your shoe from off your foot, for the place on which you are standing is holy.” And Joshua did so.’

Compare for this incident Exodus 3:5 where Moses too was told to remove his shoes for the same reason. And like Moses Joshua, aware that he was in a heavenly presence, and that nothing earthly must contaminate the place, removed his shoes. His clothing had been ‘sanctified’ prior to crossing the Jordan (Joshua 3:5). But while YHWH was revealed there the ground was ‘holy’, as Sinai had been when YHWH appeared on it. No human being dared therefore be there except with His express permission, and no man made materials must touch the sacred earth.

We note that there was no direct reply to Joshua’s question. No reply was needed. The drawn sword was God’s answer. They were to go forward in His name, seize the country and destroy and drive out the evil Canaanites, accomplishing in one stroke two vital things, the inheritance of the land by Israel as a kingdom of priests and a holy nation (Exodus 19:6) and God’s judgment on, and annihilation of, sin and iniquity. This was the vision. Both were equally important. It was the failure to do the second which would prevent the fulfilling of the first. We may be inclined to draw most help from this passage from the idea that God is with us, but we must not overlook the drawn sword, expressive of God’s hatred of sin. That is a warning that sin must not be treated lightly. Thus was renewed Joshua’s intimate experience of YHWH (Exodus 24:13; Exodus 33:11).

 


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Bibliography Information
Pett, Peter. "Commentary on Joshua 5:4". "Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible ". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/pet/joshua-5.html. 2013.

Lectionary Calendar
Tuesday, November 12th, 2019
the Week of Proper 27 / Ordinary 32
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