Cuttings and Contrasts – 5:2-9

The previous entry can be found here.

Black and white. Day and night. Rich and poor. These are all examples of contrasts. They play a huge role in our everyday life. When we want to elevate the impact of something we give a contrast. One famous contrast in the Bible is found in Ephesians 2:1-5, which reads,

And you were dead in your trespasses and sins  in which you previously walked according to the ways of this world, according to the ruler who exercises authority over the lower heavens, the spirit now working in the disobedient.  We too all previously lived among them in our fleshly desires, carrying out the inclinations of our flesh and thoughts, and we were by nature children under wrath as the others were also.  But God, who is rich in mercy, because of His great love that He had for us,  made us alive with the Messiah even though we were dead in trespasses. You are saved by grace! (Emphasis added.)

With that concept in mind, let’s look at our text for today.

Our historian writes, “At that time the LORD said to Joshua, ‘Make flint knives and circumcise the Israelite men again.’  So Joshua made flint knives and circumcised the Israelite men at Gibeath-haaraloth.  This is the reason Joshua circumcised ⌊them⌋: All the people who came out of Egypt who were males—all the men of war—had died in the wilderness along the way after they had come out of Egypt.  Though all the people who came out were circumcised, none of the people born in the wilderness along the way were circumcised after they had come out of Egypt.  For the Israelites wandered in the wilderness 40 years until all the nation’s men of war who came out of Egypt had died off because they did not obey the LORD. So the LORD vowed never to let them see the land He had sworn to their fathers to give us, a land flowing with milk and honey.  Joshua raised up their sons in their place; it was these he circumcised. They were still uncircumcised, since they had not been circumcised along the way.  After the entire nation had been circumcised, they stayed where they were in the camp until they recovered.  The LORD then said to Joshua, ‘Today I have rolled away the disgrace of Egypt from you.’ Therefore, that place is called Gilgal to this day.”

So at this point, Israel has faithfully followed Joshua’s leadership and is now on the opposite side of the Jordan. They are standing in the borders of the Promised Land ready to take it for themselves for God’s glory. However, as our passage today will show, other things must come first. In explaining the first of these things, our historian highlights God’s grace through several contrasts so that we would remember where we have come from as the people of God.

First, we are shown God’s command and Joshua’s subsequent obedience that leads to the contrasts. Verses 2-3 say, “At that time the LORD said to Joshua, ‘Make flint knives and circumcise the Israelite men again.’  So Joshua made flint knives and circumcised the Israelite men at Gibeath-haaraloth.”

Yet again, we see right off the bat that all of Joshua’s actions follow God’s direct orders. Before diving into the specifics of our text today, i must simply ask, “What would our churches—and the Christian faith itself—be like if our leaders sought God through prayer and Scripture reading every day instead of trusting themselves and their opinions on how things should be done?” I’d be willing to bet we could see a Second Reformation and even more powerfully—a great revival. If God’s people followed God’s commands, this world would be a much different place.

But the specific command God gave to Joshua was that he “circumcise the Israelite men again.” I highlight the word again because this is where the confusion comes in this verse. Joshua had never before been commanded to circumcise the Israelites; this was the first time. Therefore, the again refers to circumcision; it was the second time the nation had to be circumcised. One commentator interestingly points out that the only other time the word flint appears as a noun is in Exodus 4:25: “So Zipporah took a flint, cut off her son’s foreskin, and threw it at Moses’ feet. Then she said, ‘You are a bridegroom of blood to me!’”[1] Another commentator explains in relation to our passage today, “Exodus 4:24-26 is a difficult passage in which Moses’ son is prepared for the events that follow Moses’ return to Egypt.”[2]

The events that followed were the ten plagues that culminated with the death of the firstborn. Only those who put blood on their doorposts would be protected from the Angel of Death, and the Passover meal was instituted as a memory of the event. However, here’s what it says about those who can participate in the Passover meal: “If a foreigner resides with you and wants to celebrate the LORD’s Passover, every male in his household must be circumcised, and then he may participate; he will become like a native of the land. But no uncircumcised person may eat it” (Exodus 12:48). We will see next time that another connection between the two events is that the Passover was celebrated four days after they crossed the Jordan.

So Joshua commanded that the Israelites make sure that any man who was not yet circumcised be circumcised before the Passover celebration four days later. This was quite a large group. Numbers 14:29 said that all those 20 years old or more had died in the wilderness. For this reason, the oldest person who crossed the Jordan was 59 (19 before command + 40 years of wandering). With the same logic, the oldest person circumcised at this point would be 40 years of age (born the year of the Exodus + 40 years of wandering.) Everyone who left Egypt (8 days old or more) was circumcised (cf. Joshua 5:5). Those counted in the census of Numbers 26 were only those 20 years old and more which came to a total of 601,730 men. This does not include the boy babies/children of all the tribes including Levites (excluded from count) from the grand total i approximated at 1,865,190. While we will never be able to get an exact count of those that had to be circumcised, it wasn’t simply a handful of people. Rather, it was several thousand at the very least. But no matter the number, “Joshua obeyed God’s command explicitly—the wording is identical in the command (v. 2) and the report of the execution of the command.”[3]

The location of the circumcision was “Gibeath-haaraloth.” This name literally means, “Hill of the Foreskins.” As our text will ultimately show by the end today, this would have been the location’s name until at least the time of writing, but God intervened.

Second, we are shown the first contrast. Verses 4-7 say, “This is the reason Joshua circumcised ⌊them⌋: All the people who came out of Egypt who were males—all the men of war—had died in the wilderness along the way after they had come out of Egypt.  Though all the people who came out were circumcised, none of the people born in the wilderness along the way were circumcised after they had come out of Egypt.  For the Israelites wandered in the wilderness 40 years until all the nation’s men of war who came out of Egypt had died off because they did not obey the LORD. So the LORD vowed never to let them see the land He had sworn to their fathers to give us, a land flowing with milk and honey.  Joshua raised up their sons in their place; it was these he circumcised. They were still uncircumcised, since they had not been circumcised along the way.”

Our historian here explains exactly why Joshua was told to circumcise the Israelites. As pointed out in the prior section, all of those born in Egypt had been circumcised. However, those born after had not been circumcised. He explains that the death of the earlier generation was due to their disobedience; they died so that they couldn’t see what God had promised to their forefathers.

What have we seen thus far throughout our study of Joshua though? A LOT of obedience! Everything God commands Joshua to say or do, he says or does, and everything Joshua passes on to the people is carried out obediently.

There is a curious phrase in verse 6. “The LORD vowed never to let them see the land He had sworn to their fathers to give us.” Our historian identifies himself with those to which God promised to give the “land flowing with milk and honey.” The first time this phrase occurs is at the burning bush to Moses (Exodus 3:8). Moses then passed this description along to the next generation—the one that ultimately died in the wilderness—in Exodus 13:5. The unity amongst the Israelites is highlighted in bold by our historian when he refers to us in 5:6. It is the same kind of unity witnessed in Hebrews 7:9-10 when we read, “And in a sense Levi himself, who receives tenths, has paid tenths through Abraham,  for he was still within his ancestor when Melchizedek met him.” The Levites did not have to pay tithes, but the preacher to the Hebrews explains that when Abraham paid tithes to Melchizedek in Genesis 14, Abraham’s great-grandson Levi—and all of Levi’s descendants—also paid a tithe to Melchizedek. When God promised to our historian’s ancestors that He would give them a land flowing with milk and honey, He was also promising their descendants—who had not yet been born—a land flowing with milk and honey. God could have cut off His grace to Israel in the wilderness, but He didn’t.

In fact, our text today happened after they crossed the Jordan River, which means that God could have said, “You aren’t fit to cross this River and enter the Land. You aren’t yet identified as my people physically (cf. Genesis 17).” But He didn’t! Instead, He miraculously and graciously brought them across the Jordan River into the Land He had promised them. God is gracious!

Third, we are shown the result of Joshua’s obedience. Verses 8-9 say, “After the entire nation had been circumcised, they stayed where they were in the camp until they recovered.  The LORD then said to Joshua, ‘Today I have rolled away the disgrace of Egypt from you.’ Therefore, that place is called Gilgal to this day.”

The first thing to note is that Joshua obeyed. The second thing to note is that they remained in the camp until they recovered. This instantly brings Genesis 34 to mind, where we read,

Then Shechem [who had raped Dinah] said to Dinah’s father and brothers, “Grant me this favor, and I’ll give you whatever you say.  Demand of me a high compensation and gift; I’ll give you whatever you ask me. Just give the girl to be my wife!”  But Jacob’s sons answered Shechem and his father Hamor deceitfully because he had defiled their sister Dinah.  “We cannot do this thing,” they said to them. “Giving our sister to an uncircumcised man is a disgrace to us.  We will agree with you only on this condition: if all your males are circumcised as we are.  Then we will give you our daughters, take your daughters for ourselves, live with you, and become one people.  But if you will not listen to us and be circumcised, then we will take our daughter and go.”  Their words seemed good to Hamor and his son Shechem.  The young man did not delay doing this, because he was delighted with Jacob’s daughter. Now he was the most important in all his father’s house.  So Hamor and his son Shechem went to the gate of their city and spoke to the men there.  “These men are peaceful toward us,” they said. “Let them live in our land and move about in it, for indeed, the region is large enough for them. Let us take their daughters as our wives and give our daughters to them.  But the men will agree to live with us and be one people only on this condition: if all our men are circumcised as they are.  Won’t their livestock, their possessions, and all their animals become ours? Only let us agree with them, and they will live with us.”  All the able-bodied men listened to Hamor and his son Shechem, and all the able-bodied men were circumcised.  On the third day, when they were still in pain, two of Jacob’s sons, Simeon and Levi, Dinah’s brothers, took their swords, went into the unsuspecting city, and killed every male.  They killed Hamor and his son Shechem with their swords, took Dinah from Shechem’s house, and went away.  Jacob’s ⌊other⌋ sons came to the slaughter and plundered the city because their sister had been defiled.  They took their sheep, cattle, donkeys, and whatever was in the city and in the field.  They captured all their possessions, children, and wives and plundered everything in the houses (Genesis 34:11-29, emphasis added).

The point being that having almost your entire army circumcised after entering a foreign land would be tantamount to suicide. First, their obedience is a huge sign of faith in God, and second, their obedience goes to show the HUGE truth of Joshua 5:1. The people of the land were terrified of Israel, even in their now weakened state.

Do our lives exhibit this kind of faith? Do we obey God even if it seems like we might get slaughtered as a result. This is what our text is calling for today? (Don’t get circumcised though, because then you’re missing the point and should also check out these posts.)

In verse 9 God speaks to Joshua and explains that by Joshua’s obedience, He had “rolled away the disgrace of Egypt from them.” A better translation for disgrace is “reproach.” Of this statement, Calvin writes,

I rather understand the meaning to be, that they were freed from an invidious charge, by which they were otherwise overborne. It was disreputable to have shaken off the yoke and revolted from the king under whose government they lived. Moreover, as they gave out that God was the avenger of unjust tyranny, it was easy to upbraid them with using the name of God as a mere color for their conduct. They might, therefore, have been regarded as deserters, had not the disgrace been wiped off by the appeal to circumcision, by which the divine election was sealed in their flesh before they went down into Egypt.[4]

Egypt looked at them as they wandered in the Wilderness and said, “What a bunch of liars. They didn’t have a God to care for them. They’re just a bunch of rebels against the government.” When God had them reapply His special mark to show that they belonged to Him, this talk fell flat. They were His, and He was with them, and He was for them.

And then, the last thing we see in this text is what we already saw in 4:19 about the name of their camp. In 4:19 our historian referred to it as Gilgal because that’s what the people of his day would know it as (see final phrase in 5:9), but in 5:3, he calls it, “The Hill of the Foreskins.” God tells Joshua what He did through the obedience of circumcision, and Joshua takes it upon himself to rename the location in memory of God’s work. God rolled away their disgrace, so He called the place “Gilgal,” which is grammatically similar to the Hebrew word for “rolling.” So the second contrast in today’s text is that of their camp’s name. Previously a filthy name; now a memory to God’s redemptive grace and power.

God is in the business of giving new names. In Romans 5 it says that before we know Jesus we are God’s enemies, but in Romans 8 we are urged to pray as God’s children because of Jesus. Talk about a contrast! In Revelation 3:12, the one who ultimately makes it to heaven is described as follows: “The victor: I will make him a pillar in the sanctuary of My God, and he will never go out again. I will write on him the name of My God and the name of the city of My God—the new Jerusalem, which comes down out of heaven from My God—and My new name” (emphasis added). God is in the business of changing names.

Before Christ we are as filthy as a pile of foreskins. After Christ has entered our life, that filth is rolled away! Baptism then follows as a symbol of God’s washing us clean of all of our impurities, and of our saying, “I am new! I am clean! All praise to God.”

I must point out that the text says “I have rolled away the disgrace of Egypt.” This is God speaking. Our salvation is purely an act of God’s grace. You can’t do anything to earn it. God brought His people into the Promised Land while they were dirty, and He cleaned them up after. If they had been circumcised before crossing the River they could take credit for their entrance into the land, but as it stood, it was entirely of grace! We obey God because He has saved us; we do not obey so that He will save us! Our first step of obedience is believing in His Son Jesus Christ as the Savior of the World, which should be followed closely by baptism and a life of repentance.

Jesus died to change your name and status. I would simply ask you today to believe in Him. Give Him your filth and He will wash you clean. He’s waiting for you (2 Peter 3:9).

In conclusion, our God is a God of contrasts. He is gracious and merciful, but He also must punish sin. He is powerful to save, but also meek enough to die. This is the God we worship. This is the God of the book of Joshua!

Solus Christus

Soli Deo Gloria

The next post can be found here.

[1] David M. Howard, New American Commentary – Volume 5: Joshua, (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman, 1998), WORDsearch CROSS e-book, 147. “God’s instructions here to the Israelites to make flint knives for circumcision undoubtedly were intentionally designed to recall that earlier incident.”

[2] Richard S. Hess, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries – Joshua, (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Academic, 2011), WORDsearch CROSS e-book, 130.

[3] David M. Howard, New American Commentary – Volume 5: Joshua, (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman, 1998), WORDsearch CROSS e-book, 147.

[4] John Calvin, Commentary on Joshua.

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