Sunday, August 22, 2004

Joshua 5

Standing on unfamiliar ground and in hostile territory directly before the enemy, Joshua orders his men, on the command of the Lord... to be circumcised. A full discussion of circumcision is to be found at the Jewish encyclopedia (

Militarily, Joshua's action is seeming madness. The men of Schechem (Gen 34.) were slaughtered three days after circumcision because they could not defend themselves. Yet the residents of Canaan are so paralyzed with fear after seeing the Israelites pass through the Jordan at flood stage that they do not attack.

What is particularly striking is that the Israelite men have, according to most interpreters, not been previously circumcised; in any event, their circumcisions are inadequate ( Clearly Moses was remiss as a religious leader, having allowed the practice to lapse or having done it in an ineffectual manner.

The hypothesis that Moses allowed the practice of circumcision to lapse could help to illuminate several passages. First, it may explain why God refused to let Moses enter into the Promised Land. While Moses had been personally faithful to God, he had not done what a religious leader should do in preserving the Covenant. Second, consider what light it casts on the story of Zipporah and the circumcision of their son. Zipporah says, "Surely you are a bridegroom of blood to me." Moses had been unfaithful to the Covenant by failing to circumcise their son. So, perhaps Zipporah was saying something like, "Until now we haven't been properly married, but now you are a husband whose son is of the Covenant." In any event, Moses' failure to circumcise his own son does seem to be repeated in the need to circumcise the Israelites.

At this point, the Israelites leave the unreal existence of wandering the desert. They have Passover and manna ceases to fall from heaven. Life, in its fullness, begins again.

And an extraordinary miracle occurs. The commander of the army of the Lord appears to Joshua and gives him a message: the place Joshua is standing near Jericho is holy. This message, identical to God's message to Moses at the burning bush implies that the commander of the army of the Lord is God Himself. However, traditionally, the commander is associated with the archangel Michael ( According to Jewish legend, this angel reproached Joshua for neglect of the study of the Torah (

The commander of the army of the Lord has another interesting message. He tells Joshua that he is neither for the Israelites nor for their enemies. God, of course, is not for one group of people or another, but for His purposes: truth, love, peace, mercy, and so on. It's a message the warring factions of today would be wise to heed.


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