Celebration of Passover

Immediately upon crossing the Jordan, the people of Israel set up camp at the place called Gilgal. There they remained for a while—the exact time is uncertain, but likely a few weeks—until they were ready to attack Jericho.

Joshua 5:1

Before relating the events that took place at their new encampment, the narrative discusses the effect of the crossing on the people of Canaan. As we said in an earlier lesson, one reason that God miraculously provided a path for the people through the river was to strike fear into the hearts of Israel’s enemies. The narrative reports that this purpose was fulfilled. All the kings west of Jordan—not only the Amorites in the hill country, but also the Canaanites by the sea—were seized by dread of the invader. How they heard about the miracle is unstated, but not difficult to guess. The Jordan dried up for a distance of thirty or forty miles. Within that length of valley bottom, at least some Canaanites must have been living or working or traveling close enough to the river to see what happened. Those who saw it probably ran to tell their neighbors, who came to look also. It is possible too that the defenses of Jericho included outposts where soldiers were able to observe the hordes streaming across. It would have been easy for them to watch the vast procession from behind cover nearby, for despite its discipline in marching, the nation was still a multitude of ordinary families trying to move all their possessions and livestock. At best, their alignments were somewhat ragged. Perhaps there were scouts sweeping the flanks, but perhaps not. Whoever the Canaanites may have been who observed the crossing, within a short time news of the miracle was traveling by word of mouth throughout the country.

Joshua 5:2-7

After settling in their new camp, the Israelites did not inaugurate a campaign of conquest until they had taken time to satisfy their obligations to God. The first was to circumcise all the males. As a sign of His covenant with Abraham, God had required him to circumcise all male babies on the eighth day of life (Gen. 17:10-14). The practice was evidently maintained during the years of bondage, for all the males who left Egypt were circumcised.

But what then does God’s order to Joshua mean? "Circumcise again the children of Israel the second time." The meaning is not that mass circumcisions had been done on an earlier occasion also. Rather, all the men who had been alive at the exodus—that is, all the men over forty—had been circumcised in Egypt. These were the ones who, in God's view, had received it the first time. But all the male babies born in the wilderness were not circumcised. So, God instructed Joshua that the nation was not ready for Passover until circumcisions were done "again"; that is, at a second time distinct from the first time when they were done.

Why the nation universally abandoned the practice during the years of wandering must be a matter of conjecture. It seems unlikely that they lacked skilled midwives, or that they were deprived of the necessary implements. Some have argued that God severed His covenant relationship with Israel when the nation listened to the spies’ evil report and refused to enter the land. That relationship being broken, the people had no right to circumcise their children. Yet even after the nation had angered God through their disobedience, His glory remained in the tabernacle and He accepted their offerings. So, it is clear that the covenant relationship was unbroken. The more likely reason for the practice lapsing into disuse is that it was often too risky under wilderness conditions. During some periods they were constantly on the move, leaving mothers with insufficient time to perform circumcision and to care for the wound along with all their other tasks. Sometimes water for cleansing was in short supply.

After the nation attained the Land of Promise, however, the neglect of circumcision for forty years had to be remedied before they could observe Passover. According to the rules that God set down for Passover observance, "No uncircumcised person shall eat thereof" (Exod. 12:48). The number of males in need of circumcision was staggering—the whole generation under forty years of age. And the task had to be done quickly. Israel arrived in Gilgal on the tenth of Abib, and the feast was to be celebrated on the fourteenth. Therefore, in the three intervening days, Joshua had to bring at least half a million men under the knife. No doubt he had help, even though the text might be taken to mean that he personally performed all the circumcisions. Its true meaning is undoubtedly that they were carried out under his personal supervision. We know that the circumcision of infants was done by women (Ex. 4:24-26). Who did these, we do not know.

Joshua 5:8

Afterward, the men "abode in their places in the camp, till they were whole" (v. 8). In other words, for several days the men did not leave their tents.

If Israel’s foes in Canaan had conceived any notion of what was going on at Gilgal, they would have amassed forces and attacked immediately, while all the men of war were incapacitated. Yet the Canaanites never imagined, of course, that an invading army would suddenly stop and circumcise themselves. Putting themselves at risk by carrying out the rites of God was a step of considerable faith. Yet there is no hint that any of the men balked. Their unflinching obedience showed that the nation had reached a high level of both discipline and spirituality.

Joshua 5:9

In commenting on the circumcisions, the Lord said to Joshua, "This day have I rolled away the reproach of Egypt from off you" (v. 9). From this saying came the name by which the place was thereafter known: Gilgal, which means "rolling." The saying is somewhat obscure. But probably the most proper interpretation views the reproach as something that Egypt has heaped upon Israel. Many texts suggest that the Egyptians watched Israel’s experience in the wilderness with eyes of contempt, seeking a chance to gloat. They viewed Israel’s prolonged wanderings as proof that they were following a god who could not or would not fulfill his promise to give them Canaan (Exod. 32:12; Num. 14:13-16; Deut. 9:28). Now that God had brought the nation into Canaan and now that the nation had humbled themselves so that God could overthrow their enemies, the reproach of Egypt was exposed as a lie.

Joshua 5:10-12

The Passover feast was the beginning of three memorable days. On the first day the nation kept Passover according to the instructions given at the time of the exodus (Exod. 12:3-16).

In the last lesson we stated that the feast had never been celebrated during the years of wandering. Three evidences point to this conclusion.

  1. There is no record of any Passover celebration during those years.
  2. Many males would have been ineligible to participate, because they were uncircumcised.
  3. When God first instituted the feasts, He indicated that He expected them to be observed only after Israel entered the land (Exod. 13:3-10).

The Passover meal in the evening of the first day consisted of roasted lamb, unleavened bread, and bitter herbs (vv. 8-10). On the second day, the people ate food that they themselves had gathered from the land of Canaan. Prominent again was unleavened bread, an appropriate choice because it was the first day of the seven-day feast called Unleavened Bread. Also they ate "parched corn," which refers not to corn as we know it, but to some kind of roasted grain. On the third day, God’s provision of manna ceased. It continued until the precise moment when the nation could feed itself by raiding the storehouses of Canaan. God never uses the miraculous to spare men from ordinary wholesome labor.

Getting Practical

Proper start for a day

The care that Israel took to be right with God before attacking Jericho is an example for us. Every day we have a Jericho to conquer, do we not? On most days when I have served as a Christian school teacher, my Jericho is a class of very lively adolescents. How then should I start my day? And how should you start yours? With devotions.

Joshua 5:13-14

The narrative continues by telling what happened when Joshua went to survey the first target of his impending military operations—that is, the city of Jericho. He no doubt hoped that by looking at the target from a near vantage, he could gain some light on which tactics would be best for taking the city. As yet he did not know about the miracle that God was going to perform, and to be prudent he had to devise means of conquering the city that relied solely on human skill and might.

Suddenly Joshua’s attention was drawn to a figure standing nearby. It was a man presumably in military dress who was brandishing a sword. Joshua accosted him, demanding to know whether the man was on the side of Israel or on the side of her enemies. The man answered, "Nay," meaning that he was not with her enemies. Rather, He was captain of the host of the Lord. Joshua immediately fell down with his face to the ground and worshiped. And he asked with all humility, "What saith my lord unto his servant?" We find three indications here that Joshua had instantly perceived that the person speaking with him was none other than deity. First, he prostrated himself before this person, a posture inappropriate in the presence of an angel (Rev. 19:10; 22:8-9). Second, he called the man "Lord," and the only higher authority Joshua had to recognize was God Himself. Thirdly, he identified himself as this man’s servant. All who belong to God serve God alone (Matt. 4:10).

A recurrent teaching of Scripture is that no man has ever seen God (Exod. 33:20; John 1:18). But it is speaking of God the Father, who exists within a screen of unapproachable glory (1 Tim. 6:16). Even to come near that overpowering brilliance would be fatal to mortal flesh.

The person of the Trinity whose special role is to make God visible and accessible to man is God the Son (John 1:18; 14:9; Col. 1:15; Heb. 1:3), and when He reveals Himself, He assumes forms that a man can see without harm. In such forms He appeared often during Old Testament times. At the beginning of mankind's history, He walked with Adam (Gen. 3:8) and with Enoch (Gen. 5:24). Later, Abraham saw Him (Gen. 18:1), as did Jacob (Gen. 32:24-30) and Joshua. To these He looked like a man. But to Hagar (Gen. 16:7), to the nation of Israel after Joshua’s death (Judg. 2:1), to Gideon (Judg. 6:12) and to Manoah (Judg. 13:6ff), He looked like an angel. The account of His visit to Manoah, Sampson's father, suggests that His angelic feature was a shining countenance. To Daniel He was a Being so resplendent that the prophet could not behold Him without being drained of human strength (Dan. 10:5-8). In what form exactly He appeared to Moses we do not know, but we do know that Moses communed with Him face to face (Num. 12:6-8). All these Old Testament manifestations of the preincarnate Christ are known as theophanies or Christophanies.

On the particular occasion when Christ appeared to Joshua, He assumed the character of a military leader and held a sword aloft, declaring Himself the captain of the Lord’s army. His reference to the Lord as another person certifies that the speaker is Christ. He is Christ exalting the Father. Christ’s purpose in meeting with Joshua was to comfort and encourage him. Perhaps as Joshua viewed Jericho, he felt some trepidation about his ability to take it. As archaeologists have demonstrated, its defenses were elaborate and seemingly impregnable. To assure him that conquering the city was within reach, the Lord reminded Joshua that behind the armies of Israel stood the host of God. He was referring to the angelic host. With the host of God fighting for Joshua, he could not possibly lose, though all the demons on the earth gathered in Jericho to thwart Israel’s invasion of the land. The Lord waved a sword to signify that He Himself was going to enter the battle on Israel’s side. What better grounds for confidence could Joshua have desired?

Joshua 5:15

Joshua assumed that the man had come to give him a specific message, and he asked to hear it. The man gave him none right away, except to emphasize who He was. He told Joshua to remove his shoes, for he stood on holy ground. The ground was holy because of its proximity to the man, who was holy. Since it is God whose presence communicates holiness, we understand, as Joshua likely did also, that the man was claiming to be God. Further proof of His deity was intended to give Joshua even more confidence as he set out to overthrow the first obstacle in Israel’s path—the well-fortified city of Jericho.

Commanding Joshua to remove his shoes had another purpose as well. In Scripture we find one other occasion when the witness to a theophany was placed under this requirement. That was when Moses saw the burning bush (Ex. 3:1-6). To elevate Joshua in the sight of his people, God created several demonstrations that Joshua was equal to Moses in God’s sight. Just as Moses divided the Red Sea, so Joshua stopped the Jordan River. Just as God had appeared to Moses in the burning bush, so now He appeared in another form to Joshua.

The significance in removing shoes is that shoes carry dirt from unholy ground. Bringing them into contact with holy ground is a sort of defilement.

Spiritual Interpretation

The extended record of Israel’s stay at Gilgal focuses our attention on some important spiritual truths. To ferret out these truths, we must remember what the crossing of the Jordan represents. The wilderness wanderings show life in an unregenerate state. It was a place where people died in their sins. Israel’s leader then was Moses, who could not bring the nation into Canaan but only to the brink, for he is a symbol of the law, which saves no one but is only a schoolmaster bringing man to Christ. Moses’ successor, Joshua, is a type of Christ, the one who can save. Under the leadership of Joshua, the nation crossed the river and found rest in Canaan. The crossing of the Jordan is thus a picture of salvation, and Israel’s subsequent experience in the land of promise is a picture of the Christian life.

After entering the land, the nation did not rush into war, but spent some time at Gilgal to make sure that they had met all their obligations to God. Joshua was wise enough to understand that the nation had no hope of victory without God’s help. Therefore, it was more important to seek His favor than to plot strategies or prepare weapons or drill the troops. What they did is significant for us. It gives us an example of how we should prepare for the war that engages every Christian—the war against the world, the flesh, and the devil. Each event at Gilgal is rich with instructive meaning.

First came the circumcision of all the younger men. Here is a subject we would rather avoid in church, but God gives no alternative but to speak about it. Scripture frequently requires us to notice circumcision as an important symbol. Representing what? The New Testament plainly teaches that circumcision symbolizes the putting away of sin. When Christ died on the cross, He took all our sin upon Himself and buried it forever, so that we will never stand in judgment for it and hear the verdict of guilty. That is, He puts away our sin. Yet while we communicate all our sin to Him, He communicates all His righteousness to us, so that God can view us as sinless and permit us access to His presence. This legal exchange of sin for righteousness is called the circumcision of Christ (Col. 2:10-14), although we will rename it the circumcision done by Christ.

There is another circumcision as well—the circumcision done by the Holy Spirit (Rom. 2:28-29), a reference to the work of sanctification that the Holy Spirit accomplishes in our hearts. Again, the essence of this work is the putting away of sin. He refashions our hearts so that we desire good instead of evil. Whereas the circumcision done by Christ changes our position before God, the circumcision done by the Holy Spirit changes our basic character. The former transformation is legal, the latter internal.

Yet a third circumcision must be acknowledged. Although we enjoy the standing of a righteous man and although our hearts reflect our standing, still we have not fully put away sin until we have eliminated it from our actual conduct. The believer must choose to walk in the Spirit and mortify the deeds of the body (Gal. 5:25; Rom. 8:13). Scripture refers to this third transformation, this change in our outward behavior, as another kind of circumcision (Deut. 10:16; Jer. 4:4). Putting away sin from a believer's life on display before the world might be called the circumcision done by man himself. Another name for it is practical circumcision.

Like all Biblical symbols, circumcision as a symbol for putting away sin is very appropriate, and for obvious reasons. The part of the body which is mutilated is a principal instrument of lust. Moreover, the operation of circumcision is extremely painful, just like the self-crucifying work of getting rid of sin.

The spiritual significance in the mass circumcisions that Joshua performed is now quite plain. It is a lesson for us that we are not ready to enter the warfare of the Christian life until we have first put sin out of our lives. In so doing, we deny the flesh and separate ourselves unto God. This work of self-purification is often called consecration. If we refuse to deal with sin, we will fail to receive the divine power critical to gaining victory over our enemies.

The next event at Gilgal was the celebration of Passover. This also was suffused with meaning. On the evening of Passover, every member of the congregation partook of a meal consisting of roasted lamb, bitter herbs, and unleavened bread. Each element of the meal speaks of Christ. He is the lamb that takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29). He accomplished our redemption from sin by undergoing the bitter agonies of a cross, with the result that we cannot remember His death without tasting bitterness ourselves. Lastly, Christ is the bread of life, and He is without leaven—that is, without sin (John 6:48; 7:18).

The Passover meal teaches us that before we set out to serve God, it is not enough to cleanse our lives. Putting away sin is not the entirety of consecration. It is merely the negative side of it, merely the preliminary step of disentangling ourselves from what is unprofitable. In its place we must put what is profitable. We must substitute good for the evil we have renounced. What Israel did at Gilgal shows us the new center of our lives. It is the person of Christ. He must be our companion and guide and example. From Him we must draw spiritual life, as a branch draws nourishment from the roots (John 15:1-7). What does it mean to abide in Christ? The expression is referring not to some sort of mystical communion with Christ. Rather, it means primarily that we must abide in His Word (Col. 3:16; John 15:7-10). In practical terms, we must saturate our minds with the Scriptures and let them control our priorities and preferences.

After Passover, the next event at Gilgal was the change in the nation’s diet. Previously, God had fed them with manna from heaven, but now they were obliged to find their own food in Canaan. They had to scour the countryside to find the "old corn"—that is, the produce—"of the land." Since everything else in this chapter transparently covers a deeper meaning, we are justified in seeking a deeper meaning here as well. The incident illustrates that in comparison with people of the world, a Christian receives material provision on a different basis.

Before a man leaves the world’s path and follows Christ, his master is Satan. Yet even while he serves Satan, God mercifully shares some of the treasure of His creation with him so that he might live. He gives the man health and strength, sunshine and rain, food and raiment (Matt. 5:45). These are like manna from heaven. The man does nothing to earn them. They come not as wages in any form, but as pure grace. God could in justice withhold them as well as give them, just as He provided a surly and stiff-necked nation with manna even though they did not deserve it.

But once a man becomes a Christian, he enters God’s service. His new master is Christ. God’s provision is no longer pure grace, but a form of wages. That is, because of the man’s new standing as a servant of God, God could not in justice deny him the support that he needs. "The labourer is worthy of his hire" (Luke 10:7). We may look at it this way: in return for his daily service, God gives him his daily bread (Matt. 6:11). To gain the produce of Canaan, he must work for it.

The last incident at Gilgal before the nation began its offensive against Jericho was Joshua’s encounter with the captain of the Lord’s host. Now that Joshua had led the nation in fulfilling all of its duty to God, he was ready for the ultimate encouragement of seeing Christ in a form showing that He intended to fight for Israel. The incident teaches us that putting away sin and feeding upon the Word of God are not ends in themselves. The purpose of all our exercises preparatory to spiritual warfare is to know Christ better. We want to attain a clearer vision of who He is, especially to gain a larger apprehension of His strength and majesty, guaranteeing that He can lead us to victory over the world, the flesh, and the devil.

Getting Practical

Purpose of all we do

Joshua's face-to-face encounter with Christ shows that one result of all our spiritual exercises will to draw closer to Christ and know Him better.

As we have said before, the best way to know Christ better is to study His Word. The importance of Scripture as God's appointed means of bringing us into a right relationship with Himself was also a major lesson of Joshua 4. Joshua said that through the stones he set up, the nation in time to come, indeed the whole world, would remember and glorify God for His miracle in stopping the river. Yet he could not have meant the two piles of rock. Rather, he was viewing those temporary memorials as symbolic of the permanent memorial we have in God's Word. Through His Word, we learn not only what He has done in the past, but also what He is doing now in our lives and what He plans to do for us in the future.