2 At that time the Lord said to Joshua, “Make flint knives and circumcise the sons of Israel a second time.” 3 So Joshua made flint knives and circumcised the sons of Israel at Gibeath-haaraloth. 4 And this is the reason why Joshua circumcised them: all the males of the people who came out of Egypt, all the men of war, had died in the wilderness on the way after they had come out of Egypt. 5 Though all the people who came out had been circumcised, yet all the people who were born on the way in the wilderness after they had come out of Egypt had not been circumcised. 6 For the people of Israel walked forty years in the wilderness, until all the nation, the men of war who came out of Egypt, perished, because they did not obey the voice of the Lord; the Lord swore to them that he would not let them see the land that the Lord had sworn to their fathers to give to us, a land flowing with milk and honey. 7 So it was their children, whom he raised up in their place, that Joshua circumcised. For they were uncircumcised, because they had not been circumcised on the way.
8 When the circumcising of the whole nation was finished, they remained in their places in the camp until they were healed. 9 And the Lord said to Joshua, “Today I have rolled away the reproach of Egypt from you.” And so the name of that place is called Gilgal to this day. – Joshua 5:2-9 ESV
For this passage to make any sense, it requires an understanding of the rite of circumcision, as practiced by the people of Israel. Circumcision was not a cultural rite of passage, created by men, but a divinely mandated sign of their covenant relationship with God. It had been instituted by God and given by Him to Abraham centuries earlier, long before there were any Israelites.
9 And God said to Abraham, “As for you, you shall keep my covenant, you and your offspring after you throughout their generations. 10 This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and your offspring after you: Every male among you shall be circumcised. 11 You shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and you. 12 He who is eight days old among you shall be circumcised. Every male throughout your generations, whether born in your house or bought with your money from any foreigner who is not of your offspring, 13 both he who is born in your house and he who is bought with your money, shall surely be circumcised. So shall my covenant be in your flesh an everlasting covenant. 14 Any uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin shall be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant.” – Genesis 17:9-14 ESV
For generations, the Israelites had kept God’s command to circumcise their infant sons, even during the dark days of their captivity in Egypt. Circumcision was a physical sign and tangible reminder to the Jews of their having been set apart by God. They belonged to Him. And it was tied to the covenant God had made with Abraham, promising to make of him a great nation.
4 “Behold, my covenant is with you, and you shall be the father of a multitude of nations. 5 No longer shall your name be called Abram, but your name shall be Abraham, for I have made you the father of a multitude of nations. 6 I will make you exceedingly fruitful, and I will make you into nations, and kings shall come from you. 7 And I will establish my covenant between me and you and your offspring after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you. 8 And I will give to you and to your offspring after you the land of your sojournings, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession, and I will be their God.” – Genesis 17:4-8 ESV
God had kept His promise to Abraham. From one man, who was old in age and married to a barren wife, God produced the nation of Israel. But now, as they stood on the western bank of the Jordan, preparing to possess the land God had promised to Abraham, they faced a problem. The men of Israel were uncircumcised. They were missing the sign of the covenant, the mark of their ownership by God. The generation that had been released from captivity in Egypt had been circumcised, but because of their refusal to enter the promised land 40 years earlier, God had forbidden them from ever entering the land. They all died in the wilderness. And during those days of wandering in the wilderness, a new generation was born. But for whatever reason, outright disobedience or simple neglect, the people of Israel had failed to circumcise their male children. So, by the time Joshua and the nation made it to the land of Canaan, an entire generation of Israelite men were in violation of their covenant commitment to God. Their parents had failed to set them apart through the practice of the God-ordained rite of circumcision. And from the passage, it would appear that not a single male within the Israelite camp bore the mark of circumcision. The rite had been totally abandoned by the people of Israel during the 40 years they had spent wandering in the wilderness.
There is far more going on here than the neglect of a religious rite. The failure of the people of God to keep the command of God reveals the sad state of their relationship with Him. The author of Hebrews provides us with an insightful understanding of what was really going on. He warns his readers to avoid making the same mistake the people of Israel did, when they rebelled against God and refused to enter the promised land.
16 For who were those who heard and yet rebelled? Was it not all those who left Egypt led by Moses? 17 And with whom was he provoked for forty years? Was it not with those who sinned, whose bodies fell in the wilderness? 18 And to whom did he swear that they would not enter his rest, but to those who were disobedient? 19 So we see that they were unable to enter because of unbelief. – Hebrews 3:16-19 ESV
Notice that he blames their ban from entering the land on their unbelief. They had failed to trust God, listening instead to the dire reports of the spies who told them of giants in the land. That generation disbelieved the promises of God. They doubted His word. And after having been barred from entering the land, they continued their rebellion and disbelief, choosing to ignore His command to circumcise their sons. And a whole new generation of men made it to adulthood without bearing the sign of the covenant with God. But God was not going to allow them to take another step until they had rectified the problem. So, He commanded Joshua to order the immediate circumcision of each and every male in the camp. It is interesting to note that God had provided them with entrance into the land by making a way for them to cross over the Jordan River on dry ground, and all while they were in their uncircumcised states. He had not required their circumcision before allowing them to cross. God had kept His part of the covenant commitment in spite of their failure to keep theirs. He had allowed them to enter the land uncircumcised, but He would not allow them to remain that way. They would be required to commit themselves to the covenant by keeping God’s covenant sign.
And one of the fascinating aspects of this entire scene is that it clearly illustrates an obedience to and reliance upon God by the people of God. Here they were, standing in the land of promise, surrounded by potential enemies, and the very first thing God has them do is circumcise all their males. This procedure would have left their entire fighting force incapacitated for days as they recovered. They would have been sitting ducks, easy prey to the Amorites and Canaanites who occupied the land. To obey God’s command to circumcise all the men in their camp was going to require trust in God. He would have to protect them while they were in this vulnerable state. But their obedience was more important than any risk to their well-being. God had done His part, now it was their turn.
When the people had stepped out in faith and had circumcised all the males in their camp, God spoke the following words: “Today I have rolled away the reproach of Egypt from you” (Joshua 5:9 ESV). The exact meaning of this statement is unclear. It could be that God is simply stating that their willingness to keep His command to circumcise their males was the final phase in their deliverance from Egypt. With that one neglected task now taken care of, the process of possessing the land could proceed unabated. But there is also the possibility that this remark by God was a reference to a fear that Moses had expressed on several different occasions. During their days in the wilderness, when the people had made the golden calf, God had determined to wipe out their generation, but Moses had intervened.
12 Why should the Egyptians say, ‘With evil intent did he bring them out, to kill them in the mountains and to consume them from the face of the earth’? Turn from your burning anger and relent from this disaster against your people. 13 Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants, to whom you swore by your own self, and said to them, ‘I will multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have promised I will give to your offspring, and they shall inherit it forever.’” – Exodus 32:12-13 ESV
When the original generation had refused to the enter the promised land, God had threatened to wipe them all out with a plague, but Moses had intervened yet again.
13 But Moses said to the Lord, “Then the Egyptians will hear of it, for you brought up this people in your might from among them, 14 and they will tell the inhabitants of this land. They have heard that you, O Lord, are in the midst of this people. For you, O Lord, are seen face to face, and your cloud stands over them and you go before them, in a pillar of cloud by day and in a pillar of fire by night. 15 Now if you kill this people as one man, then the nations who have heard your fame will say, 16 ‘It is because the Lord was not able to bring this people into the land that he swore to give to them that he has killed them in the wilderness.’” – Numbers 14:13-16 ESV
So, it could be that “the reproach” to which God referred had to do with any future possibility of Egypt or any other nation accusing God of failing to keep His word. Not only were the people in the land, but they were covered by the sign of His ownership. No one could question God’s integrity or impugn His ability to care for His own.
New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.