Yehoshua Five: Back to Circumcising

As we’ve seen from previous stories, the Israelites developed quite the reputation as they made their way through the desert. Rumors of their capabilities in battle, as well as their all-powerful God, have made their way to Canaan, so upon hearing that they’ve crossed the Jordan, the kings of the local tribes lose spirit. At the same time, Joshua is given a new commandment. “At that time the Lord said to Joshua, Make for yourself sharp knives, and circumcise again the children of Israel the second time (Joshua 5:2).” We are told that this commandment is given because during the generation in the desert, the Israelites did not perform circumcisions. Even though this is the ultimate mark of the covenant, it appears that the ritual was suspended during the wandering. I’ve heard several explanations as to why, and the one that seems to make the most sense is the practical one. Circumcision is a painful process for a man to go through (so I’ve heard), and has a recovery time. In the desert, with the constant movement of the nomadic lifestyle, and the presumable lack of sanitary conditions, it would have been very dangerous to undertake this rite. Now, however, the people are in their own land, and can once again fulfill this obligation.

“And the children of Israel encamped in Gilgal, and they made the Passover sacrifice on the fourteenth day of the month at evening in the plains of Jericho (Joshua 5:10).” Things have come full circle. As the people take on their obligations as Jews once again with the circumcisions, they also remember the event that triggered this moment, as well as virtually their whole existence. At this time, right after they made the sacrifice, the manna, which had been provided for them all of the years of wandering, ceased to appear. They were no longer in the desert, but rather in the land of Israel, and could eat of its produce, rather than having food provided for them.

“And it was when Joshua was in Jericho, that he lifted up his eyes and saw, and, behold, a man was standing 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? And he said, No, but I am the captain of the host of the Lord; I have now come. And Joshua fell on his face to the earth and prostrated himself, and said to him, What does my lord say to his servant (Joshua 5:13-14)?” This odd exchange doesn’t come to a satisfying end for me. Joshua seems to be encountering an angel, but all he is told is that he’s on holy ground and must remove his shoes. This has elements of stories from Jacob, who fought an angel of God, and Moses, who had to remove his shoes during the incident of the burning bush. But that’s all we’re told – there’s no battle, and no message other than to remove the shoes in this case. Is it just meant to show that God is there, along with his warriors? Or is there something that I’m not understanding about the significance of this particular message?

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