Gird your loins because this chapter tries to explain a few place names, and there may be some sympathy pains a-coming.

The crossing of the Jordan was apparently quite a bit more spectacular than it reads (maybe it’s one of those “you had to be there” things), because it’s got the kings of the Amarites and Canaanites shaking in their boots.

Mass circumcision

Even though we had all that talk earlier about going on the march in three days’ time, God decides that now is the time to stop and have Joshua circumcise everyone (personally?). The wording is rather unfortunate, as he tells Joshua to do it “again the second time” (Josh. 5:2). Oh myyyy…. what was left?

Modern representation of relief in the 6th Dynasty tomb of the royal architect Ankh-ma-hor at Saqqara

Modern representation of relief in the 6th Dynasty tomb of the royal architect Ankh-ma-hor at Saqqara

But no, it seems that it’s referring to a second generation, rather than a second hacking, as the text later explains that the Israelites who had come out of Egypt were all circumcised, but that circumcisions hadn’t been happening while they were in the wilderness.

There’s no reason given for this neglect. It seems to just be a rather forced explanation to tie some local tradition into the larger narrative. And, indeed, the story seems to be a way to explain how Gibeath-haaraloth (“Hill of the Foreskins”) got its name.

Now, as we all learned back in Genesis 34 when Jacob’s sons defeat the Shechemites by tricking them into circumcising themselves so that they’d be unable to fight when attacked, a mass circumcision ritual is a pretty silly way to inaugurate a military campaign.

Throwing that whole “we leave in three days” thing complete out the window, the army now has to wait around until everyone has had a chance to heal.

While we wait, we get the story of how Gilgal gets its name. It is named, says God, because the day of mass circumcision marks when he “rolled away the reproach of Egypt from you” (Josh. 5:9).

My study Bible objects: “The Hebrew verb meaning rolled away is from the same root as Gilgal, but the etymology is far-fetched; the true meaning of Gilgal is ‘circle [of stones]'” (p.268). In other words a megalith. It seems to me that the name must have more to do with the stones Joshua supposedly put up in Joshua 4, rather than with any rolling away of reproach.

But even if we take the explanation at face value, what is this reproach? Was this reproach earned in Egypt? When the people were supposedly suffering as slaves? Or is God still going on about the wilderness rebellions?

To close off the pre-campaign ceremonies, they celebrate Passover in Gilgal. They then do some foraging for food and, once they eat it, the manna stops coming. Now that they are in the Promised Land, they’ll have to let it sustain them rather than depending on breadsnow.

The Commander

To close off the chapter, we get what appears to be a fragment of a story – Joshua meets a strange man with a drawn sword. Rather than just shooting first, he asks the stranger whether he is friend or foe. The stranger answers that he’s come to be the commander of God’s army.

Joshua falls on his face “and worshipped” (Josh. 5:14). We’ve had no face-falling for a whole book, so it’s great to see it again! As for the worshipping, is that idolatry? The man is there to command God’s army, which suggests that he isn’t God. Is Joshua worshipping him when he falls on his face, or is he just worshipping in general?

In either case, the stranger tells Joshua to remove his shoes, “for the place where you stand is holy” (Josh. 5:15). This is almost exactly what God said to Moses in Exodus 3, which either means that the authors of Joshua are trying very hard to argue that Joshua really (no, really!) is a legitimate successor to Moses, or that both started off as regional variations of the same founding character.

Then the story just ends, and the Commander is never seen again. Presumably, the original story featured some command or divine advice, perhaps even a call like Moses received from the burning bush, but this – if it ever existed – has been lost.