Joshua and the nation have crossed the Jordan, but they’re not quite ready for battle yet. Last post I raised the question of why Joshua and the Conquest don’t merit a specific holiday. I believe that the answer is that Pesach is that holiday. The redemptive process that began with leaving Egypt is not yet finished. It appears to be a three-stage process: the first, nationhood, occurs at the Exodus from Egypt. The next stage, God, happens at Har Sinai, where the people accept the Torah. The final stage, land, opens now, with the conquest of Israel. Am, Eretz, Elohim – People, Land, God.
The oddest part of the story then is the mass circumcision of the people. Why exactly were the Israelites uncircumcised? The text explains that they did not practice circumcision in the desert, and I recall commentators explaining that they were halachically exempt from circumcision since they were traveling the desert, and newborns would be at risk for circumcision. This is only apologetics though. For one, children could have been circumcised at a later age, when they were hardier. Second, Moses’ wife circumcises their children while he is crossing the very same desert that the Jews wandered. Third, the Jews spent thirty-eight years camping in one spot, not traveling. Fourth, the Jews lived under the protection of the Clouds of Glory and ate miraculous bread. Surely God would have protected the children who had undergone circumcision!
This lack of circumcision also leaves you wondering about how Pesach was celebrated in the desert. Actually, the Torah only tell us about the first post-Exodus Pesach (Numbers 1-9) and the establishing of Pesach Sheini, but there is no further record in the Torah of Pesach being celebrated. By the later years of the desert sojourn, there must not have been many circumcised males left, and the sacrifice may only be eaten by the circumcised. Is it possible that the people of the desert simply did not celebrate Pesach? That they did no circumcise seems beyond a doubt.
Perhaps the people did not practice circumcision because Egyptians practiced circumcision, especially among the priestly classes. Maybe the Jews stopped practicing circumcision after the Exodus as a rejection of the Egyptian culture that they had been exposed to.
Last time we spoke about the name Gilgal as being a circle of stones, perhaps already standing, perhaps newly-erected by Joshua. In this chapter, we learn a new reason for the name. After Joshua circumcises the people, God comes to him and says:
Gilgal is thus named three times – once by the land, once by Joshua and the nation, and once by God. The name given by the land is for its physical characteristics, the name given by Joshua and the nation is to memorialize the miracle of the parting of the Jordan, and the name given by God is to commemorate the day of the circumcision, which finally removed the shame of Egypt from the people. My contention is that the Jewish people had practiced circumcision in Egypt as part of their enslavement – that circumcision may have marked them as Israelites, but it also marked them as property of the Egyptian priesthood. When leaving Egypt they refused to circumcise their children to avoid that association. Upon entering their own land, the act of circumcision was no longer a mark of shame for them.
After a few days to heal from the circumcision the Israelites celebrate Pesach in the land of Israel for the first time, and immediately following that, the Man ceases to fall, and the Israelites sustain themselves from the land from then on.
The last part of the chapter deals with Joshua’s encounter with the angel of God, and I will deal with it next time, since that meeting begins the planning for the battle against Jericho, which is dealt with in the next chapter.