Fourth Sunday in Lent

The people of Israel are fresh out of the liminal space of the wilderness.

March 6, 2016

First Reading
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Commentary on Joshua 5:9-12

The people of Israel are fresh out of the liminal space of the wilderness.

Forty years of wandering behind them. A generation has come and gone. They are now inside — albeit just inside — the promised land. Encamped at Gilgal. With the liberative threshold that was the Red Sea crossing, God brought their parents out of Egypt, out of slavery. Now they have crossed the threshold of the Jordan River into the promised land. Never mind that the Jordan is but a creek, as the waters of the Red Sea were stood up by the Lord, so the waters of the Jordan.1 The wilderness wandering, which began with an exodus, now comes to a conclusion with an eisodos.

The people entering with Joshua into the promised land are the children of those who left Egypt. Their fathers are dead.2 Lest the reader get sentimental about this homecoming of sorts, those who left Egypt and their offspring, the children of the wilderness, were not so squeaky clean. Recall the stories of the wilderness, whining, golden calves, and the like. Recall Jeremiah’s words that accompany the Lord’s promise to make a new covenant: “ … not like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant which they broke … ”3 As pendants of their unrighteousness, these children of the wilderness entered the promised land uncircumcised.

This would not do. The Lord told Joshua to have them circumcised, and with this mass procedure the wilderness generation, like those from the time of Abraham, bore the mark of the covenant between the Lord and the people.4 From Gibeath-haaraloth (the hill of the foreskins),5 the newly circumcised returned to the community encamped at Gilgal to heal. The first verse (Joshua 5:9) draws the circumcision episode (vv.2-9) to a close with an ætiological explanation of the name of the place — Gilgal. It is the place where the Lord “rolled away the reproach of Egypt” from the people.

The movement out of the liminality of the wilderness is ritually marked. The generation of the wilderness had now come of age. Which made way for the celebration of the Passover.

Together with the crossing of the Jordan and the return to covenantal alignment (circumcision), the celebration of the Passover also marks this movement into the promised land. Perhaps the Deuteronomist resonates most clearly: “And you shall offer the Passover sacrifice to the Lord your God, from the flock or the herd, at the place which the Lord will choose, to make his name dwell there.”6

With their entry into the promised land and the circumcision of the generation of the wilderness and the celebration of the Passover also came the cessation of manna. The liminality of the wilderness wandering was officially over. The people had arrived. Manna was no longer necessary. The fruit of the promised land would now provide. The Lord returned to create means to provide for the Israelites. The earth would bring forth. The Israelites have landed, so to speak.

The final verse of the pericope: “And the manna ceased on the day they ate the produce of the land, and the Israelites no longer had manna; they ate the crops of the land of Canaan that year.” (v.12) This text is troublesome. Crops planted by whose hand? By whose labor?

With the crossing of a creek, the Israelites are conquerors. Land. Produce. Fruit. Population.

The nations for whom this is home are to be forced out. Dispossessed of land promised to others. The Lord promises to drive the inhabitants out.7 The trajectory of the exodus is eisodos.

Preaching horizons

This is an important text — a critical point in the narrative. It is the fulfillment of a promise. The movement out of the liminality of the wilderness into the promised land. The sign of the covenant is restored. The command to celebrate the Passover is fulfilled. The temporary provision of manna is proven truly temporary, something that it would have been difficult to convince any Israelite of during their incredibly predictable wilderness buffet.

Against the backdrop of our contemporary world, which remains God’s, this text by itself is rather ugly. The contemporary State of Israel and the occupied people of Palestine are more than a narrative foil to Joshua’s entry into the promised land. Is this situation, which has flesh and blood people created in the image of God on both sides … of the wall, the modern fulfillment of the Lord’s promise? While distinctive, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not unique. There is an ugly human tendency to wall-up, wall-out, expel, segregate, and dispossess. We should always remember the observation of Pascal, “Men (sic) never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction.”8

Nowadays, this rhetoric is disturbingly commonplace, especially in North American, and particularly in the US presidential campaign. Instilling fear of “the other” is a strategy. A cold, hard reality is that both parties participate.

You, dear reader, may think that I’ve strayed from the text. I can’t get up and preach this. What has this to do with Lent? I hear your hesitation, dear preacher, but consider preaching this text nonetheless.

Consider the penitential and pedagogical accents of Lent. What might it mean for people to hear again the story of the Exodus and the Eisodos with its ambiguities and complexities? What might it mean for people to consider this text in light of the reconciliation of all things, Scripture included, to God by the cross of Christ (Colossians 1:19-20)? What might it mean to explore this text in relation dynamic encounter between Jesus and the Canaanite woman seeking healing for her daughter (Matthew 15:22-28)?

The movement from the liminality of the wilderness to the occupation of the Promised Land is filled with both promise and problem. God’s faithfulness to God’s covenant with Israel, in spite of the fact that they have been a pain in backside since the Red Sea, remains.


1 “For the Lord your God dried up the waters of the Jordan for you until you passed over, as the Lord your God did to the Red Sea, which he dried up for us until we passed over, so that all the peoples of the earth may know that the hand of the Lord is mighty; that you may fear the Lord your God for ever.” Joshua 4:23-24

2 Cf. Joshua 5:4

3 Jeremiah 31:32

4 Recall Genesis 17:9-14.

5 There is a notable resonance with the adult male circumcision ritual, Ukwaluka, by which young Xhosa men in South Africa pass from boyhood and manhood. Among others, Nelson Mandela describes this own experience of this as a young man, Long Walk to Freedom (Little, Brown, and Company, 1994) 22-25.

6 Deuteronomy 16:2. Also, Exodus 12:14-20, Leviticus 23:5-8, Ezekiel 45:21. It is also noteworthy that the Lord commands that the Israelites not celebrate the Passover in towns (e.g., Jericho) that the Lord will give them, but in the place (i.e., Gilgal) that the Lord chooses. (Deuteronomy 16:5-6). Such a choosing was also the case for the Israelites at in the wilderness at Sinai. (Numbers 9.1-14)

7 Deuteronomy 7:1, Joshua 3:10.

8 “Jamais on ne fait le mal si pleinement et si gaiement que quand on le fait par consceince.” Blaise Pascal, Pensées, 14.895.