Fourth Sunday in Lent

We mark key transitions with rituals — a wedding, a funeral, a graduation, the birth of a child.

Luke 15:32
"But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found." Photo by Randy Jacob on Unsplash; licensed under CC0.

March 31, 2019

First Reading
View Bible Text

Commentary on Joshua 5:9-12

We mark key transitions with rituals — a wedding, a funeral, a graduation, the birth of a child.

These events punctuate our lives, preparing us for the challenges and opportunities ahead. In these moments, we honor our past. But we also prepare to leave our old lives to forge new commitments and covenants. We shape new identities and move into the future.

The book of Joshua speaks a word to us in such moments. It recounts the story of the Israelites’ transition from the wilderness to a new life in Canaan. God had promised that land to Abraham’s descendants in the patriarch’s initial call (Genesis 12:1-4) and reaffirmed that gift in subsequent covenants (Genesis 15:7, 13-16; 17:8).

In calling Moses, God promises to bring the people out of slavery in Egypt “to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey” (Exodus 3:8). But the people do not quickly see that promise fulfilled because they lack faith in God’s provision (Numbers 14:1-4). After years of wandering, their leader Moses dies in sight of the land (Deuteronomy 34:1-8).

But a new era begins as God commissions Joshua as Moses’ successor. God charges him to lead the Israelites across the Jordan River (Joshua 1:1-9), a command the people fulfill days later. The river’s flow stops when the feet of the priests carrying the ark of the covenant touch the water’s edge, and the people cross on dry land (Joshua 3:14-17).

Joshua commands that a representative from each of the twelve tribes carry a stone from the middle of the riverbed to set up a memorial (Joshua 4:1-9). These stones will prompt future conversations about their meaning, creating a ritual in which future generations will ask, “What do these stones mean to you?” (Joshua 4:6).

Joshua repeats instructions about the ritual a second time to underscore its importance. He then connects the river crossing with the earlier crossing of the sea that began the Israelites’ journey (Joshua 4:21-24). Just as children will ask about Passover so they can hear the story of deliverance from Egyptian slavery (Exodus 12:26-27), so they will ask about these stones so they can hear how God dried up the waters of the Reed Sea and the Jordan River (Joshua 4:23).

Joshua then explains two purposes behind the crossings: first, that all earth’s peoples might know God’s power, and second, that Israel might revere God forever. Both purposes soon find an initial fulfillment. First, the hearts of the Amorite and Canaanite kings melt in fear when they hear what God has done (Joshua 5:1). Second, Joshua circumcises the male Israelites, demonstrating Israel’s obedience to God’s commands. As the narrator explains, all males who left Egypt had been circumcised, but none born in the desert were. With this ritual act, the Israelites show their reverence to God and embody in their flesh the covenant God made with Abraham (Genesis 17:9-14).

Today’s text picks up the final verse of the account of circumcision. God speaks to Joshua, “Today I have rolled away from you the disgrace of Egypt” (Joshua 5:9). With circumcision, the Israelites mark themselves as Abraham’s children, heirs of the promise of “all the land of Canaan” (Genesis 17:8). No longer are they runaway slaves, defined by their subservience to the Egyptians. Now they are God’s people, claimed by grace. God has not led them out of Egypt to die in the wilderness, as some Egyptians might have claimed, but to bring them into the land (Numbers 14:13-16; Deuteronomy 9:28).

This promise fulfilled, the Israelites enter a new era with a new identity and a new future. In response to this word that God rolls away their shame, the people will call their camp Gilgal, a name that recalls the Hebrew verb “to roll” (galal).

Circumcision also prepares the people for the Passover celebration, a feast limited to those who are circumcised (Exodus 12:48). The Israelites celebrated the first Passover in Egypt, preparing for their exodus from slavery (Exodus 12:1-28). They had kept the second Passover in the wilderness (Numbers 9:1-5). But now they keep Passover in the land of Canaan, fulfilling Moses’ command: “When you come to the land that the Lord will give you, as he has promised, you will keep this observance” (Exodus 12:25).

Thus, Passover frames the wilderness journey. It initiates the people’s flight from Egypt, and now it marks their entry into the land God had promised. Their long journey to Canaan is at an end.

The next day reveals that their new life in the land has truly begun. They eat food from Canaan’s crops — “unleavened cakes and parched grain” (Joshua 5:11). When the Israelites were nomads, God had rained daily bread from heaven to sustain them (Exodus 16:1-36). Now they are no longer wanderers but a people with a land. They no longer need the miracle of manna to sustain them since the bounty of the land will supply their food.

This brief passage in Joshua provides opportunities for preachers to reflect on the significance of religious ritual in times of individual and congregational transition. It matters that we mark the beginning and the end of journeys. And it matters how we mark them.

Because we live in stages, effective discipleship requires us to consider the shape of our lives in moments of transition. We need the space of ritual and reflection to discern God’s providential care.

Like the Israelites, we are called to remember God’s provision of deliverance and freedom. In such moments, we celebrate the fulfillment of God’s promises and our new life as God’s people. But God also calls us to move forward into the future, discerning the forms of providence in our new circumstances, confident that the one who has called us is faithful to keep and preserve us all along our pilgrim journeys.