Painful Obedience: Joshua 5
Joshua 5 opens with the people of Israel in the Promised Land. That’s a great start. Even better is the news that the kings of the Amorites and Canaanites are terrified by the work of God in the life of Israel. I like the imagery of Joshua 5:1 of melted hearts and breath taken away.
Then, things get hairy for Joshua and the Israelites. Apparently, in the 40 years they have wandered in the wilderness, no one has observed the ceremonial rule of circumcision. This is a logical oversight: the wilderness era involved many pack-up and move outs, and there may not have been a healthy way to accomplish the circumcision of newborns. Or, perhaps, the generation that headed off to die in the wilderness (Numbers 14) was rebellious and simply refused. The text does not answer that question, because it is less important the reality. Why the men are uncircumcised is irrelevant. That they are uncircumcised must be addressed.
So, there in the shadows of Jericho, Joshua has flint knives made and the men of Israel are circumcised. Any man under forty goes through this painful observance. That would include, basically, the whole army. God highlights that this takes away the reproach of Egypt—the people are again marked as the covenant people of God (Joshua 5:9).
It is now recovery time for the Israelites. After all, that hurt…
This is not the only part of the obedience that hurts in this chapter. While the circumcision experience certainly hit the men, they would recover from it in a few days. Further, since the people of the land were terrified of the God who could hold back the Jordan River, there was little risk during that recovery time.
Instead, look on down in the chapter to Joshua 5:11. The people of Israel, after celebrating the first Passover in the Promised Land, eat some of the grain and other produce of the land. And at that point, the manna stops. No longer does God provide a day’s ration to be picked up. Instead, the people must live off the land.
Which means work. They must till, plant, and grow what they will eat. True, they will eat captured food for a time—except for the cities that are totally destroyed.
In our every day lives, there are fewer things we do not think about more than circumcision. That we do not consider this as a religious practice is based in the New Testament, though there are debates going forward about the medical practice. I have no interest in that discussion here.
Instead, let us consider a few factors:
1. As stated, the Israelites were living in sin by not fully obeying the covenant of God. They were not circumcising the boys. The important point was to recover obedience rather than fix blame. This is generally true for us today: recover obedience first. Fix blame only if necessary. This carries a necessary caveat: if the disobedience involves victimization of individuals, then proper consequences must follow. That is a different case.
But let us take as an example a church’s approach to youth ministry. Many churches have slid into a youth-ministry-as-entertainment approach. That’s sinful. It is far less important how or when you got there than it is to get out of there quickly. The work of the church is to proclaim the Gospel.
Now, generally, any time you pull a ministry that has been fun back toward a focus, people get angry. People leave. Growth stifles for a time. Guess what? Obedience has consequences.
2. Then, there was the need to personally correct the sinful situation. You have a stake in your own sin. Do what God commands to fix it. It may be difficult, but obedience has consequences.
3. Finally, the Israelites took in the blessing of being in the Land, but that resulted in a change in God’s provision. They could not live on the manna forever, but that did not make it any easier. Obedience, though, has consequences.
Those consequences may be personally painful or somewhat risky. They may result in more work in the long run. But if we do not take on the painful obedience today, then the long-range effects are devastating.
First, I left off Joshua 5:13-14 on purpose. I think they fit better with Joshua 6 and they tend to draw the most discussion on this chapter.
2. I find the implications of Joshua 5:1 interesting. It appears that the people of the area were more aware of what God could do than the Israelites were at times. However, given traditional religions, it’s possible that the Canaanites still misunderstood the nature of God and assumed a capricious and unpredictable deity rather than who God truly is. But their fear was well-grounded just the same.