YEAR C: LENT 4
Today’s reading may seem strange in the context of Lent, speaking as it does of circumcision and Passover celebration. However, it picks up on the theme of hope that has been with us alongside that of repentance in this Lenten period.
The Book of Joshua continues the themes highlighted in the books of the Pentateuch. It brings to a conclusion the promise of land which has been with Israel from the time of Abraham (Gen 12:1-3, 7). It does this by telling in its first half (chs 1-12) of the entry of the Israelites into the land of Canaan after their long time in the wilderness. While this entry is portrayed in Joshua as a triumphant sweep into and through the land with Joshua at the head of the united twelve tribes, we ought not to neglect Judges 1:1-2:5 where early Israel struggles to gain control in the promised land. Together these accounts speak of both the fulfilment of God’s promise and the struggle such fulfilment sometimes requires.
In the second half of the book of Joshua we hear of the distribution of the promised land among the tribes of Israel (chs 13-22). The book then closes with Joshua exhorting the Israelites and the renewal of the covenant (chs 23-24). In addition to the theme of the promised land, the passage for today picks up the themes of circumcision as a mark of the members of the covenant people from Genesis 17, and of the Passover tradition from Exodus 12-13. Thus, in Joshua the entry of the people into the promised land is seen as the culmination of much earlier promises and more recent experiences of liberation.
The stories in Joshua 1-12 also speak of Israel’s activities once they have entered the promised land. They serve as the theological/causal explanations for various customs or landmarks which are of importance later in Israel’s story and life. Josh 5:9-12, today’s reading, concerns the significance of circumcision for the people. The verses immediately preceding today’s text indicate that Joshua is to circumcise ‘the children of Israel’ a second time (v. 2). It is made clear what this meant. The command was for those who had been born along the way, during the forty years wandering, to be circumcised. The explanation seems to be that it was the Lord’s desire for the generation that came out of Egypt, which turned out to be a rebellious one, to pass away and be replaced by a new generation. That new generation, which had not been circumcised while on exodus, was now to receive that sign of the covenant people (cf. Genesis 17). It wasn’t simply a matter of catching up on a requirement which in certain circumstances could not be fulfilled. In Joshua 5 there is the sense that the Lord is beginning again with a new generation of the people. A new generation now in the promised land makes a fresh commitment to the Lord. With the return to covenant allegiance came the restoration of Israel in the eyes of the Lord (‘This day I have rolled away from you the disgrace of Egypt’, v. 9). Once more the people bore the sign of allegiance to the Lord, which was the complement of freedom from slavery to an oppressor. They are ready to make decisions as God’s people.
Verse 10 makes it plain that the rite of circumcision is related to the second ritual observance mentioned in this text, the celebration of Passover. The two rituals are now practiced for the first time in the promised land, and in such a way that draws their past stories together. Since the people left Egypt, the Passover ritual had not been observed. In the wilderness, the only ‘bread’ available was the ‘manna’ provided by God. Now that they were in the land promised to them, they had grain to make unleavened bread. Through these two rites, the people could celebrate their freedom and reconciliation with the Lord in a great feast of thanksgiving. The Passover was now to be celebrated as a commemoration of the Lord’s rescue of the people from bondage. Moreover, the land that gave Israel the grain to make the bread for the Passover, had been granted to them by the Lord, the fulfilment of that promise long ago. The Lord provided the means whereby the people could celebrate and mark their release from captivity.
The writer then makes the final comment (v. 12) that the very next day after the first Passover in the promised land, the manna by which the people were fed in the desert ceased. The manna had been the Lord’s provision during the time they were waiting for the promised land. Even when the people were disobedient, and complained against the Lord, the manna never failed. Even when they had turned away from the covenant, and as a consequence had been lost in the wilderness, the Lord remained faithful to them and provided for them. Now as they come into the land itself there is provision in a new, permanent way.
The people had returned to the land of Abraham’s sojourning, and a great feast had been prepared. Through repenting their disobedience, they had eventually been led back ‘home’. When they awoke the next morning, the disappearance of the manna was a reminder that all along they had been led and fed by their God. They celebrated the faithfulness of a God who liberates from slavery in demeaning circumstances, who redeems the repentant from sinfulness, who forgives, who restores the lost into full relationship, and who celebrates their return.
The themes of this text from Joshua are clearly recognizable in the Lectionary Gospel reading set for this week, Jesus’ story of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11b-32). Jesus’ story is clearly shaped by the experience of the ‘lost’ children of Israel – the lost and reclaimed children of the forgiving God.
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