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TitleJoshua 5
Publication TypeBook Chapter
Year of Publication2022
AuthorsSmoot, Stephen O.
EditorHalverson, Taylor
Book TitleOld Testament Minute: Joshua
PublisherBook of Mormon Central
CitySpringville, UT

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Joshua 5:1–9. The New Generation Circumcised

In addition to being the site of a stone monument, Gilgal was also the site where the children of Israel participated in three important ritual or covenant ceremonies before commencing the conquest of Canaan: the circumcision of all the men born in the wilderness (Joshua 5:2–9), the celebration of the Passover (verse 10), and the eating of the produce of the land (verses 11–12).

Although circumcision was a common custom in the ancient Near East (typically practiced for what were considered to be hygienic purposes), the practice had covenant significance for the children of Israel. Circumcision, of course, was the sign of the covenant God made with Abraham (see Genesis 17:10–14). The circumcision of the Israelite men at Gilgal was meant to renew that covenant and demarcate a new, faithful generation of men who were about to undertake the conquest of Canaan.[1]

The Lord signified His approval of this action in Joshua 5:9 with His declaration, “This day have I rolled away the reproach of Egypt from off you. Wherefore the name of the place is called Gilgal unto this day.” There is a pun in the Hebrew of this verse: the Lord said He “rolled away” (Hebrew gll, “to roll away”) the reproach of Israel at the place of Gilgal (which etymologically seems to be related to the word for wheel or circle). This verse, and others like it in Joshua (for example, 4:9), is one of the rare moments in the text where the narrator injected himself into the story to explain the origins of something to his readers, a feature called etiology, common in ancient storytelling. Compare Genesis 32:32, where the narrator explains a custom practiced by the Israelites in his day as originating with Jacob’s encounter with a mysterious man at the ford of Jabbok.[2]

[1] This mass circumcision of the men of Israel stands in sharp narrative contrast with the mass circumcision of the men of Shechem in Genesis 34. In the case of the faithful Israelites at Gilgal, the text implies that they will prosper militarily because of their faithfulness in keeping the commandment to be circumcised, whereas the men of Shechem met their demise when Simeon and Levi exploited the Shechemites’ post-circumcision soreness to attack and defeat them.

[2] See the overview of biblical etiologies in David S. Farkas, “Etiologies in the Bible: Explicit, Double, and Hidden,” Jewish Bible Quarterly 45, no. 4 (2017): 229–236.

Joshua 5:10–15. The Passover at Gilgal and Joshua’s Vision

The last thing the children of Israel did before they commenced the conquest of Canaan was observe the Passover (Joshua 5:10–12). This festival is first mentioned in Exodus 12 in connection with the tenth plague (the death of the firstborns) and Israel’s flight from Egypt. In a sort of narrative inverse, the Passover held at Gilgal is also connected with death (this time of the Canaanites) and Israel’s entry into the land of promise. Joshua’s presiding over the Passover once again signifies his status as a Moses-like figure. That manna stopped being given to the Israelites on that day was anticipated at Exodus 16:35.

Joshua’s vision at or near Gilgal (presumably, since the location is not specified except that it was near Jericho) is extraordinary (Joshua 5:13–15). As earlier with the vision of Balaam (Numbers 22:23, 31) and, later, of David (1 Chronicles 21:16), in his vision Joshua saw a man with a drawn sword, whom he at first did not recognize. Joshua’s question (“Art thou for us, or for our adversaries?”) makes sense since the man’s posture would naturally have been considered threatening. Only when the man identified himself as the “captain of the host of the Lord” did Joshua realize with whom he was speaking. He accordingly “fell on his face to the earth, and did worship,” since he now recognized that he was in the presence of deity (Joshua 5:14). The response the man gave Joshua parallels Jehovah’s response to Moses on Sinai at the beginning of his own theophany (see Exodus 3:5). Joshua now stood in sacred space.[1] That the Lord was speaking to Joshua in this vision is confirmed by Joshua 6:2–5, which contains the details of the speech after the brief parenthetical aside at 6:1.

The stage was set for the conquest to commence. Israel was prepared for war, and Joshua had his divine commission as Moses’s successor. The first battle will commence at Jericho in the next chapter.

[1] See the discussion in John Gee, “‘Put Off Thy Shoes from Off Thy Feet’: Sandals and Sacred Space,” Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship 45 (2021): 205–216.


Scripture Reference

Joshua 5:1