(Originally published October 6, 2016)
In Bible study this week we looked at Joshua 5: 1-12. After briefly reiterating the point that the Canaanites were quaking in fear at the miraculous crossing of the Jordan by the Israelites, we considered God’s command to circumcise the sons of Israel. We looked first at his wording of the command in verse 2, to “circumcise the people again.”
This doesn’t mean that individual men were being subjected personally to a second circumcision. As we see a bit further into our lesson, the younger generation had not been circumcised while in the desert. With some help from C. F. Keil [Commentary on The Old Testament, C. F. Keil and F. Delitzsch, Volume 2 (of 10) Joshua, Judges, Ruth, 1 and 2 Samuel, by C. F. Keil, Hendrickson Publishers], we understand this as, “a repetition of an act of circumcision which had once before been performed on the whole nation…It merely expresses the meaning, “Circumcise the people again- or, a second time- as it was formerly circumcised.” (i.e., “a circumcised people” not, “in the same manner in which it once before had circumcision performed upon it.”) The term, “a second time” may be referring back to the introduction of circumcision with Abraham and his whole household. God is referring to the nation as a whole, the people of Israel, as his chosen people, where to be “a circumcised people.” As they formerly were a circumcised people, so they will once again be a circumcised people.
While it may seem that I am unnecessarily belaboring a small point, this is an example of where one word may trip somebody up and lead them to accuse God of unfairness toward his people. So, yeah, it bears careful consideration.
Now, normally, an invading army does not cripple—even temporarily—its warriors, as they are approaching the field of battle. But the fear with which the Canaanites were paralyzed because of the miraculous crossing of the Jordan River, and because God had set that fear especially upon them as a protection for his people, gave the Israelites complete safety against attack while they healed. Yet even more than that, Keil explains that there were men, who had been between the ages of infancy and 20 years old at the time of the curse against the older generation to die in the wilderness, who were already circumcised. Running the numbers, Keil concludes:
“…if there were about 300,000 men of the age of forty and upwards who could not only perform the rite of circumcision upon their sons and brothers, but, if necessary, to draw the sword, there was no reason whatever for their being afraid of an attack on the part of the Canaanites, even if the latter had not been paralyzed by the miraculous crossing of the Jordan.” [Commentary on The Old Testament, C. F. Keil and F. Delitzsch, Volume 2, by C. F. Keil, Hendrickson Publishers]
In this we see that even in the wake of miraculous proofs of his care, God provides extra supports for the weakness of our faith….
And now we turn to the meaning of circumcision itself. What did it signify for Abraham and his descendants?
“When Abram was ninety-nine years old the Lord appeared to Abram and said to him, “I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless, that I may make my covenant between me and you, and may multiply you greatly.” Then Abram fell on his face. And God said to him, “Behold, my covenant is with you, and you shall be the father of a multitude of nations. No longer shall your name be called Abram, but your name shall be Abraham, for I have made you the father of a multitude of nations. I will make you exceedingly fruitful, and I will make you into nations, and kings shall come from you. And I will establish my covenant between me and you and your offspring after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you. And I will give to you and to your offspring after you the land of your sojournings, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession, and I will be their God.” And God said to Abraham, “As for you, you shall keep my covenant, you and your offspring after you throughout their generations. This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and your offspring after you: Every male among you shall be circumcised. You shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and you.” Genesis 17:1-11
Circumcision was the sign of the covenant between God and Abraham, and consequently the nation of Israel, that God will give them the land of Canaan for an everlasting possession, and that they will be his people and he will be their God. The question was then asked, what replaces circumcision for us, the heirs of the new covenant? The answer, simply put, is baptism. Those who have never been baptized and come to faith in Christ, and the children of believers are to be given the new sign of the covenant, which is baptism.
(hold that thought.)
So Joshua is commanded to circumcise a new generation of Israelites. In order to keep our thoughts in context, we ask, why was the previous generation condemned? We are referred back to Numbers 14 to find the answer. After the fearful report of ten of the twelve spies sent into the land of Canaan…
“Then all the congregation raised a loud cry, and the people wept that night. And all the people of Israel grumbled against Moses and Aaron. The whole congregation said to them, “Would that we had died in the land of Egypt! Or would that we had died in this wilderness! Why is the Lord bringing us into this land, to fall by the sword? Our wives and our little ones will become a prey. Would it not be better for us to go back to Egypt?” And they said to one another, “Let us choose a leader and go back to Egypt.” (Numbers 14:1-4)
And the Lord said to Moses, “How long will this people despise me? And how long will they not believe in me, in spite of all the signs that I have done among them? (v 11)
And the Lord spoke to Moses and to Aaron, saying, “How long shall this wicked congregation grumble against me? I have heard the grumblings of the people of Israel, which they grumble against me. Say to them, ‘As I live, declares the Lord, what you have said in my hearing I will do to you: your dead bodies shall fall in this wilderness, and of all your number, listed in the census from twenty years old and upward, who have grumbled against me, not one shall come into the land where I swore that I would make you dwell, except Caleb the son of Jephunneh and Joshua the son of Nun. But your little ones, who you said would become a prey, I will bring in, and they shall know the land that you have rejected. But as for you, your dead bodies shall fall in this wilderness.”(26-32)
They were condemned for their unbelief. The Lord promised them a blessing, delivered them from the bondage of Egypt with great signs and wonders, led them through the Red Sea on dry ground, and destroyed their pursuing enemies in their wake. And even still, the people rejected God and his blessings utterly. So for the next forty years of wandering in the wilderness for the unbelief of the older generation, the Israelites did not perform the covenant ritual of circumcision. Concerning this, C. F. Keil writes:
“All the fighting men who came out of Egypt had died in the wilderness… for all the people who came out (of Egypt) were circumcised; but all who were born in the wilderness were uncircumcised. This states the necessity for a general circumcision, but does not explain why the younger generation had not been circumcised. (In Numbers 14:29-34) the Lord swore that all men 20 years old and up who had murmured against him should perish in the wilderness; and though their sons should enter the promised land, they would also lead a nomadic life for 40 years in the wilderness, and bear the apostasy of their fathers, until they (the fathers) fell in the desert.
During all this time they were to endure the punishment of the rejection along with their fathers: with this difference alone, that the sons were not to die in the wilderness, but were to be brought into the promised land after their fathers were dead. The sentence upon their fathers was unquestionably a rejection of them on the part of God, an abrogation of the covenant with them. This punishment was also to be borne by their sons; and hence the reason why those who were born in the desert were not circumcised. As the covenant of the Lord with the fathers was abrogated, the sons of the rejected generation were not to receive the covenant sign of circumcision. Nevertheless, this abrogation of the covenant with the generation that had been condemned, was not a complete dissolution of the covenant relation, so far as the nation as a whole was concerned, since the whole nation had not been rejected, but only the (older) generation….. For this reason the Lord did not withdraw from the nation every sign of his grace; but in order that the consciousness might still be sustained in the young and rising generation, that the covenant would be set up again with them when the time of punishment had expired, (God) left them not only with the pillar of cloud and fire, but also the manna and other tokens of his grace,…”
“Circumcision was suspended as long as the nation was under the ban of the divine sentence pronounced upon it at Kadesh.”
To have continued the rite of circumcision during the 40 years of wandering in the wilderness would have been akin today to allowing unbelievers to bring their children for Baptism in our churches. Baptism is now, as circumcision was then, the sign of belonging in the covenant family of God. The older generation of Israelites rejected God at Kadesh and were therefore apostates, no longer members of the covenant community. To have continued the rituals of covenant community would have been a farce.
When I read this in Keil & Delitzsch and realized what it meant it really hit me. God does not participate in pretense for the sake of keeping up appearances. The Lord rejected the generation who rejected him and told them they would die in the wilderness and not enter the promised land—the promised land represents heaven! They rejected him completely and utterly and therefore their unbelief and hardened hearts kept them out of the covenant blessings.
The Lord is now re-establishing his covenant with the younger generation, “rolling back the reproach of Egypt,” which was the mocking scorn that the Lord was only bringing them out to the desert to kill them. This mockery was now disproved entirely as their circumcision is the practical declaration of the renewal of the covenant and a pledge that the Lord will give them the land into which they have at long last entered!
Again, concerning the timing of this:
“The Lord did not enjoin the renewal of the covenant sign before Israel had been conducted into the promised land, because he saw fit first to incline the hearts of the people to carry out his commandment through this magnificent proof of his grace. It is the rule of divine grace to give and then to ask.” C. F. Keil
To get a grasp on the timing here, let’s look back at God’s covenant with Abraham, the father of the nation of Israel and all who believe. God gave Abraham the covenant of circumcision two chapters after he established his covenant with him.
“Fear not, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great… And he brought him outside and said, “Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring be.” And he believed the Lord, and he counted it to him as righteousness.” Genesis 15:1, 5-6
Then comes the ritual with the slain animals and the Lord passing through them as a smoking firepot. Chapter 17, two chapters later, (quoted above) is the institution of the covenant sign of circumcision.
God gives grace and faith to believe to those he claims as his own before asking for obedience.
Moving on from the re-establishment of the covenant by the circumcision of the nation, we see that the very next thing they do is celebrate the Passover, as Moses had commanded them when preparing for the first Passover in Egypt, “And when you come into the land that the LORD will give you, as he has promised, you shall keep this service.” (Exodus 12:25) Now that the nation has been received again into the covenant with the Lord they celebrate his faithfulness to his promises for deliverance and bringing them into the land with the covenant meal of the Passover.
We asked how God’s deliverance of his people from Egypt (under the old covenant) is a picture of our deliverance through Christ (under the new covenant) which we commemorate in the Lord’s Supper. To help with this, we are directed to Luke 22, where Jesus shares the Passover for the final time with his disciples.
“And when the hour came, he reclined at table, and the apostles with him. And he said to them, “I have earnestly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer. For I tell you I will not eat it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God.” And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he said, “Take this, and divide it among yourselves. For I tell you that from now on I will not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.” And he took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” And likewise the cup after they had eaten, saying, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.” Luke 22: 14-20
To better understand this, I dug into notes from long-past Sunday school classes as well as the Westminster Confession and the Heidelberg Catechism.
The Lord’s Supper, as with the Passover, is a covenant meal, a feast to commemorate the covenant between our Lord and his people—us—a covenant instituted unilaterally by him, sealed by blood. In the Passover the blood of the lamb anticipated the blood of Christ, who is the Lamb of God, come to take away the sins of the world. In the Lord’s Supper it is the blood of Christ which has sealed the new covenant. Another covenant with which we are familiar is the covenant of marriage, in which ceremony covenant vows are made, and the ceremony is often followed by a feast. Not coincidentally, this imagery is also used to represent our relationship to Christ, who is our bridegroom, we are the bride, and there is a marriage feast—of the Lamb—which we anticipate sharing with him in heaven!
“In its (the Lord’s Supper’s) use Christ ratifies his promise to save us on the condition of faith, and to endow us with all the benefits of his redemption. We, in taking this pledge, solemnly bind ourselves to entire self-consecration and to all that is involved in the requirements of the gospel of Christ…” [Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter XXIX, section 1, parentheses mine]
Heidelberg Catechism, 76
Q: What does it mean to eat the crucified body of Christ and to drink his poured-out blood?
A: It means to accept with a believing heart the entire suffering and death of Christ and by believing to receive forgiveness of sins and eternal life. But it means more. Through the Holy Spirit, who lives both in Christ and in us, we are united more and more to Christ’s blessed body. And so, although he is in heaven and we are on earth, we are flesh of his flesh and bone of his bone (hear the echoes of marriage??). And we forever live on and are governed by one Spirit, as members of our body are by one soul. (parentheses, again, clearly mine)
“What good news God proclaims to us at the Table—what a visible sign of God’s grace we enjoy! As surely as I know, without any doubt or hesitation, that I am holding bread and sipping juice, so surely can I know, with complete confidence, God loves me in Christ.” Kevin DeYoung, The Good News We Almost Forgot; Rediscovering the Gospel in a 16th Century Catechism
We have been delivered from the bondage of sin—from death and darkness—by our Lord, our deliverer, into life and light. He gives us this covenant meal to remind us because we are prone to forgetfulness, but he is not. Where we are weak, he is strong.
Finally, after observing that the manna ceased the day after the celebration of the Passover, proving even further its miraculous and gracious provision from God, we finished by considering how the change in the status of the Israelites from wandering the desert under the judgement of the Lord to being restored into covenant relationship with him is reflected in our change in status as believers today. To direct our thoughts on this, we were sent to the writing of the Apostle Paul.
“And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience— among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.” Ephesians 2:1-7 (italics and bold print mine)
Oh, dear one, read and re-read that until it is driven deep into your heart and mind. We were rather active, for dead people. We walked, followed, lived, and carried out our sinful trespasses, passions and desires, because it was our nature to do so. As dead people that was all we could do. BUT GOD made us alive, saved us, raised us up, seated us in heavenly places in Christ, so that he might show us grace and kindness, immeasurably rich, throughout all eternity to come! All his doing! All his!
All praise and glory and honor and worship be unto our Lord and King!