This brief lection drops its readers into the middle of the Israelite invasion of Canaan. It may be difficult to imagine how this text fits, both within the wider narrative of Israel’s Exodus and settlement, and within the season of Lent, of which this is the 4th Sunday.
The book of Joshua has already related the commission of that faithful young spy as Moses’s successor, and the fabled crossing of the Jordan River behind the processing Ark of the Covenant. Joshua has directed the tribes of Israel to place stones at the Jordan as monuments to God’s faithfulness on behalf of the people, and he has connected the crossing of the Jordan into the promised land with the crossing of the sea out of the land of Egypt. The stones are intended both to proclaim God’s might, and to prompt questions from the children of the Israelites, questions that would invite the retelling of God’s work in liberating them from Egypt, guiding them across the wilderness, and bringing them into their promised home.
All of this is followed, in chapter 5, by the circumcision of all males within the Israelite camp. This, too, is an important marking, a construction of another monument in the flesh of the people, another source of questions for their children. This, too, is an action taken as both a remembering and a proclamation of the Hebrews’ covenant with Yahweh. The circumcisions and the stones of the crossing mark this significant moment within the life of God’s people.
But v9-12 point us to another aspect of this moment in Israel’s history. The LORD says to Joshua in v9, “Today I have rolled away from you the disgrace of Egypt.” What might we read this startling proclamation to say? It may mean that, with the entry into Canaan and the circumcision of the people, the Israelites are no longer runaway slaves, fleeing from Egypt. Instead they are now a people, a nation, renewed in their covenant with God and engaged in the securing of their homeland. But this seems like a strange judgement in light of the people-making, covenant-forging encounter at Sinai. A reading more appropriate to the near context of Israel’s story—though hardly more comfortable to confront—is one that remembers just why all of Israel’s men were uncircumcised upon their entry into Canaan. This memory is not far from our text. In the verses just preceding our lection, in Joshua 5:4-7, we read that, although all of the men who had come out of Egypt had been circumcised, the LORD had sworn “that he would not let them see the land that he had sworn to their ancestors to give [them]” (5:6). In response to Israel’s faithlessness, their fear at following where God had promised to lead them (see Numbers 13 and 14), God had instead chosen “their children, whom he raised up in their place” to enter Canaan (Joshua 5:7). What if this is “the disgrace of Egypt”—the choice that slavery to another lord was preferable to the risk of God’s covenant promise? v9 presents God choosing-again the Israelites. But this new election, this new sealing of the covenant also involves the rejection of a faithless generation—a generation that chose exile—that imagined giving themselves to another master was the easier and safer option in comparison with following Yahweh across the Jordan.
It does not take a great deal of pastoral imagination to be confronted by this text, today. The ancient Israelites are not so different from the church. There were among them a great number—a generation—who had seen God work wonders in their liberation from Egypt. They had walked through the parted waters, eaten bread from heaven, drunk water from the rock. They had followed the pillar of fire and cloud, and seen the thunderous presence of God descend upon Sinai. They had received the covenant, and had glimpsed the shining glory of God on Moses’s veiled face. Yet they had also balked at the choice to follow God across the Jordan into an uncertain future full of enormous threats and terrible risks.
Are we not the very same people? The church is also a people who have seen God’s mighty works, who have walked a path marked by God’s unfathomable faithfulness. We also have seen God’s glory. But so, too, have we balked. So, too, have we preferred service to other masters, or the wandering of the wilderness, to the risky work of following God across the boundaries that divide our world. We, too, view the future as one of “exile,” and our past enslavements as a superior safety. We, too, bear the disgrace of Egypt.
Lent is a time to remember and proclaim—or, better, confess—both the disgrace of our sin and God’s faithfulness in the face of it. Lent is a time of purgation—of God’s “rolling away…the disgrace of Egypt.” Lent is a time to find ourselves circumcised anew—a circumcision, perhaps, of the heart—claimed by God and marked by God’s covenant faithfulness. Lent is a time to be made holy, again and again. Lent is a time to cross the boundaries that hold us back, that cause us to balk in fear, that prevent us from loving those given to us and to whom we have been given, that divide us against those we perceive as our enemies, that define the place to which God has called us to follow. Lent is the time to be drawn into that promised land to which God beckons us—a land flowing with milk and honey, a land filled with giants and dangers, a land called Gethsemane, and Golgotha, a land that stands in the shadow of a tomb, however empty it may one day be.
Lent is a time to leave behind the gifts of God that mark our past—the mana that fell from heaven—and to stride forth into an uncertain future, to eat instead “the produce of the land…the crops of the land of Canaan” (5:11,12). For while God’s faithfulness may come to us in a guise different from what we have known, it yet comes. God remains faithful.
Thanks be to God.