I was so excited when our small group decided to work through the book of Joshua. While I have appreciation for the straightforward direction of New Testament letters, there is nothing that puts a sparkle in my eye quite like a good story. There is so much that can be gleaned from stories, and stories have always been a rich part of my life. My grandmother and father would smile and stretch their imaginations as I would crawl up on their laps and ask them to tell me a story. Maybe that inherent desire to hear a story is one of the reasons that even Jesus spoke in parables. Giving orders or direction doesn’t really capture the heart and mind, it doesn’t explain the consequences and effects, or reveal the layers and depth that a story can. Stories provide layer after layer of insight to be gleaned, and our perspective can fluctuate along with our comprehension of the principles each time we hear it again.
So right there at the beginning of the book of Joshua we find the Israelites. After 40 years of wandering around in the desert (a consequence of disobedience) they were ready to come in to the promised land that Yahweh had told them was already theirs for the taking. They had just crossed the Jordan river and saw how Yahweh miraculously pushed back the water in a wall as it ceased to flow downstream and they crossed over on completely dry land. Not just one or two of them but an entire nation of over (likely) a million people crossed a riverbed on dry ground. A wall of water built up on one sude of them and waited for the last person to step out so it could crash down and proceed in its natural state. How’s that for a triumphal entry into enemy territory? What better way for an army to show off their goods? Can you imagine their excitement? I can almost hear the little boys shouting, “Take that, Jericho! See, Yahweh is on OUR side! See what he just did for US?! Bring it on, ‘Richo’s!”
The level of confidence must have been soaring and contagious all throughout the nation as they made camp. It was a new day and they had finally arrived! Fresh food and houses and land for the taking after forty years of tents and manna in the desert! They were an army on the move and you know the men had to have been cheering one another on, boasting of their strength and the ways that they each thought God would use them to take the land. As men before battle often do, pep talks and conquest plans surely echoed all throughout camp. When I think about this story I always remember military men and women that I’ve been at parties with or celebrated with and how their “hoo-rahs” and cheers stating who they were and what they represented filled the atmosphere. I imagine it was much the same in the Israelite camp.
Their spies had already given reports that the people of the lands were afraid and trembling, and with good reason! What kind of god could bring people out of 400 years of slavery? What kind of god could part a sea or a river…twice? And who could possibly come against such a God? Yes, the Israelites were in the advantage all the way around. It was in the midst of all of this that they received their very first direction from the Lord, through their new leader Joshua. They gathered around eagerly waiting for the green light to conquer. It was time, alas! Then Joshua stood solemnly before them, I imagine, and without making eye contact told them what the Lord was commanding them to do:
Circumcise every male. (Joshua 5)
What? First of all, Joshua was a new leader so I would have been a little less than eager to step up to bat, or blade, if you will. “Are you sure about that, Joshua?”, “Maybe you should go back to the Lord for a double-check because that just doesn’t sound right!”, “Moses told us Joshua was the leader, right? Do we have the right Joshua?!” Common sense reminds us that they had just entered enemy territory! AKA – Red Zone. If this was the Lord speaking, wouldn’t it have been wiser to do this little snipping snippet back on the other side of the river maybe? Or how about, oh I don’t know, ANYTIME in the past forty years?! Why would Yahweh want to completely debilitate his entire army camped just inside of enemy territory with something as drastic as circumcision? What if they were attacked? The men wouldn’t even be able to walk and surely all the women and children couldn’t defend their entire nation against armed and trained warriors! Not a strong start by any military standard, I’d say. It made absolutely no sense at all that this would be the first command in the promised land. Yet, there it was.
Circumcision represented and made an outward marking of who the Israelites represented much in the same way that we are baptized today in a circumcision of our hearts (so to speak). They were about to enter society again for the first time in forty long years and God wanted them to be marked as “his people”. For whatever reason, this was to be done when they were more vulnerable than any man should be past infancy. Perhaps it was to remind them that this was not to be their victory or their strength that would conquer Jericho but about God’s strength and God’s gift to them? We can only speculate on that aspect of the story.
If you look anything like my small group did when I told them that this is one of my favorite bible stories, I’d just like to tell you to bear with me for a moment. You see, the thing that sticks out to me the most in this story is how much the timing parallels real life walking with God. Think about it, how often have you caught fire for something or some cause that the Lord had directed you to and you got all excited about it and were sure that it is what you were called to do when all of a sudden, right in the smack dab middle of your enthusiasm, SQUASH! The complete (seemingly) opposite thing happens! Does it mean that the promise of God is not valid? Does it mean that you heard him wrong? Does it mean that his word is not good and that he won’t complete his good work in you? Of course not, but often it sure does seem like that in the short term!
The bible is filled with examples where God made a promise and then immediately after the complete opposite occured and the biblical character had to hunker down and persevere in order to achieve the happy ending we (readers two thousand years later) saw coming from the very beginning. Abraham was told he would birth a nation as numerous as the stars before he had even one child – then he was told to sacrifice his only son soon after the promise seemed finally possible! David was told he was the king of all Israel, anointed by a prophet even – and immediately after he lived for ten years in the wilderness (often in caves) while he fled for his very life! Not exactly what we would expect to be the life a God-anointed king, now is it? Elijah had just shown thousands of people that Yahweh was more powerful than Baal in an awesome display of power and fire – and immediately thereafter found himself in the desert as he wished himself dead before he could be captured or killed. Joseph saw himself exalted before his brothers and the next day found himself sold into slavery!
I think the greatest example of this is in our very own Messiah. He was the king and savior, he said. He was going to rule all of heaven and earth, he was the salt of the earth and the bread of life. The scriptures prophesied it, the people had expected it for hundreds of years, he was sent to free them from their oppression. He healed the blind and lame, and he rose the dead for crying out loud! Yet right after the disciples saw the transformation and became so clearly confident that Jesus was going to bring forth the kingdom of God – he was crucified. Not just killed – but convicted and crucified in a most shameful way that degraded him and destroyed every ounce of his dignity, rights as a human being, and reputation established during ministry and miracles.
Sometimes we judge the disciples for fleeing and abandoning him during this time a little too quickly, I think. Because again, a king and a ruler and a savior is not humiliated, cast down before his subjects, and killed alongside common criminals, is he? We know today (hindsight being 20/20 and that) the end of the story does indeed entail Jesus as King of Kings and Lord of Lords. But originally, to the disciples post-crucifixion, every dream and word and promise seemed lost and hopeless.
So why do I love this story in Joshua about circumcision and weakness and vulnerability? Because it displays such an accurate depiction of real life even as Christ himself lived it. It is what a scholar I listen to refers to as the “already but not yet” phenomenon in scripture. The Israelites were already given the promised land, but not yet, circumcision came first. Jesus was already King of Kings, but the seemingly opposite crucifixion was part of the design. Moses was told he would represent his people and lead them to freedom, but not yet, he was stuttering and spent years in the wilderness fleeing as a murderer. Jacob was promised Rachel, but not yet, he had to work fourteen years for that. And lastly, we as believers are seated with Christ in the heavenly realm, according to scripture, but not yet as we are also on earth.
There are a lot of situations in our lives where we do not see the manifested evidence of God at work in the way we expect him to be. Does it mean he is not there? Absolutely not. Does it mean that he will not complete his promises of redemption to us? I don’t believe so. I do believe that the Israelite men were afraid when they became debilitated by circumcision and their entire camp was in a dangerous state of vulnerability. I believe they worried about their wives and children and whether or not they would be obliterated while unable to even defend themselves. Surely they wondered why Yahweh would have brought them so far to cast them before their enemies for slaughter. Yet we know the ending of this story and the fact that they did end up conquering. When they were weak, God was strong.
So when we are weak, unable to see the forest for the trees, we can rest and remember the freshly circumcised Israelites on the cusp of battle and camping in enemy territory while sore and healing. We can know that the lessons we learn on the journey are always just as important as the destination God has stored for us. We can look beyond our circumstances and see the smiling face of Jesus, the already-conqueror behind whatever we are facing. And so that is why I love this story about circumcision, it has a depth and dimension of trust and blind faith far beyond what first meets the eye.