This text is used for the Lectionary Year C on March 6, 2016.
In the lectionary, Joshua 5:9-12 is linked with Psalm 32, 2 Corinthians 5:16-21 and Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32. If you are following the lectionary this would be the fourth Sunday in Lent. As such, it leans into transitions. The Joshua and 2 Corinthians texts also reflect the theme of transitions.
It is easy to focus on the dramatic battles of the Book of Joshua and miss the liturgical or ritual elements embedded in the book. The Book of Joshua is about transitions. The first chapter of the Book of Joshua announces Moses is dead (Jos 1:2). The story that began with the crossing of the Sea of Reeds (Exodus 14) closes or transitions at the crossing the Jordan (Joshua 3:1-17). The story that began with the gift of manna (Exodus 16:4-30) comes to an end in the book of Joshua (5:12).
The ritual and liturgical texture shows through in Joshua 5. Chapter 5 begins with three rituals at Gilgal: an account of circumcision (5:2-9), observance of Passover (5:10-11), and cessation of manna (5:12). After the extended description of circumcision, the passage begins with a geographical etiology. A geographical etiology explains the name of a place, in this case Gigal (Gen 32 Penuel). As is often the case with an etiology, there is wordplay at work. The Hebrew verb galal, “to roll away,” gives rise to the name Gilgal. The Masoretic Text (Hebrew) emphasizes the role of Gilgal, hence the etiology, but the Septuagint (LXX) Greek lacks explicit references to the setting.
The Hebrew term herpat (and its Greek counterpart oneidismous) often translated as “reproach” (RSV) or “disgrace” (NRSV), “of Egypt,” is unclear in the Hebrew. It could refer to a taunting which may be similar to Zephaniah 2:8. The Ezekiel tradition describes the reproach/disgrace of Ammon (Ezk 21:33 MT; 21:28 NRSV). The Book of Daniel (11:18) uses the same term to describe the end of the Hellenistic “insolence.” Dozeman in his commentary thinks this first understanding of the word as “taunt” connects better with the description of circumcision.
Another alternative would be to construe the relationship between Egypt and Israel characterized by subjugation and/or slavery. The Hebrew term herpat can characterize a state of disgrace created by certain conditions such as childlessness (Gen 30:23), being uncircumcised (Gen 34:24), defilement (2 Sam 13:13, singleness (Isa 4:1), and mutilation (1 Sam 11:2). During the so-called Persian period, the report to Nehemiah (Neh 1:3) understands the fall of Jerusalem put the people of Jerusalem and its environs “in reproach” (see Isa 51:7; Jer 24:9; 42:18; Ezk 5:14; Joel 2:17). Dozeman thinks this understanding of herpat places the meaning much more resolved through the Passover than simple baptism. A third alternative renders herpat as “trauma.” For the word “trauma” captures both the taunting and the disgrace. “Trauma” captures the sense of of loss and the stigma that accompanies it.
So one problem is figuring out what the disgrace/reproach or even trauma of Egypt meant in antiquity, however, the bigger challenge for those preaching in North America, is how we can translate the notion of the disgrace of Egypt for a nation who does not know Egypt, a community who does not have a long history in shame of national and theological defeat. The temptation to shift to a typological reading of the reproach of Egypt creates a trivializing of the Exodus by reducing it to personal or group reversal.
The people experience Passover. Exodus 12-13 describes the birth of Passover. Joshua 5 describes the first Passover on the west side of the Jordan. What contemporary readers can miss is that the instruction that the Israelites ate unleavened bread and parched grain in the face of the cessation of manna is a marker that the privation of the exodus is ended. That privation is replaced by the bounteousness of the land.
King Josiah, according to 2 Kings 23:21-24, brings the observance of Passover back after years of lapse of proper use. Passover is part of Hezekiah’s (2 Chronicles 30:1-27) and Josiah’s reforms (2 Chronicles 35:1-19) which reflect Passover and the centralization of the cult at Jerusalem. Passover is a marker of the centrality of Jerusalem. Passover is a marker for a turn of era, as the transition from Exodus (Exodus 12-13) to the Promised Land (Joshua 5), as well as the reforms of Hezekiah and Josiah. Passover was one of the three pilgrimage festivals prescribed in Exodus 23:10-19 and 34:18-26. The language “to make the Passover” echoes Num 9:4-5. The Passover provides the background of the story of the Last Supper (Mark 14:1-51; Matthew 26:1-46; Luke 22:1-53; John 11:55, 12:1, 13:1-38).
The manna story begins after the deliverance at the Sea of Reeds. The people complained about the food. That provides the context for the beginning of manna (Exodus 16:1-30). Manna is described as a fine flake-like frost. It was like coriander seed with a wafer made with honey (Exodus 16:14, 31; Numbers 11:8). You might think of it as a heavenly baklava. The end of manna was to solve the problems of murmuring and want. The word “end” can refer to the purpose.
The end of manna is marked by the bounty of the new land. The Joshua story of manna is a marker of a transition. Verse 12 recounts the “demise” (in Hebrew), the stopping of the manna. The NRSV smooths out the Hebrew obscuring a repetition. The manna will stop; moreover the children of Israel will not again eat manna.
Legend has it that when Alexander the Great landed on the shores of Persia, he burned his boats. He supposedly told his men that if we sail back home we will do it on Persian ships. The new circumstance required a change in provisions. The NRSV conveys well how the produce of the land now replaces the manna. One form of divine largesse now replaces the earlier.
Dr. Stephen B. Reid
Professor of Christian Scriptures
George W. Truett Theological Seminary, Waco, TX
Tags: liturgy, ritual, manna, Passover