Prior to the Israelites’ conquest of the city of Jericho, a very significant event takes place that is often overlooked. Unlike most ancient literature, the Bible records details and events that can be seemingly unrelated to the overall narrative. For example, how many Christians have been sidelined in their attempts to read the entire Bible by the endless series of lists, genealogies, and rules found in Leviticus and Deuteronomy? It can make for tedious reading, but these details are by no means extraneous or superfluous. We learn in Luke 24:27 that everything in the Bible points to Christ, and this includes “Moses and all the prophets.” We do ourselves and our Lord a disservice when we don’t make an effort to understand why particular things are preserved in Scripture. If God thought it important enough to include in His Book, then we should think it important enough to think about.
With that said however, let me state at the outset that I am by no means going to exhaust the details of the Jericho account. There are many details that I will not be discussing in this article, but are very relevant and worthy of your contemplation and study. I am merely trying to hit the high points of this biblical event and draw attention to several things that I find to be especially interesting and important. My main objective is to get you—the loyal reader—to begin to recognize that there is much to be found between the lines of the biblical text. And because the Jericho account is especially rich in details and adumbrations, it provides an excellent example for doing this very thing.
We left off in the first part noting that the walls of Jericho were shut tight because of the Canaanites’ fear of the children of Israel. Rahab had informed the spies that “no courage remained in any man any longer” in Canaan because of what they were hearing about how God was fighting for them (Joshua 2:8-11). Despite the fact that God was actually punishing the Israelites for their lack of faith and trust by making them wander the wilderness without a home for 40 years, the surrounding communities and cities were scared spitless knowing that the very God who had humiliated and defeated the gods of Egypt was fighting for the nation of Israel. The Canaanites were well aware that if Egypt couldn’t withstand a confrontation with this God, their own chances of standing up to Him were nil. Having heard of how God had fought for Israel the last 40 years, they certainly also heard that God had declared the land of Canaan to be the land where the Israelites would ultimately dwell. They were well aware that this “day of reckoning” was coming. As a prostitute in Jericho, Rahab may have been privy to “insider” political information in this regard, but she seems to indicate that a general sense of terror had fallen on everyone, not just the leaders in Jericho. This also seems to be the case by what the spies report when they return to Joshua: “Surely the Lord has given all the land into our hands; moreover, all the inhabitants of the land have melted away before us” (2:24).
In the ensuing days and weeks, God begins to “exalt” Joshua, such that all Israel “may know that just as I have been with Moses, I will be with you” (3:7). God makes it painfully clear that Joshua is the new Moses by parting the Jordan River for them to cross “on dry ground” (like the Red Sea, Ex. 14:21-22), by instituting a memorial to teach their children (like the Passover, Ex. 12:26-27), by meeting with Him and telling him to remove his sandals because he was standing on holy ground (like the burning bush, Ex. 3:5), making an altar (like Sinai, Ex. 20:24-25), and inscribing the law onto stone tablets (also like Sinai, Ex. 32:15-16; 34:4).
Most significantly though, Joshua performs a mass circumcision in Gilgal (5:2-7). Like Moses before him (Ex. 12:43-49), Joshua is told by the Lord to circumcise the males of Israel before they can take part in the Passover meal. It is especially interesting because God tells Joshua to circumcise the sons of Israel “a second time” (5:2). In other words, God views Israel as a collective, not simply as a group of individuals. Despite the fact that the second generation had never been circumcised a first time, God commands Joshua to circumcise them “a second time.” This indicates that God views circumcision as a one-time event that continues throughout His covenant people. This means that infants which were circumcised during Jesus’ time were still being circumcised “a second time,” along with the males of Joshua’s day; the children being born from Joshua to Jesus were all the “sons of Israel.” This also means that if—as most Christians believe—baptism is the new sign of the covenant, then baptisms that take place in the 21st century are continuing the baptisms that took place in the first century. Furthermore, Galatians 3:29 teaches that if anyone is in Christ, he is a child of Abraham—an heir according to God’s promise. This means that all those who have been baptized into Christ are also part of Joshua’s “second” circumcision and are active participants in the ongoing conquest of the “land of Canaan”—the land God promised to Abraham. However, we no longer follow Joshua, we follow Jesus (Yeshua, the new Joshua) and we are no longer restricted to a promised land wedged between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, because Jesus’ promised land is the entire world (Matthew 28:19; Revelation 11:15).
This understanding gives great importance to history and means that what the “sons of Israel” do (or don’t do) in one generation are a part of our own heritage. Any attempt to distance ourselves from what our “fathers in the faith” have done is essentially a denial of the family history. Despite all of the unfaithfulness of the first generation after the Exodus, God still looked on their circumcisions as being valid. Their unfaithfulness didn’t invalidate the sign, rather, their unfaithfulness proved that the sign didn’t guarantee obedience. They carried the sign of Israel in their bodies, yet they retained the sign of Egypt in their hearts. However, the second generation would never have existed without the first. Despite their hard hearts, the first generation taught the second many valuable lessons. The same can be said of the 21st century church. We owe our current existence and knowledge as much to the faithful of previous generations as we do to the unfaithful. One group teaches us what to do; the other teaches us what notto do.
After Israel is circumcised “a second time,” they observe a Passover meal. It is here that God stops sending manna and they begin to eat of the “produce of the land” (5:12). “Through this rite [of circumcision] the new generation was painfully reminded of the covenant and of the promise God had made to bring them into the land ‘flowing with milk and honey.’ Entrance into the land was also marked by the Passover observance and cessation of the provision of manna. The redeemed people would henceforth eat of the fruits of the land.”1
Next, Joshua meets the “captain of the Lord’s host” (5:13-15). When Joshua asks him if he is for the Israelites or their adversaries, the captain responds that he is for neither side. This is a curious statement and it raises several questions. If God is fighting for the Israelites, then shouldn’t the “captain” also be be for the Israelites? Shouldn’t the captain be “pro-Israel”? Well, yes and no. It becomes increasingly clear—after the defeat of Jericho—that God is not blindly fighting for the Israelites, giving them victories wherever they go; God expects Israel to be obedient to His commands. Immediately following the massive rout of Jericho, Israel is humiliated at Ai, by a much smaller force and a city that should have been easily taken. In this case—at Ai—the support of the captain of the Lord’s host was not with Israel, but was actually against them. Israel’s defeat at Ai was every bit as providential as was their victory at Jericho. When it is discovered that Achan “acted unfaithfully in regard to the things under the ban” by keeping some of the plunder of Jericho for himself, the reason for Israel’s defeat at Ai becomes clear (7:1). Only after Achan and his family are taken out of the camp and stoned with stones does Israel gain a victory at Ai. Achan is buried under a “great heap of stones”—just like Jericho itself—as a warning to any others who would provoke the Lord to anger in their disobedience. Anyone who disobeys the Lord’s commands will find themselves fighting against the captain of the Lord’s host.
This is where I believe the Jericho account has the most to teach us, more than three thousand years later. We already discussed (in Part One) the idea that the Canaanites in the modern world are still building and maintaining large walls around their cities in order to keep God’s chosen people out. But a second lesson that flows out of this is much more important. We must always be careful of getting too complacent outside the walls of Jericho. It is easy to relax our guard, thinking that everyone in our army is like-minded. Throughout church history, theologians have made a distinction between the visible and the invisible church. Another way of putting this is the church militant and the church triumphant. Not everyone who fights in the name of the Lord is actually for the Lord. We must always keep in mind that Rahab was inside the walls and Achan was outside. Rahab was for the captain of the Lord’s host and Achan was against him. We must be mindful to “be at peace with all men” (Romans 12:18), but also be mindful that a defeat at the hands of the enemy might indicate “sin in the camp.” We must not only choose our battles carefully, but also our battle partners.
This leads to the final point to be taken from Jericho: generational faithfulness. We live in a time that is remarkably similar to the second generation of Israelites after the Exodus. Many in the younger generation of the modern church are beginning to question certain long-standing traditions and behaviors of their forefathers. Some of these questions are valid and important, some of them are off-base and distracting. When Joshua circumcised the second generation on the west bank of the Jordan he was declaring Israel to be “cut off” and separate from the Canaanites. Likewise, when the Israelites marched around Jericho for a week, they were “circumcising” the city; they were cutting off Jericho from any future inheritance and declaring it to be a possession of the Lord. Circumcision, like the oaths sworn to Abraham and Jacob (Genesis 24:2 & 47:29), is covenantal in that it has to do directly with the part of the male anatomy that makes the next generation a reality. Circumcision, like baptism, isn’t primarily for the individual to whom it is being administered, it for the entire covenant body of believers. It is highly significant that Joshua circumcises the Israelites before he circumcises the city of Jericho. The circumcision of the people was a sign and a seal that they were a part of the circumcision of the city. Our inheritance lies not in the amount of plunder that we can accumulate, but in the covenantal faithfulness of each successive generation that come from our loins. Let us not hold onto unbiblical traditions and customs simply because we think they are a part of our heritage. God had to kill off the first generation of Israelites so that the second could faithfully serve Him in the promised land. Let us covenant with God and with each other that we will not repeat their mistakes. May their deaths in the desert serve as a warning and an admonition to us to honor our own circumcisions (baptisms) and to fight faithfully—along with our children and our children’s children—on the side of the captain of the Lord’s host.
- Samuel Schultz, The Old Testament Speaks: A Complete Survey of Old Testament History and Literature (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1980 ), 95.(↩)