Gilgal: place of transition (Josh 5:9–12; Lent 4C)

The Hebrew Scripture offered for this coming Sunday passage (Joshua 5:9-12) occurs at the end of the period of Wilderness Wanderings that the Israelites experienced. It takes place at Gilgal, to the east of Jericho, just inside the land of Canaan, which has been the destination in view throughout those forty long years of their wilderness journey.

At Gilgal, things start to change. There, the manna and the quails that had consistently been provided throughout their Wilderness Journey (Exod 16; Num 11), now ceased. The people had to leave behind that aspect of their past. And many of us would know that changing habits after forty years is difficult, is it not?

At Gilgal, the place of transition, the Israelites are now in the land of the Canaanites. Their diet would change. The Israelites would start to eat from the produce of the land. They would enculturate with the people already living in the land. Over time, they would marry Canaanites. They would adopt new customs. Their language would change. They would become, not wanderers in the wilderness, but settlers in the towns and villages of the land. Changes would happen. A very significant transition would take place.

This all begins at the place called Gilgal. Gilgal is a Hebrew word meaning “circle”. It was adopted as the name for the place in this story where Israel marked their transition from fugitives fleeing the slavery of Egypt, to invaders conquering the land that they believed they had been given. At Gilgal, a gilgal (circle) of stones was set up (Josh 4:1–9). The circle in this place marked the moment of transition, as the people cross the Jordan into the land.

The Hebrew offers a neat word play: where the circle is (Gilgal), the Lord rolled away (gallowti) the reproach of Egypt. The reproach was the fact that Israelite boys were not circumcised during the wilderness wandering (5:5)—the covenant which was signalled by the mark of circumcision (Gen 17) had been forgotten (Josh 5:1–5). So, Joshua ordered that circumcisions should be carried out on the Israelite males at this place (5:3). Once they had adhered to the forgotten covenant, and reinstitute the overlooked sign of that covenant, the people were able to live in the land that had been promised (5:6–9).

The Passover meal that is shared at Gilgal (Josh 5:10–12) recalls the swift departure from Egypt (Exod 14). Entry into the land means that the wilderness provision of manna ceases; “the land flowing with milk and honey” (5:6) would provide abundant nourishment. So it is, that both Passover and Gilgal signal transition—the liminal space of crossing over into a new experience. Stepping into the river, and then out on the other side, would effect a transformation in the people of Israel.

See https://johntsquires.com/2019/03/18/on-the-threshold-in-a-liminal-space/

On the Gospel passage for this Sunday

and, in relation to the Christian festival of Easter

See also