The (Super)Natural Ways God Takes Care of His People
Today is our fifth Sunday in the book of Joshua, and it’s not going to be until next week that we’ll finally get to the most well-known part of the book, the battle of Jericho. And I wonder if you’ve been taken aback at all by just how much material there is in Joshua before we get to the Jericho story.
I used to have this idea that Israel just sort of walked into the Promised Land, and they were all prepped for a traditional warfare campaign, and then God surprised them with these instructions about walking around Jericho in circles while they waited for the wall to fall down. And it was this big struggle because it just seemed so nuts.
I think that’s the way that it had been taught to me. But that’s not the way it’s actually recorded in this book. What we find in Joshua is that Israel’s entrance into the Promised Land had been a supernatural walk of faith all the way along. Amazing stuff has been happening from the beginning.
We saw some of that last week with the miraculous crossing of the Jordan River. Just like at the Red Sea, God parted the waters so His people could just walk right in.
Verse 1 of our passage today tells us the effect that this event had on the inhabitants of Canaan: “As soon as all the kings of the Amorites who were beyond the Jordan to the west, and all the kings of the Canaanites who were by the sea, heard that the Lord had dried up the waters of the Jordan for the people of Israel until they had crossed over, their hearts melted and there was no longer any spirit in them because of the people of Israel” (Joshua 5:1).
These words sound familiar, don’t they? Back in chapter 2 Rahab told the spies that when they heard about the parting of the Red Sea, “our hearts melted, and there was no spirit left in any man because of you, for the Lord your God, he is God in the heavens above and on the earth beneath” (Joshua 2:11).
These people were already terrified because of God’s presence with the Israelites. And now He’s done it again. And the kings have basically given up. They’re totally freaked out. The NIV captures the sense of the words here when it says that “Their hearts melted in fear and they no longer had the courage to face the Israelites” (Joshua 5:1, NIV).
Those of you who play sports know a little bit of what this is like. You know that moment in a game when a team knows that there is no chance of winning, and something switches off inside, and the game is basically over. On a much more dramatic scale, that’s kind of what’s happening to the Canaanites at this point.
And with that in the back of our heads, and knowing that Israel is camped about two kilometres away from Jericho, and knowing that the people are “ready for war” as we read in chapter 4:13, we might expecting to read that the very next day they woke up and attacked the city of Jericho.
After all, that’s what you do, whether it’s in sports or in warfare. When the enemy is back on their heels, you don’t give them a chance to regroup. You push them harder, you press the attack, you drive for victory.
So if we were reading Joshua chapter 5 for the first time, that’s what we’d expect to read. But instead, when we get to verse 2, we’re blindsided by this: “At that time the Lord said to Joshua, ‘Make flint knives and circumcise the sons of Israel a second time’” (Joshua 5:2).
Whoah, whoah, whoah. What is going on here?
Well, there’s a few things that are going on here. To start, let’s review what circumcision is all about.
Circumcision was widely practiced in the ancient world, but its real significance to the the people of God came from the covenant that God made with Abraham back in Genesis 17. There God came and said this to Abraham: “I have made you the father of a multitude of nations. I will make you exceedingly fruitful, and I will make you into nations, and kings shall come from you. And I will establish my covenant between me and you and your offspring after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you. And I will give to you and to your offspring after you the land of your sojourning, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession, and I will be their God” (Genesis 17:5-8).
The promise, at least the part we just read, was lots of offspring and the land of Canaan.
And we know that there’s this pattern in the Bible that when covenant promises are made, covenant signs are given. And we see that here. Right after making these promises, God said, “As for you, you shall keep my covenant, you and your offspring after you throughout their generations. This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and your offspring after you: Every male among you shall be circumcised. You shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and you” (Genesis 17:9–11).
So circumcision was the sign of the covenant with Abraham. It was a reminder to every son of Abraham that he was in that line of promise, and that every child he would ever begat would be in that line of promise.
And now those promises are being fulfilled. The people of Israel went down to Egypt seventy people or so and now they’ve returned to the land hundreds of thousands strong, just like God promised.
And as they receive these covenant promises, it’s really important for them to also receive the covenant sign.
But this begs the question—why weren’t they all circumcised already? It was supposed to happen when they were babies (Genesis 17:12). Back in Joshua 5, verses 4 and 5 tell us why: while the people were in the wilderness they had basically stopped practicing circumcision.
There’s some disagreement on who exactly why the practice of circumcision had stopped. Some people think this was a sign of rebellion, and others think it just wasn’t practical given the desert conditions they were living in.
Our passage doesn’t really tell us one way or another, even though verse 6 does stop to remind us one more time just how wicked that exodus generation was, which is why they all died in the wilderness. And so verse 7 matter-of-factly tells us “So it was their children, whom he raised up in their place, that Joshua circumcised. For they were uncircumcised, because they had not been circumcised on the way” (Joshua 5:7).
For whatever reason it hadn’t been happening, it was really important that it happen now. And so, before the campaign on Jericho begins, the command from God goes out that the men be circumcised.
Makes sense, right? Except no, it doesn’t make sense at all. Look at those words at the beginning of verse 2: “At that time the Lord said to Joshua…” At that time.
After they had already crossed the Jordan River. After the Jordan River was overflowing its banks behind them, cutting them off from any escape. After Israel had set up camp two kilometres away from an imposing fortress filled with enemies.
And at that time, rather than press the attack, God tells them to make flint knives. In other words, go out and collect flint and make knives out of it. That would have taken some time. And then have their entire army, their entire fighting force, undergo a painful surgery on the most sensitive part of their bodies that will leave them completely helpless and completely incapacitated for days, at least.
Are you kidding me?
Would it not have made sense to have this happen back on the other side of the Jordan, while there was still a raging river between them and their enemies? At this point, they’re already vulnerable to attack, let alone having their entire army be recovering from surgery. Without Tylenol.
This is scary stuff. And it’s even scarier when we remember the last time in the Bible a group of adult men were circumcised in the presence of their enemies.
Turn back to Genesis 34 if you have your Bible with you. This story brings us back to the time when Jacob, or Israel, was still living in that land. And one of the princes of the land named Shechem had taken Dinah, Jacob’s daughter, and slept with her, and now wanted to marry her.
And in verses 8-12, Shechem and his dad Hamor beg Dinah’s brothers for the right to marry her. And here’s what we read in verse 13:
“The sons of Jacob answered Shechem and his father Hamor deceitfully, because he had defiled their sister Dinah. They said to them, ‘We cannot do this thing, to give our sister to one who is uncircumcised, for that would be a disgrace to us. Only on this condition will we agree with you—that you will become as we are by every male among you being circumcised’” (Genesis 34:13–16).
And what do we read in verse 18? “Their words pleased Hamor and Hamor’s son Shechem. And the young man did not delay to do the thing, because he delighted in Jacob’s daughter” (Genesis 34:18–19). And in the next few verses we read how they convinced all the men in their city to get circumcised too.
So we’ve got a very similar situation to Joshua 5, where an entire group of adult men have been circumcised. And what do we read next? Verse 25: “On the third day, when they were sore, two of the sons of Jacob, Simeon and Levi, Dinah’s brothers, took their swords and came against the city while it felt secure and killed all the males. They killed Hamor and his son Shechem with the sword and took Dinah out of Shechem’s house and went away. The sons of Jacob came upon the slain and plundered the city, because they had defiled their sister. They took their flocks and their herds, their donkeys, and whatever was in the city and in the field. All their wealth, all their little ones and their wives, all that was in the houses, they captured and plundered” (Genesis 34:25–29).
Two guys killed an entire city’s worth of men and plundered all of their goods. That’s how defenceless you are when you’re recovering from this procedure.
And by the way, this was not a good thing that Israel’s sons did. That’s made very clear later on. But it happened. And here we are, hundreds of years later, back in the same land, in the shadow of the fortress of their enemies, and God tells Joshua to put his entire army in the exact same vulnerable spot.
Of any time for Joshua to say, “Nope, that’s crazy,” this would be it. Of any time for the Israelites to say “Nope, Joshua, that’s crazy,” this would be it. Especially after all of the whining and complaining their parents did in the wilderness. We expect a big fight here.
But instead, we find verse 3: “So Joshua made flint knives and circumcised the sons of Israel at Gibeath-haaraloth” (Joshua 5:3). “Gibeath-haaraloth” is a Hebrew name and your Bible probably has a little note explaining its translation. I encourage you to read it because it gives us a sense of the scope of this undertaking.
And rather than being amused or disgusted by this, we should be amazed by the obedient faith of the children of Israel.
Their parents crossed the Red Sea and immediately started to whine about food and water. They didn’t make the connection that if God could part those waters, He had the power to take care of them in the desert.
But this new generation is apparently making the connections. They are looking back and saying “We heard from Rahab how terrified they all are of us. We just saw what God just did back there at the Jordan River. And if He did that, then He can take care of us now. We can trust that He knows what He’s telling us to do and we can now obey even if this makes little sense to us.”
And so they get circumcised even though it means that if the people of Jericho rally their courage and attack, the Israelites will be completely dead. They are totally trusting God for their protection.
And because they trust they are enabled to obey. We’re going to come back to this idea later on, because it’s so important for us to see this connection between trust and obedience.
And what we see here in the text is that their trust is rewarded, in that God does protect them. Verse 8: “When the circumcising of the whole nation was finished, they remained in their places in the camp until they were healed” (Joshua 5:8).
That’s it. They lit there, helpless and vulnerable, until they are healed. No attack comes. God is keeping their enemies at bay and He protects them.
It’s at this point that God makes a very interesting comment to Joshua. Verse 9: “And the Lord said to Joshua, ‘Today I have rolled away the reproach of Egypt from you.’ And so the name of that place is called Gilgal to this day” (Joshua 5:9).
“Gilgal” sounds like the Hebrew for “roll” and so that’s why the place where they camped got that name. And the idea here seems to be that Israel, in their own land, freshly circumcised, bearing the marks of their covenant relationship with God, is finally free from all of the scorn and ridicule they got back in Egypt.
Remember that Israel had never been a nation before. They were just a people group living inside another country who were persecuted and enslaved. And then they wandered around the desert for forty years because of their disobedience. The shame and disgrace they received would have been significant.
And here in the promised land it’s finally been rolled away. Nobody is looking down their nose at them. Nobody is making Hebrew jokes. Nobody considers them just a group of slaves anymore. The reproach of Egypt is gone.
And now that this has happened, now that they’ve really come into their own as a nation, now that they’ve all been circumcised and are ready to go, now the attack against Jericho begins… right?
Not quiet yet. Verse 10 tells us that the next thing they did was celebrate the Passover. “While the people of Israel were encamped at Gilgal, they kept the Passover on the fourteenth day of the month in the evening on the plains of Jericho.”
There in the Promised Land, they celebrate the meal that looked back to the night their parents—and some of them, as children—fled from Egypt.
The laws concerning the Passover explicitly stated that males could partake only if they were circumcised (Exodus 12:43-49) and so the order of things here is really important.
But let’s just ask here—why are they stopping to have this big religious celebration when there’s a battle to be fought? You’d think that circumcision and the Passover were the kind of things they would do after they had conquered the land.
But God has them do these things first to show that being in right relationship with Him and keeping His commands were more important than getting on with their military campaign. Obedience and worship mattered more than just getting things done.
And beyond this, by doing these things first, He’s showing them that the land is already theirs. They are already enjoying peace and protection and celebration in their new land before fighting a single battle.
At Bible camp years ago I used to play fooseball against this one guy who was just amazing. He had this special maneuver of trapping the ball under the foot of one of his forwards and holding it there for a long and agonizing pause before firing it in to my net at just the perfect angle.
And sometimes at that point he’d stop and take his hands off the table and stretch and scratch his back and drink some water before coming back to deliver the death blow. He was basically showing me, “This game is already won. Excuse me while I enjoy a little pause before absolutely destroying you.”
And similarly, Israel’s actions here are God’s way of saying, “This land is already yours. Before fighting a single battle, you can pause and rest and enjoy. My promises will come to pass; it’s already yours.”
And that theme gets even clearer when we look at verse 11, which tells us that, “the day after the Passover, on that very day, they ate of the produce of the land.” Remember that they arrived at the time of the harvest, and so they are eating the fruit of this land that they had waited so long to enter.
And then, as verse 12 tells us, the manna ceased. “And the manna ceased the day after they ate of the produce of the land. And there was no longer manna for the people of Israel, but they ate of the fruit of the land of Canaan that year.”
God had been providing for Israel all along with supernatural bread while they were in the wilderness. But here in the land of Canaan, surrounded by abundant fields at the point of harvest, the manna is not needed anymore. They eat the fruit of the land, and the manna stops.
Again, this is just a further sign that the land is already theirs. God’s promises are being fulfilled and, before fighting a single battle, they’re already enjoying the fruit of the Promised Land.
Now let’s ask an important question: does the ending of the manna supply mean that God is no longer providing for them? No. Of course not. It means that He is now providing for them in a different way.
Sometimes God takes care of us by supernatural means, and sometimes God takes care of us by natural, “normal” means. Both are His way of taking care of us. And most of the time, for most of His history with His people, it’s through natural means.
How many thousands of years has God been taking care of His people? And for how many of those years did He use manna? Most of the time, when we pray “give us this day our daily bread,” God answers that prayer not by making bread fall from the sky but through a whole bunch of normal processes.
So is God still taking care of Israel here? Absolutely. But rather than through a supernatural way, He’s doing it through the natural way He designed of crops growing and being harvested.
And so we see Israel already settling in, already enjoying the peace and safety and bounty of the land, before a single battle is fought.
Three Lessons for Us
So we come to the end of this passage where we’ve seen God work to protect and provide for His people all those thousands of years ago. And I hope you remember that Joshua is not just a history book. In the Hebrew Bible this book is classified as one of the prophets, because this is history that preaches.
So what is this history preaching to us today? I want to draw our attention to three big lessons for us to take away from this passage.
1: Honouring the Ordinances
The first comes from noticing that, before Israel was able to get into what they might have thought was the important work of conquering the promised land, they needed to stop and observe these “religious rituals” of circumcision and Passover. And the application here for us comes when we realize how these two observances map on to the two ordinances that we still celebrate today in the New Covenant.
Instead of circumcision, we now practice baptism as the sign of entrance into the New Covenant. And the the Passover meal was renewed by Jesus into what we call communion or the Lord’s supper, where we remember how the judgement of God passed over us to fall on our true sacrificial lamb, Jesus, who has led us out of our real exile from sin into the promised land of eternal life.
And so the question for us here is: do we understand these ordinances to be as important as they actually are? Israel needed circumcision and the Passover before they could continue with their mission. Do you see Baptism and the Lord’s supper with the same importance?
Here at EBC we celebrate the Lord’s Supper on the first Sunday of each month. How big of a priority is it to you to be here on those Sundays, or even any Sunday for that?
As we think about baptism this is a great time to mention that we’re having another baptismal service on October 24. If you know Jesus as your saviour but you haven’t been baptized, could this be the day that you receive the sign of the New Covenant, even if it feels scary to you—just like being circumcised two clicks from Jericho might have been scary to the Israelites?
Send me a note or fill out a communication card, and let’s make it happen.
This is our first big lesson from today. Attending to the signs and celebrations of our relationship with God are much ore important than I think we often tend to think. They are worth being inconvenienced for. They are worth interrupting our schedules for. They are really important.
2: Obedience, Whatever the Cost
For our second lesson this morning, we want to zoom out a bit and consider the way that the Israelites were willing to obey God even when His command made zero sense on a human level.
And like we saw, they were able to obey God because they trusted God to take care of them.
The lessons for us are obvious. If we are not obeying God, it’s because we are not believing God. We are not believing that He actually knows best, that His commands are what’s best for us, and that we can trust Him and take Him at His word when He tells us what to do.
Now we could just talk about this in a general sense, but let’s press this in a bit further. Where is it hardest for you to obey God? Where is it scariest for you to follow Jesus? What are the instructions or command you read in the Bible that make you think “That’s ridiculous! No way! I can’t do that, because if I did then this would happen.”
In my experience, one area where this often happens is the issue of dealing with sin amongst our brothers and sisters. Jesus said, “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone” (Matthew 18:15). You know what that is? That’s scary. Having that kind of a conversation is really, really hard to do.
And so what do we often do? We often just don’t have that conversation. And it’s so easy to justify. “If I go talk to that person they’ll get really upset and then I will lose my relationship with them entirely.”
And that’s just one example among many that we could think about.
But the big idea here is that any place we struggle to obey, what’s really going on is a struggle to trust. A struggle to trust that God knows what He’s talking about and a struggle to trust that He’s not going to let us down.
And so the next time you’re struggling with obeying Jesus on this issue or any issue, let your mind go back to the hundreds of thousands of Israelite soldiers moaning in pain nearly in the shadow of Jericho itself. They obeyed God because they trusted that God knew what He was doing and could protect them as they obeyed His command.
And then let your mind go to the promises that God has given us. The promise that all things are working out for our good. The promise that nothing will separate us from His love. The promise that, if He gave up His son for us, there’s nothing else we need that He will hold back from us (Romans 8:28-39).
The more we trust those promises, the freer our obedience will be. We won’t have to calculate “Can I obey Jesus here?” We’ll know that He’s going to keep His promises and take care of us, and so we can obey, even if it feels hard. Even if it feels crazy.
3: Provision in All Different Ways
Thirdly and finally, I want us to reflect on the ways that God provides for His people—sometimes supernaturally, sometimes naturally. The grain of Canaan was no less God’s provision than the manna. One was natural, one was supernatural, but it was all coming from God who sovereignly watches over the whole world to bring about His ends for His people.
This is a really good theme for us to end on for Thanksgiving Sunday. Just think about the way that, every day, we thank God for the food we’re about to eat.
That food doesn’t fall from the sky. As we thank God for our food, we’re thanking him for the farmers who work the soil, and truck drivers who bring the food to market, the store employees who keep the shelves stocked, the power companies who keep the lights on and the checkout tills working, the car manufacturers who make the vehicles that enable us to drive to those stores, the road crews who build the roads that we all drive on as we go about this work, and the jobs that we have which enable us to pay for it all
And that’s just a start. I’ve skipped over a lot of steps in the process. That might be a fun activity this afternoon—to make a list of all of the different jobs and all of the different people that were involved in getting that food on to your plate.
Make a list, and then give God thanks for everything on that list. As the sovereign king of this whole world, He used every single one of those people as He did His work of providing for you.
God still does miracles, when He wants to. But much of the time God uses wonderful, normal ways to take care of us. I’ve got a bunch more thoughts about this, especially as it pertains to healing and medicine and technology, and I’m going to post some of that on the blog this week.
But as we end here today, let’s review these three big ideas. We’ve seen the truth about baptism and the Lord’s Supper. We’ve seen the truth about obeying God, even when returned tough. And we’ve seen the truth about God providing for us, often through normal means.
And the connective tissue bringing all of these ideas together is God's faithfulness. We can obey Him, even when it doesn’t make sense, because He is faithful. We can count on Him to provide for us, however He decides to, because He is faithful. And we make it a priority to remember Christ’s death and resurrection because He was faithful to die for our sins on the cross as had been promised, and He faithful to return for His people a second time, as He has promised.
And that’s how we’re going to respond here today—by praising God for His faithfulness. And then, knowing that He is and will be faithful, we can go out of here into our week trusting Him and obeying Him even when it seems crazy. He has not abandoned His people before, and this week will be no exception.