OT SS Lesson #18

The advantage of blogging the SS lessons instead of teaching them is that I get to cover the chapters that are totally skipped by correlation. (This one [Joshua 5] probably for good reason, but it deserves a mention SOMEWHERE.)

Everyone knows that good Jews are circumcised. God instituted the covenant with Abraham, and faithful Jews have been performing this ordinance on their 8-day-old males ever since, right?


Immediately after Israel crossed the Jordan into the Promised Land under their new leader, Joshua, they were given a commandment. They were told to again circumcise the entire company of the children of Israel.  This was necessary because none of the people who were born during the 40 years in the wilderness had been circumcised.  All the males who left Egypt over the age of 20 had been circumcised but had died in the wilderness.  Joshua circumcised their children, whom Jehovah had raised up in their place. They stayed at the Hill of Foreskins a while to heal.  God told Joshua, “Today I have rolled away (galal) the reproach of Egypt from you” and thus the place was called Gilgal. Gilgal means “heap of stones” or “stone circle”; it sounds similar to galal (“to roll away”).

Given that circumcision was commanded in the Torah, and also a necessary prerequisite to participation in the Passover celebration, why weren’t the Israelites circumcised during that 40-year period?  I think the answer has to do with Moses’ attitude toward circumcision.

Though Moses was born into an Israelite family, it is not certain that he was ever circumcised as a baby.  At least, it is not included in his birth narrative in the scriptural record.  To correct this oversight, some commentators have even tried to assert that Moses was “born circumcised.”  Whether or not this is true, we know that his sons did not inherit this genetic trait!  After marrying and having two sons in the land of Midian, Moses went back to Egypt with his wife and children.  We read about this incident in Exodus 4:18-26:

And Moses went and returned to Jethro his father in law, and said unto him, Let me go, I pray thee, and return unto my brethren which are in Egypt, and see whether they be yet alive. And Jethro said to Moses, Go in peace.  And the Lord said unto Moses in Midian, Go, return into Egypt: for all the men are dead which sought thy life.  And Moses took his wife and his sons, and set them upon an ass, and he returned to the land of Egypt…

It appears that Moses and his wife recognized that the Lord was preventing Moses from proceeding because one of his sons had not been circumcised.  We can speculate that Moses circumcised his firstborn son at the proper age, and that Zipporah was appalled at the bloody act.  Perhaps that was why they decided not to circumcise the other son.  When the Lord chose Moses to lead the nation of Israel out of the land of Egypt, it was necessary that he make a decision: circumcise his son, or die!  Zipporah relented, but was not happy about it.  I think that this incident made Moses very conflicted about the practice of circumcision.  He himself may even have been circumcised later in life, a painful experience!  No wonder he was not strict about making sure the nation of Israel complied with this ordinance while in the wilderness.  But when Moses died and the new generation entered Canaan, a ritual was enacted as a type of the plan of salvation.

Tony Badillo explains the symbolism of the events which took place at the crossing of the Jordan and at Gilgal.  A careful reading of Joshua 4:8-9 shows that twelve stones were taken out of the river and placed on the new land as a memorial, and twelve stones were also taken from the dry land and placed in the midst of the Jordan.  The twelve smooth, rounded river stones symbolized Israel circumcised, analogous to the smoothness of the male reproductive organ after circumcision; a new spiritual beginning in a new land.  The twelve rough stones taken from the dry land represented the uncircumcised male organ; placed in the Jordan to signify death to sin.

Reading these OT passages with our SS lesson gives us the opportunity to reflect on the rich symbolic meanings which lie behind the violent act of circumcision.  I tend to identify with Zipporah on this matter, shrinking from the bloody, brutal deed.  But in the latter-day we are asked to circumcise the foreskin of our hearts, removing our pride and exposing our tender, inner selves to the influence of the Spirit.  We have to be “strong and of a good courage” to do this!   It can be more painful and difficult even than the physical act of circumcision.  As Badillo puts it: “Outer circumcision of the flesh may be done by anyone skillfully using a knife; but inward circumcision of the heart can be done only by the Lord’s spirit , and it is this type circumcision (for subduing the sinful inclination ) that Joshua’s men received at the crossing of the Jordan.”

A worthy Sunday School lesson, even if it didn’t make the manual!