Yesterday morning I rose before the sun to begin translating Joshua 5:2-15 for my Hebrew Exegesis class. Things began like any other day: parsing verbs, declining nouns, looking up obscure forms. But when I got to verse 9 all that changed, because what began as an academic exercise ended up as an overwhelming encounter with the Holy Spirit.
To explain how this came about I need to put the text I was translating in its broader context. God had delivered the Israelites from the oppression and slavery of Egypt (Ex 1-12) so that He could bring them to Himself, enter into covenant relationship with them, take them for a treasured possession, and form them into a kingdom of priests and a holy nation (Ex 19-24). Now, after a 40-year period of wandering in the wilderness, the Israelites have arrived at Canaan, the land God had promised to give to Abraham’s descendants.
Now we arrive at Joshua 5, where the Israelites are preparing to go into the land and God tells Joshua that before they may enter, all the males that had been born during their 40 years of wandering in the wilderness must be must be circumcised. So now you’re probably thinking, “How is a passage about circumcision so profound? What kind of kook are you?” Well, in all honesty, that is a perfectly reasonable question. But it wasn’t all the talk of circumcision that was profound, it was what God said to Joshua after the circumcision of the people had been completed: “And the Lord said to Joshua, ‘Today I have rolled away the reproach of Egypt from you'” (Joshua 5:9).
Yep, that’s it. This one verse absolutely leveled me (in fact, I considered skipping class altogether on account of it) and here’s why. I have written elsewhere about how the Exodus event in general serves as a prototype for how God interacts with His people in all ages as He liberates us from the oppression of sin and death, leads us to Himself, and ushers us into His kingdom. However, what many people don’t realize is that there are many other parallels between the Testaments, not the least of which being circumcision. You see, in the Old Testament, circumcision was the sign of the covenant. It’s not that there was anything magical that happened in the process of circumcision; it was an act of obedience and it identified one as being in covenant relationship with God and consequently a member of God’s kingdom and the covenant community. In the New Testament, circumcision was replaced by baptism, but the significance is the same: it is an act of obedience, it identifies us as being in covenant relationship with God, and it signifies that we have entered God’s kingdom and the covenant community.
Now you might be thinking, “Ok, I see the analogy, but I still don’t get the profundity.” Well, as I said above, what struck me like a ton of bricks was what God said to Joshua after the circumcision was completed, “Today I have rolled away the reproach of Egypt from you.” First of all, God said that he had rolled away the reproach of Egypt. This is the same Hebrew word used in Amos 5:24 where God says, “But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” In context, this word connotes a powerful act brought about by God for the benefit of those who could not do it for themselves. The second word of significance is reproach. This is not a word that is commonly heard in contemporary English, but it essentially means a condition of shame or disgrace. So, when we look at the impact of what is happening here, it is profound indeed! Do you see it? God has powerfully acted on our behalf to do what we were powerless to do on our own: He removed the shame and disgrace of Egypt, the shame and disgrace that we had been stained with while we were under the oppression of sin.
Many of us have an easier time granting forgiveness than accepting it and I tend to be one of these people. I am usually eager to forgive those who offend or harm me and many times I do so without being asked. I don’t say this to try to sound “spiritual” or “holy,” it is just the way that God has wired me so it is no credit to me whatsoever. It is also probably due to the fact that I like to live at peace with people and I am continually aware of the profound depth of my own need for forgiveness both from God and from others. Here is the strange thing though, as much as I am aware of my need for mercy, sometimes I find it difficult to live daily in the acceptance of the mercy that God has extended to me. It is very easy for me to regress into feelings of shame, disgrace, and reproach for the things I did while in my own personal Egypt.
But here’s the overwhelming reality: because of Jesus’ death on the cross and His resurrection, God has rolled away the reproach of Egypt. Not only does my soul no longer bear the stains of that reproach, but I no longer have the right to carry the burden of guilt and shame that go along with it. Jesus took all of that away from me and took it upon Himself on the cross. And suddenly I realized that this was exactly why I was crying. They weren’t tears of sorrow; they were tears of joy! God did on my behalf what I was powerless to do on my own! This is the power of the gospel, not just that through faith in Jesus we are spared from the eternal penalty of our sins and granted the opportunity of eternity in the immediate presence of God (although this is certainly reason for joy!), but that we are cleansed from the debilitating effects of self-loathing and the overwhelming feelings of guilt and shame that accompany sin.
So, may we live daily in the pure and unadulterated joy of knowing that God has rolled away our shame and reproach; may our words be kinder and our steps be lighter because of it; may we be quick to forgive others in earnest just as God has forgiven us; and may we never be afraid to have an honest emotional response to the power of the gospel.