Notes on Gilgal, the “Place of Rolling”

Ark of the Covenant Crossing Jordan River

The following is a synopsis of study notes for a recent sermon.

Joshua records the events surrounding the entry of the Hebrews into the Promised Land.  As the priests bearing the Ark of the Covenant stepped into the Jordan River, the waters backed up on themselves and formed a dry crossing.  Joshua was instructed to take twelve stones from the riverbed and set them up as a memorial west of the Jordan.  That location, north of Jericho, later become known as Gilgal (Joshua 4:19 ff.).

For some time, Israel made its headquarters at Gilgal.  Joshua was commanded to once again circumcise the people (5:2).  There had been no circumcision since their departure from Egypt.  All the Hebrews who entered into the Wilderness, over the age of twenty, died there for their unbelief, save Joshua and Caleb.  Now those of the new generation were to rededicate the nation.

God then told Joshua, “This day have I rolled away the reproach of Egypt from off you” (5:9).  “Wherefore,” the writer adds, “the name of the place is called Gilgal unto this day.”  “Roll” in Hebrew, which is used to describe the action of a wheel, is GaLaL.  The noun form is GLGL (Gilgal).  Thus Gilgal is “the Place of Rolling.”

Why does God refer to the “reproach of Egypt”?  It had been 40 years since their departure from Egypt.  Yet the people who had known Egypt had carried with them idolatrous ways and a desire for that land, well-watered by the Nile, in their hearts, in spite of bondage.  They had seen God move mightily, sending the plagues that shook Pharaoh’s resolve, then utterly destroying his army; yet they doubted God again and again.  Now those who longed for Egypt were dead, and with them the guilt for their unbelief.

“And they did eat of the old corn of the land on the morrow after the passover . . .  And the manna ceased . . . .” (5:11 f.).  What is the significance of this information?  All their lives, God had supplied the surviving Hebrews daily in the Wilderness.  God was now moving them into a covenant relationship and a greater walk of faith.  He had given them a hill country where they would be dependent on the rain in its season, to bring forth the fruits of their labors (Deut. 11:10-17, Lev. 26:3 ff.).  If they ceased to serve God, He would withhold the rain, and therefore the blessings of the land.

While camped at Gilgal, Joshua went to spy out Jericho, and saw an angel, the Captain of the Lord’s Army (5:13 ff.).  Many commentators identify this event as a theophany, an appearance of God — or rather, an appearance of the pre-incarnate Christ.  True, the angel speaks “as God” in the first person; but note other occurrences, as in the Burning Bush episode (Ex. 3:2 ff.), that the “angel of the Lord” speaks in the first person.

(I count 52 occurrences of “angel of the Lord” in the OT.  It is reasonable, as in the case of modern-day prophecy, for God’s messenger [Heb. MaLaK, Gk. AGGELOS, angel, messenger], human or heavenly, to speak God’s message in the first person.)

Similarly, in Judges 2, an angel is sent forth from Gilgal to prophesy judgment at Bochim.  However, this figure is likely a human prophet rather than an angel of the Lord.  (Malachi means “my messenger,” Mal. 1:1, and the repeated phrase “the angel of the church” in Rev. 2-3 likely refers to pastors.)  This is understandable in the light of Gilgal’s emergence, due to its history, as one of the great “high places” of Israel.  1 Samuel 7:16 says that Samuel made a regular circuit of Beth-el, Mizpeh, and Gilgal.  Beth-el (lit. “House of God”) was identified with the site of “Jacob’s ladder” (Gen. 28:17), and Mizpeh is likely the same “watchtower” where Jacob and Laban established their non-aggression pact (Gen. 31:49).  It was at Gilgal that Samuel anointed Saul king (1 Sam. 11:15), and where Saul committed his presumption (1 Sam. 15:12).  Moreover, at Gilgal, Elisha met with the Sons of the Prophets (2 Kings 4:38).

Unfortunately, over time these “high places” came to be used for idolatrous worship and to rival the Temple.  Through the prophet Amos, God pronounced judgment on these places:  “Come to Beth-el, and transgress; at Gilgal multiply transgression; and bring your sacrifices every morning, and your tithes after three years . . .” (Amos 4:4).

“For thus saith the LORD unto the house of Israel, Seek ye me, and ye shall live:  But seek not Beth-el, nor enter into Gilgal, and pass not to Beer-sheba: for Gilgal shall surely go into captivity, and Beth-el shall come to nought” (Amos 5:4).

One may conclude that relying too much on the greatness of the past, and idolizing past places, events, and practices, while worthy of remembrance for sake of inspiration and instruction, may become in God’s eyes the same as “going back to Egypt.”  In such cases, there is a need for rededication to God’s purposes, and for God to “roll away” that reproach.

© 2010 Paul A. Hughes

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