Early in human history, God himself sometimes designated specific locations as sacred to the people of Israel. Among them was Gilgal, which Elijah and Elisha visited before their parting: “When the Lord was about to take Elijah up to heaven in a whirlwind, Elijah and Elisha were on their way from Gilgal” (2 Kings 2:1).
If we allow it, this New Year may become a Gilgal in our own time. Gilgal was important to the people of Israel for three primary reasons.
The first came after the death of Moses when Joshua was leading the children of Israel to the Promised Land. They crossed the Jordan River and established Gilgal as a monumental site to commemorate their crossing. The Lord had miraculously parted the waters of the Jordan — while the river was at flood stage (Joshua 3:15) — so they could cross safely with the Ark of the Covenant, the sacred, portable home of the Ten Commandments and a constant reminder of God’s presence in their midst.
However, this place was named Gilgal because of a significant event related to the monument of stones that occurred not long after the Israelites had crossed the Jordan and set up camp.
When the Israelites finally reached the Promised Land after their 40 years of wandering in the desert, Moses had died, and God chose Joshua to take command. By this time, “all the men who were of military age when they left Egypt had died, since they had not obeyed the Lord” (Joshua 5:6). Consequently, before taking possession of the Promised Land, God instructed Joshua to cleanse the Israelites before God.
Afterward, God told Joshua, “Today I have rolled away the reproach of Egypt from you,” which is why the place came to be called Gilgal (Joshua 5:9). In Hebrew, “roll” is similar to “Gilgal,” both as a verb and a noun. Thus, the name refers to the circle of stones the Israelites had taken out of the riverbed, which were likely rolled into formation, as well as the message the Lord provided Joshua about rolling away “the reproach of Egypt.”
This, then, was the second reason that Gilgal stood as an important place for the Israelites.
While their parents had disobeyed and rebelled against God and, therefore, were not allowed to enter the Promised Land, these newly purified men were getting another chance. By requiring their purification, God indicated that they were once again set apart from the reproach of the past.
Gilgal also represents a third significant event in the lives of the Israelites. After they had crossed the Jordan River and rolled 12 stones together to form an eternal monument, after the Israelites had obeyed the Lord’s instructions and cleansed themselves, they stayed at Gilgal long enough to heal and to celebrate Passover.
During their 40-year sojourn in the wilderness, the Israelites ate manna, similar to unleavened bread, which the Lord provided daily. Manna could not be collected and saved for later; each day’s supply was intended to nourish people for that day only. Finally reaching Canaan, this long-awaited land ﬂowing with milk and honey, the people underwent another transition into maturation at Gilgal.
The Lord had taken care of them each step of the way, despite their rebellion, idolatry and bitter complaints. Now, the Almighty had made good on his promise and brought his people to the Promised Land of Canaan. Gilgal was not their ﬁnal destination but was a place to get their physical, emotional and spiritual bearings before exploring their new home.
We all need a place like Gilgal on our journeys of faith. Gilgal is God’s way of allowing us to come clean before him and start anew. When we establish a metaphorical Gilgal in our lives, we not only create an altar to praise and thank God for getting us to this point; we remind ourselves that God has wholly separated us from who we used to be. We are no longer covered by the reproach, shame, guilt, fear and punishment of the past.
In the New Year, think of your Gilgal the same way. As you grow in your faith, you no longer need the manna you used to rely on God to provide. In his letter to the querulous church at Corinth, Apostle Paul pointed out that many of them were still “worldly — mere infants in Christ.” In response to their delayed development, Paul explained, “I gave you milk, not solid food, for you were not yet ready for it” (1 Corinthians 3:1–2).
Getting to Gilgal requires patience and trust in the Lord. It is a vista where you stop and look back over all you have experienced and how God has miraculously sustained you on each step of your journey. It is a monument to God’s goodness, faithfulness and provision.
Leaving Gilgal requires courage and even more trust in the Lord. As we enter the New Year, we rest at our Gilgal then leave to take the first step toward the exciting adventures awaiting us around the next bend. Let this annual marker become the foundation for a future forged by mature faith.
Rev. Samuel Rodriguez is president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, executive producer of “Breakthrough” with 20th Century Fox and author of “From Survive to Thrive: Live a Holy, Healed, Healthy, Happy, Humble, Hungry, and Honoring Life” (Charisma House Publishing), a best-seller on Amazon. CNN and FOX News have called him “the leader of the Hispanic Evangelical movement” and TIME magazine nominated him among the 100 most influential leaders in America.