Summary: The kings of Canaan become frightened when they heard about the splitting of the Jordan River. At that time, Joshua commanded the men to perform circumcision after which they were able to offer the Pesach sacrifice. The manna dried up and that year the people ate the grain from the land. As they arrived in the outskirts of Jericho, an angel appeared to Joshua as a man with a drawn sword.
A deeper look: According to Rashi (d. 1105), the angel that appeared to Joshua was Michael (Rashi to Joshua 5:16). By appearing with a drawn sword the angel was indicating to Joshua that he was worthy of punishment. On reflection Joshua realised that there were two sins for which he could have been liable for the death penalty. He had prepared so eagerly for battle that according to Rabbi Shlomo ben Aderet (Rashba, d. 1310) the people had neglected to perform the Tamid (daily continual) offering with the required procession of priests and levites. In addition to this he had prevented the people from learning Torah that night.
The medieval French commentators, the Tosafists explain that since the angel exclaimed that עתה באתי – “I have come now”, Joshua understood that he was liable for the current sin of impeding Torah study (Tosafos to Megillah 3a). In his contemporary commentary Mishbetzot Zahav, Rabbi Shabbatai Sheftil Weiss highlights the differences between the sacrificial offerings and Torah study. Offerings and their contemporary equivalent prayer are certainly important mitzvot, but the study of Torah surpasses all other commandments.
The angel tells Joshua to remove his shoe from his foot, reminiscent of the episode of Moses and the burning bush over forty years before. Interestingly, in both cases Moses and Joshua inquire regarding the nature of the vision they see (Exodus 3:3 and Joshua 5:13). Yet whereas Moses is spoken to directly by God, Joshua is only addressed by an emissary.
Rabbi Yitzchak Abravanel (d. 1508) explains that the command for Joshua to remove his shoe indicated that the land was holy and could therefore only be conquered with God’s help, not through physical might alone. As Joshua’s conquest for the land begins, this concept will become a recurring theme in the coming chapters.