After the Israelites crossed the Jordan but prior to invading Jericho, the LORD told Joshua:

"Make flint knives and circumcise this second generation of Israelites." (Josh 5:2)

Josh 5:5 stated that the first generation out of Egypt were already circumcised, which is understandable since it was a mark of the Abrahamic covenant (Gen 17:9-14). The command to circumcise was also given to Moses in Lev 12:3:

On the eighth day the boy’s foreskin must be circumcised.

which renewed the instruction given to Abraham in Gen 17:12:

From generation to generation, every male child must be circumcised on the eighth day after his birth...

It's interesting that the narrator of the Pentateuch never mentioned this failure negatively although the penalty was serious:

Any male who fails to be circumcised will be cut off from the covenant family for breaking the covenant (Gen 17:14)

and there was even an incident that the LORD almost killed Moses for failing to circumcise his son (Ex 4:24-26). See a gotquestions.org article for a typical interpretation.

Several related factors:

  1. If we read carefully the 2 most serious incidents where the LORD Himself almost took them "out" of the covenant by re-establishing the chosen people under Moses's descendants (Ex 32:10, Num 14:12), the LORD later relented after Moses's intercession (Ex 32:14, Num 14:20).
  2. From the 1st gen's side, there was fear, distrust and wanting to do their own way, but they never explicitly rejected the Abrahamic (and possibly the Mosaic) covenant (or did they?). The distrust didn't seem permanent because they did repent (Ex 33:4, Num 14:40b), implying that they wanted to be back in covenant although the 2nd time around (the spy incident) God decided to deny the 1st gen. entrance while they raised their 2nd generation in the wilderness. Similarly, in the NT, a non-permanent fear, rebellion, and distrust doesn't mean we are out of the covenant because of God's faithfulness to accept us back as long as we repent.
  3. From the LORD's side, He continued to show His faithfulness to the covenant to the 2nd generation by a) continuing the journey after the Golden Calf incident (Ex 32) until just before the spy incident (Num 13-14) and b) explicit affirmation that the 2nd gen will enter the promised land (Num 14:31).
  4. The Narrator never indicated explicitly that the Abrahamic / Mosaic covenant was broken prior to the 40 year wandering, but that the 1st generation was simply punished.
  5. On the other hand, failing to circumcise is more serious than temporary distrust because "any male who fails to be circumcised will be cut off from the covenant family for breaking the covenant." (Gen 17:14)

Therefore, at the start of the 40 year wandering (just after Num 14), while it was clear that the 1st gen would die in the wilderness (as punishment), it seemed clear that the covenant was intact, at least for the 2nd generation. If I were a parent of the 2nd generation, the very least I would do is to make sure that my kids are "in" the Abrahamic covenant by circumcising them on the 8th day even though I myself was denied covenant benefit.

Thus the question remains: after the spy incident, during the 40 year wandering in the wilderness, knowing that God promised the 2nd generation to enter the land (Num 14:31), why Moses didn't say or do anything to make sure that the 2nd generation was in the Abrahamic covenant given that 1) he wrote Gen 17:14 and Lev 12:3) and 2) the LORD almost killed him for failing to circumcise his own son (Ex 4:24-26)? But most interestingly: why the LORD wasn't angry at this failure, or why the narrator of the Pentateuch didn't say anything negatively about it?

  • Which question are you asking : [1] Did Joshua foster uncircumcised Israelite children in the desert? - [2] Why were new Israelite children (born to ex-Egyptians) not circumcised in the desert? - please clarify. Commented Jan 24, 2021 at 15:46
  • When you read Joshua 5:7 “And their children, whom he raised up in their stead, them Joshua circumcised, for they had not circumcised them by the way.” - Joshua was not the children’s primary guardian in the desert. Why should Joshua be responsible for sins of their parents? Commented Jan 25, 2021 at 1:43
  • @ChurchQuestions I misread Josh 5:7 and modified my question accordingly. The main question is in the title and is bolded at the end, given the obvious fact that circumcision was extremely important (mark of the covenant). When this main question is answered I think answer to question [2] will naturally follow. Commented Jan 25, 2021 at 6:13
  • To answer OP, it's the same reason why God allows Israelites to heal the sick on Sabbath etc. It's a case of graded absolutism. Circumcising in the wilderness is a pretty dangerous endeavour and God understood their decision to delay the ritual. Commented Mar 24 at 3:36

3 Answers 3


The answer to this depends upon the incident in Numbers 13 and 14, which I will attempt to summarize briefly.

The spies were sent out to explore the land and ten of them brought back a bad report and the people last heart. The attitude of the people was summed up in Num 14:2, 3

All the Israelites grumbled against Moses and Aaron, and the whole congregation said to them, “If only we had died in the land of Egypt, or if only we had died in this wilderness! Why is the LORD bringing us into this land to fall by the sword? Our wives and children will become plunder. Would it not be better for us to go back to Egypt?”

This idea was quickly changed when God struck the 10 unfaithful spies dead (Num 14:36-38). The people realized they had sinned (Num 14:40) and so decided to go and attack the promised land and capture it without the blessing or leadership of God. They were repulsed and many were killed.

It was at this time their wish to die in the wilderness (Num 14:2) was fulfilled - all that generation (people 20 years and older) died - the people wandered in the wilderness for 40 years until all had died and a new generation replaced them.

Thus, the net effect of this rebellion was that the people rejected the covenant God had made with them as described in Ex 19 -23. They had also rejected the Abrahamic covenant of the promised land (Gen 15, 17, 18:9-15, 22:15-18). In their rebellion, God granted their wish and they died in the desert.

The symbol of the Abrahamic covenant was circumcision (Gen 17:10, 11, 13, Rom 4:11). Thus, for the wilderness generation, there was no need of circumcision because the people had rejected the covenant and its symbol was superfluous.

It is only when the new generation was on the borders of the promised land and ready to do as God commanded them, ie, accept the covenant, that the symbol of the covenant became appropriate again. Hence in Josh 5 the covenant symbol of circumcision was re-instituted.

  • Do we have Biblical support that the first generation really wanted out of the covenant after they realized that their distrust of God resulted in the 40 year punishment? Were they not repentant (Num 14:39-40) and wanted to stay in the covenant although God still let them die? Were they heartless enough to let their own children to be out of the covenant? Commented Jan 25, 2021 at 6:29
  • @GratefulDisciple - that is what the data above shows. They wanted to die in the wilderness and that was granted. Then they wanted to attack WITHOUT God's leadership - that is a rejection of the covenant.
    – Dottard
    Commented Jan 25, 2021 at 6:49
  • Considering more data: 1) although the LORD Himself TWICE wanted to take them out of covenant by reestablishing his chosen people on Moses's line, Moses interceded and the LORD relented (Ex 32:14, Num 14:20). So the LORD (out of his faithfulness to Abraham and respecting Moses's declining the offer) did not regard the 1st generation's rebellion as rejecting the covenant outright but merely deserving punishment (Num 14:34) and as a lesson for the 2nd generation. 2) there's repentance (Num 14:40) after initial fear and distrust and wanting to do things their way. Commented Jan 25, 2021 at 19:53
  • More data that the covenant was intact: 3) the LORD didn't destroy the 2nd gen as the 1st gen "wished" (Num 14:31); 4) Comparison with NT: when we rebel but then repent we rely on God's faithfulness to accept us back; no need to be re-baptized since the covenant is still intact. So the question remains: if the 1st gen still wanted "in" and God confirmed that the 2nd gen was "in" (Num 14:31) why during the 40 years the 1st gen didn't circumcise their kids, and more importantly there was no demand from God / Moses to circumcise them as the individual sign of the covenant ? Commented Jan 25, 2021 at 19:53
  • @GratefulDisciple - You are confusing two different covenants - the Israelite covenant and the Abrahamic covenant. The Israelite covenant (Ex 19-23) does not mention circumcision. Circumcision was the symbol of the Abrahamic covenant (Gen 17:10, 11, 13, Rom 4:11) and that generation did NOT inherit the land so cit was stopped. It was re-introduced just before they entered the land for the 2nd gen.
    – Dottard
    Commented Jan 25, 2021 at 20:30

This is a tough but important question. I didn't want to answer it because it was tough. But because it is important, this is my attempt to answer it.

Exodus 32:7 Then the Lord said to Moses, “Go down, because your people, whom you brought up out of Egypt, have become corrupt. 8 They have been quick to turn away from what I commanded them and have made themselves an idol cast in the shape of a calf. They have bowed down to it and sacrificed to it and have said, ‘These are your gods, Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt.’

9“I have seen these people,” the Lord said to Moses, “and they are a stiff-necked people. 10Now leave me alone so that my anger may burn against them and that I may destroy them. Then I will make you into a great nation.”

At this point, God had written this generation off as "your people". He did not consider these rebellious people were fit to circumcise the children anyway, so Moses didn't speak out on their circumcision duty.

The circumcised and the uncircumcised served as a clear separation between the two generations of people. The circumcised would die in the wilderness. The uncircumcised would participate in the promised land.

Another reason is that God wanted to wait for the right time to circumcise the entire new generation at once to inaugurate a new era of conquest after the death of Moses.

Joshua 5:5 All the people that came out had been circumcised, but all the people born in the wilderness during the journey from Egypt had not. ...
7So he raised up their sons in their place, and these were the ones Joshua circumcised. They were still uncircumcised because they had not been circumcised on the way. 8And after the whole nation had been circumcised, they remained where they were in camp until they were healed.

9Then the Lord said to Joshua, “Today I have rolled away the reproach of Egypt from you.”

This was a clear demarcation between the old Egypt and the new promised land. The circumcision and the yet-to-be circumcision was a sign of that demarcation.


The problem that makes your question difficult comes from a misinterpretation of the incidents you are comparing. First, you are assuming that in Exodus 4 that Moses was the one that was that the Lord was seeking to Kill - and this simply isn’t right. It is this passage that needs to be examined, correctly interpreted.

Briefly- This will reflect that Aaron was the ‘subject’. (The one that was to be killed). Before the Lord could work with Aaron, he had to be incorporated into Covenant. Zipporah was not ‘under’ God, not an Israelite, Aaron was not under the ‘covenant’, so was not one of ‘Gods’, children [yet].

So your argument that God was angry with Moses for not circumcising Aaron is totally incorrect. So therefore, neither would God be angry because the Israelites weren’t circumcised - but- before He could [rightfully] ‘work’ on their behalf to enter Canaan, they had to be ‘circumcised’. Simple.

Next you seem confused over the status of the children of Israel for those years they spent in the wilderness until that older generation died. They had to die. Because, of the covenant. Because they were under the covenant. Just like those involved with the Golden calf - for exactly the same reason - they died. Here, after the report from the 10 spies, they had violated the first commandment, they rejected God, and longed for the gods of Egypt. So, same penalty as with those who worshiped the calf. The penalty for breaking any of the 10 commandments was death.

That is, yes, they we’re always under the covenant - even while sojourning in the wilderness waiting for the ‘oldies’ to die!

  • Thanks for attempting to answer. About Ex 4:24-26, that's the first time I hear that the passage is about Aaron. A typical interpretation is about Moses such as here. Commented Jan 26, 2021 at 18:48
  • About the death under covenant, how do you make of Moses's interceding with God and God relenting in BOTH incidents? Didn't it show that God is still giving them a chance after they repent of the golden calf incident although after spy incident God in effect said "Time's up. This time you die as you wish, but I will give your 2nd generation a chance."? If so, why didn't Moses instruct / persuade the 1st generation to circumcise the 2nd generation to be in the Abrahamic covenant for the 2nd generation's sake? Doesn't it take two parties to do something to be in covenant? Commented Jan 26, 2021 at 19:08
  • The traditional interpretation of Exodus 4 is ‘Moses’, and that passage could be made to be ‘seen’ that Moses was the ‘target’, but that’s also true for Aaron. So, you need to exegete it carefully, in particular, consider context, in particular, Hebraic context. Traditional ‘interpretations’ have a different foundation. Second, Moses was assigned, by God, as the mediator between the Lord (Gods Angel), and the Israelites, he was in a position to be able to rightfully ‘argue’ the case - and to be considered! (listened to!).
    – Dave
    Commented Jan 26, 2021 at 19:39
  • @GratefulDisciple Remember- they were [now] ‘under’ the Law - important! As for the incidents of the Golden calf, and the incident at the border, they broke the first commandment. There is no room for mercy under the Law. Moses was warned his angel (the Lord) would not tolerate even the slightest discretion (Exodus 23:21). The penalty for breaking the Law was death - and this happened for both violations. And yes, you are absolutely correct, this covenant involved both sides - simple - the agreement was, [you] do good, you get good [from God], but, if you do bad, .. then you get bad.
    – Dave
    Commented Jan 26, 2021 at 19:41

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