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Joshua 5:5 says no circumcisions were performed during this time, Why?

Could it be that since the Israelites rejected God's commands, those particular people were rejected from being part of the Mosaic covenant which also included circumcision? As God says in Numbers 14:12...

Numbers 14:12 (KJV)

I will smite them with the pestilence, and disinherit them, and will make of thee a greater nation and mightier than they.

...so God was able to form another group of Abraham's descendants he could establish the Mosaic covenant with? However Moses request God to soften his anger to enable the ones born in the wilderness to benefit from the Mosaic covenant and thus inaugurated this covenant by re-instituting circumcision and the Passover with these?

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  • The people had rejected the covenant promises (by refusing to enter the promised land) of which circumcision was a sign. Thus, for the 40 years they were not (technically) the covenant people and thus needed no sign of the covenant.
    – Dottard
    Dec 31, 2022 at 2:26
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    @Dottard It was Jehovah who refused to allow them entry to the promised land for forty years (because of unbelief). And yet Jehovah maintained his covenant (and his promises) to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. There is a difference between 'covenant people' (by faith) and 'children of Israel' (by natural birth). Question up-voted +1.
    – Nigel J
    Dec 31, 2022 at 9:23
  • @NigelJ - see my answer below - Jehovah granted the wish of the rebellious people as recorded in Num 14:27, 28 - “How long will this wicked congregation grumble against Me? I have heard the complaints that the Israelites are making against Me. ... So tell them: As surely as I live, declares the LORD, I will do to you exactly as I heard you say.
    – Dottard
    Dec 31, 2022 at 9:26
  • @Dottard Yes, I fully agree. We are seeing things differently. Circumcision should have been carried out. It was not because of men's unbelief. It was not due to 'suspension'.
    – Nigel J
    Dec 31, 2022 at 9:34

5 Answers 5

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Six important points to be noted regarding the passage of the children of Israel through the wilderness :-

  • the manna continued for forty years

  • the cloud by day continued for forty years

  • the pillar of fire by night continued for forty years

  • their shoes and clothing did not rot for forty years

  • Moses continued to lead them for forty years

  • God continued to speak to them for forty years

None of these things ceased, none was interrupted, none of them were suspended.

God continued to keep his covenant (to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob).

In process of time, the depiction on earth of spiritual and heavenly things and of the New Testament, yet to be revealed in Jesus Christ, was continued to the next stage : entry into the land, the removal of the nations, the settlement of Israel and the building of the temple.

For a brief time, a depiction had been demonstrated (to all nations on earth) that was temporary, somewhat crude, and mobile.

Finally, a depiction was set up on earth that was (more) permanent, was more sophisticated and that was firmly fixed and stationary.

In due process, came forth the Promised One, born of the virgin Mary : 'she brought forth the Son of her, the prototokos' (literal, from Stephens).

In him, all was fulfilled, in spiritual reality and all previous depictions became redundant as they had been superseded by his sufferings, his death, his bloodshed, his resurrection, his ascension, his enthronement and his promised and inevitable coming to take the true Kingdom (of the heavens and not of this present earth) ushering in new heavens and a new earth.


But Israel had failed.

Their failure is explained by Paul in the Roman epistle and the Galatian epistle and by the writer to the Hebrews, also, in that epistle.

Not as though the word of God hath taken no effect. For they are not all Israel which are of Israel. [Romans 9:6 KJV]

Not all of the natural seed of Israel were of faith, as their father Abraham - most definitely - was. Nor were such, in unbelief, justified by faith - as he most definitely was.

Nor did they follow the Lord faithfully - as Abraham most singularly did with astounding and exemplary fortitude and integrity.

Unbelief. As the writer to the Hebrews makes very plain :

But with whom was he grieved forty years ? [Hebrews 3:17 KJV]

Forty years of grief did Israel give to the Lord their God. And the books of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy tell the sorry tale. Murmuring, rebellion, grudging, backbiting, slandering, refusal - the flesh demonstrating that, under a legal rule, the law makes nothing perfect.

For flesh is flesh : and nothing else. The law was weak through the flesh, Romans 8:3. For what the law would do, it did not (see the whole of Romans chapter 7) for that through which it would work, was . . . . weak.

Hence those not of faith among Israel - failed.

And they failed to return unto God what was their reasonable sacrifice, that of circumcision, the sign given to Abraham that his faith, and the promise to be realised in Isaac (and his seed) was not of flesh and works and law : but was of God's promise and God's oath (not man's) and would be realised not by natural generation but by that which involved the cutting off of flesh, the negation of flesh . . . a way of faith.

Such faithless Israelites did not keep the sign of faith : circumcision.

They just didn't bother. They snuffed at it.

And their carcases fell in the wilderness and - through unbelief - they entered not into the land, Number 14:29 and Hebrews 3:17.

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    @ACME Circumcisoon was not 'prevented'. It was rebelliously not carried out becasue of unbelief. I answered your question Why was there no circumcision . . . ? You changed your question seven hours after I answered it. Your own answer (edited into your question) is not a valid explanation. If you wish to answer your own question you should do so here, in the answers area, so that the community may vote upon your answer.
    – Nigel J
    Jan 2, 2023 at 8:57
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    Excellent treatment of a covenant sign which predates the Law by some 400 years. +1 Jan 2, 2023 at 16:45
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    @ACME et al, we moderators are getting a little more serious about addressing "swarming" over viewpoints in the comments. An answer simply needs to address a question, demonstrate or explain the interpretation process, and focus on fact with citation. Opinion is OK if minimal and presented as such. After that, it's not good to disagree with an answer; write your own answer. Some friendly highlights and clarity discussion is healthy in chat. I've deleted many comments as "no longer needed", but also some as "unfriendly" (swarming).
    – Jesse
    Jan 4, 2023 at 0:18
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    @Jesse - If that is your policy, I strongly support it. I agree that "swarming" is unhelpful and often amounts opinionated bullying or, in extreme cases, intimidation.
    – Dottard
    Jan 4, 2023 at 0:32
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    @Dottard We want to be a little more loose on our site to allow "friendly discussion about differences", to celebrate certain aspects of an answer (IE "+1" with a quote from the answer is okay, but not "+1" only). We just want to keep it brief. Mild disagreement for clarity is also healthy. While other sites want that at a near zero, we want it to be brief. This, along with some good flags, shows progress. Thanks a ton for being part!
    – Jesse
    Jan 4, 2023 at 0:35
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The narrative of Joshua 3-5 records several significant events which all occurred in the space of about one week or so:

  • The Israelites crossed the Jordan river into the "promised land" (Josh 3)
  • They set up a a pile of 12 stones to commemorate this historic crossing into the promised land (Josh 4)
  • They camped at Gilgal (Josh 4)
  • Circumcision was re-instituted (Josh 5)
  • The Passover was re-instituted
  • They ate their first meal of roasted grain from the produce of the land
  • Manna stopped falling
  • Joshua was visited by "the Commander of the LORD's Army" to encourage Joshua on this military campaign of land.

Thus, circumcision and Passover, which were symbols of the Israelite covenant between God and Israel instituted in Ex 19-23, had been suspended precisely (Num 14:24, "breach of promise", KJV) because the people had:

  • refused to enter the promised land, and
  • wanted to die in the desert or return to Egypt 38 years earlier as Num 13 and 14 records:

Num 14:21-23, 28, 29 - “Yet as surely as I live and as surely as the whole earth is filled with the glory of the LORD, 22not one of the men who have seen My glory and the signs I performed in Egypt and in the wilderness—yet have tested Me and disobeyed Me these ten times— 23not one will ever see the land that I swore to give their fathers. None of those who have treated Me with contempt will see it.

So tell them: As surely as I live, declares the LORD, I will do to you exactly as I heard you say. Your bodies will fall in this wilderness—all who were numbered in the census, everyone twenty years of age or older—because you have grumbled against Me.

That is, because the Israelites refused to obey God as their leader, the covenant and it promises was suspended until all the disobedient had died and a new generation who were willing to obey had replaced them.

Barnes appears to agree with the above:

The reason why circumcision was omitted in the wilderness, was that the sentence of Numbers 14:28 ff placed the whole nation for the time under a ban; and that the discontinuance of circumcision, and the consequent omission of the Passover, was a consequence and a token of that ban. The rejection was not, indeed, total, for the children of the complainers were to enter into the rest; nor final, for when the children had borne the punishment of the fathers' sins for the appointed years, and the complainers were dead, then it was to be removed, as now by Joshua. But for the time the covenant was abrogated, though God's purpose to restore it was from the first made known, and confirmed by the visible marks of His favor which He still vouchsafed to bestow during the wandering. The years of rejection were indeed exhausted before the death of Moses (compare Deuteronomy 2:14): but God would not call upon the people to renew their engagement to Him until He had first given them glorious proof of His will and power to fulfill His engagements to them. So He gave them the first fruits of the promised inheritance - the kingdoms of Sihon and Og; and through a miracle planted their feet on the very soil that still remained to be conquered; and then recalled them to His covenant. It is to be noted, too, that they were just about to go to war against foes mightier than themselves. Their only hope of success lay in the help of God. At such a crisis the need of full communion with God would be felt indeed; and the blessing and strength of it are accordingly granted.

The revival of the two great ordinances - circumcision and the Passover - after so long an intermission could not but awaken the zeal and invigorate the faith and fortitude of the people. Both as seals and as means of grace and God's good purpose toward them then, the general circumcision of the people, followed up by the solemn celebration of the Passover - the one formally restoring the covenant and reconciling them nationally to God, the other ratifying and confirming all that circumcision intended - were at this juncture most opportune.

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  • 'Suspended promises' ? ? ? Does God 'suspend promises' ? I trow not. The promises of God are yea and amen in Christ Jesus.
    – Nigel J
    Dec 31, 2022 at 9:25
  • @NigelJ - OK. What is your explanation given that the promises were never fulfilled in the wilderness generation? Indeed, God even called this His "breach of promise", Num 14:34 - alienation of God as per V34.
    – Dottard
    Dec 31, 2022 at 9:28
  • The promises of God were all fulfilled - to Abraham and Isaac and Jacob. The covenant is an everlasting covenant. But that everlasting covenant was demonstrated (on earth) by a picture : men, a tabernacle, an ark. The unbelief of Israel made no difference to the everlasting covenant nor to the true circumcison (of the heart, not of flesh). Nothing was 'suspended'. NO promise was broken.
    – Nigel J
    Dec 31, 2022 at 9:32
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    I understand that there is one everlasting covenant. I also understand that the agreement between God and certain persons on earth (in regard to demonstrating something on earth, temporarily) has been fulfilled (and will be completely fulfilled) and realised in the realities made known in the coming of Christ and his sufferings, death, resurrection, ascension, enthronement and establishment upon a new earth under new heavens. Many things, yes, ceased with the resurrection and ascension of Christ. They became redundant as they were superseded. Nor, I may add, will they ever be re-instated.
    – Nigel J
    Dec 31, 2022 at 10:33
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    @ACME - I am referring to the Abrahamic covenant made in Gen 15, 17, 18:9-15, 22:15-18 where God promised to give the land to his descendants. The Moral covenant was made with Israel in Ex 19-24. The Levitical covenant was made with the levites and priests in Lev 1-9, 16, 21-27 , Num 3, 4, 8, 18, 25:10-13, Deut 33:8-11, Neh 13:29, Mal 2:4-8.
    – Dottard
    Jan 2, 2023 at 2:37
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Since Dottard focused his answer on the key passage of Num 14:34, here I tell my thoughts about this topic.

The specific pivotal word in this passage is תנואתי, and is derived from the verbal root נוא (n-w-‘, or n-y, as we will see later) ‘to refuse (to do something)’, ‘to say ‘no’’.

In Akkadian – a very ancient Semitic language (thus far we know it as the oldest Semitic language) – JANU (with all the sounds as the Hebrew term) means ‘is not’, ‘no’ (interestingly, also in some ‘non-Semitic’ languages this meaning, along with the original verbal root’s sounds, have been maintained across the millennia. Indeed, the term ‘without’, ‘with no’, is in Greek ανευ; in Gothic inu; in German ohne). Also according Davidson the Hebrew term means ‘to refuse, decline’.

This time, both LXX as well as the Vulgate, with their resultant translations, give us only a bit of aid to our understanding. In fact, their translations were focused to the end result of the נוא of God, not to the נוא itself. LXX: γνώσεσθε τον θυμόν της οργής μου, ‘you will know the fury of my wrath’; Vulgate: “et scietis ultionem meam”, ‘and you will know my vengeance [or, ‘chastisement’]).

But, what about the ‘breach of promise’ sense, as Dottard pointed in his answer?

We have to remember that as regards God, to hold, or to keep His words – inside a covenant of Him with men – is depending if the other part (men) keeps the commitments of the covenant itself.

Granted, God has been/is/will be always faithful, whereas what we say about men?

Since we have always the free choice to obey or not obey God, the latter has the freedom to break (or, ‘to suspend’, temporarily, using the Dottard’s phraseology) the covenant if men break their committments towards Him.

A simple analogy. I said my wife (many years ago), ‘I love you forever’. But this promise I made depends from a faithful behaviour from my wife part. If my wife goes with another man, I am free from the marriage covenant (and I am free to marry another woman, too), because she has not maintained her marriage vows toward me (granted, this analogy must be understood also in the reverse mode, namely, I am the traitorous so that my wife is free from the marriage covenant…).

So, can someone call me a liar, since I said to my wife ‘I love you forever’, whereas I today love another woman instead of her? No, because the covenant between me and my (first) wife was a conditional one.

Some points to point, in some reference essays (under Num 14:34) that confirm this concept (bold is mine).

Treasury of Scriptural Knowledge: “‘Tenoathi’, rather, ‘my failure’, or ‘disannuling’; for as they had broken their engagements, God was no longer held by his covenant (Deu. 31:16-17; 1 Sam 2:30; Zec. 11:10).”

Adam Clarke: “As God had promised to bring them into the good land, provided they kept his statutes, ordinances, etc., and they had now broken their engagements, he was no longer held by his covenant; and therefore, by excluding them from the promised land, he showed them at once his annulling of the covenant which they had broken, and his vengeance because they had broken it.”

Baruch A. Levine translates: “so that you may know what the denial of me entails!” The linked note to this verse says: “Hebrew tenu’ah (the plural occurs in Job 33:10) derives from the verbal root n-w-‘ (or n-y-‘), which in the hiph’il means ‘to negate, deny, treat as nothing’ (Num 32:7; Ps 141:3). This verb also occurs in legal contexts, connoting the annulment of vows (Num 30:6, 9, 12). The sense here is that the Israelites will experience the punishment that the denial of God will bring upon them.”

To conclude, this time I agree with the answer that Dottard gave to ACME’s question.

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  • thank you for pointing out the bilateral sense of the Mosaic law covenant.
    – ACME
    Jan 2, 2023 at 0:44
  • I appreciate these points. Thank You. So the edit poses an additional question, please comment. TY
    – ACME
    Jan 2, 2023 at 0:55
  • Circumcision/ Abrahamic covenant predates the law by some 400 years, is not a two sided covenant (The Lord swore by Himself) and the Law does not nullify it. Jan 2, 2023 at 16:27
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The Jewish sages of blessed memory explains, that they did not perform circumcision, because it was dangerous to perform while wandering in the desert. For example, Genesis 34:25 explains how the sons of Jacob exploited the weakness that caused by circumcision.

“And it came to pass on the third day, when they were sore ...” (Genesis 34:25, ASV)

In the Talmud(=Gemara) (the translation in Sefaria is mixed with the commentary of R.Steinzalts):

The Gemara returns to the incident involving Joshua. And what is the reason that they did not circumcise themselves in the wilderness after the Torah had already been given? The Gemara answers: If you wish, say it was due to the weariness caused by their journey. Since they were traveling continuously, they were too weak to undergo circumcision. And if you wish, say instead that it was because the north wind did not blow for them, and the hot weather was likely to lead to medical complications following the procedure. As it is taught in a baraita: All those forty years that the Jewish people were in the wilderness, the north wind did not blow for them.

The Gemara asks: What is the reason that this wholesome wind did not blow all those years? If you wish, say it was because they were under censure following the sin of the spies and were therefore undeserving of this salutary wind. And if you wish, say instead that it was so that the clouds of glory covering the Tabernacle should not disperse.

https://www.sefaria.org/Yevamot.71b.19

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  • not too sure this is the reason, but thanks
    – ACME
    Jan 2, 2023 at 0:52
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One possible explanation for the non-circumcision of the wilderness generation of Israelites is that the custom was originally practiced by them as a rite of passage either at puberty or in preparation for marriage. This idea is at odds with Genesis account, which commands that infants of eight days should be circumcised, but if we consider the documentary hypothesis, this part of Genesis could have been written long after the period in question, making it anachronistic. The Jewish Encyclopedia explains:

Evidence points to the fact that circumcision in its primitive form was connected with marriage, whether performed with a view to the facilitation of cohabitation or... to the consecration of the generative powers... The critical view of the Pentateuch, which ascribes Gen. xvii. to the late Priestly Code, and Josh v. 4-7 to the interpolation of the redactor... sufficiently accounts for the non-circumcision of young Israelites prior to their entrance into Canaan by the following theory: The ancient Hebrews followed the more primitive custom of undergoing circumcision at the age of puberty, the circumcision of young warriors at that age signifying the consecration of their manhood to their task as men of the covenant battling against the uncircumcised inhabitants. After the settlement of the Israelites in Palestine, the rite was transferred to the eighth day after birth.

If the documentary hypothesis is accepted, the Israelites would not necessarily have known of God's commandment regarding circumcision on the eighth day. Critics also suggest that the wilderness course need not be thought of as exactly 40 years.

Thus, we should consider the possibility that circumcision did not take place in the wilderness because the Israelites were still following the more primitive custom of circumcision at puberty or later. While this hypothesis contradicts the belief that the Torah was dictated by God to Moses, it does explain why the Israelites did not circumcise their infants during the period after they left Egypt.

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