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Why Didn’t the Israelites Circumcise in the Wilderness?

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David Frankel

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Why Didn’t the Israelites Circumcise in the Wilderness?

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Why Didn’t the Israelites Circumcise in the Wilderness?

Joshua circumcises the Israelites only upon their entry to the land.

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Why Didn’t the Israelites Circumcise in the Wilderness?

Israelites in the wilderness, Moshe Rosenthalis, ca. 1978-1980. Wikimedia

Upon entering the land, Joshua circumcises the Israelites:

יהושע ה:ב בָּעֵת הַהִיא אָמַר יְ־הוָה אֶל יְהוֹשֻׁעַ עֲשֵׂה לְךָ חַרְבוֹת צֻרִים וְשׁוּב מֹל אֶת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל שֵׁנִית. ה:ג וַיַּעַשׂ לוֹ יְהוֹשֻׁעַ חַרְבוֹת צֻרִים וַיָּמָל אֶת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶל גִּבְעַת הָעֲרָלוֹת.
Josh 5:2 At that time, YHWH said to Joshua, “Make flint knives and proceed with a second circumcision of the Israelites.” 5:3 So Joshua had flint knives made, and the Israelites were circumcised at Gibeat-haʿaralot (“Hill of Foreskins”).

Why weren’t the Israelites already circumcised? Weren’t they required to circumcise their sons on the eighth day of birth from the time of Abraham (Gen 17)?

The next four verses (vv. 4–7) offer a parenthetical comment that answers this concern. The text begins by telling us that the Israelites in Egypt were circumcised:

יהושע ה:ד וְזֶה הַדָּבָר אֲשֶׁר מָל יְהוֹשֻׁעַ כָּל הָעָם הַיֹּצֵא מִמִּצְרַיִם הַזְּכָרִים כֹּל אַנְשֵׁי הַמִּלְחָמָה מֵתוּ בַמִּדְבָּר בַּדֶּרֶךְ בְּצֵאתָם מִמִּצְרָיִם. ה:ה כִּי מֻלִים הָיוּ כָּל הָעָם הַיֹּצְאִים וְכָל הָעָם הַיִּלֹּדִים בַּמִּדְבָּר בַּדֶּרֶךְ בְּצֵאתָם מִמִּצְרַיִם לֹא מָלוּ.
Josh 5:4 This is the matter of Joshua performing the circumcision: All the people who had come out of Egypt, all the males of military age, had died during the desert wanderings after leaving Egypt. 5:5 Now, whereas all the people who came out of Egypt had been circumcised, none of the people born after the exodus, during the desert wanderings, had been circumcised.

The text then goes off on a tangent, reminding the readers why the Israelites had to remain in the wilderness for so long:

יהושע ה:ו כִּי אַרְבָּעִים שָׁנָה הָלְכוּ בְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל בַּמִּדְבָּר עַד תֹּם כָּל הַגּוֹי אַנְשֵׁי הַמִּלְחָמָה הַיֹּצְאִים מִמִּצְרַיִם אֲשֶׁר לֹא שָׁמְעוּ בְּקוֹל יְ־הוָה אֲשֶׁר נִשְׁבַּע יְ־הוָה לָהֶם לְבִלְתִּי הַרְאוֹתָם אֶת הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר נִשְׁבַּע יְ־הוָה לַאֲבוֹתָם לָתֶת לָנוּ אֶרֶץ זָבַת חָלָב וּדְבָשׁ.
Josh 5:6 For the Israelites had traveled in the wilderness forty years, until the entire nation -- the men of military age who had left Egypt -- had perished; because they had not obeyed YHWH, and YHWH had sworn never to let them see the land that YHWH had sworn to their fathers to assign to us, a land flowing with milk and honey.

The text then returns to spell out who exactly Joshua was circumcising:

יהושע ה:ז וְאֶת בְּנֵיהֶם הֵקִים תַּחְתָּם אֹתָם מָל יְהוֹשֻׁעַ כִּי עֲרֵלִים הָיוּ כִּי לֹא מָלוּ אוֹתָם בַּדָּרֶךְ.
Josh 5:7 But He had raised up their sons in their stead; and it was these that Joshua circumcised, for they were uncircumcised, not having been circumcised on the way.

Despite the wordiness of this long comment, it does not clearly explain why the Israelite males born on the way were not circumcised.

Circumcising in the Wilderness is Dangerous

The Babylonian Talmud notes the problem and offers two possible solutions (b. Yebamot 72a):

ובמדבר מאי טעמא לא מהול?
In the wilderness, why didn’t they circumcise?
איבעית אימא משום [חוליא] (חולשא)[1] דאורחא.
If you wish, I could say because of [illness] (weakness) developed during travel.
ואיבעית אימא משום דלא נשיב להו רוח צפונית.
If you wish, I could say because no northern breeze blew for them.[2]

In his commentary on Joshua 5:2, Radak (R. David Kimchi, ca. 1160–1235) explains this second enigmatic answer:

לפיכך לא מלו כי רוח צפונית רפואה למכת דם וזולתה סכנה
This is the reason they didn’t circumcise, since the northern breeze is what heals bloody wounds, and without it, [circumcision] would be dangerous.

The lack of north wind—never hinted at in the biblical text—is an unsatisfactory explanation; the first explanation, however, about the health problems connected to travelling, may pick up on what the text implies by repeating that the Israelites were בַּדֶּרֶךְ “on the way” in vv. 5 and 7. Thus, R. Joseph Kara (11th cent)[3] comments:

ואחר פשוטו של דבר כן הוא: מפני טעם זה שאומר מלן יהושע, שכל העם היוצאים כי מולים היו, כל העם הילודים במדבר בדרך בצאתם ממצרים לא מלו כי ארבעים שנה הלכו בני ישראל במדבר – ועל פי [י"י] יחנו ועל פי י"י יסעו ולא על פיהם,
The simple meaning of the matter is this: On account of the reason stated [in the verse] Joshua circumcised them… “none of the people born after the exodus, during the desert wanderings, had been circumcised. For the Israelites had traveled in the wilderness forty years” (Josh 5:5–6)— “On the word of the LORD they made camp and on a sign from the LORD they broke camp” (Num 9:23), and not at the word of their own mouths.
היאך יסיע האב את בנו שנמול היום לדרך ודם המכה שופע ויוצא כשמסיעין אותו ממקומו, שכל מי שנחתך בשרו ואינו יושב תחתיו דם הורידין נדים ומקלחין לחוץ שמוצאין מקום לצאת, לפיכך הנמול צריך לנוח במקום אחד שבעת ימים עד שתחיה המכה.
How can a father carry his circumcised son on the way, while the blood is pouring out, and they are bringing him from one place to the next?! For anyone whose flesh has been cut, who doesn’t sit still [to keep the wound shut], the blood from the arteries moves and spurts, since they find an exit point. Therefore, the circumcised baby needs to rest in one spot for seven days until the wound heals.[4]

Kara explains that considering the medical needs of a circumcised baby, and the realities of the wilderness wandering, it would have been dangerous to circumcise babies there. We might add that it would have been even more dangerous to circumcise children and young adults, who would have had to walk long distances for themselves.[5]

This explanation fits with the verse immediately after the parenthetical verses:

יהושע ה:ח וַיְהִי כַּאֲשֶׁר תַּמּוּ כָל הַגּוֹי לְהִמּוֹל וַיֵּשְׁבוּ תַחְתָּם בַּמַּחֲנֶה עַד חֲיוֹתָם.
Josh 5:8 After the circumcising of the whole nation was completed, they remained where they were, in the camp, until they recovered.

The implication is that only now, after the Israelites have come to a standstill, was it safe to circumcise them.

A Problematic Explanation

Although this provides a satisfactory reading of the passage, the passage itself remains problematic for several reasons.

First, travelling is not an obvious excuse. Moses is almost killed by YHWH while travelling to Egypt. This fate is avoided when Zipporah circumcises the boy. There is no hint in this story that there is anything particularly problematic about performing circumcision in the midst of a journey.[6] Moreover, no other text about the wilderness wandering mentions that the travelling made circumcision impossible.

Second, according to Numbers 9:1–14, the Israelites celebrated the Passover in the wilderness at the beginning of the second year of the exodus—and by natural implication each year following—and circumcision is a prerequisite of Passover observance (Exodus 12:43–48).

Third, the Israelites were not constantly travelling. Numbers 33 names thirty-three encampments from the time of the exodus from Ramesses until the death of Aaron at Mount Hor on the fifth month of the fortieth year, giving the Israelites ample time for long stops.[7] Other verses depict the Israelites as stationary for a long time. For example:

דברים א:מו וַתֵּשְׁבוּ בְקָדֵשׁ יָמִים רַבִּים...
Deut 1:46 And they dwelt in Kadesh for many days…

Also, the encampment of the Israelites at Sinai is explicitly presented as lasting just shy of a year (cf. Exodus 19:1 with Numbers 10:11–12).

Moreover, once the Israelites enter the land they still travel as they campaign against the Canaanites. In fact, circumcising the entire male population while they were surrounded by enemies would be more perilous than it would have been in the wilderness.[8]

Finally, why does such a long explanation fail to clearly state why the Israelites needed to undergo circumcision at Gilgal?

The answer lies in the composition history of the parenthetical comment.

A Schematic Look at the Composition History of the Passage

The account of Joshua circumcising the Israelites went through many stages of development:

  • Earliest Account—Joshua circumcises the people of Israel of his own accord (bolded).[9]
  • Deuteronomistic Redaction 1—YHWH commands the circumcision (regular print).
  • Deuteronomistic Redaction 2—A parenthetical gloss notes that Joshua circumcised the second generation of Israelites (indented).
  • Priestly Redaction—Further glosses note that the Israelites in Egypt were already circumcised (red).

 

יהושע ה:ב בָּעֵת הַהִיא אָמַר יְ־הוָה אֶל יְהוֹשֻׁעַ עֲשֵׂה לְךָ חַרְבוֹת צֻרִים וְשׁוּב[10] מֹל אֶת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל שֵׁנִית[11]. ה:ג וַיַּעַשׂ לוֹ יְהוֹשֻׁעַ חַרְבוֹת צֻרִים וַיָּמָל אֶת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶל גִּבְעַת הָעֲרָלוֹת.
Josh 5:2 At that time YHWH said to Joshua, “Make flint knives and again circumcise the Israelites a second time.” 5:3 Joshua had flint knives made, and the Israelites were circumcised at the Hill of Foreskins.
ה:ד וְזֶה הַדָּבָר אֲשֶׁר מָל יְהוֹשֻׁעַ כָּל הָעָם הַיֹּצֵא מִמִּצְרַיִם הַזְּכָרִים כֹּל אַנְשֵׁי הַמִּלְחָמָה מֵתוּ בַמִּדְבָּר בַּדֶּרֶךְ בְּצֵאתָם מִמִּצְרָיִם.[12] ה:ה כִּי מֻלִים הָיוּ כָּל הָעָם הַיֹּצְאִים וְכָל הָעָם הַיִּלֹּדִים בַּמִּדְבָּר בַּדֶּרֶךְ בְּצֵאתָם מִמִּצְרַיִם לֹא מָלוּ. ה:ו כִּי אַרְבָּעִים שָׁנָה הָלְכוּ בְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל בַּמִּדְבָּר עַד תֹּם כָּל הַגּוֹי אַנְשֵׁי הַמִּלְחָמָה הַיֹּצְאִים מִמִּצְרַיִם אֲשֶׁר לֹא שָׁמְעוּ בְּקוֹל יְ־הוָה[13] אֲשֶׁר נִשְׁבַּע יְ־הוָה לָהֶם לְבִלְתִּי הַרְאוֹתָם אֶת הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר נִשְׁבַּע יְ־הוָה לַאֲבוֹתָם לָתֶת לָנוּ אֶרֶץ זָבַת חָלָב וּדְבָשׁ. ה:ז וְאֶת בְּנֵיהֶם הֵקִים תַּחְתָּם אֹתָם מָל יְהוֹשֻׁעַ כִּי עֲרֵלִים הָיוּ כִּי לֹא מָלוּ אוֹתָם בַּדָּרֶךְ.
5:4 This is the matter of Joshua performing circumcision: All the people who had come out of Egypt, all the males of military age, had died during the desert wanderings after leaving Egypt. 5:5 Now, whereas all the people who came out of Egypt had been circumcised, none of the people born after the exodus, during the desert wanderings, had been circumcised. 5:6 For the Israelites had traveled in the wilderness forty years, until the entire nation the men of military age who had left Egypt had perished; because they had not obeyed YHWH, and YHWH had sworn never to let them see the land that YHWH had sworn to their fathers to assign to us, a land flowing with milk and honey. 5:7 But He had raised up their sons in their stead; and it was these that Joshua circumcised for they were uncircumcised, not having been circumcised on the way.
ה:ח וַיְהִי כַּאֲשֶׁר תַּמּוּ כָל הַגּוֹי לְהִמּוֹל וַיֵּשְׁבוּ תַחְתָּם בַּמַּחֲנֶה עַד חֲיוֹתָם. ה:ט וַיֹּאמֶר יְ־הוָה אֶל יְהוֹשֻׁעַ הַיּוֹם [תה"ש:+הזה] גַּלּוֹתִי אֶת חֶרְפַּת מִצְרַיִם מֵעֲלֵיכֶם וַיִּקְרָא שֵׁם הַמָּקוֹם הַהוּא גִּלְגָּל עַד הַיּוֹם הַזֶּה[14].
5:8 After the circumcising of the whole nation was completed they remained where they were, in the camp, until they recovered 5:9 YHWH said to Joshua, “Today [LXX: On this day] I have rolled away from you the disgrace of Egypt.” So he called that place Gilgal, as it still known today.

The Core Deuteronomistic Story

As I argued in my “Joshua Circumcises Israel in Response to Egypt’s Scorn” (TheTorah 2018), the oldest layer of this story has Joshua circumcising the Israelites of his own accord. This was recast by a Deuteronomistic editor adding in YHWH’s speeches in verses 2 and 9a.[15]

The point of this Deuteronomistic revision seems clear: By adding YHWH’s speeches into the text, Joshua is now presented not as acting on his own, but as fulfilling a divine command.[16] The theological significance of this change is evident. But why was the further parenthetical section added?

The (Second) Deuteronomistic Gloss: Who Joshua Circumcised, Not Why

As readers familiar with the Torah, including the Priestly and Holiness sources, we are first and foremost bothered with why the Israelites weren’t circumcised, and read the entire parenthetical through this lens. Nevertheless, circumcision as a commandment going back to the time of Abraham is a later Priestly concept. Deuteronomistic texts never present circumcision as a sign of a religious covenant, or even as a religious commandment at all.[17]

Instead, what troubled the Deuteronomistic author of the gloss was the implied claim that Joshua circumcised the very Israelites who experienced disgrace in Egypt:

יהושע ה:ט וַיֹּאמֶר יְ־הוָה אֶל יְהוֹשֻׁעַ הַיּוֹם גַּלּוֹתִי אֶת חֶרְפַּת מִצְרַיִם מֵעֲלֵיכֶם...
Josh 5:9 And YHWH said to Joshua, “Today I have rolled away from you the disgrace of Egypt.”

This, however, contradicts the claim in several passages in Deuteronomy that the adult Israelites that left Egypt died in the wilderness and that their children entered the land in their stead. For example, Moses asserts that the Israelites travelled for 38 years:

דברים ב:יד ...עַד תֹּם כָּל הַדּוֹר אַנְשֵׁי הַמִּלְחָמָה מִקֶּרֶב הַמַּחֲנֶה כַּאֲשֶׁר נִשְׁבַּע יְ־הוָה לָהֶם. ב:טו וְגַם יַד יְ־הוָה הָיְתָה בָּם לְהֻמָּם מִקֶּרֶב הַמַּחֲנֶה עַד תֻּמָּם.
Deut 2:14 … until that whole generation of warriors had perished from the camp, as YHWH had sworn concerning them. 2:15 Indeed, the hand of YHWH struck them, to root them out from the camp to the last man.[18]

Originally, the parenthetical comment was added to change who it was Joshua was circumcising, from the Israelites who left Egypt to their children.

Deuteronomy Undergoes the Same Editing

That the older core of Deuteronomistic texts had the exodus generation enter the land is explicit in the book of Deuteronomy itself. In her “Did the Exodus Generation Die in the Wilderness or Enter Canaan” (TheTorah 2019),[19] Gili Kugler of the University of Sidney shows that a large swath of texts in Deuteronomy imply that the Israelites who left Egypt are those being addressed by Moses right before their entry into the land.

For example, in Deuteronomy 11, Moses tells the Israelites:

דברים יא:י כִּי הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר אַתָּה בָא שָׁמָּה לְרִשְׁתָּהּ לֹא כְאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם הִוא אֲשֶׁר יְצָאתֶם מִשָּׁם....
Deut 11:10 For the land that you are about to enter is unlike the land of Egypt that you left….

Accordingly, the older layer of Dtr in both Deuteronomy and Joshua had the Israelites who left Egypt entering the land. A later Deuteronomistic editing of both books replaced this conception with a two-generation schematic, in which all the adults who left Egypt die in the wilderness and only their children enter the land.

As such, the original Dtr core of this story has Joshua circumcising the very Israelites who left Egypt, while the parenthetical section changes this, explaining that really all the adult Israelites who left Egypt died in the wilderness, and Joshua actually circumcised their sons.

The Meaning of “This is the Matter of…”

One literary indication that the original gloss was interested in “who” not “why” is the opening phrase: וְזֶה הַדָּבָר אֲשֶׁר “this is the matter of...” This formula appears several times in Deuteronomistic texts, twice addressing a “who” question.[20]

Which Murderers?—Deuteronomy 19 begins by describing the refuge cities that must be set up in the land to protect murderers. The text then continues with a parenthetical of this type:

דברים יט:ד וְזֶה דְּבַר הָרֹצֵחַ אֲשֶׁר יָנוּס שָׁמָּה וָחָי אֲשֶׁר יַכֶּה אֶת רֵעֵהוּ בִּבְלִי דַעַת וְהוּא לֹא שֹׂנֵא לוֹ מִתְּמֹל שִׁלְשֹׁם. יט:ה ...הוּא יָנוּס אֶל אַחַת הֶעָרִים הָאֵלֶּה וָחָי.
Deut 19:4 Now this is the matter of the manslayer who may flee there and live: one who has killed another unwittingly, without having been his enemy in the past. 19:5 … That man shall flee to one of these cities and live.

This text identifies the person who may find asylum in a city of refuge.[21]

Who Are the Conscripted Laborers?—Similarly, 1 Kings 9 explains that Solomon made use of corvée labor to facilitate his building projects. The text then explains:

מלכים א ט:טו וְזֶה דְבַר הַמַּס אֲשֶׁר הֶעֱלָה הַמֶּלֶךְ שְׁלֹמֹה לִבְנוֹת... ט:כ כָּל הָעָם הַנּוֹתָר מִן הָאֱמֹרִי הַחִתִּי הַפְּרִזִּי הַחִוִּי וְהַיְבוּסִי אֲשֶׁר לֹא מִבְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל הֵמָּה. ט:כא ...וַיַּעֲלֵם שְׁלֹמֹה לְמַס עֹבֵד עַד הַיּוֹם הַזֶּה. ט:כב וּמִבְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל לֹא נָתַן שְׁלֹמֹה עָבֶד...
1 Kgs 9:15 This is the matter of the forced labor which Solomon imposed: It was to build… 9:20 All the people that were left of the Amorites, Hittites, Perizzites, Hivites, and Jebusites who were not of the Israelite stock 9:21 …of these Solomon made a slave force, as is still the case. 9:22 But he did not reduce any Israelites to slavery…

Again, the formula clarifies who the conscripted laborers were, namely, non-Israelites.[22]

Accordingly, the parallel clause in Josh 5:4 originally sought to identify the group that Joshua circumcised, not why they needed to be circumcised.

Enter the Priestly Conception of Circumcision

Even with the (second) Dtr gloss, Joshua 5 implies that the Israelites in Egypt were uncircumcised, and that Israelite circumcision essentially began with Joshua at Gilgal. Once the Priestly material of the Torah became canonized, including its emphasis on circumcision as a commandment for all boys eight days and older (cf. Gen 17; Exod 12:44-48; Lev 12:3), this implication became problematic and had to be addressed. This was done by glossing the long parenthetical comment of verses 4–7 by adding verses 5 and 7b (and 8b),[23] changing the original issue from “who” to “why.”

Only these glosses about “not circumcising on the way” affirm or imply that the Israelites who left Egypt were indeed circumcised.[24] The Deuteronomistic verses never make this claim.

Furthermore, verses 5 and 7b identify those who were circumcised at Gilgal as those that were born in the wilderness. This conflicts with the simple meaning of verse 7a about “the sons [YHWH] raised in their stead,” which evokes the divine declaration to the sinning Israelites at the very beginning of the forty-year wandering period (Deut 1:39),[25] telling them that their sons, i.e., those born in Egypt, will enter the land.

In other words, while the Deuteronomistic gloss maintained that Joshua had circumcised the sons who had left Egypt as children, the later Priestly verses now maintained that Joshua had circumcised the children born in the wilderness. The reason for this subtle change on the part of P is that, without this new category of children and the excuse of being “on the way,” there would have been no one left for Joshua to circumcise, since the Egyptian-born Israelite boys that Joshua circumcised according to Dtr, were now said to have left Egypt circumcised.[26]

Finally, the words addressed to the Israelites in verse 9, הַיּוֹם גַּלּוֹתִי אֶת חֶרְפַּת מִצְרַיִם מֵעֲלֵיכֶם, “Today I have removed the disgrace of Egypt from upon you” reflect the assumption that the Israelites in Egypt were uncircumcised, and mocked on that account by the Egyptians, who were circumcised.[27] Only at Gilgal is the national disgrace of uncircumcision removed. This meaning is rendered impossible, however, with the addition of verse 5, which states that the Israelites who left Egypt were circumcised. If all the Israelites practiced circumcision in Egypt, as verse 5 affirms, how could the Egyptians, who also practiced circumcision, have mocked the Israelites about it?! The removal of verse 5 thus allows us to recover the original meaning of verse 9.[28]

The Deuteronomistic Conception of Circumcision

As noted above, in Deuteronomistic thinking, circumcision is not a covenantal sign. God commands Joshua to circumcise the Israelites upon entering the land as an act of grace, removing a humiliating sign of the lowly status associated with servitude in Egypt, and initiating the Israelites into the broader community of “civilized” or “respectable” peoples. This new status is imparted to the Israelites when they enter the land since it is at this stage that they embark on their new and dignified path as an independent nation.

The Deuteronomists never clarify what circumcision requirements would have continued after Joshua’s act of mass circumcision. Quite possibly, the text assumes that it continues to occur as a communal rite,[29] but there is no indication that it remains a universal requirement for all boys to be circumcised, and there is no mention of an eighth day.[30]

For the Deuteronomists, the rite itself always took second place to that which was considered truly important:

דברים י:טז מַלְתֶּם אֵת עָרְלַת לְבַבְכֶם וְעָרְפְּכֶם לֹא תַקְשׁוּ עוֹד.
Deut 10:16 Circumcise, then, the foreskin of your heart, and do not be stubborn any longer.

Published

March 25, 2021

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Last Updated

October 15, 2021

Footnotes

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Dr. Rabbi David Frankel did his Ph.D. at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem under the direction of Professor Moshe Weinfeld. His publications include The Murmuring Stories of the Priestly School (VTSupp. 89) and The Land of Canaan and the Destiny of Israel (Eisenbrauns). He teaches Hebrew Bible to M.A. and Rabbinical students at the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem.