Unusual Bible Interpretations
Chapter 5- part 1
Chapter 5 describes what the Israelites did when they first entered Canaan after wandering for some forty-years in the desert. The following discussion is from my book Maimonides and the Biblical Prophets.
“Joshua, Why Didn’t Moses Circumcise the Israelites Before They Entered Canaan?”
Joshua 5:2 describes an unusual and seemingly inexplicable episode. After Joshua marched the Israelites over the Jordan into Canaan, after their forty-year trek in the desert under the leadership of Moses and centuries of Egyptian enslavement, God charges Joshua: “Make knives of flint, and circumcise the children of Israel again, a second time.” Joshua complies.
Then, verses 4 and 5 explain – or, more precisely, seem to explain – “And this is why Joshua circumcised: all the people that came out of Egypt, that were males, even all the men of war, died in the wilderness by the way, after they came out of Egypt. For all the people that came out were circumcised; but all the people that were born in the wilderness by the way as they came out of Egypt had not been circumcised.” Thus, after forty years of drifting desert travels, the erstwhile slaves, the cantankerous earlier generation, had died out, leaving a new breed of uncircumcised conquerors, advancing resolutely under the generalship of Joshua, men who required circumcision.
The section concludes: the circumcision “rolled away the reproach of Egypt from off you.” Then the people “kept the Passover on the fourteenth day of the month.”
1. The passage mentions “a second time.” When was the first time that the Israelites were circumcised?
2. Why did the Israelites use ancient imprecise jagged flint stones? Didn’t they have metal instruments? This was the Bronze Age!
3. Why did the Israelites need to be circumcised? Aren’t Jewish children obliged by biblical law to be circumcised at the age of eight days?
4. What was the “reproach of Egypt”?
5. Does the book of Joshua answer these questions?
The Book of Joshua: Raising More Questions Than It Answers
The book of Joshua offers some facts but does not explain them. This is not at all unusual. All great literature contains ambiguities and obscurities designed to entice the reader, capture his or her attention, and draw him or her in to ponder and participate in the tale. As the great Argentinean writer Jorge Luis Borges (1899–1986) wrote: two people write good literature, the writer and the reader.
True, the text tells us that the Israelites did not circumcise their children during the desert journey, but it does not tell us why. This is remarkable in light of the traditional Jewish view that circumcision is the sign of the covenant between man and God. The following are some answers offered by Jewish commentators that may not satisfy all readers.
Flint Knives: The Traditional Instrument for Performing Circumcision
The question relating to why the Israelites used flint stones to circumcise themselves rather than metal instruments is easy to answer. The Israelites were just entering the Bronze Age. The circumcision ceremony was a unique ancient religious experience and a reminder of the covenant with God and of the history of the Israelite family, stretching back to the circumcision of the ancestor Abraham recorded in Genesis 17. Abraham’s circumcision had occurred over five hundred years earlier, before the Bronze Age. But the Israelites felt that they wanted to circumcise themselves as Abraham had, and as Moses’ wife had circumcised her son in Exodus 4:25 – with flints.
Additionally, historians, anthropologists, psychologists, and other scientists have noted that people generally prefer performing a religious ceremony in the same way it was done in the past. Thus, even today, the Shabbat lights are lighted with candles, not electricity. The practice in virtually all synagogues is to read the Torah from scrolls rather than to use books, in order to follow the ancient practice. While it would be far easier to put vowel signs in the Torah scroll, this is not done since the ancient scrolls did not have vowels. Thus, too, when the Israelites stopped using the ancient script and switched to the Hebrew alphabet used today, many felt that when they wrote God’s holy name it should still be written in the old script. Some of these practices were dropped after a period of time, such as the use of flint stones and the old script, while others, like the Shabbat candles, the Torah scrolls, and the refusal to insert vowels in the scrolls, continued.
While this answer seems simple and reasonable, the answers given to the other questions are somewhat problematical, and there is striking disagreement regarding them.
The “Second” Circumcision
The phrase “the second time” in the Joshua account is strange. According to the Bible, the Israelites knew of Abraham’s circumcision and the circumcisions of his descendants. The passage recognizes that the Israelites were circumcised in Egypt. There were obviously many circumcisions, not just two. What does “the second time” mean?
Don Isaac Abravanel, the Jewish statesman, philosopher, and Bible commentator who was born in Portugal 1437 and died in Padua after several expulsions from his home in 1508, understands “the second time” to mean the second time that God ordered a circumcision. The Israelites did not need to be reminded to observe the rite while they were in Egypt; they knew the ancient law. God commanded Abraham to observe the rite of circumcision for the first time in Genesis 17. God’s second charge was here, to alert the people that they should be circumcised before they conquered the holy land of Canaan and before they celebrated Passover.
The French Bible commentator Rashi states that this was the second time that the Israelites were circumcised in a group ceremony. The first mass circumcision was just prior to the Egyptian Exodus. Both were connected with the Pascal sacrifice, which may not be eaten by a person who is uncircumcised. Rashi does not explain why there was a need for mass circumcision prior to the Exodus. Presumably he felt that the Israelites did not obey the rite while enslaved – perhaps because their Egyptian masters prohibited it.
Why Were the Israelites Not Circumcised in the Desert?
Neither Abravanel’s nor Rashi’s response to the previous question answers the basic question, namely, it is rather strange that the Israelites did not circumcise their children during the forty-year desert wandering.
The Babylonian Talmud, Yevamot 71b–72a, offers an explanation. It states that the Israelites were exempt from observing circumcision in the desert because of physically dangerous conditions. There are two possible reasons given for this. It is possible that the wandering itself caused such fatigue as to make it dangerous to circumcise children. This is the same reason that the Babylonian Talmud, Nedarim 32a, offers to explain why Moses did not circumcise his son when God told him to leave Midian and travel to Egypt at the beginning of his forty-year leadership of the Israelites.
A second rationale is that the north wind, which brings fine, mild, wholesome weather, did not blow upon the Israelites during the forty years, making it dangerous to circumcise babies. Nevertheless, the Talmud continues, some of the people, especially the tribe of Levi, did circumcise their children. These people apparently placed themselves in great danger to remind their co-religionists not to forget this important commandment.
(The text of Joshua itself does not suggest any reason why circumcision was not performed. It seems that the Talmud based its understanding on the word baderekh, “on the way [when they left Egypt they were not circumcised].” The Talmud translates ba as “because” and not “on.” Thus, it read “because of [the conditions] of the way.”)
Why Did God Withhold the North Wind from the Israelites?
The sages disagree as to why God withheld the north wind. In his commentary on the Talmud, Rashi states that the north wind was stopped as punishment for the Israelites’ sin of the golden calf. This clarification is not entirely satisfactory. First of all, not all of the Israelites participated in the golden calf episode. Secondly, the Bible itself states that those who were involved were punished with death. Thus there was no one left to discipline. Thirdly, if this was an additional penalty, why doesn’t the Torah mention it and explain why it was necessary?
Accordingly, the Tosaphists – the first of whom were the sons-in-law and descendants of Rashi, who added their ideas to those of Rashi – suggest that the punishment was for the people’s acceptance of the negative report brought by the ten spies who maintained that the Israelites could not conquer the Canaanite inhabitants. This answers why the entire people were disciplined, but it does not explain why the Israelites should have been punished by the wind stopping; the Israelites were already being punished by having to die in the desert without entering Canaan. And, again, why is it not mentioned in the Bible?
Others suggest that the wind did not blow so that it would not scatter the miraculous pillar of cloud that led the people during the day mentioned in Exodus 13:21. This is an unusual response. If God was performing miracles, such as having a cloud lead the people, couldn’t He protect the cloud from a wind? Also, why did God help them by using something (a cloud) that caused them harm (stopping the cooling wind) and precluded them from observing a basic Torah law?
The Talmud states that the withheld north wind blew at midnight. This raises further difficulties. If it was withheld to stop the wind from scattering the pillar of cloud, there was no need to withhold it at night. The cloud was only present during the day to lead the Israelites. A pillar of fire led them at night. Thus, the wind could have been restored during the evening until the morning. Why weren’t the newborn children circumcised in the evening? Even if the wind only blew at midnight for some unexplained reason, why weren’t the infants circumcised at midnight?
In short, no satisfactory answer is given. And another question arises.
Was it Important to Be Circumcised Before the Pascal Sacrifices in Canaan, But Not Important for the Israelites to Bring Circumcised Children to Hear the Revelation at Sinai?
Recognizing this difficulty, Rashi reminds us of another explanation that the rabbis offered on the term “the second time”: this was a second detail that God gave the people regarding circumcision. Abraham was not told to conclude the circumcision with peri’ah, the tearing of the foreskin after the circumcision. The rabbis state that the commandment to do peri’ah was first instituted at Mount Sinai. Thus, according to this understanding, God was telling the people to circumcise themselves using the second detail, peri’ah.
According to this explanation, the Israelites did circumcise themselves during the forty years, but they did not do peri’ah. This is strange. If the new command was given at Sinai, the Israelites should have observed it during the entire forty years in the desert, and there was no need for Joshua to introduce it. Additionally, why didn’t God give Abraham the entire commandment? Also, why does the Torah seem to imply that the circumcision practiced today is the same as the one practiced by Abraham?
What Was the “Reproach of Egypt” That Was “Rolled Off” the Israelite Males?
A simple answer would be that now the Egyptians would no longer be able to mock the Israelites saying, “You claim that you left to worship your God; yet you do not observe a basic commandment that He gave you!”
Rashi does not offer this solution. Instead, in Exodus 10:10, he presents an idea that would only satisfy those who are superstitious and those who believe in the efficacy of astrology. The Egyptians, he claims, saw a star called ra (probably the red planet Mars) and knew through astrology that the Israelites would suffer through “red.” When the people circumcised themselves and bled, the astrological prediction was confirmed, and the Israelites removed the reproach, that is the Egyptians’ negative interpretation of the astrological event.
The national circumcision of the Israelites just after their entrance to the promised land of Canaan related in Joshua 5 is an example of an obscure passage. The sages offered various explanations to answer a host of questions, but the answers raise further difficulties. Why was there a need to circumcise the Israelite when they entered Canaan? Wasn’t circumcision a basic requirement observed since the days of the patriarch Abraham? What did the book of Joshua mean when it said this was a second time? Wasn’t the practice observed countless time since Abraham, for about five hundred years? Why is there disagreement over these matters? Why do the solutions that are offered raise further problems?
We will offer a more satisfactory approach in part 2.
 Exodus 12:48.