Unusual Bible Interpretations



                                                                         Chapter 5- part 2


The following discussion is from my book Maimonides and the Biblical Prophets.


“The Problem, My Dear Readers, Is Based on Wrong Assumptions!”

If Joshua and Moses could respond to the difficulties raised by Joshua 5:2–9 and Exodus 4:24–26 discussed in the prior chapter, they would probably say, “The problem, my dear readers, is based on wrong assumptions!”


1.   What are the wrong assumptions underlying the questions raised by Joshua 5:2–9 and Exodus 24–26?

2.   What are better presuppositions?

3.   Using the new ideas, how do we explain Joshua 5:2–9?

4.   Does the new insight help us understand Exodus 4:24–26?

5.   Is the new understanding of these two texts more sensible than the older explanations?

What Were the Wrong Assumptions?

Joshua 5:2–9 reports that Joshua led the Israelites out of the desert, crossed the Jordan, entered the promised land of Canaan, and circumcised every Israelite male, for they had not been circumcised during the forty-year desert wandering. This account is puzzling: how is it possible that the Israelites failed to circumcise their newborn sons in the desert as the Torah commands? Several seemingly far-fetched answers were brought up and discussed in the prior chapter. These included the rather puzzling legend that God stopped the cooling north wind from blowing so that it would not scatter the cloud that was needed to lead the people. The plan seemed wise, but the resulting over-heated climatic condition made it dangerous for the otherwise observant and God-fearing nation to circumcise their children. Thus God Himself, not the righteous Israelites, made it impossible for the Israelites to perform the ancient rite. How could God make such a mistake?

Assumptions behind the Questions and Answers

A number of assumptions lie behind the questions brought up. They include:

1.   When Joshua 5:5 states the “all the people that were born in the wilderness by the way as they came forth out of Egypt, had not been circumcised,” the term “all” means everyone, without exception. Thus, six hundred thousand males did not circumcise their children during the forty-year desert wandering.

2.   All of the Israelites were righteous, God-fearing, pious individuals who obeyed God’s will in its entirety, and should have been expected to circumcise their children.

3.   Each Israelite complied with every commandment issued by Moses, and Moses must have insisted that the Israelites obey the Torah law and circumcise their newborn males.

4.   No Israelite wanted to deviate from the practices existing since the days of Abraham, and certainly no Israelite would have ignored circumcision, the sign of the covenant.

In short, the difficulties presented by Joshua 5 could be summarized as follows: How could these pious people not have obeyed God’s commands, as communicated to them by their loving reverent parents while they were enslaved in Egypt, and later, after the Exodus, by Moses? Wouldn’t such a devout, religious, and virtuous nation circumcise their children during the desert march to Canaan? This is a nation that experienced the revelation of the Decalogue. They saw daily divine miracles, such as the manna, the pillar of cloud that led them by day, and the pillar of fire that was with them at night.

Correct Assumptions

Upon recognizing that some or all of these assumptions may be wrong, the difficulties presented by the passage can be dispelled. A number of different assumptions follow:

1.   The Bible, which speaks in human language, frequently makes exaggerated statements to highlight a point and increase the impact of the statement. Thus, it states, for example, that the people built a tower (of Babel) that reached into the heaven. So, too, the Israelites are described as being as many as the grains of sand on the seashore. Even the rabbis recognized that the Joshua statement about circumcision is hyperbole – they tell us that there were people, including the entire tribe of Levi, who circumcised their children.

2.   We know also that all the people were not God-fearing. Anyone who understands human nature recognizes this. Furthermore, the Bible itself tells us repeatedly about the improper behavior of some of the Israelites. Within days of the revelation of the Decalogue, thousands worshipped the golden calf. It was God’s clear purpose that the Israelites enter Canaan, but they rejected Him when they accepted the wrong-headed advice of ten spies.

3.   The people not only ignored God’s will, they constantly complained about Moses’ and Aaron’s leadership. Examples of this include the rebellion of Korach and the repeated complaints about a lack of water and meat.

4.   God, through Moses, had to constantly remind the people to obey divine practices; He had to behave toward them as if they were children, offering them rewards for obeying and punishments for their failure to do so.

In short, it is reasonable to assume that contrary to the first assumptions, Joshua 5 is talking about a significant minority of the people who used one excuse or another not to circumcise their children. They may, for example, have complained that it was not healthy to do so in the desert.

Now, as they were entering Canaan, Joshua was able to gain their compliance. We can imagine him saying: “This is a holy land. This is the land of our forefathers, and we must enter it circumcised. Our first practice here will be the Pascal sacrifice. And,” he may have continued, “you must surely remember that God said that no uncircumcised person may eat the Pascal sacrifice.”

Thus, with these new assumptions, all of the problems that we noted in the prior chapter disappear. We now have a story that is reasonable, one that is not based on a curious legend. Joshua 5 is relating an unusual interlude in Jewish history. At the decisive moment when the Israelites entered Canaan, Joshua was able to unite his people under his leadership and inspire them to obey the laws of God. Sadly, this unique momentary success did not last long. For in the book of Judges, we read that the people lapsed again. As 3:7 states, “And the children of Israel did that which was evil in the sight of the Lord, and forgot the Lord their God.”

Can New Assumptions Help Us Understand Exodus 4:24–26?

Exodus 4 is difficult to understand. It relates a somewhat obscure episode. It seems to be reporting that Moses, his wife, and his two sons – one of whom was recently born and uncircumcised – left Midian at God’s command to trek to Egypt and confront Pharaoh with God’s command to release the Israelites from Egyptian bondage. They stopped at a way station overnight and a divine force was poised to kill Moses or the uncircumcised child (the passage is unclear) because of Moses’ failure to observe the circumcision command. Tzipporah, Moses’ wife, grabbed a flint, cut off the foreskin of her son, and averted the catastrophe.[1] Why did Moses fail to circumcise his newborn son?

The Aramaic midrashic Bible translation called Pseudo-Jonathan offers a strange story by way of explanation. Moses was living with his father-in-law, Jethro, a priest of idol worship. He made a compromise with Jethro that his first-born son would follow the Israelite practices, while the second son would worship idols. Thus, when the second son was born, Moses kept his word and did not circumcise him. When the family reached the way station, God expressed His displeasure, and Tzipporah, who was not a party to the nefarious agreement between her father and husband, averted the disaster.

The need for this unusual justification of Moses’ behavior is based on two presuppositions, neither of which is stated or even hinted at in the Bible.

1.   Moses was a master of self-control, knew what he was doing at all times, and always acted in a prudent manner.

2.   Moses would never violate the divine command to circumcise his son unless there was an extraordinary circumstance.

Actually, it can be argued that Moses was human; he was not perfect and he made mistakes. Moses sometimes acted impetuously, and this episode is one example of that type of behavior.

This approach to Moses’ life, of viewing him as a human being, is found in several commentaries. Abraham ibn Ezra, for example, explains many of Moses’ actions by the fact that he was an old man when he led the people. Even Pseudo-Jonathan recognizes that Moses made a wrong decision when he agreed to devote his second son to idol worship.

In fact, the first image that the Bible itself presents of Moses acting on his own depicts him as impetuous, acting rashly without sufficient forethought. Moses sees an Egyptian beating an Israelite. He steps forward, looks right and left, sees no one, kills the Egyptian, and hides his body in the sand. There was probably no reason for the hasty act. Moses was raised as a prince in Pharaoh’s palace. He had the authority to stop the beating. He obviously did not take proper precautions when he looked right and left, for when he goes out the next day, an Israelite tells him that he saw the murder.

Moses again seems to act rashly. He fears for his life and dashes off to Midian, where he remains for over forty years. Why did he have to run? It was the word of a slave against a prince. There was no contest. A few minutes of thought would reveal that Moses was not in danger.

There are other incidences in his life showing this impetuous nature. He dropped the Ten Commandments, perhaps even tossing them to the ground in anger, when he heard that thousands of his people were worshipping the golden calf. There was no reasonable basis for such an act. The vast majority of the people were faithful to God. God wanted them to have the Decalogue and even supplied a second set.

Later, when the people demanded water and God instructed him to speak to the rock, Moses hit the rock in anger. It was this act that prompted God to decide that Moses was unfit to lead the people into Canaan. It is possible that God was telling him: you lack the disposition to lead the people.[2]

It is reasonable to believe that this same impetuosity caused Moses to leave Midian in a rush, as soon as he heard God’s command, mindless of the consequences of rashly forgetting the divine mandate to circumcise his son. Thus, when Scripture narrates that God stopped him on the way and threatened to kill him – to take away the mission from him – the Bible is warning us of the danger of rash and overzealous behavior, no matter what its goal.

In short, by changing the assumptions that led us to the questions on Joshua 5 and Exodus 4, we have no need for the strange improbable midrashic legend. Instead, we see the text teaching a lesson that is relevant for people today.


Two biblical passages concerning the failure to perform circumcision were analyzed. Both raise the question: how could righteous people fail to observe such a fundamental biblical law? Using the assumption that the people involved were acting properly, curious explanations based on imaginary legends were developed by sages to explain why Israelites were prevented from acting properly in these cases. However, it is possible to view the episodes with different presuppositions and develop a more realistic explanation of the texts.

In the case of the nation under Joshua’s leadership, we saw that it is logical to assume that some of the people were not righteous. We can understand that Joshua was able to perform an unusual feat, something his predecessor never achieved, albeit for only a short while: he was able to persuade the entire nation to observe God’s law of circumcision.

In the story of Moses, we can change our initial assumptions and read the passage as a rash act by an otherwise brilliant leader. Moses did not circumcise his son because he was overwhelmed by the mission to save his people. But God stopped him and forced the family to perform the rite, and the Bible, in narrating the tale, teaches the reader that overzealousness, even for a good cause, is improper.

A rational and realistic understanding of human nature, we see, is instrumental in deciphering passages that would otherwise demand complex interpretation in a straightforward manner.

[1] Can a woman serve as a mohel and circumcise a child? There are different opinions in the Babylonian Talmud, Avodah Zarah, but the Talmud concludes, “Can anyone say that a woman is not fit to circumcise? [They certainly can circumcise.] Why it is written: ‘So Tzipporah took a flint and cut off her son’s foreskin.’”

[2] This was probably the same conclusion that caused God to remove Elijah the prophet from earth and reassign his mission to Elisha. Elijah was acting improperly, with overzealousness.