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Genesis 21:4 (JPS) And Abraham circumcised his son Isaac when he was eight days old, as God had commanded him.

Starting with Abraham, the Israelite men were circumcised and a boy at the eighth day after birth. It was commanded again in the desert through Moses.

Leviticus 12:3 (JPS) And in the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised.

But the children born in the desert were not circumcised.

Joshua 5:5 (JPS) 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 forth out of Egypt, had not been circumcised.

How is this possible? Did they disobey G-d and not circumcised their children in the desert?

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I was suggested from C.SE to ask here. – Mawia Mar 21 '13 at 4:36
Hi Mawia! You are always welcome to ask here. Just be aware answers here will rely on Jewish tradition when responding. (I don't know if that differs from Christian interpretation of this issue, but just FYI.) – Double AA Mar 21 '13 at 4:41
up vote 7 down vote accepted

According to Talmud (Yevamot 71–72) the reason circumcision was not practiced in the desert is:

  1. Because of the hardships of the way - a 40 year journey is no joke. Since is would have been dangerous for someone right after circumcision to get on the road, and they had no choice but to be on the road, they waited until the trek was over.
  2. Because there was no "northern wind" upon them. The northern wind is considered a cure and it would be dangerous to circumcise without this wind to cure them.

That said, another interesting source exists (פסיקתא דרב כהנא. I didn't have a chance to actually see it, but I've seen a few references to it). According to this source there was circumcision in the desert. The reference from Joshua is understood as using circumcision as an idiom to achieving a new, higher, level, usually spiritual. In Deuteronomy 10:16 an expression of "circumcising the heart" appears, being the basis of this explanation.

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But the children born in the desert should have been circumcised on the eighth day. An eight days old boy need not walk on the road. – Mawia Mar 21 '13 at 9:41
That's why there are two reasons. – sam Mar 21 '13 at 13:26
During travel, the babies could be bumped and jostled. Additionally, there was a risk that a recuperating baby's need for extra care could be neglected in the haste of preparations for immediate travel; it was not so much that the people were continuously traveling, but rather they were liable to have to resume their travels by G-d's command at a moment's notice. | Additionally, Rashi writes that the people of Levi continued to circumcise their sons in the desert despite the risk (Rashi on D'varim 33:9). – Fred Mar 21 '13 at 15:23
You forget how dangerous this was back in the days before antibiotics. Infection was common, and deadly. It's one thing to recuperate in a house with plenty of fresh water and ability to clean the wound, and another to try to do that while journeying. – Ariel Mar 21 '13 at 22:17

Although not stated in scripture, is it possible that G-D commanded Moses not to circumcise the second generation until they had completed the 40 year trial in the desert because the first generation had broken covenant?

This occurrence happened just after Joshua had the people swear loyalty to G-d and Joshua's leadership. They then "consecrated themselves" and crossed over the Jordan, placing the 12 stones in Gilgal according to the command of G-d.

Perhaps now G-d deemed it time to renew His covenant with His people through the ritual circumcision.

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This answer would be greatly enhanced if it would quote a reliable source. – Danny Schoemann Aug 19 '15 at 15:35
Sorry, Danny. Don't have a Talmudic source. But I usually am a bit skeptical of "naturalistic" answers for Bible mysteries. Saying that G-d permitted them to go uncircumcised because it would be dangerous for them seems to limit Him a bit. After all, He provided them with Manna until they cried out for meat and then He provided them quail. They drank from a rock and G-d furnished them clothing and shoes. Surely He could have kept them from infection. I like your other source's spiritual answer based on Deut 10:16 but in Joshua 5:7 we're told there was no circumcision in the desert. – Ken Stenton Aug 19 '15 at 18:01
So using scripture as my guide, I look at Genesis 17:14 (sort of in reverse). G-d "cut them off" from His covenant due to their disobedience and only reinstated them at Gilgal when he "rolled back their reproach". – Ken Stenton Aug 19 '15 at 18:08

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