Joshua 5:5
Now 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, them they had not circumcised.
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Joshua 5:5. The people born in the wilderness — they had not circumcised — What occasioned this omission is not said, nor is it easy to determine whether it arose from negligence, or from God’s dispensing, for a time, with his ordinance, on account of the unsettledness of their state, and their frequent removes while they were in the wilderness, it being necessary for children, after they were circumcised, and thereby made sore, to rest some time. This latter reason has generally been acquiesced in by commentators. But some have not judged it satisfactory, because sometimes the Israelites continued a year in a place, (Numbers 9:22,) if not much longer; and in their removes, their little children, though sore, might have been kept so warm, and carried so easy, as to receive no damage; and might certainly have been much better accommodated than the mothers in travail, or in lying-in. They have therefore thought that God’s not expressly and particularly enjoining them (for it does not appear that he did so enjoin them) to circumcise their children while they were in the wilderness, was a continued token of his displeasure against them for their unbelief and murmuring, and a token that they should never have the benefit of that promise of Canaan, whereof circumcision was the seal, Genesis 17:8. But whatsoever the reason was, it seems this great ordinance was intermitted in Israel for almost forty years together; a plain indication that it was not of absolute necessity to men’s eternal salvation, nor to be of perpetual obligation, but should, in the fulness of time, be abolished, as now it was for a long time suspended.

5:1-9 How dreadful is their case, who see the wrath of God advancing towards them, without being able to turn it aside, or escape it! Such will be the horrible situation of the wicked; nor can words express the anguish of their feelings, or the greatness of their terror. Oh that they would now take warning, and before it be too late, flee for refuge to lay hold upon that hope set before them in the gospel! God impressed these fears on the Canaanites, and dispirited them. This gave a short rest to the Israelites, and circumcision rolled away the reproach of Egypt. They were hereby owned to be the free-born children of God, having the seal of the covenant. When God glorifies himself in perfecting the salvation of his people, he not only silences all enemies, but rolls back their reproaches upon themselves.Of the whole nation those only were already circumcised at the time of the passage of the Jordan who had been under twenty years of age at the time of the complaining and consequent rejection at Kadesh (compare the marginal reference). These would have been circumcised before they left Egypt, and there would still survive of them more than a quarter of a million of thirty-eight years old and upward.

The statements of these verses are of a general kind. The "forty years" of Joshua 5:6 is a round number, and the statement in the latter part of Joshua 5:5 cannot be strictly accurate. For there must have been male children born in the wilderness during the first year after the Exodus, and these must have been circumcised before the celebration of the Passover at Sinai in the first month of the second year (compare Numbers 9:1-5, and Exodus 12:48). The statements of the verses are, however, sufficiently close to the facts for the purpose in hand; namely, to render a reason for the general circumcising which is here recorded.

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.

4-7. this is the cause why Joshua did circumcise—The omission to circumcise the children born in the wilderness might have been owing to the incessant movements of the people; but it is most generally thought that the true cause was a temporary suspension of the covenant with the unbelieving race who, being rejected of the Lord, were doomed to perish in the wilderness, and whose children had to bear the iniquity of their fathers (Nu 14:33), though, as the latter were to be brought into the promised land, the covenant would be renewed with them. They; either their parents, or the rulers of Israel, whose omission hereof was not through neglect; for then God, who had ordered the neglecter of circumcision to be cut off, Genesis 17:14, would not have left so gross a fault unpunished; but by Divine permission and indulgence; partly because they were now in a journey, in which case the passover also might be neglected, Numbers 9:10,13, and in that journey the passover was but once observed; and partly because there was not so great a necessity of this note of circumcision to distinguish them from other nations, whilst they dwelt alone and unmixed in the wilderness, as there was afterwards.

Now all the people that came out were circumcised,.... All that came out of Egypt, and males, were circumcised, whether under or above twenty years of age; for though it is possible all were circumcised before they came out of Egypt, which favours the opinion of Dr. Lightfoot, that they might be circumcised during the three nights' darkness of the Egyptians, when they could take no advantage of it, as Levi and Simeon did of the Shechemites; and which seems more probable than that it should be on the night they came out of Egypt, when many must have been unfit for travelling, and seems preferable to that of their being circumcised at Mount Sinai, which was a year after their coming out of Egypt:

but all the people that were born in the wilderness by the way, as they came forth out of Egypt, them they had not circumcised; the reasons of which neglect; See Gill on Joshua 5:2. The phrase, "by the way", seems to point at the true reason of it, at least to countenance the reason there given, which was on account of their journey; that is, their stay at any place being uncertain and precarious; so the Jews say (z), because of the affliction or trouble of journeying, the Israelites did not circumcise their children. This is to be understood of all males only born in the wilderness, they only being the subjects of circumcision.

(z) Pirke Eliezer, ut supra. (c. 29.)

Now 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, them they had {d} not circumcised.

(d) For they looked daily to move at the Lord's command, which they who were newly circumcised could not do without great danger.

Verse 5. - Now all the people that came out were circumcised. The Hebrew of this passage (which runs literally thus - "Now circumcised had they been, all the people who were going forth") is sufficient to refute the idea that there was a great circumcision of the people under Moses, on account of the neglect of the rite in Egypt. For, before the exodus, Moses was not in a position to perform any general act of this kind, as the history plainly shows, while after it such a rite could not have taken place, since the Hebrew הָיוּ denotes a state of things which was completed at the time spoken of, and therefore must here be rendered (as above) by the pluperfect. Them they had not circumcised. Here again the Hebrew is used of the perfected action, and is therefore rightly rendered by our version, giving the idea that the Israelites who were born in the wilderness had not been circumcised up to the point which our history has now reached. See also ver. 7, where the same construction is found. Joshua 5:5The reason for the circumcision of the whole nation was the following: all the fighting men who came out of Egypt had died in the wilderness by the way; for all the people that came out were circumcised; but all that were born in the wilderness during the journey had not been circumcised (ממּצרים בּצאתם, on their coming out of Egypt, which only came to an end on their arrival in Canaan). They walked forty years in the wilderness; till all the people - that is to say, all the fighting men - who came out of Egypt were consumed, because they had not hearkened to the voice of the Lord, and had been sentenced by the Lord to die in the wilderness (Joshua 5:6; cf. Numbers 14:26., Numbers 26:64-65, and Deuteronomy 2:14-16). But He (Jehovah) set up their sons in their place, i.e., He caused them to take their place; and these Joshua circumcised (i.e., had them circumcised), for they were uncircumcised, because they had not been circumcised by the way. This explains the necessity for a general circumcision of all the people, but does not state the reason why those who were born in the wilderness had not been circumcised. All that is affirmed in Joshua 5:5 and Joshua 5:7 is, that this had not taken place "by the way." The true reason may be gathered from Joshua 5:6, if we compare the statement made in this verse, "for the children of Israel walked forty years in the wilderness, till all the men that were capable of bearing arms were consumed ... unto whom the Lord sware that He would not show them the land promised to the fathers," with the sentence pronounced by God to which these words refer, viz., Numbers 14:29-34. The Lord is then said to have sworn that all the men of twenty years old and upwards, who had murmured against Him, should perish in the wilderness; and though their sons should enter the promised land, they too should pasture, i.e., lead a nomad life, for forty years in the wilderness, and bear the apostasy of their fathers, till their bodies had fallen in the desert. This clearly means, that not only was the generation that came out of Egypt sentenced to die in the wilderness because of its rebellion against the Lord, and therefore rejected by God, but the sons of this generation had to bear the whoredom, i.e., the apostasy of their fathers from the Lord, for the period of forty years, until the latter had been utterly consumed; that is to say, during all this time they were to endure the punishment of rejection along with their fathers: with this difference alone, that the sons were not to die in the wilderness, but were to be brought into the promised land after their fathers were dead. The sentence upon the fathers, that their bodies should fall in the desert, was unquestionably a rejection of them on the part of God, an abrogation of the covenant with them. This punishment was also to be borne by their sons; and hence the reason why those who were born in the desert by the way were not circumcised. As the covenant of the Lord with the fathers was abrogated, the sons of the rejected generation were not to receive the covenant sign of circumcision. Nevertheless this abrogation of the covenant with the generation that had been condemned, was not a complete dissolution of the covenant relation, so far as the nation as a whole was concerned, since the whole nation had not been rejected, but only the generation of men that were capable of bearing arms when they came out of Egypt, whilst the younger generation which had grown up in the desert was to be delivered from the ban, which rested upon it as well, and brought into the land of Canaan when the time of punishment had expired. For this reason the Lord did not withdraw from the nation every sign of His grace; but in order that the consciousness might still be sustained in the young and rising generation, that the covenant would be set up again with them when the time of punishment had expired, He left them not only the presence of the pillar of cloud and fire, but also the manna and other tokens of His grace, the continuance of which therefore cannot be adduced as an argument against our view of the time of punishment as a temporary suspension of the covenant.

But if this was the reason for the omission of circumcision,

(Note: This reason was admitted even by Calvin, and has been well supported by Hengstenberg (Diss. ii. pp. 13ff.). The arguments adduced by Kurtz in opposition to this view are altogether unfounded. We have already observed that the reason for the suspension is not given in Joshua 5:7; and the further remark, that in Joshua 5:5 ("all the people that were born in the wilderness by the way as they came forth out of Egypt, them they had not circumcised") the book of Joshua dates the suspension not from the sentence of rejection, but expressly and undoubtedly (?) from the departure from Egypt, has no force whatever, unless we so press the word all ("all the people that were born in the desert") as not to allow of the slightest exception. But this is decidedly precluded by the fact, that we cannot imagine it possible for God to have established His covenant with the people at a time when they had neglected the fundamental law of the covenant, the transgression of which was threatened with destruction (Genesis 17:14), by neglecting to circumcise all the children who had been born between the departure from Egypt and the conclusion of the covenant at Sinai. We are also prevented from pressing the little word "all" in this manner by the evident meaning of the words before us. In Joshua 5:4 and Joshua 5:5 the Israelites are divided into two classes: (1) All the people that came out of Egypt and were circumcised; and (2) All the people that were born in the desert and were uncircumcised. The first of these died in the wilderness, the second came to Canaan and were circumcised by Joshua at Gilgal. But if we should press the word "all" in these clauses, it would follow that all the male children who were under twenty years of age at the time of the exodus, either died in the desert or were circumcised a second time at Gilgal. Lastly, it does not follow from Joshua 5:6 that the circumcision was suspended for exactly forty years; for the forty years during which Israel journeyed in the desert until the murmuring generation was consumed, are to be interpreted by Numbers 14:33-34, and amounted, chronologically considered, to no more than thirty-eight years and a few months. On the other hand, the other very general view which Kurtz adopts - namely, that the circumcision was omitted during the journey through the desert on account of the hardships connected with travelling, and because it was impossible to have regard to particular families who might wish for longer rest on account of their children who had just been circumcised, and were suffering from the wound, just at the time when they had to decamp and journey onward, and they could not well be left behind - throws but little light upon the subject, as the assumption that the people were constantly wandering about for forty years is altogether an unfounded one. The Israelites were not always wandering about: not only did they stay at Sinai for eleven whole months, but even after that they halted for weeks and months at the different places of encampment, when they might have circumcised their children without the slightest danger of their suffering from the wound.)

it did not commence till the second year of their journey, viz., at the time when the murmuring nation was rejected at Kadesh (Numbers 14); so that by "all the people that were born in the wilderness" we are to understand those who were born after that time, and during the last thirty-eight years of their wanderings, just as "all the people that came out of Egypt" are to be understood as signifying only those men who were twenty years old and upwards when they came out. Consequently circumcision was suspended as long as the nation was under the ban of the divine sentence pronounced upon it at Kadesh. This sentence was exhausted when they crossed the brook Zared and entered the country of the Amorites (compare Deuteronomy 2:14 with Numbers 21:12-13). Why, then, was not the circumcision performed during the encampment in the steppes of Moab either before or after the numbering, since all those who had been sentenced to die in the wilderness were already dead (Numbers 26:65)? The different answers which have been given to this question are some of them wrong, and others incomplete. For example, the opinion held by some, that the actual reason was that the forty years had not yet expired, is incorrect (see Deuteronomy 2:14). And the uncertainty how long they would remain in the steppes of Moab cannot be adduced as an explanation, as there were no circumstances existing that were likely to occasion a sudden and unexpected departure from Shittim. The reason why Moses did not renew the circumcision before the end of his own life, is to be sought for in the simple fact that he would not undertake an act of such importance without an express command from the Lord, especially as he was himself under sentence to die without entering the promised land. But the Lord did not enjoin the renewal of the covenant sign before Israel had been conducted into the promised land, because He saw fit first of all to incline the hearts of the people to carry out His commandment through this magnificent proof of His grace. It is the rule of divine grace first to give and then to ask. As the Lord did not enjoin circumcision as a covenant duty upon Abraham himself till He had given him a practical proof of His grace by leading him to Canaan, and by repeated promises of a numerous posterity, and of the eventual possession of the land; and just as He did not give the law to the children of Israel at Sinai till He had redeemed them with a mighty arm from the bondage of Egypt, and borne them on eagles' wings, and brought them to Himself, and had thereby made them willing to promise gladly to fulfil all that He should say to them as His covenant nation; so now He did not require the renewal of circumcision, which involved as the covenant sign the observance of the whole law, till He had given His people practical proofs, through the help afforded in the defeat of Sihon and Og, the kings of the Amorites, and in the miraculous division of the waters of Jordan, that He was able to remove all the obstacles that might lie in the way of the fulfilment of His promises, and give them the promised land for their inheritance, as He had sworn to their fathers.

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