Joshua Circumcised the People

Crossing the Jordan River

At that time the Lord said to Joshua, ‘Make for yourself flint knives and circumcise again the sons of Israel the second time.’ So Joshua made himself flint knives and circumcised the sons of Israel at Gibeath-haaraloth.

This is the reason why Joshua circumcised them: all the people who came out of Egypt who were males, all the men of war, died in the wilderness along the way after they came out of Egypt. For all the people who came out were circumcised, but all the people who were born in the wilderness along the way as they came out of Egypt had not been circumcised. For the sons of Israel walked forty years in the wilderness, until all the nation, that is, the men of war who came out of Egypt, perished because they did not listen to the voice of the Lord, to whom the Lord had sworn that He would not let them see the land which the Lord had sworn to their fathers to give us, a land flowing with milk and honey. Their children whom He raised up in their place, Joshua circumcised; for they were uncircumcised, because they had not circumcised them along the way.

Now when they had finished circumcising all the nation, they remained in their places in the camp until they were healed. Then the Lord said to Joshua, ‘Today I have rolled away the reproach of Egypt from you.’ So the name of that place is called Gilgal to this day” (Joshua 5:2-9).

After crossing the Jordan river into the land of Canaan (Joshua 3), but before conquering the first city (Joshua 6), the Lord commanded Joshua to circumcise the sons of Israel. It is important that we understand the reasons why this was done because their physical circumcision is parallel to our spiritual circumcision. Let us consider some lessons that we can learn from this account.

The Circumcision of the Israelites

The circumcision recorded in our text was for all of the males who had been born in the wilderness after their exodus from Egypt (Joshua 5:5). Previous generations had been circumcised, but the current generation had not.

  • Act of obedience – God commanded Joshua to circumcise the people; therefore, it was to be done. God has always expected His people to obey Him. Our purpose in life is to “fear God and keep His commandments” and “this applies to every person” (Ecclesiastes 12:13). When God first created man, He gave him commands to obey (Genesis 1:27-30; 2:16-17). Obedience to His commandments will continue to be necessary until the end of the world (Matthew 28:19-20). Because He is God, He has the right to expect His people to obey Him. When the Israelites were brought out of Egypt and God gave them His law, He began with the reason why they were expected to obey: “I am the Lord your God” (Exodus 20:2).
  • Sign of the covenant – God said to Abraham, “Now as for you, you shall keep My covenant, you and your descendants after you throughout their generations. This is My covenant, which you shall keep, between Me and you and your descendants after you: every male among you shall be circumcised” (Genesis 17:9-10). He then said, “But an uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin, that person shall be cut off from his people; he has broken My covenant” (Genesis 17:14). Those who came out of Egypt had been circumcised (Joshua 5:5). Those born in the wilderness needed to be circumcised as well because they were also under the covenant.
  • Necessary for each generation – Again, those who came out of Egypt were circumcised, but those born in the wilderness were not (Joshua 5:5). Even during the Old Testament when God dealt with the nation of Israel as a whole, each person was individually accountable to God. The faithful obedience of one’s parents would not save the children if they were disobedient (Ezekiel 18:10-13). One who would not be circumcised – even if his father, grandfather, and others had been – would be cut off (Genesis 17:14). If one’s parents did not circumcise him shortly after he was born – for whatever reason – he would need to submit to that procedure because of the covenant. That is what this new generation had to do.
  • Painful procedure – The instructions given to Abraham and the statute given in the law said that circumcision was to be done when a baby was eight days old (Genesis 17:12; Leviticus 12:3). However, some of the men who were circumcised on this occasion were between forty and sixty years old (Joshua 5:5-7; Numbers 32:11). Undergoing this procedure at this time would put them in a vulnerable position. Remember that Simeon and Levi were able to slaughter all of the men in a city “on the third day” after the men of the city were circumcised and “were in pain” (Genesis 34:24-25). The Israelites would be unable to fight for a period of time after being circumcised. This made it an act of faith – trusting that God would protect them if their enemies decided to attack.
  • To remove the reproach of Egypt – After the people were circumcised, God said, “Today I have rolled away the reproach of Egypt from you” (Joshua 5:9). Years earlier, God told Moses, “So I have come down to deliver them from the power of the Egyptians, and to bring them up from that land to a good and spacious land, to a land flowing with milk and honey” (Exodus 3:8). They were now in the promised land. “The reproach of Egypt” had been removed.

Our Circumcision Today

Physical circumcision is not necessary today. Paul wrote, “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything, but faith working through love” (Galatians 5:6). However, the physical circumcision to which the Israelites submitted parallels the spiritual circumcision that is necessary today – baptism. Paul explained this to the Colossians:

And in Him you were also circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, in the removal of the body of the flesh by the circumcision of Christ; having been buried with Him in baptism, in which you were also raised up with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead” (Colossians 2:11-12).

Spiritually speaking, we are circumcised when we are baptized into Christ. The circumcision of the Israelites parallels the baptism of Christians today.

  • Act of obedience – Paul said, “Circumcision is nothing, and uncircumcision is nothing, but what matters is keeping of the commandments of God” (1 Corinthians 7:19). Physical circumcision has no bearing on our salvation (cf. Colossians 3:11). However, we must obey the command to be baptized. Jesus said, “He who has believed and has been baptized shall be saved” (Mark 16:16). Peter said, “Repent, and each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins” (Acts 2:38). When the apostle preached to the household of Cornelius, “he ordered them to be baptized” (Acts 10:48). We submit to baptism “in obedience to the truth” (1 Peter 1:22-23).
  • Sign of the covenant – After undergoing spiritual circumcision through baptism, we are “raised up with [Christ]” (Colossians 2:11-12). All of those in the kingdom of Christ have been baptized into Christ. When the gospel was preached on the day of Pentecost, Luke recorded: “Those who had received his word were baptized; and that day there were added about three thousand souls” (Acts 2:41). These souls were added by God to the church (Acts 2:47).
  • Necessary for each generation – When Peter told the audience on Pentecost to repent and be baptized for the remission of sins, he said, “For the promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off, as many as the Lord our God will call to Himself” (Acts 2:39). This message was for all men for all time. One generation can certainly help teach the next (2 Timothy 1:5; 3:15), but each one must obey on his own.
  • Painful procedure – When we are “buried with [Christ] through baptism” (Romans 6:4), we are putting to death the old man of sin (Romans 6:6). This can be painful. We are expected to “take up [our] cross daily and follow” the Lord (Luke 9:23). Because others will not choose to follow Christ, there will often be division and conflict with others – even those with whom we have the closest relationships. Jesus said, “Do not think that I came to bring peace on the earth; I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I came to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and a man’s enemies will be the members of his household” (Matthew 10:34-36). Peter warned that because we “do not run with them into the same excesses of dissipation,” they will “malign” us (1 Peter 4:4). Though the benefits far outweigh any negative consequences (1 Peter 3:21; Matthew 16:26), we do need to understand that it can be painful as our decision to obey the gospel often causes conflict with others.
  • To remove the reproach of our bondage in sin – In baptism, we are “freed from sin” (Romans 6:7). Paul explained: “But thanks be to God that though you were slaves of sin, you became obedient from the heart to that form of teaching to which you were committed, and having been freed from sin, you became slaves of righteousness” (Romans 6:17-18). That “form of teaching” (Romans 6:17) to which Paul referred was the act of being “buried with [Christ] through baptism” (Romans 6:4). This frees us from the bondage of sin. Then to remain “free” from sin, we must “continue in [Christ’s] word” (John 8:31-32).


Sometimes we might wonder why accounts like the one of Joshua circumcising the people are recorded in the Old Testament for us. Accounts like this have been “written for our instruction” (Romans 15:4). We should learn from the circumcision of the people of Israel so we can obey God faithfully today.

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  1. Larry DeVore says

    You have made excellent comparisons between the old and the new.

  2. Thanks, Larry!