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How Judaic is the circumcision?

 

Torah mentions circumcision only cursorily. Circumcision is conspicuously absent from the Sinai commandments, and from the subsequent listings of rules.

Leviticus establishes minute rituals for every occasion, but is virtually mute on circumcision. Lev12:3 commanding circumcision is an insertion, and interrupts coherent instructions for women.

Mention of circumcision is inserted in Ex12:44, 48. Ex12:48 originally entitled resident aliens to participate in Passover meals, a reasonable concession for neighbors. Similarly, every slave could eat the sacrifice (Ex12:44). Slaves were circumcised, anyway (Gen17:13), and  conditioning their access to sacrifice on circumcision is meaningless.

Deut30:6 mentions circumcision metaphorically at most, “circumcise your heart.” No less likely is the meaning, “tame your pride.”

Moses’ wife Zipporah in Ex4:26 had no idea of the covenant of circumcision, and offered a pagan explanation for circumcising her son: avoiding the immediate divine wrath through blood betrothal. Moses did not circumcise Gershom, their son, either on the eighth day as Abraham was told, or after encountering the angel who told him of his mission.

 

Scarcity of the mentions of circumcision cannot be explained by its banality. At least all those born in Sinai were not circumcised (Josh5:5). The scribe asserts that all males (not only Hebrews) who came out of Egypt were circumcised (Josh5:4), but that is implausible since only the priests were circumcised in Egypt.

If the Hebrews indeed circumcised in Egypt, and recognized circumcision as Abrahamic covenant, why would they possibly stop circumcising in Sinai where divine presence continuously reminded them of the commandments? The ostensible transgressors were not a few, but everyone, and over a period of forty years.

Joshua is commanded to circumcise Israel “the second time” (Josh5:2), apparently in reference to the first circumcision by Abraham. There was no continuous tradition of circumcision. Joshua was not instructed about future circumcision, only about the one-time affair.

After the circumcision, Joshua heard the divine voice, “This day I have rolled the reproach of Egypt off you” (Josh5:9). That could only mean that Israelites did not circumcise in Egypt. Dinah’s brothers also describe giving her in marriage to the uncircumcised as reproach (Gen34:14).

Hebrews circumcised only before entering Canaan, the place where circumcision was common. Historically, Hebrews settled Canaan peacefully rather than through conquest, and adhering to the important local custom of circumcision made sense. Circumcision in Ex12:48 is a sign of the locals (“like a native of the land”), not specifically of Jews.

Dinah’s brothers describe circumcision as a means for other people to become “as we are”(Gen34:15). Circumcision was not a religious or ethnic trait, but a regional tradition.

 

Gen17 is the only chapter in Torah that elaborates on circumcision. Gen17:1-9 coherently relates the covenantal promise to Abraham, that his posterity will be big.  Gen17:9 enjoins Abraham to keep the covenant, which is clear in the context of Gen17:1, “Walk before me” and Gen17:8, “And I will be God for them.” The covenant is explicit: Abraham and his posterity keep allegiance to God, and in return they are multiplied.

The covenant is redundant since Gen15:18 already covenanted Abraham’s posterity the territory from Nile to Euphrates. Such widely settled posterity must be very large.

The covenant in Gen17:2 is a contract between the parties (beyni u-beynecha). Such semi-equality in covenantal contracts is reserved for supra-objects like the earth and all the flesh on it (Gen9:11-13). Gen15:18 relates unilateral covenant, God’s promise to Abram (carat et-abram). Even Noah was granted the covenant (Gen6:18), not contractually acquired it like ascribed to Abraham. The covenant of Gen17:1-9 is modeled on that granted to Noah: to multiply his posterity in return for observing basic behavioral rules.

 

Gen17:10 introduces a new covenantal requirement, to circumcise. The physical touch of that requirement is very different from moral commandments covenanted to Noah or to Hebrews. The address changes from 2nd masc sing to 2nd masc plural.

Noah’s part in the covenant was righteousness, and the token of the covenant was beautiful rainbow (Gen9:16-17). For Abraham, circumcision was both the covenantal duty and the token (Gen17:11), possibly indicating illogicality.

Deut4:31 speaks of the covenant given to Abraham with no indication of his reciprocal duty. Deuteronomist habitually meant the granted covenant of proliferation (Gen15:18). The obligating covenant of circumcision (Gen17:10) did not come to his mind.

 

Gen17:10-14 does not explicitly refer to God. The text relates a different covenant, added to the context of the divine covenant with Abraham (Gen17:1-9). In Gen17:10-14, Abraham enters into neighborly covenant with other clan. Bodily cuts and ritual exchanges of blood are common signs of friendship.

Gen17:14 posits that any uncircumcised person should be “cut from the peoples.” Plural here may only refer to clans that populate the land.

Caret as expulsion from the community, by execution or exile, was only defined in Hebrew tradition after the commandments were given at Sinai.[1] The threat of caret is meaningless if eight-day-olds have to be circumcised, but makes sense for adult members of Abraham’s clan who newly arrived in the region.

Circumcision was a must among the locals and Abraham, upon entering the land, had to adhere to that tradition. Torah does not approve of his circumcision but relates it matter-of-factly, as, for example, it relates the incident of Abraham abandoning Sarah to save his life.

 

In the beginning of Exodus (19:5), Hebrews are divinely instructed to keep the covenant. That they did not circumcise their children (Josh5:5) shows that the covenant was not about circumcision. Moses reproached Hebrews on many occasions, but was silent about not circumcising the children. Joshua also did not mention absence of circumcision as sin when he circumcised the Hebrews. When the law was repeated to Hebrews the second time in the Deuteronomy, most people were uncircumcised, yet nothing was told them about the circumcision.  Circumcision was unknown among Hebrews before Joshua introduced it on the border with Canaan. Abraham also circumcised in Canaan.

Ex24:8 relates the covenant to the words, the law, and does not imply circumcision. Ex31:16 emphasizes observance of Sabbath, one of the commandments, as a covenant. Ex34:28 explicitly calls the Ten Commandments, the covenant. Lev26:16 and Deut17:2 connect breaking of the covenant with non-observance of the law. Idiomatic “arc of the covenant” contained the tablets of the law, not circumcised organ.

Though the Torah applies the term covenant liberally to many promises, the dominant usage relates to posterity and observance of the law. Only Gen17 makes circumcision a covenant. Such absence of reiterations is unusual for the Torah.

 

Gen17:8 promises the land to all Abrahamites, and does not support Jewish exclusive claim on it. The problem of the covenant established with the entire Abraham’s posterity rather than only Hebrews was recognized. Gen17:21 adjusts the earlier promise to apply specifically to Isaac. The correction invalidates the covenantal promise, applicable to all Abrahamites.

Ex12:19 includes both resident aliens and natives in the congregation of Israel. Ex12:48 requires resident aliens to circumcise only if they want to partake in the Passover. Unless Ex12:48 errs, resident aliens need not circumcise to be counted in the congregation of Israel. Circumcision is non-essential to Jewishness.

Circumcision is non-exclusive to Hebrews, and implies no special relationship to God.

 

The original circumcision, if understood correctly at all, applied only to arelah – protrusion of the foreskin, not the entire foreskin.

Hebrews have two distinct traditions of circumcision: one of the locals, ascribed to Abraham, and another emulating the Egyptian priests who likely employed circumcision as pro-celibate measure. Extending the operation to all Hebrew population is questionable because Judaism opposes celibacy.

Circumcision developed in contradistinction to Greeks who often deliberately extended the foreskin with kynodesme plait. Pharisees consciously widened the cultural gap with the Greeks by requiring full, rather than the ancient partial circumcision. Pharisees also added to circumcision a bizarre rite of sucking the blood from penis with lips.

 

Mutilation of the divinely made human body is as far from Judaism as anything could be. Even criminals are not mutilated, and the law limits the number of lashes to avoid permanent damage. Judaism objects to cuts made in grievance, and loathe spilling human blood.

God’ choosing the Hebrews to observe the religion and ethics is very different from favoring Abrahamites in return for cutting themselves.


[1] Caret is prescribed for violating the Pesach leavened food’ prohibition before the Hebrews received the commandments. The first celebration of Pesach, however, took place after the Mount Sinai sojourn, and the caret was not in effect before the Hebrews received the law.