Circumcision: A Widespread & Ancient Ritual by Nahum Sarna

Although the law of circumcision is included in the priestly legislation of Leviticus 12:3, biblical tradition, as illustrated by Genesis 17:9-14, consistently assumes that the rite antedates Sinai. In the days of Jacob, it is so important to the Israelite tribes as to be an essential precondition of marriage with outsiders.[1] Zipporah, wife of Moses, circumcises her son at a critical moment;[2] and the rite is a prerequisite for participating in the Passover offering before the Exodus from Egypt.[3] In fact, we are explicitly told that the Israelites who came out of Egypt were circumcised.[4] In this connection, the use of a flint-blade knife for the operation[5] during the Bronze Age is as much a testimony to the hoary antiquity of the custom as evidence of religious conservatism.

So Zipporah took a flint...
So Zipporah took a flint and cut off her son’s foreskin, and touched his legs with it, saying, “You are truly a bridegroom of blood to me!” And when He let him alone, she added, “A bridegroom of blood because of the circumcision.” (Exodus 4:25-26)

Not only is circumcision the earliest institution of Israel, its introduction being assigned by our narrative to the time of Abraham, but the text tacitly implies that it preexisted the patriarch since it is taken for granted that he understands the procedure to be followed even though no specific instructions are forthcoming. This should occasion no surprise because circumcision is widely and independently attested in the histories of divergent cultures stretching from Anatolia to western Sudan, from the Australian Aborigines to the Masai of East Africa, from the Polynesian cultures to the kingdom of Lesotho in southern Africa. Herodotus reported that the Egyptians practiced circumcision "for the sake of cleanliness, considering it better to be clean than comely" .…[6]

18th cent. circumcision
Circumcision, late 18th century
Courtesy of Klau Library,
Hebrew Union College —Jewish Institute of Religion, Cincinnati. Ms. 600

Click to view enlargement

Various other texts, pictures, and sculptures of naked males, as well as some mummies, all support the prevalence of the rite in Egypt, though it is unknown, whether it was restricted to men of a certain class, whether it was obligatory or voluntary, or what its particular significance was. Apart from the Babylonians and Assyrians, most Semites seem to have practiced circumcision. … Of all the peoples with whom Israel came into close contact, only the Philistines are derisively called "uncircumcised,"[7] showing them to have been unique in that respect. The story of Dinah and the Shechemites [8] is particularly instructive because these people are "Hivites," not Canaanites or Semites. … Clearly, then, the originality of the biblical law does not lie in the fact of the institution itself but in the total transformation of a widespread and ancient ritual.

In those cultures that traditionally practice circumcision, the age at which it is performed may vary widely, but the overwhelming preference is at puberty or as a prenuptial rite. In either case, it takes place at a crucial period in the male lifecycle and marks the initiation of the individual into the common life of his group. The biblical shift to the eighth day after birth is a radical break with existing tradition, severing all connection with puberty, marriage, and "rites of passage." This particular dissociation now permits circumcision to be invested with an entirely new and original meaning. The operation owes its sanction not to any natural reason but solely to its being divinely ordained. In the course of its performance, it derives its significance solely from its being the conscious expression of the external, immutable covenant between God and Abraham. Having been performed, it constitutes the ineradicable token of the imposition of that covenant upon every generation of his descendants.

from:Klau Library, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, Cincinnati. Ms. 600.

footnotes 1. Genesis 34:14-17 [back]
Exodus 4:25 [back]
Exodus 12:43-48 [back]
Joshua 5:42f [back]
Exodus 4:25; Joshua 5:2f [back]
Histories 2.37 [back]
Judges 14:3; I Sam. 4:6; I8:25, etc. [back]
Genesis 34 [back]
excerpted JPS linkFrom: Nahum M. Sarna, The JPS Torah Commentary: Genesis. Copyright © 1989 Jewish Publication Society of America (Philadelphia). pp. 385-87, (excursus 12). Permission of the author and Jewish Publication Society of America.




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