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.
Zipporah, wife of Moses, circumcises her son at a critical moment;
and the rite is a prerequisite for participating in the Passover
offering before the Exodus from Egypt.
In fact, we are explicitly told that the Israelites who came out of Egypt
In this connection, the use of a flint-blade knife for the operation
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 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.”
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" .
late 18th century
of Klau Library,
Hebrew Union College Jewish Institute of Religion, Cincinnati.
to view enlargement
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
Of all the peoples with whom Israel came into close
contact, only the Philistines are derisively called "uncircumcised,"
showing them to have been unique in that respect. The story of
Dinah and the Shechemites 
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.
4:25; Joshua 5:2f [back]
14:3; I Sam. 4:6; I8:25, etc. [back]
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