Interpreting Circumcision as Purification
The Berit that Cements Israel’s Relationship with God
German Bible scholarship coined the term Heilsgeschichte¸ meaning, “salvation history,” describing how the Bible tells Israel’s story as an account of God’s redemption of God’s people and the world over time. Parashat Lech Lecha, when God calls to Abraham “Lech lecha — Go forth (Genesis 12:1),” sets this Heilsgeschichte in motion.
While the tale may begin in chapter 12, the relationship is framed and formalized several chapters later as a covenant (ברית), God promises Abraham fertility and nationhood, an exclusive relationship, and eternal possession of the land of Canaan (Genesis 17:1-9). Abraham is, in turn, held to a single obligation, milah, circumcision:
יז:י זֹ֣את בְּרִיתִ֞י אֲשֶׁ֣ר תִּשְׁמְר֗וּ בֵּינִי֙ וּבֵ֣ינֵיכֶ֔ם וּבֵ֥ין זַרְעֲךָ֖ אַחֲרֶ֑יךָ הִמּ֥וֹל לָכֶ֖ם כָּל־זָכָֽר: יז:יאוּנְמַלְתֶּ֕ם אֵ֖ת בְּשַׂ֣ר עָרְלַתְכֶ֑ם וְהָיָה֙ לְא֣וֹת בְּרִ֔ית בֵּינִ֖י וּבֵינֵיכֶֽם:
17:10 Such shall be the covenant between Me and you and your offspring to follow which you shall keep: every male among you shall be circumcised. 17:11 You shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskin, and that shall be the sign of the covenant between Me and you.
A New Meaning to an Old Ritual
Circumcision was not a new practice, nor was it unique to the Israelites—evidence of circumcision in Egypt dates back to 2200 BCE. Yet the Torah uniquely understands circumcision as ot berit, a sign of the covenant (Gen 17:11), a label which ascribes to it great weight. But why was this practice chosen as the sign of the covenant? The Torah does not say—a conspicuous lacuna. In contrast, e.g., to the ot berit of the rainbow as sign of God’s covenant promise never to destroy the world with a flood (Gen 9:8-17), which is directly connected to rain and storms, and needs no explanation. Does circumcision have an intrinsic meaning outside of its function as an ot?
Circumcision as a Purification Rite
One stream of tradition, with ancient roots, understands circumcision as an act of purification. This association appears in a number of early Jewish sources, including the Septuagint (and Symmachus), Philo, Acts of the Apostles, and the Mishnah. In these texts, the foreskin is understood as a source of tum’ah, defilement, a notion never found in the Hebrew Bible.
Ancient Greek Translations: Circumcision as Purification
The standard Greek translations of circumcised (מ-ו-ל) is peritemno (literally, “to cut around”) and of uncircumcised (ע-ר-ל) is akrobustia (literally, “what covers the end,” i.e., “foreskin”). These terms are of little help for understanding how the translators understood the ritual. In five instances, however, the LXX and Symmachus (2nd cent CE Greek translation) translate the Masoretic text’s מ-ו-ל or ע-ר-ל with forms of katharos/katharizo, a root which denotes purity, purification, or purgation. These suggest that these translators also understood circumcision as a rite of purification.
The Law of Orlah (Lev 19:23; LXX)
וְכִי־תָבֹ֣אוּ אֶל־הָאָ֗רֶץ וּנְטַעְתֶּם֙ כָּל־עֵ֣ץ מַאֲכָ֔ל וַעֲרַלְתֶּ֥ם עָרְלָת֖וֹ אֶת־פִּרְי֑וֹ שָׁלֹ֣שׁ שָׁנִ֗ים יִהְיֶ֥ה לָכֶ֛ם עֲרֵלִ֖ים לֹ֥א יֵאָכֵֽל:
When you enter the land, which the Lord your God gives you, and you plant any fruit-tree, you must purge its impurity(perikatharieite ten akatharsian autou). Its fruit shall be for three years impure(aperikathartos) to you, it shall not be eaten.
Circumcising the Heart (Deut 30:6; LXX)
וּמָ֨ל יְ-הֹוָ֧ה אֱלֹהֶ֛יךָ אֶת־לְבָבְךָ֖ וְאֶת־לְבַ֣ב זַרְעֶ֑ךָ…
The Lord will purify (perikathariei) your heart and the heart of your seed…
Joshua Circumcises the Israelites (Josh 5:4; LXX)
וְזֶ֥ה הַדָּבָ֖ר אֲשֶׁר־מָ֣ל יְהוֹשֻׁ֑עַ…
This is the how Joshua purified (perikatharen)…
Moses’ uncircumcised lips (Exod 6:12 [=6:30]; Symmachus)
וַאֲנִ֖י עֲרַ֥ל שְׂפָתָֽיִם:
I am not pure (katharos) of speech.
Remove the foreskin of your hearts (Jer 4:4; Symmachus)
הִמֹּ֣לוּ לַי-הֹוָ֗ה וְהָסִ֙רוּ֙ עָרְל֣וֹת לְבַבְכֶ֔ם
Purify (katharisthesesthe) yourselves for God and remove the evil (poneras) of your hearts…”
Though relatively uncommon, these cases indicate that by the rabbinic period, some associated circumcision with purity.
Philo: A Cleansing Rite
Philo, the Alexandrian scriptural exegete and philosopher (c. 25 BE – 50 CE), characterizes circumcision as an act of cleansing or purification.
[I]t secures the cleanliness (katharioteita) of the whole body in a way that is suited to the people consecrated to God; with which object the Egyptian priests, being extravagant in their case, shave the whole of their bodies; for some of these evils which ought to be got rid (kathairesthai) of are collected in and lodge under the hair and the prepuce. (Special Laws 1:5; Yonge trans.)
It is impossible to know if this interpretation originated with Philo. Other classical authors, such as Herodotus, associate circumcision with the Egyptians, but he does not associate the ritual with cleansing.
Acts: Circumcision is an Unnecessary–God Purifies!
The New Testament Book of Acts (early 2nd cent. CE) knows the interpretation found in Philo. Acts 15 recounts the convening of a council of apostles and elders in Jerusalem, to respond to the allegation of Judeans and Pharisees within the community, that “unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you are not able to be saved” (15:1). The assembly determines that circumcision is an unnecessary burden, reasoning that God purified (katharisas) the hearts of both Jewish and Gentile believers through faith (v. 9). Thus, all will be “saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus” (15:11). The argument advanced by the council is built on the assumption that circumcision is a rite meant to effect purification, and that this purification is ultimately salvific.
Hints in the Mishnah: Uncircumcised Priests are Impure
M.Shabbat 19:6 declares that a priest with an incomplete circumcision (periah) may not eat of the Terumah, the donated food that is the exclusive prerogative of the Priest and his household. According to the Torah, a Priest is forbidden to eat from consecrated foods, like terumah, when he is in a state of ritual defilement (Lev 22:4). Thus, the Mishnah treats the inappropriately circumcised (thus effectively uncircumcised) priest as if he is impure.
M.Yevamot 8:1 makes the same point succinctly and forcefully: “The uncircumcised (`arel) and all who are defiled (temei’im) may not eat the Terumah.” The arel is treated within the same legal category as those who are ritually defiled, suggesting that some tannaim associated circumcision with purity.
Circumcision: Spiritual Impurity vs. Ritual Impurity
These texts that associate circumcision with purity are in the minority, and no rabbinic or earlier texts offer a generalized characterization of circumcision as a rite of purification, and the foreskin as an agent of defilement. Moreover, much of the discussion of circumcision as purification comes in contexts where the term מ-ו-ל is being used symbolically or poetically as a reference to morality.
Two of the passages deal with “circumcision of the heart” (Deut 30:6, LXX; Jer 4:4, Symmachus)—clearly not a physical impurity—and recount the cleansing of a sinful corporate Israel leading to the remittance of divine punishment and the recovery of divine favor.
The passage(s) about Moses’ uncircumcised lips (Exod 6:13, 30, Symmachus) are also not a reference to a physical impurity. Tt is likely that the translator used purification here instead of circumcision to connect Moses’ improperly functioning lips (ערל שפתים) with those of Isaiah’s impure lips (טמא שפתים).
ו:ה וָאֹמַ֞ר אֽוֹי לִ֣י כִֽי נִדְמֵ֗יתִי כִּ֣י אִ֤ישׁ טְמֵֽא שְׂפָתַ֙יִם֙ אָנֹ֕כִי וּבְתוֹךְ֙ עַם טְמֵ֣א שְׂפָתַ֔יִם אָנֹכִ֖י יוֹשֵׁ֑ב כִּ֗י אֶת הַמֶּ֛לֶךְ יְ-הֹוָ֥ה צְבָא֖וֹת רָא֥וּ עֵינָֽי: ו:ווַיָּ֣עָף אֵלַ֗י אֶחָד֙ מִן הַשְּׂרָפִ֔ים וּבְיָד֖וֹ רִצְפָּ֑ה בְּמֶ֨לְקַחַ֔יִם לָקַ֖ח מֵעַ֥ל הַמִּזְבֵּֽחַ: ו:ז וַיַּגַּ֣ע עַל פִּ֔י וַיֹּ֕אמֶר הִנֵּ֛ה נָגַ֥ע זֶ֖ה עַל שְׂפָתֶ֑יךָ וְסָ֣ר עֲוֹנֶ֔ךָ וְחַטָּאתְךָ֖ תְּכֻפָּֽר:
6:5 “Woe is me; I am lost! For I am a man of unclean lips and I live among a people of unclean lips; Yet my own eyes have beheld the King Yhwh of Hosts.”6:6 Then one of the seraphs flew over to me with a live coal, which he had taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. 6:7 He touched it to my lips and declared, “Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt shall depart And your sin be purged away.”
The passage from Isaiah (ch. 6:5-7) in which an angel, in order to “purify” Isaiah from his impure (טמא) lips, burns them with a hot coal, undoubtedly influenced the Greek translator here. Thus,
Even Philo, the most significant early proponent who sees (physical) circumcision as related to physical purification, still understands circumcision as being connected to the spiritual improvement of man. For example, In Special Laws 1:8-10, he discusses circumcision as a symbol of the excision of inappropriate desire and vanity from the soul.
I also look upon circumcision to be a symbol of two things of the most indispensable importance. First of all, it is a symbol of the excision of the pleasures which delude the mind; for since, of all the delights which pleasure can afford, the association of man with woman is the most exquisite, it seemed good to the lawgivers to mutilate the organ which ministers to such connections; by which rite they signified figuratively the excision of all superfluous and excessive pleasure, not, indeed, of one only, but of all others whatever, though that one which is the most imperious of all. The second thing is, that it is a symbol of a man’s knowing himself, and discarding that terrible disease, the vain opinion of the soul;
It is striking that in Rabbinic literature, in contrast to Philo, physical circumcision is never explained as spiritually purifying. The Rabbis are likely responding to emergent Christianity’s elevation of circumcision of the heart and devaluation of circumcision of the flesh by doing the opposite and emphasizing physical circumcision at the expense of any spiritual or moral interpretation. Additionally, as Jonathan Klawans has pointed out, the Tannaim take the same care to fully “compartmentalize” the categories of ritual and moral impurity as they do to disassociate metaphorical and genital circumcision.
Jewish Circumcision in Hellenistic Times
Circumcision took on a new meaning, and new importance, in late antiquity. In the biblical period, there was little need to defend the practice, which was common to many Near Eastern cultures. In addition, since the Semites did not tend toward public nudity and genital exposure, whether a man was circumcised or not was a private matter.
With the spread of Hellenism, the attitude that circumcision was a form of mutilation the body became widespread, forcing Jews to reflect upon, and to defend the ritual. It is thus likely that in addition to any moral or spiritual justifications, the understanding of circumcision as purification, and the foreskin as defilement, developed then, lending greater weight to an already important Jewish practice.
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October 23, 2015
September 6, 2020
Dr. David Bernat is executive director of the Synagogue Council of Massachusetts and a lecturer in Judaic Studies at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. Heholds a Ph.D. in biblical interpretation from Brandeis University, is the author of Sign of the Covenant: Circumcision in the Priestly Traditions, and the co–editor of Religion and Violence: The Biblical Heritage.
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