No, we're not exploring porn today but the intriguing question of why male circumcision has long been seen as having spiritual or sacramental significance. The Bible certainly makes a big deal about the practice. Daniel Gullotta submitted today's commentary as part of his theological studies last year. The essay was entitled "A Covenant in Flesh". In it he examines the origins of the beliefs in one of the most ancient books of Scripture, the Book of Genesis. By way of introduction Daniel explains this is "an exegesis on Genesis 17:1-27 examining the Priestly Source's emphasis on male circumcision within the Covenant understanding of Ancient Israel".
It has been said that Genesis is a book that leads up to one man's calling and the destiny of one man's family, Abraham. While many of us would read the Book of Genesis as one single narrative, it is clear through scholarly exegesis that this is not the case. We can see editing and modifications at work. One of these editors is the Priestly [P] (editor/source). Today's commentary examines Genesis 17:1-27 within the understandings and theology the Priestly Editor [P] focusing on how circumcision operates within the theology of [P] and [P]'s understandings of the covenant promises and practices of Israel.
The Purpose of [P]
The Priestly Editor [P] is the last of the four great editing traditions within the Hebrew Bible, the previous ones being the Yahwist [J] the Elohist [E], and the Deuternonmist [D]. The Priestly writings represent a move forward in Israel's understanding of themselves and their covenantal relationship with and responsibilities to YHWH. It details and gives witness to a long history of worship and experience of the 'tabernacling presence' of YHWH within the sanctuary. It's writing and editing are done to show Israel's preselection among the nations, and that Israel was chosen since the time of Creation to be a worshipping and servant people of YHWH. While Yahwist and Elohist had traced the promises of land by YHWH and how Israel with her kings would be able to protect their pagan threats, [P] was formed during the time of exile — when the land and kings had been taken away from them. The main focus of the work of [P] is to stress that Israel's practices, rituals, laws, but mostly importantly faith, were all still valid and necessary, with or without the land. As Bernhard Anderson explains, "Israel's whole was to be a 'liturgy', a service to God."
[P] includes the reasons for keeping the Sabbath (Gen 1), the divine command to obey all of the cultic and religious laws (Lev 1-27, Num 1-10, 25-36), and naturally emphasises the importance of the high priest, placing him even next to Moses (Ex 4:28, Num 1). One of the most important parts of [P] is location within Genesis 17:1-27, the story of YHWH's command to Abraham to be circumcised and to have his sons, and the future generations, circumcised as the sign of the covenant between Israel and YHWH. While the writing centres on a figure and event from the past, its significance speaks to [P]'s day — as they are the future generations YHWH is speaking of and commanding. The promise is not just to Abraham but to all of Israel — then and now.
The Sign of the Covenant
Within the Book of Genesis, [P] places this story thirteen years after Sarai's ploy involving her maid fails. God's promises remain unfilled and we learn nothing of Abram's activities during the intervening years, rather, [P] wishes to draw our attention and focus solely on those events that will mark the birth of a nation and it's destiny. [P] works the narrative into four parts:
The covenant with Abraham is the [P] parallel to Genesis 12:2-7, a product of [J]. [P] uses few theophanies however this is the only occasion in which the Lord appears to Abram revealing how powerful and important the context of this story is.
Genesis 17 starts out comparing the previous covenants that God has made. It goes into great detail to underline the covenantal intention and draws back to a requirement that is unmistakably a condition of the covenant, though a different sort of conditions. Whereas humanity need not do anything to make the Noahic covenant effect, Abraham's family must "keep" the covenant (Gen 17:9) — first and foremost by all males of the covenant being circumcised. A sign is not simply a mark, but has symbolic meaning — circumcision relates to sexual activity and procreation. According to Goldingay, it symbolizes God's completing the creative work of making Abraham someone who can do the work of procreation, and that [P] stresses the need for Abraham and his male offspring to dedicate their procreative activity to YHWH. In time in which their traditions were being put into question, [P] emphasizes the nature of the covenantal act of circumcision as it is that act and sign that makes them a member of the covenant community of Israel. It is so important and curial that a male who does receive it forfeits his right to be a member of his covenantal people and his claim to the divine promises (Gen 17:14), thus placing himself in the position of a Gentile.
Circumcising Act within the Covenant People
It is worth nothing that circumcision was widely practised within the ancient Semitic world. It is argued that the rite was performed at puberty as a ceremony of initiation into the full religious and civil status of manhood. All throughout the Hebrew Scriptures it is taken for granted as an Israelite practice and there are many stories in which circumcision plays a pivotal role (perhaps most striking is the story of Moses being saved from the wrath of YHWH by vicarious circumcision and use of his foreskin (Ex 4:18-21). Yet, during the Babylonian Exile, there can be no doubt that the practice took on new importance and different significance. With the additions of the Priestly writers and editors, circumcision, along with keeping the Sabbath, abstention from blood as well as other practices, it became one of the marks of a Jew. Just as [P] claimed divine authority and origin for the keeping of the Sabbath (Gen 2:2-3), as well as the practice of abstaining from blood (Gen 9:4), so here in the tale of YHWH's covenant with Abraham (Gen 17:1-27), it is a divine command from YHWH Himself.
The Jewish Sacrament
The Priestly writers and editors within Genesis 17:1-27 stress circumcision as the sign of the covenant because the covenant is everlasting. It was an act practiced and passed down, generation-to-generation, without compromises and restrictions. While mortal men die, YHWH and His promises do not. The promise of YHWH to Abraham is eternal, just as the sign of circumcision upon a male is everlasting. The Priestly writers and editors in these texts reveal to us how a single mark made a man belong to an entire body, a single act made him entitled to an ancient promise, and sign of his devotion to YHWH. In this way, circumcision according to [P] can be understood as a sacramental act, "an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace". Circumcision is the sacrament of all believing Jews, that through it a man's life was linked to God's fellowship with his ancestors and as well as the promises made to them. Through this physical act and visible sign, it would be the eternal reminder and consciousness of their duties, traditions, rituals, and devotes to YHWH.
What are your thoughts on this commentary?