Joshua Chapter 5- part 4 




We mentioned circumcision several times in this chapter. The following are some facts about it.


Circumcision’s origin is not Jewish

            Some scholars[1] point to Exodus 4:24-26 where either Moses or his son is being attacked by an unknown source and Moses’s wife Tziporah saves him by circumcision. They say that circumcision originated as a way of overcoming divine or demonic attacks. They also say that the Israelite’s placing blood of their Pascal sacrifice on the lentils of their houses to protect them against the plague against the first-born Egyptians[2] was a similar precautionary and therapeutic measure. Thus it is no surprise that the two events are connected: the Israelites were forbidden to eat the Pascal sacrifice unless they were circumcised. This idea of the preventive powers of these two practices might lead some people to argue that they motivated the Israelites to engage in them before initiating the battles of conquest of Canaan.[3]

These scholars also note that many nations of the near east as well as elsewhere circumcised. This is evidenced by many sources including the historian Herodotus (484-425 BCE)[4] and a list of six nations who circumcised in Jeremiah 9:24 and 25. The scholars state that these pagans stopped circumcising during the early second temple period, sometime around 550-300, because of the influence of Persia and Greece. From this period onwards circumcision became a sign of Judaism.

One might argue that since the Bible does not indicate that Abraham was told how to circumcise himself,[5] this is added proof that he had no need for instruction since the practice was widespread. However, this is no proof. One of the frequent Bible characteristics is not to disclose details how to perform what is being mandated.[6]


Definition of milah

            Scholars[7] admit that they have no idea from where the Hebrew word for circumcision, milah, was derived. True, the Hebrew root m-l-l means “cut” and “cast off,”[8] but it is possible that this meaning was given to the root after milah came to denote circumcision.

Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888)[9] suggests that milah is derived from mul, “opposite.” He writes that as a verb, it means “oppose, restrict, limit.” It restricts Jewish passion to its “due limits.” It is the “symbolic expression of the duty of the Jew to positively and negatively fulfill (God’s) law in keeping the limits it sets.” Put differently, circumcision teaches Jews to set “limits” on their behavior. This is a good homily, but there is no certainty that the practice received the name milah because of this teaching.

Although not mentioned by Hirsch, his understanding of milah is similar to the scholarly definition of kodesh, usually translated “holy.” They say it means “separate” and “distinct.” The message being that people need to treat certain things differently. Shabbat is kodesh when it is observed as it should be observed.

Maimonides had a view that many people, including modern scientist, reject.[10] He wrote circumcision’s “object is to limit sexual intercourse, and to weaken the organ of generation as far as possible, and to cause man to be moderate. Some people believe that circumcision is to remove a defect in man’s formation; but everyone can easily reply: How can products of nature be deficient so as to require external completion, especially as the use of the foreskin to that organ is evident.[11] This commandment has not been enjoined as a complement to a deficient physical creation, but as a means for perfecting man’s moral shortcoming…. Circumcision simply counteracts excessive lust.”

Maimonides adds what some might consider a curious goal of this command: It gives Jews “a common bodily sign, so that it is impossible for anyone that is a stranger to say that he belongs to them.” He also wrote that circumcision unites Jews and it enters them in “the covenant of Abraham to believe in the unity of God.” He considered this last reason “as important as the first, and perhaps more important.”

Philo of Alexandria (c. 20 BCE- c.50 CE) listed six benefits of circumcision: health, cleanliness, comparing the genitals that create humans and the heart[12] that creates thoughts, eases the flow of semen to increase fruitfulness, a symbol instructing control of appetites, and a means to teach that people cannot attain completeness unless they remove  bad thoughts.

The Aramaic translation Targum Jonathan rendered Genesis 17:1, where God begins to instruct Abraham to circumcise himself and the males of his household, “walk before me and be tamim,”[13] as “so that your flesh be complete.” Peshitta[14] is similar: “so that you will be without an imperfection.” So too Midrash Rabbah “God said to Abraham, ‘You have no imperfection other than the foreskin, remove it and cancel out the imperfection.’”[15]

[1] Olam Hatanakh Bereishit, chapter 17, where circumcision is first mentioned.

[2] Exodus 12:5.

[3] However the usual explanation is that the Israelites felt that upon entry into the holy land they should observe the divine command of the Pascal sacrifice in a timely fashion and precede it with circumcision as God directed.

[4] He mentions Egypt, Syria, and Asia Minor in his Histories. However, we do not know if circumcision was only practiced by the upper classes or priests in these countries.

[5] In Genesis 17.

[6] Many argue that this proves that the “Oral Torah” was delivered with the written Torah, but this too is no proof. There is no doubt that some details had to be given with the commands, but these details are not the changes that the rabbis introduced long after the Torah was composed. For example, Maimonides admits that “eye for an eye” and “do not boil a kid in its mother’s milk” literally meant what it said and not compensation and the prohibition of mixing meat and dairy dishes. The first was “you suffer exactly the harm you produced” and the second was a prohibition against following this pagan worship practice.

[7] Olam Hatanakh.

[8] According to Gesenius Lexicon and many other sources.

[9] Commentary in Pentateuch, Genesis 17:11, where the term first appears.

[10] Guide of the Perplexed 3:49.

[11] Maimonides was convinced that men have greater sexual enjoyment with their foreskin and women enjoy sex more when the man has a foreskin. He cites as proof Midrash Genesis Rabbah 80: “It is hard for a woman with whom an uncircumcised had sexual intercourse to separate from him.”

[12] Both need to be controlled. The ancients believed that thinking emanated from the heart, not the brain.

[13] The meaning of tamim in this context is unclear. The Jewish Publication Society translation has “wholehearted.” This is most likely its plain meaning. The three conjectures that follow are sermonic.

[14] The name means “straight” because of its intent to give the plain meaning of the text without imaginative additions, a goal it did not achieve.

[15] These three were composed during the first millennium.