Circumcision Rock & Roll

Bored in VernalLDS lessons, Mormon, ordinances, scripture, symbols 21 Comments

Avatar-BiVOT SS Lesson #18

The advantage of blogging the SS lessons instead of teaching them is that I get to cover the chapters that are totally skipped by correlation. (This one [Joshua 5] probably for good reason, but it deserves a mention SOMEWHERE.)

Everyone knows that good Jews are circumcised. God instituted the covenant with Abraham, and faithful Jews have been performing this ordinance on their 8-day-old males ever since, right?


Immediately after Israel crossed the Jordan into the Promised Land under their new leader, Joshua, they were given a commandment. They were told to again circumcise the entire company of the children of Israel.  This was necessary because none of the people who were born during the 40 years in the wilderness had been circumcised.  All the males who left Egypt over the age of 20 had been circumcised but had died in the wilderness.  Joshua circumcised their children, whom Jehovah had raised up in their place. They stayed at the Hill of Foreskins a while to heal.  God told Joshua, “Today I have rolled away (galal) the reproach of Egypt from you” and thus the place was called Gilgal. Gilgal means “heap of stones” or “stone circle”; it sounds similar to galal (“to roll away”).

Given that circumcision was commanded in the Torah, and also a necessary prerequisite to participation in the Passover celebration, why weren’t the Israelites circumcised during that 40-year period?  I think the answer has to do with Moses’ attitude toward circumcision.

Though Moses was born into an Israelite family, it is not certain that he was ever circumcised as a baby.  At least, it is not included in his birth narrative in the scriptural record.  To correct this oversight, some commentators have even tried to assert that Moses was “born circumcised.”  Whether or not this is true, we know that his sons did not inherit this genetic trait!  After marrying and having two sons in the land of Midian, Moses went back to Egypt with his wife and children.  We read about this incident in Exodus 4:18-26:

And Moses went and returned to Jethro his father in law, and said unto him, Let me go, I pray thee, and return unto my brethren which are in Egypt, and see whether they be yet alive. And Jethro said to Moses, Go in peace.  And the Lord said unto Moses in Midian, Go, return into Egypt: for all the men are dead which sought thy life.  And Moses took his wife and his sons, and set them upon an ass, and he returned to the land of Egypt…

And it came to pass by the way in the inn, that the Lord met him, and sought to kill him.  Then Zipporah took a sharp stone, and cut off the foreskin of her son, and cast it at his feet, and said, Surely a bloody husband art thou to me.  So he let him go: then she said, A bloody husband thou art, because of the circumcision.

It appears that Moses and his wife recognized that the Lord was preventing Moses from proceeding because one of his sons had not been circumcised.  We can speculate that Moses circumcised his firstborn son at the proper age, and that Zipporah was appalled at the bloody act.  Perhaps that was why they decided not to circumcise the other son.  When the Lord chose Moses to lead the nation of Israel out of the land of Egypt, it was necessary that he make a decision: circumcise his son, or die!  Zipporah relented, but was not happy about it.  I think that this incident made Moses very conflicted about the practice of circumcision.  He himself may even have been circumcised later in life, a painful experience!  No wonder he was not strict about making sure the nation of Israel complied with this ordinance while in the wilderness.  But when Moses died and the new generation entered Canaan, a ritual was enacted as a type of the plan of salvation.

Tony Badillo explains the symbolism of the events which took place at the crossing of the Jordan and at Gilgal.  A careful reading of Joshua 4:8-9 shows that twelve stones were taken out of the river and placed on the new land as a memorial, and twelve stones were also taken from the dry land and placed in the midst of the Jordan.  The twelve smooth, rounded river stones symbolized Israel circumcised, analogous to the smoothness of the male reproductive organ after circumcision; a new spiritual beginning in a new land.  The twelve rough stones taken from the dry land represented the uncircumcised male organ; placed in the Jordan to signify death to sin.

Reading these OT passages with our SS lesson gives us the opportunity to reflect on the rich symbolic meanings which lie behind the violent act of circumcision.  I tend to identify with Zipporah on this matter, shrinking from the bloody, brutal deed.  But in the latter-day we are asked to circumcise the foreskin of our hearts, removing our pride and exposing our tender, inner selves to the influence of the Spirit.  We have to be “strong and of a good courage” to do this!   It can be more painful and difficult even than the physical act of circumcision.  As Badillo puts it: “Outer circumcision of the flesh may be done by anyone skillfully using a knife; but inward circumcision of the heart can be done only by the Lord’s spirit , and it is this type circumcision (for subduing the sinful inclination ) that Joshua’s men received at the crossing of the Jordan.”

A worthy Sunday School lesson, even if it didn’t make the manual!

Comments 21

  1. Nice post, as usual. I’d never thought of the idea that Zipporah was the one opposed to circumcision — I always read it as though she were chewing Moses out for not living up to his responsibilties. Your interpretation fits the circumstances better.

    It really is interesting that the Israelites hadn’t been practicing circumcision in the desert when it was so clearly part of their religion. Maybe God didn’t consider them adequately circumcised of heart and didn’t have Moses restore the practice. More likely, God simply didn’t command Moses in all things and Moses, a fallible man, was selective about which things he followed through.

    Contemplating Moses as being fearful of his wife’s reaction to circumcision brings to mind Joseph Smith’s behavior when he began the practice of polygamy. I’ve wondered how, if he truly were a prophet, he could have been such a sneaky coward. Maybe Joseph wasn’t the only prophet who was scared of offending his wife.

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    Maybe God didn’t consider them adequately circumcised of heart and didn’t have Moses restore the practice.

    That’s possible too, Martin — there are many explanations for why they needed to be circumcised at Gilgal, and the scriptural record doesn’t make it clear enough to tell what exactly happened in the wilderness. Mine is just one speculation out of many.

    I read that there was an article in BAR with an interesting theory. The argument was summed up and then discounted like this:

    * The Israelites who entered Canaan had to be re-circumscised because Egyptians circumcised differently (they did a little ‘v’ slit and left most of the foreskin on). The author appeals to these verses:

    Joshua 5:2 At that time Yahweh said to Joshua, “Make for yourself flint knives and circumcise again the sons of Israel the second time.”

    Joshua 5:9 Then Yahweh said to Joshua, “Today I have rolled away the reproach of Egypt from you.” So the name of that place is called Gilgal to this day.

    This suggestion has some appealing aspects:

    A) Joshua 5:2 does emphasize “again” and “second” time

    B) Removing of the foreskin is associated with the reproach of the Egyptians; Egyptians were circumcised, but not fully

    But there are also some problems in context and/or other explainations that make more sense in context:

    A) Joshua 5.7 states that those who who came out of Egypt had been circumcised (and are now dead), but those who were born in the wilderness (v.5) had not been circumcized — so the issue is one of not being circumcised incorrectly (as those who left Egypt seemed to be classified as “circumcised”), but not having it done at all.

    I looked for this over at BAR, but I couldn’t find the article.

  3. You might find this excerpt from my Documentary Hypothesis article of interest (although the formatting of the JST variants doesn’t come through):

    An Anti-Moses Text: Was Moses Circumcised? Exodus 4:24-26 reads as follows:

    [24] And it came to pass by the way in the inn, that the LORD met him, and sought to kill him. [25] Then Zipporah took a sharp stone, and cut off the foreskin of her son, and cast it at his feet, and said. Surely a bloody husband art thou to me. [26] So he let him go: then she said A bloody husband thou art, because of the circumcision.

    The JST modifies this text as follows (additions are italicized, deletions are struck through):

    [24] And it came to pass, that the Lord appeared unto him as he was in by the way, by t» the inn. The Lord was angry with Moses, and his hand was about to fall upon him that the LORD met him, and sought to kill him;/or he had not circumcised his son. [25] Then Zipporah took a sharp stone, and out off the foreskin of circumcised her son, and cast it the stone at his feet, and said. Surely thou art a bloody husband art thou to me. [26] And the Lord spared Moses and So ho let him go, because Zipporah, his wife, circumcised the child. And then she said. Thou art a bloody husband thou art, because of the circumcision. And Moses was ashamed, and hid his face from the Lord, and said, I have sinned before the Lord.

    The JST provides a reasonable explanation of this obscure incident. It gives the reason the Lord sought to kill Moses: Moses had not circumcised his son. It tastefully suggests that Zipporah threw the flint knife rather than her son’s foreskin at Moses. And it makes explicit that the Lord spared Moses because Zipporah circumcised the child.[113]

    There are, of course, other ways to read the passage. A possible alternative is to see Moses as becoming gravely ill at a resting place along the road. Zipporah interprets this illness as Yahweh’s displeasure at Moses’ own lack of circumcision. She circumcises their son with a flint knife and touches (KJV “cast” is erroneous) Moses’ genitals with it (“feet” in the Old Testament is often a euphemism for the genitals), pronouncing Moses her “bridegroom of blood” (rather than the KJV’s “bloody husband”). In effect, on this reading, Zipporah has performed a proxy ordinance of circumcision for the benefit of her ill husband, which the Lord recognizes. The expression “bridegroom of blood” is obscure, but it may have reference to the origins of circumcision rites, which were performed at puberty or marriage rather than in infancy.[114]

    The JST is careful to ascribe the lack of circumcision only to Moses’ son and not also to Moses himself.[115] Although the JST allows that Moses sinned in not circumcising his son, it protects him from the greater sin of not being circumcised himself, particularly in light of the requirement that one must be circumcised to partake of the Passover (see Ex. 12:48-49).

    Why does Exodus contain a text with such a negative portrayal of Moses? The Documentary Hypothesis supplies an explanation. Although the sources considered both Moses and Aaron as great leaders from Israel’s past, they reflected somewhat variant attitudes towards these leaders. Moses was the particular hero of E and D, which were meanwhile content to allow for the occasional denigration of Aaron in such stories as the golden calf and the leprosy of Miriam. In contrast, J and P were more pro Aaron and willing to denigrate Moses as in the P account of the waters at Meribah (in Num. 20) or this account of the circumcision of Moses’ son (J).

    By protecting Moses in Exodus 4, the JST is partially harmonizing this J anti-Moses text to the more pro-Moses sentiments of E and D.

    [113] Otherwise, the JST simply makes explicit things that are implied in the text. For instance, the JST clarifies that the “he” in v. 26 is the Lord; the New English Translation does the same.

    [114] According to Genesis 17:25, Ishmael was circumcised at age 13. A Hebrew word for “father-in-law,” choten, literally means “the circumciser.” The 1979 LDS KJV footnote ad loc. suggests that there is covenant significance to the expression “bridegroom of blood”; I agree with this suggestion.

    [115] At least one commentator agrees with this reading; see J. R. Dummelow, ed.. The One Volume Bible Commentary (New York: Macmillan, 1973), 53.

  4. Sorry BiV—threadjack—I saw your post “Rock & Roll” title–had to say my son’s band, Neon Trees, is on Jay Leno this Friday night–(tivo it)–all the band members are returned missionaries, including the girl drummer.

    Please continue….

  5. Post

    Kevin, thank you! How did I ever miss the JST on this one??
    I appreciate your addition to this discussion.
    The “bridegroom of blood” expression, with its covenant connotations, is quite fascinating. I’d like to learn more about this.

  6. Continued threadjack! Wow, that’s awesome Holden Caulfield, I listen to Neon Trees, and my brother is a big fan. I’ll tell him to be sure to watch!

    Sorry BiV.

  7. I don’t really understand why people characterize religious people as fanatical…this all really makes a lot of sense, right?? I think it should all be taken strictly literal, since it is in the bible.

    Exodus 4:25
    “Then Zipporah took a sharp stone, and cut off the foreskin of her son, and cast it at his feet”

    …and also they did tell their daughters not to have 2 ear piercings because we want to teach the principle that we always respect temple that is our bodies.

    What??? 😀

  8. Thanks BiV and Kevin. Kevin the line

    “…origins of circumcision rites, which were performed at puberty or marriage rather than in infancy…” made me laugh.

    And the church leaders think YM these days aren’t eager to get married. Just think what it would be like throwing in that little disincentive!

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  10. BiV and Kevin–wonderful insights! Circumcision is just one thing I don’t get. It makes no sense to me why anyone would put something sharp in the vicinity of genitals–and claim that God wanted it. BiV, I did a post on Abraham, and it is apparent that circumcision was a common pagan practice in the days of Abraham (Rabbi David Wolpe and Dr William Dever, U of Arizona confirm this.) I wonder how that colors the story? See Other Perspectives on Abraham. I also talk about some of the medical benefits of circumcision.

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    MH, I like on your post how Rabbi David Wolpe explains the symbolism of circumcision. “One of the reasons that circumcision is a mark on the generative organ is, that God says to Abraham, ‘you’re going to be the head of a great nation, and I want you to always remember that it comes from you and your loins, and I want a mark of your commitment at the very place where this great nation will spring from.’”

    In the Biblical record you can tell that the act of circumcision is deeply symbolic, making it different than what any of the other nations were doing at the time. (Not that I understand what they thought they were doing, either)! But it’s difficult to explain exactly what that symbolism is. As long as we are linking to our past posts, here are some other fun links by me and my friends exploring the topic:
    Theric’s “And Now One for the Boys” and “The Circumcised of Heart
    BiV’s “Brainstorming Circumcision
    and Andrew’s misogynist “Why Circumcision is Good

  12. There doesn’t have to be a logical reason for circumcision, just that the Lord required it at the time. For Abraham, it was a real trial as an adult and for other adults. I’m not sure it is the same for babies. For instance,I don’t remember mine! 🙂 It was done in my Grandparents house. The procedure is generally done in the hospital in the first day. Even the Jewish ones. Moyles are a dying breed, I suspect. But, it is true that this would set the Israelites apart. Which is why i suspect Moses was not circumcised as a baby. The Egyptians would have known he was Hebrew.

    The eight day thing is not a hard and fast requirement, since circumcision is not performed on the Sabbath.

    It’s kind of funny that BiV would call male circumcision a violent act. For the baby, it is rather painless compared to have other types of surgery without the benefit of anesthetic. It is a religious act for Jews and done with all seriousness and solemnity.

    And female circumcision is far, far worse.

  13. This actually made an appearance in last night’s episode of 30 Rock. Liz was doing a reading at a Catholic wedding, but she was supposed to drag it out. So she opened the Bible randomly and started reading different stories; one was Onan spilling his seed on the ground, and the other was this one of Zipporah circumcising her son. It was very funny!

  14. Perhaps it is off-topic, but I wonder if anyone would like to discuss the practice of female circumcision. This is definitely a “violent act.” Though I haven’t read the book Infidel by Ayaan Hirsi Ali, I believe she was circumcised. If I am recalling the incident correctly, her mother and a few other women forcefully restrained her around the time of puberty, and cut off her clitoris. While not all Muslims observe the practice, it seems to be most common among African Muslims.

    Apparently it is an ancient practice. The purpose of female circumcision is to make sex not enjoyable for women, therefore maintaining their virtue. I think it is an absolutely barbaric act. One study in Egypt showed that men had an increase in marijuana use because they were unable to please their wives who had been circumcised. The practice of female circumcision seems absolutely mind-boggling to me.

    I don’t know who came up with the idea of male or female circumcision, but once again, the whole concept makes no sense to me whatsoever. With men, the practice seems less painful and invasive than it is for women. While I know that Rabbi David Wolpe makes the Abrahamic circumcision a spiritually symbolic act, it still strikes me as strange and barbaric. I know that male circumcision has decreased AIDS infections in Africa, and a Seattle study indicated that it also seems to lessen the spread of genital warts, so there does seem to be some medical justification for it. However, I’m pretty sure that’s not what God had in mind when this practice started with Abraham. I can certainly understand Moses and Zipporah’s discomfort with the practice.

    I guess I am of the opinion that revelation can be mixed with human influences. I wonder if Abraham may have been circumcised because he had trouble having children. Perhaps he thought circumcision might help him become more fertile. I think such an explanation agrees with Rabbi Wolpe’s statement of the symbolism on the “generative organ.” In that case, it seems to me that Abraham borrowed a pagan practice and attached a spiritually symbolic meaning to it. Likewise, Muslims perform female circumcision so women maintain the spiritual benefit of maintaining virtue. Such logic seems twisted and wrong to me, whether male or female.

    1. Ayaan Hirsi Ali herself has stated that male circumcision is sometimes worse than female circumcision. Both are brutal, grotesque, violent sexual mutilations.

      You lose the gendered nature of the term FGM (the F), and male circumcision would very much slot into a moderate to severe form of GM.

      In fact, there are forms of FGM that are commonly practiced in the Islamic world that “only” remove skin.

      Just this year the first charges under the federal FGM law were brought against certain individuals from Michigan. Let me share with you an excerpt from the FBI’s complaint against Dr. Jumana Nagarwala, who is accused of performing female genital mutilation (FMG) on underage girls:

      “MN-V-1’s labia minora has been altered or removed, and her clitoral hood is also abnormal in appearance. Finally, the doctor observed some scar tissue and small healing lacerations.”

      “MN-V-2’s clitoral hood has a small incision, and there is a small tear to her labia minora.”

      “The parents of MN-V-2 confirmed that they took MN-V-2 to Detroit to see Nagarwala for a ‘cleansing’ of extra skin.”

      What happened to these girls is horrific.

      But it must be pointed out that “only” so-called “extra” skin was removed and their glans clitorises were intact, just like in male circumcision “only” so-called “extra” skin is removed and the glans penis is left intact.

      That sounds pretty comparable, does it not?

      And yet this is a federal crime while cutting boys’ foreskins happens to thousands of boys everyday legally.

      I’m not sure if MN-V-1 and MN-V-2 have brothers, but what would have been done to their genitalia under Islamic religious tradition — the entire excision of their prepuce — would have been just as excruciating, if not more so, than what happened to these girls. And yet there would be no legal repercussions for such a painful act committed against their bodies.

      The United States has to ask itself the difficult question of why it is so repulsed by excising folds of skin from female children’s genitalia but is so nonchalant about excising a fold of skin from male children’s genitalia.

      This should not be so; girls do not have more of an innate right to their bodies, and especially their most private parts, than boys do to theirs.

      And as far as health benefits go…what other normal, living, healthy, permanent tissue do we research the “health benefits” of cutting off at birth? The answer is none. I mean heck, you could remove a few fingers, maybe an arm, ears, all sorts of body parts with low risk of harm and relatively low risk of complications. I’m pretty sure each part of the body you remove will reduce the risk of getting cancer or disease in the absent body parts, too.

      I mean, uncircumcised women and girls suffer more genital infections than uncircumcised men and boys by a large margin, and are more prone to HIV and most STIs from unprotected vaginal intercourse — and let’s not even get into hygiene issues — and we leave their genitals alone.

      There has not been one study, performed under the same sterilized conditions in which science has examined male circumcision literally hundreds of times over, of the health benefits of removing, say, the female inner labia, and yet there are literally hundreds of studies concerning the health benefits of removing the male foreskin.

      There’s something else going on here, and it’s not science; if infection reduction were the goal, then the population most infection-prone (uncircumcised females) should be the population most studied.

      Her body, her choice.
      His body, his choice.
      Not yours to cut.

  15. Just hoping you caught the reference to this scripture verse in this week’s 30 Rock, in which Liz Lemon is doing a reading at her ‘only normal boyfriend’s wedding and is forced to stall. To do so she starts and ‘unscheduled reading’ and flips to the OT and randomly lands on “Then Zipporah took a sharp stone, and cut off the foreskin of her son….”

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