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Vayikra/Leviticus 12:3 And on the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised.
This command comes close to the beginning of a little section of instructions about a woman who has given birth. Given that it doesn't add anything to the command originally given to Avraham - "throughout the generations, every male among you shall be circumcised at the age of eight days" (B'resheet 17:12, NJPS) - it seems redundant, something the Torah is usually careful to avoid. Baruch Levine tells that "the essential law of circumcision is stated in B'resheet 17:10-14, within the context of the covenant between G-d and Avraham. The practice of circumcision was extant in other ancient cultures, but it assumed a new significance in Israelite religion." What else does the wording and placement of this command here help us to understand?
Ibn Ezra starts with the first word - , "and in/on the day" - and explains that the use of the word 'day' implies that the circumcision must take place during the day and not at night. The Baal HaTurim notes that this verse has the same number of words and letters as the verse "The heaven and the earth were finished, and all their array" (B'resheet 2:1, NJPS)1 and so concludes that "circumcision overrides Shabbat." Baruch Levine points out that the verb - the 3ms Nif'al prefix form of the root , to cut off - is passive and is only used in the Hebrew Bible "for the foreskin and its metaphorical expressions." Circumcision is not something that one does for oneself; it has to be done to or for one, by someone else. As far as the individual is concerned, circumcision is not done or taken; it is received.
The ancient Sages discuss which categories of commandment are intended to supersede Shabbat (b, Shabbat 132a). After disallowing blowing the shofar - even on Yom Teruah, the day of blowingFootNoreRef(2) - they consider tefillin and tzitzit as signs, concluding that as they, circumcision and Shabbat are all declared to be signs, they must be performed together when necessary. They note that both Shabbat and circumcision are a matter of covenant, so must be performed together when necessary. Similarly, since "all your generations" is specified for both Shabbat and circumcision, they hear an obligation to bring the new generation into the covenant even on Shabbat if that is the eighth day. Drazin and Wagner comment that while "drawing blood is prohibited on Shabbat, the circumcision is so important a rite that it must be performed on the eighth day even if it falls on Shabbat." Yeshua confirms that circumcision was carried out on Shabbat in second Temple times, correctly identifying that although Moshe confirmed it, the practice dated from the patriarchs - "Moshe gave you circumcision (not that it is from Moshe, but from the fathers), and you circumcise a man on the Shabbat" (John 7:2, ESV) - and uses it as the basis for His healing ministry on Shabbat.
Continuing the imagery of signs, theRadak says that circumcision is "the strongest sign of all ... imprinted on the human body" as this particular organ is "the common instrument of sin and the principle source of carnal lust." He reasons that circumcision, "by reminding the Jew of the Divine commandments when about to transgress with that organ, will prevent him from sinning. He will not follow his unbridled sexual desires like an animal but satisfy them within the confines of the Torah, to reproduce and to maintain his health." Accordingly, Nechama Leibowitz writes, "this precept fulfills an educational and disciplinary role in the relationship of man towards his Creator. It harbours a permanent warning against the sinful use of the organ of reproduction: it elevates carnal activity to the level of a mitzvah."
TheBekhor Shor observes that, "everyone is supposed to rejoice on the day of circumcision. But until the woman has immersed herself, she and her husband are forbidden to each other, which impedes their joy." Drazin and Wagner explain that the Torah decrees circumcision on the eighth day so that "it should not happen that everyone would be happy except for the parents, who are sad [because they are forbidden to resume marital relations for the first seven days after a child is born]." Baruch Levine again, affirms that "There is undoubtedly a correlation between the eight day period between birth and circumcision and the duration of the initial period of the mother's impurity after giving birth to a male child."
It is perhaps a surprise, then, that Moshe takes something so physical and visceral as circumcision - concerned as it is with such a particular part of the male anatomy - and applies it to the whole Israelite congregation: "Circumcise therefore the foreskin of your heart, and be no longer stubborn" (D'varim 10:16, ESV). Now directed at both male and female members of the Children of Israel, whether old or young and whether already male and conventionally circumcised or not, this speaks of attitude and behaviour at a different level. This cannot be a physical command, since hearts don't have foreskins and heart surgery wasn't available in Moshe's day - an important consideration when considering the impact upon the initial audience, which must be credible - it is surely metaphorical. RabbiHirsch agrees, commenting that circumcision is "the free willed moral subordination of our physical body sensuality under the laws of G-d." Circumcision of the heart, then, must mean the free willed moral subordination of our mental and emotional desires and plans before G-d. As Moshe says, "be no longer stubborn"; yield yourselves to Him and submit wholeheartedly.
Later on, Moshe makes it clear that the Children of Israel are no more capable of circumcising their own hearts than they are their own foreskins; it must be done for them. He says that, "the L-RD your G-d will circumcise your heart and the heart of your offspring, so that you will love the L-RD your G-d with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live" (30:6, ESV). G-d will do this Himself although, as the prophets make clear, man has to cooperate in the process: "Circumcise yourselves to the L-RD; remove the foreskin of your hearts, O men of Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem; lest My wrath go forth like fire, and burn with none to quench it, because of the evil of your deeds" (Jeremiah 4:4, ESV). The people living in Judah have to submit to G-d's laws and commandments for their lives, for their land and for each other.
Rav Sha'ul also addresses the issue of circumcision. Without condemning circumcision for Jewish people in any way, he touches directly on the value and meaning of circumcision: "For no one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical" (Romans 2:28, ESV). What is he saying here? Simply that circumcision "in the flesh" is not what makes a Jew. Shaye Cohen affirms that many people in the Roman empire in the first century CE were circumcised, but that they didn't see themselves as Jewish on that account, nor did their society or the Romans!3 Circumcision was certainly a sign that Jewish people carried, but it was not a positive sign; it was a negative sign - if you weren't circumcised then you weren't a Jew. Only a Jew (and his family and context) knew that he carried his circumcision because he was a Jew. Because as Sha'ul goes on, "a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter. His praise is not from man but from G-d" (v. 29, ESV). This is actually nothing new - it is Moshe and Jeremiah all over again: the voluntary submission of a Jew to G-d's rule and laws, and G-d is the only one who carry out that internal circumcision.
So finally we come to Sha'ul's hand-written words to the Galatians: "For neither circumcision counts for anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation" (Galatians 6:15, ESV). In a characteristic piece of hyperbole, Sha'ul points beyond circumcision (or the lack of it) to the fundamental of right relationship with G-d: Yeshua telling Nicodemus, "unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of G-d" (John 3:3, ESV). It is not that circumcision has or doesn't have a value, it is that the value is insignificant compared to being born again, "of water and the Spirit" (v. 5, ESV). Compared to knowing G-d, being circumcised or not is immaterial. Put another way, St. Peter won't be inspecting foreskins at the Pearly Gates, Yeshua will be asking, "Do you know Me?"
To sum up, then: all believers - Jew or Gentile - are called to be circumcised in their hearts, submitted to the lordship of Yeshua in all things. That circumcision does not make them Jewish, it is a result of being a follower of Yeshua. It is done by the Spirit as part of the process of rebirth and acts as our spiritual reminder of our identity in Yeshua. Jewish men are still called to be physically circumcised and to circumcise their sons on the eighth day as a covenant sign that they are Jewish; this is a matter of covenant obedience and is a physical reminder to them of their Jewish identity and calling. Gentiles are not so called and a desire on their part to take on the sign of circumcision shows that they have not correctly understood and received their identity in Yeshua.
1. - Both verses have five words. According to the current Masoretic text, the number of letters in our text is twenty three, while the other has twenty two, but the use of plene/defectivaspelling can be used to make them equal.
2. - Also known in post second Temple Judaism as Rosh HaShanah.
3. - Shaye J. D. Cohen, The Beginnings of Jewishness: Boundaries, Varieties, Uncertainties, University of California Press 1999
Further Study: 1 Corinthians 7:17-20; Acts 15:28-29
Application: Do you hanker after an identity that you don't have and worry that you are somehow missing out on a source of blessing that others have? In Yeshua you have everything you need and more. Relax in who you are and focus on keeping your heart right with Yeshua, for He is the One who matters!
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© Jonathan Allen, 2018
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