Abraham and the origins of Jewish circumcision

  A look at the biblical account and an analysis of what it tells us.

Abraham the patriarch with the circumcision knife, by Filipino Lippi.
A fresco, dating from 1502, in the vault of the Strozzi Chapel, Santa Maria Novella, Florence

Background to the story: Abram was married to Sarai, his half-sister, who was extremely beautiful. They had left Abram’s father’s house and were living as nomads, roaming with their nephew, Lot, and a substantial household over large distances. They had no children, and this enabled Sarai to pose as Abram’s sister (not entirely untrue). They did this for his protection – if a powerful prince had designs on Sarai for her beauty,he would have had to kill Abram to be legally able to take her as a wife. But as his sister Abram would not be at risk. This ruse got them into many complications but Abram became very prosperous, with money, slaves and much livestock.

Genesis, Chapters 16-21

Now Sarai Abram's wife bare him no children: and she had an handmaid, an Egyptian whose name was Hagar. And Sarai said unto Abram: "Behold now, the Lord hath restrained me from bearing: pray thee, go in unto my maid; it may be that I may obtain children by her."

And Abram hearkened to the voice of Sarai. And Sarai Abram's wife took Hagar her maid the Egyptian, after Abram had dwelt ten years in the land of Canaan, and gave her to her husband Abram to be his wife. And he went in unto Hagar, and she conceived: and when she saw that she had conceived, her mistress was despised in her eyes. And Sarai said unto Abram, “My wrong be upon thee: I have given my maid into thy bosom; and when she saw that she had conceived, I was despised in her eyes: the Lord judge between me and thee”. But Abram said unto Sarai, “Behold, thy maid is in thine hand, do to her as it pleaseth thee.”

And when Sarai dealt hardly with her, she fled from her face. And the angel of the Lord found her by a fountain of water in the wilderness, by the fountain in the way to Shur. And he said: "Hagar, Sarai's maid, whence camest thou? and whither wilt thou go?" And she said: "I flee from the face of my mistress Sarai."

And the angel of the Lord said unto her: "Return to thy mistress, and submit thyself under her hands." And the angel of the Lord said unto her: "I will multiply thy seed exceedingly, that it shall not be numbered for multitude." And the angel of the Lord said unto her: "Behold, thou art with child and shalt bear a son, and shalt call his name Ishmael; because the Lord hath heard thy affliction. And he will be a wild man; his hand will be against every man, and every man's hand against him; and he shall dwell in the presence of all his brethren." And she called the name of the Lord that spake unto her, Thou God seest me, for she said: "Have I also here looked after him that seeth me?” Wherefore the well was called Beerlahairoi; it is between Kadesh and Bered.

And Hagar bare Abram a son: and Abram called his son's name, which Hagar bare, Ishmael. And Abram was eighty-six years old, when Hagar bare Ishmael to Abram.

And when Abram was ninety years old and nine, the Lord appeared to Abram, and said unto him: "I am the Almighty God; walk before me, and be thou perfect. And I will make my covenant between me and thee, and will multiply thee exceedingly." And Abram fell on his face: and God talked with him, saying: "As for me, behold, my covenant is with thee, and thou shalt be a father of many nations. Neither shall thy name any more be called Abram, but thy name shall be Abraham; for a father of many nations have I made thee. And I will make thee exceeding fruitful, and I will make nations of thee, and kings shall come out of thee. And I will establish my covenant between me and thee and thy seed after thee in their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be a God unto thee, and to thy seed after thee. And I will give unto thee, and to thy seed after thee, the land wherein thou art a stranger, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession; and I will be their God." God appears to Abram
God appears to Abram (source unknown)

And God said unto Abraham, "Thou shalt keep my covenant therefore, thou, and thy seed after thee in their generations. This is my covenant, which ye shall keep, between me and you and thy seed after thee. Every man child among you shall be circumcised. And ye shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskin; and it shall be a token of the covenant betwixt me and you. And he that is eight days old shall be circumcised among you, every man child in your generations, he that is born in the house, or bought with money of any stranger, which is not of thy seed. He that is born in thy house, and he that is bought with thy money, must needs be circumcised: and my covenant shall be in your flesh for an everlasting covenant. And the uncircumcised man child whose flesh of his foreskin is not circumcised, that soul shall be cut off from his people; he hath broken my covenant."

And God said unto Abraham, “As for Sarai thy wife, thou shalt not call her name Sarai, but Sarah shall her name be. And I will bless her, and give thee a son also of her: yea, I will bless her, and she shall be a mother of nations; kings of people shall be of her.”

Then Abraham fell upon his face, and laughed, and said in his heart, “Shall a child be born unto him that is an hundred years old? and shall Sarah, that is ninety years old, bear?” And Abraham said unto God, “O that Ishmael might live before thee!”

And God said, “Sarah thy wife shall bear thee a son indeed; and thou shalt call his name Isaac: and I will establish my covenant with him for an everlasting covenant, and with his seed after him. And as for Ishmael, I have heard thee: Behold, I have blessed him, and will make him fruitful, and will multiply him exceedingly;twelve princes shall he beget, and I will make him a great nation. But my covenant will I establish with Isaac, which Sarah shall bear unto thee at this set time in the next year.” And he left off talking with him, and God went up from Abraham.

And Abraham took Ishmael his son, and all that were born in his house, and all that were bought with his money, every male among the men of Abraham's house; and circumcised the flesh of their foreskin in the selfsame day, as God had said unto him. And Abraham was ninety-nine years old, when he was circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin. And Ishmael his son was thirteen years old, when he was circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin. In the selfsame day was Abraham circumcised, and Ishmael his son. And all the men of his house, born in the house, and bought with money of the stranger, were circumcised with him.

And the Lord appeared unto him in the plains of Mamre; and he sat in the tent door in the heat of the day. And he lift up his eyes and looked, and, lo, three men stood by him, and when he saw them, he ran to meet them from the tent door, and bowed himself toward the ground, and said: "My Lord, if now I have found favour in thy sight, pass not away, I pray thee, from thy servant. Let a little water, I pray you, be fetched, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree. And I will fetch a morsel of bread, and comfort ye your hearts; after that ye shall pass on, for therefore are ye come to your servant." And they said, "So do, as thou hast said."

And Abraham hastened into the tent unto Sarah, and said: “Make ready quickly three measures of fine meal, knead it, and make cakes upon the hearth.” And Abraham ran unto the herd, and fetched a calf tender and good, and gave it unto a young man; and he hasted to dress it. And he took butter, and milk, and the calf which he had dressed, and set it before them; and he stood by them under the tree, and they did eat.

And they said unto him, "Where is Sarah thy wife?" And he said, "Behold, in the tent." And he said: "I will certainly return unto thee according to the time of life; and, lo, Sarah thy wife shall have a son." And Sarah heard it in the tent door, which was behind him. Now Abraham and Sarah were old and well stricken in age; and it ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women. Therefore Sarah laughed within herself, saying: "After I am waxed old shall I have pleasure, my lord being old also?" And the Lord said unto Abraham: "Wherefore did Sarah laugh, saying, ‘Shall I of a surety bear a child, which am old’? Is any thing too hard for the Lord? At the time appointed I will return unto thee, according to the time of life, and Sarah shall have a son." Then Sarah denied, saying: "I laughed not", for she was afraid. And he said: "Nay; but thou didst laugh."

And the men rose up from thence, and looked toward Sodom, and Abraham went with them to bring them on the way.

(There follows the destruction of Sodom)

And Abraham journeyed from thence toward the south country, and dwelled between Kadesh and Shur, and sojourned in Gerar. And Abraham said of Sarah his wife, “She is my sister”: and Abimelech king of Gerar sent, and took Sarah.

But God came to Abimelech in a dream by night, and said to him, “Behold, thou art but a dead man, for the woman which thou hast taken; for she is a man's wife.” But Abimelech had not come near her: and he said, “Lord, wilt thou slay also a righteous nation? Said he not unto me, ‘She is my sister?’ and she, even she herself said, ‘He is my brother’: in the integrity of my heart and innocency of my hands have I done this.” And God said unto him in a dream, “Yea, I know that thou didst this in the integrity of thy heart; for I also withheld thee from sinning against me: therefore suffered I thee not to touch her. Now therefore restore the man his wife; for he is a prophet, and he shall pray for thee, and thou shalt live: and if thou restore her not, know thou that thou shalt surely die, thou, and all that are thine.”

Therefore Abimelech rose early in the morning, and called all his servants, and told all these things in their ears: and the men were sore afraid. Then Abimelech called Abraham, and said unto him, “What hast thou done unto us? and what have I offended thee, that thou hast brought on me and on my kingdom a great sin? thou hast done deeds unto me that ought not to be done.” And Abimelech said unto Abraham, “What sawest thou, that thou hast done this thing?” And Abraham said, “Because I thought, surely the fear of God is not in this place; and they will slay me for my wife's sake. And yet indeed she is my sister; she is the daughter of my father, but not the daughter of my mother; and she became my wife. And it came to pass, when God caused me to wander from my father's house, that I said unto her, ‘This is thy kindness which thou shalt shew unto me; at every place whither we shall come, say of me, He is my brother’.”

And Abimelech took sheep, and oxen, and menservants, and womenservants, and gave them unto Abraham, and restored him Sarah his wife. And Abimelech said, “Behold, my land is before thee: dwell where it pleaseth thee.” And unto Sarah he said, “Behold, I have given thy brother a thousand pieces of silver: behold, he is to thee a covering of the eyes, unto all that are with thee, and with all other”: thus she was reproved.

So Abraham prayed unto God: and God healed Abimelech, and his wife, and his maidservants; and they bare children. For the Lord had fast closed up all the wombs of the house of Abimelech, because of Sarah Abraham's wife.

Cirumcision of Isaac
The circumcision of Isaac
(altar of Verdun, 12th century)
And the Lord visited Sarah as he had said, and the Lord did unto Sarah as he had spoken. For Sarah conceived, and bare Abraham a son in his old age, at the set time of which God had spoken to him. And Abraham called the name of his son that was born unto him, whom Sarah bare to him, Isaac. And Abraham circumcised his son Isaac being eight days old, as God had commanded him.

And Abraham was an hundred years old, when his son Isaac was born unto him. And Sarah said: "God hath made me to laugh, so that all that hear will laugh with me." And she said, "Who would have said unto Abraham, that Sarah should have given children suck? for I have born him a son in his old age."
And the child grew, and was weaned: and Abraham made a great feast the same day that Isaac was weaned. And Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, which she had born unto Abraham, mocking. Wherefore she said unto Abraham, “Cast out this bondwoman and her son: for the son of this bondwoman shall not be heir with my son, even with Isaac.” And the thing was very grievous in Abraham's sight because of his son.

And God said unto Abraham, “Let it not be grievous in thy sight because of the lad, and because of thy bondwoman; in all that Sarah hath said unto thee, hearken unto her voice; for in Isaac shall thy seed be called. And also of the son of the bondwoman will I make a nation, because he is thy seed.”

And Abraham rose up early in the morning, and took bread, and a bottle of water, and gave it unto Hagar, putting it on her shoulder, and the child, and sent her away: and she departed, and wandered in the wilderness of Beersheba. And the water was spent in the bottle, and she cast the child under one of the shrubs. And she went, and sat her down over against him a good way off, as it were a bow shot: for she said, “Let me not see the death of the child.” And she sat over against him, and lift up her voice, and wept.

And God heard the voice of the lad; and the angel of God called to Hagar out of heaven, and said unto her, “What aileth thee, Hagar? fear not; for God hath heard the voice of the lad where he is. Arise, lift up the lad, and hold him in thine hand; for I will make him a great nation.” And God opened her eyes, and she saw a well of water; and she went, and filled the bottle with water, and gave the lad drink. And God was with the lad; and he grew, and dwelt in the wilderness, and became an archer.

Ishmael and Hagar
Ishmael and Hagar in the widerness
In this picture, and the many others on this theme, Ishmael is shown as a young boy, as he must be to make the story believable.
Frederick Goodall, 1886

When we read this as a story it amazing how immediate it seems – these are real people, living lives which we can relate to. One aspect, though, rings immediately false – the ages, and indeed all measures of time. It’s not just the implausibility of Sarah/Sarai conceiving at ninety- the ages just don’t fit with the story. When Hagar and Ishmael are lost in the desert, the boy would have been about 14 or 15 years old. At that age your mother doesn’t put you down to die – you tell her to sit in the shade of the nearest bush and go off to search for water. So Ishmael must have been far younger than the text suggests.

The Angel with Ishmael and Hagar
The angel reveals the well to Ishmael and Hagar
Here Ishmael is very young - scarcely more than a toddler.
Dujardin, a Dutch Italianate painter, c. 1662
Ringling Museum of Art, Sarasota (Web Gallery of Art)

This isn’t the only inconsistency. Abimelech is hardly likely to be carried away by Sarah’s beauty, and taken her as a wife, if she were ninety. She had reached menopause (or thought she had) while still keeping her looks. But all these times are consistent – if we divide them all by two they all fit together. Sarai would have been forty-five but still looking young and attractive – doubtless helped by not having borne children. Ishmael would have been seven. And the references to Abraham being an old man are not inconsistent – 50 was a good age in those days. Why the consistent error? There seem to be two possibilities. One is that they didn’t count time in calendar years as we know them but in something else – perhaps seasons, two to each calendar year. Or it could have been some multiple of the lunar cycle (important in the Jewish calendar), and not exactly convertible into years. Later scribes, unfamiliar with the unit, turned it into years. The other is that these ages (and others in Genesis) were adjusted to make the recorded generations fit to a preconceived idea of the date of some significant event – either the Creation or the Flood. (It comes as a surprise to many people that in spite of the antiquity of Jewish civilisation, even the oldest, most fragmentary bits of Bible text date back only to the early centuries AD whereas comparable texts from other cultures such as Egypt or Babylon go back for thousands of years BC).

Which finally brings uo to the circumcision part. Abram couldn’t get Sarai pregnant – she specifically blamed herself even though, by implication, she had been menstruating normally. But in fact the problem was immediately solved by Abram’s circumcision. In other words, it must have been his phimosis which made him infertile, presumably by preventing him from achieving ejaculation in coitus. Sarai was just past menopause, but as millions of women since her have found, the first few missed periods are no guarantee that childbearing days are over. God had a sound, practical reason for telling Abraham to get circumcised.

So how did he get Hagar pregnant? We can, I think, dispose of one immediate (and uncharitable) explanation – that she used the occasion for a letting a local boyfriend have his way as well. This might have fooled Abram and Sarai, but would hardly have fooled the Lord. Hagar was Egyptian, young (quite likely very young by modern standards) and a virgin. The excitement of a new, young and pretty partner would have been strong, and Hagar would have been very tight, and these factors created sufficient stimulus for him to succeed in ejaculation in spite of his non-retractable foreskin.

The second point to note is that once God gave the command it seemed quite straightforward – even routine – for Abraham and all the men of his party to get circumcised. Circumcision must have been well-known, even commonplace, it was just that Abraham hadn’t been done. (Hagar, being Egyptian, was probably quite surprised to encounter an uncircumcised man). Contrast this with the situation many years later, when the Jews under Joshua reached the promised land after their 40 years in the wilderness. All the circumcised men and boys who had left Egypt were now dead, and none of the children born on the journey had been circumcised. Not only had circumcision died out, so had any experience of doing the operation. This time God had to give more specific instructions, requiring them to make stone knives, much sharper than the bronze knives in everyday use at that time, for the operation (Joshua 5:2-9).

  There are many interesting things we can learn from this. Circumcision was prescribed by the Lord for a sound practical reason – Abraham was unable to make his wife pregnant until his problem foreskin was removed, and by making the covenant binding on later generations future problems of the sort were avoided. This was not the beginning of circumcision in the world, it was simply the introduction of a well-known practice, already common among Egyptians and others, to Abraham’s family and descendants. And it shows the subtle way in which God does hs work, within the framework of everyday life. In a similar vein, note that the angel does not miraculously create a well for Hagar and Ishmael, he simply shows them a nearby well which they had missed.

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