Thursday, November 06, 2008

Brit Milah As Adopted, Adapted, And Directed Practice Taken From the Egyptians

An interesting Shadal in the last perek of Lech Lecha.

A while back, DovBear asked about how circumcision could be a special covenant with God if the bushmen also practice it. I personally think it obvious that there might be some widespread practice which is adopted and perhaps modified, investing it with special meaning. It can be a covenant even though it is preexisting, just as a rainbow can be a covenant with humanity even though rainbows existed prior to the flood. And just as the shevatim were going to use it as a covenant with the residents of Shechem -- though of course there are other practical aspects to the justification in that case.

I see Shadal makes a similar point for brit milah, noting it is an Egyptian practice -- based on a pasuk in Yirmiyahu -- yet offering a suggestion of how this could then be a sign of a special covenant with the descendants of Abraham.

Shadal writes:

המול : נפעל משורש מול בפלס הכון. והנה ידענו כי גם המצרים היו נמולים ( ירמיה ט' כ"ה ) ורחוק הוא לומר שלמדו זה מאברהם ; ונ"ל כי מתחילה היה מנהג המצרים, שהכהנים לבדם ימולו , וה' ציוה את אברהם שימול כל זכר, על דרך ואתם תהיו לי ממלכת כהנים ( שמות י"ט ו' ), וכמו שמפרש והיה לאות ברית ביני וביניכם, כלו' שהמילה היא סימן התקשרות ישראל עם אלהיהם, וסימן גדולה ופרישות מהמון בני אדם, וזה עצמו היה המכוון במילת כהני מצרים ; ואחר זמן אולי פשטה המילה בין המצרים גם בהמון.
וסנכוניאטון הכנעני כתב כי אחר שבא רעב ודבר
Cronus הקריב
את בנו יחידו , ונימול, וציוה לכל אנשיו לעשות כן ; ונראה כי סיפור זה נמשך מסיפור קורות אברהם (שמל את ביתו ועקד את יצחק יחידו) שנשתבש ביד הכנענים.

Thus, if we look at Yirmeyahu 9:
כד הִנֵּה יָמִים בָּאִים, נְאֻם-יְהוָה, וּפָקַדְתִּי, עַל-כָּל-מוּל בְּעָרְלָה. 24 Behold, the days come, saith the LORD, that I will punish all them that are circumcised in their uncircumcision:
כה עַל-מִצְרַיִם וְעַל-יְהוּדָה, וְעַל-אֱדוֹם וְעַל-בְּנֵי עַמּוֹן וְעַל-מוֹאָב, וְעַל כָּל-קְצוּצֵי פֵאָה, הַיֹּשְׁבִים בַּמִּדְבָּר--כִּי כָל-הַגּוֹיִם עֲרֵלִים, וְכָל-בֵּית יִשְׂרָאֵל עַרְלֵי-לֵב. {פ} 25 Egypt, and Judah, and Edom, and the children of Ammon, and Moab, and all that have the corners of their hair polled, that dwell in the wilderness; for all the nations are uncircumcised, but all the house of Israel are uncircumcised in the heart. {P}
, Shadal deduces that the Egyptians, too, were circumcised. Now I might suggest that there may be other ways of reading that pasuk, or that they adopted the practice later.

But Shadal says it is unlikely they adopted the practice from Avraham. It is, therefore, a general practice. Shadal's suggestion (founded on nothing, as far as I can see) is that the Egyptian custom was that the priests would circumcise themselves.

{Update: As Wolf of Ishim veShitot points out in the comment section, Shadal got this info about the Egyptian priests specifically from Herodotus. Thanks!}

By commanding Avraham that every male be circumcised, it is along the lines of being a nation of priests (mamlechet kohanim). If I recall correctly, this is how Jacob Milgrom attempted to explain the techeilet, as taking a practice of the nobility and casting it on every Israelite because of the idea of mamlechet kohanim vegoy kadosh.

And Shadal reads it into the reasoning given by the pasuk, that it should be as a sign, for it is indeed a sign demonstrating their special relationship to Hashem, that every male Israelite has the same close connection that priests do in other religions.

But nothing in Yirmeyahu suggests it was only the priests! Shadal answers that perhaps the practice spread from the priests to the general populace after that.

He also cites Senconiaton {Sanchuniathon} the Canaanite who wrote that at a time of famine and plague, Cronus sacrificed to his father Uranus his only son, and underwent circumcision, and commanded all his men to do likewise. And is appears that this story is drawn from the narrative of the happenings of Avraham (who circumcised his household and bound Yitzchak his only son), which was corrupted in the hands of the Canaanites.

What binds these two comments of Shadal together is that both are dealing with what to make of other cultures having traditions about brit milah, and whose tradition comes from whose.

There also exist slighly different versions of this circumcision / sacrifice / Cronus. To cite Wikipedia:
In ancient Greek myths, Cronus envied the power of his father, the ruler of the universe, Ouranos. Ouranos drew the enmity of Cronus' mother, Gaia, when he hid the gigantic youngest children of Gaia, the hundred-armed Hecatonchires and one-eyed Cyclopes, in Tartarus, so that they would not see the light. Gaia created a great adamant sickle and gathered together Cronus and his brothers to persuade them to kill Ouranos. Only Cronus was willing to do the deed, so Gaia gave him the sickle and placed him in ambush. When Ouranos met with Gaia, Cronus attacked him with the sickle by cutting off his genitals, castrating him and casting the severed member into the sea. From the blood (or, by a few accounts, semen) that spilled out from Ouranos and fell upon the earth, the Gigantes, Erinyes, and Meliae were produced. From the member that was cast into the sea, Aphrodite later emerged.[3] For this, Ouranos threatened vengeance and called his sons titenes (according to Hesiod meaning "straining ones," the source of the word "titan", but this etymology is disputed) for overstepping their boundaries and daring to commit such an act.


The account ascribed by Eusebius to the semi-legendary pre-Trojan War Phoenician historian, Sanchuniathon, indicates that Cronus was originally a Canaanite ruler who founded Byblos and was subsequently deified. This version gives his alternate name as Elus or Ilus, and states that in the 32nd year of his reign, he emasculated, slew and deified his father Epigeius or Autochthon "whom they afterwards called Uranus". It further states that after ships were invented, Cronos, visiting the 'inhabitable world', bequeathed Attica to his own daughter Athena, and Egypt to Thoth the son of Misor and inventor of writing[4].
I would note that this is the same Sanchuniathon that Shadal is citing, but presumably a different part of the legend.


Anonymous said...

Shadal got it from Herodotus

Anonymous said...

The rainbow thing is discussed already by Abravanel and others - see Kli Yakar on that passuk.

Is the word verification necessary.

Wolf2191 said...

Note that if circumcision was a relatively new practice one wouldn't expect Shechem to have accepted it so quickly.

Anonymous said...

Why do we assume that the "Os" has to mean that the ACT/RESULT of circumcision serves as a sign. Maybe it is the OBLIGATION

joshwaxman said...

thanks. I'll update the post. And I'll try to check it out the Kli Yakar. I don't see word verification when I post. Perhaps blogger was acting weird?

interesting idea. i am not totally certain i get it, but to expand. since we have an *obligation*, rather than just a practice, than distinguishes us from the other nations, who just happen to do it. is that what you are suggesting? could work.



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