Monday, October 1, 2012

Moses' Circumcision

Was Moses circumcised as a baby before or after he was found by the Egyptian princess or at any time during his life?

There is no clear reference to Moses’ circumcision in the Bible. We do not know when or even if he were circumcised at all. It is possible that he may have been circumcised by the Egyptians, because circumcision was practiced in ancient Egypt. But there is no mention of it anywhere.

There is only one biblical story that involves Moses and circumcision in Ex. 4: 24-26, but the text is corrupt.  We are told that Zipporah, Moses’ wife, carried out the act of circumcision on a family member on their way down to Egypt, but the text does not clearly state who was circumcised, Moses or one of their two sons, Gershom or Eliezer.

The text reads as follows (my remarks are highlighted): “At a night encampment on the way, the Lord encountered him [who is “him”? Moses or his son], and sought to kill him [Moses or his son?]. So Zipporah took a flint and cut off her son’s foreskin, and touched his legs [whose leg? Moses or the son’s] with it, saying, ‘You are truly a bridegroom of blood to me.’ And when He let him [Moses or the son?] alone, she added,’ A bridegroom of blood because of the circumcision” (NJPS).

Given the uncertainty of the text, commentators have suggested various interpretations.

According to some Rabbis, Moses was among those few grandees of the past who were born already circumcised (e.g., Tanhuma, Noah 5; Avot de Rabbi Natan 2: 5) as an expression of human perfection. For them, the question was who was then circumcised in the Exodus text? Some Rabbis maintained that God wanted to kill Moses because he had not circumcised his second son Eliezer (Ex. Rabba 5: 8; cf. Rashi). On the other hand, a talmudic Rabbi argued that the victim was not Moses but “the child”, but the Talmud does not identify whether this “child” was Gershom or Eliezer. One Rabbi opined that Moses was punished because he was apathetic towards circumcision; another one denies it (e.g., Ned. 31b and 32a).

Modern scholars, too, are divided: Some maintain that the victim was Gershom (Fohrer), whereas others say it was Moses (Childs). The text is so corrupted that one modern critic writes that “the account here is only a truncated version of a larger, popular story that circulated orally in Israel” (Sarna).

Even though the text is unclear, it becomes evident that the passage in Exodus highlights the importance and necessity of circumcision. Zipporah, facing a deadly threat, circumcised a member of her family, and saved him.

Rabbi Rifat Sonsino, Ph.D.
Aug. 2012

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