Brit Milah: The Biblical Origins

Where the circumcision covenant comes from.

Brit milah, or “the covenant of circumcision,” is first mentioned in the Torah when God commands Abraham to circumcise himself and his offspring: “Every male among you shall be circumcised…it shall be a sign of a the covenant between Me and you. Whoever is eight days old shall be circumcised, every male throughout your generations” (Genesis 17:11-12). Since this commandment was given before the birth of Isaac, the second of the biblical patriarchs, Abraham performs brit milah on himself, his son Ishmael (the offspring of his concubine, Hagar), and all of his male servants. The following year his son, Isaac, is born and then circumcised on the eighth day as commanded.

It is significant that the Hebrew term for circumcision is brit milah. Milah by itself means circumcision. However, it is always referred to as brit milah, including the word brit, or covenant,because the practice of brit milah is intimately connected to the divine promise and relationship that God establishes with the biblical patriarchs of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob–and some would say, with their wives and partners–Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah–as well.

This covenant is first delineated when God calls Abraham forth to migrate to the land of Canaan, and promises him two essential elements of this brit. First, God declares: “I will make you a great nation” (Genesis 12:2), ensuring the longevity and continuity of the Jewish people. Second, after Abraham arrives in the land of Canaan, God promises him, “I will assign this land to your offspring” (Genesis 12:7). These two components, the promises of nationhood and of a national homeland, are the essential elements of the biblical brit.

The covenant of circumcision also appears to be bound up in this relationship as a conditional element of the divine relationship between God and the biblical patriarchs. God explicitly states that anyone who “fails to circumcise the flesh of his foreskin, that person shall be cut off from his kin; he has broken My covenant” (Genesis 17:14). While it is unclear what the punishment of being “cut off” means in the biblical context, it is clear that circumcision is a necessary condition for a male to be included in the divine promise to the Jewish people.

This is also clarified in the violent story of the rape of Dina, Jacob’s youngest daughter, and in her family’s revenge. When one of the Canaanites, Shechem, rapes Dina and then professes his love for her, offering to marry her and join the Jewish people, Jacob declares that the Canaanites and his family could intermarry with the Israelites only if “every male among you is circumcised. Then we will give our daughters to you and take your daughters to ourselves” (Genesis 34:15-16). While Jacob’s sons take advantage of this situation and massacre the inhabitants of the town of Shechem as the men are recuperating from their circumcision, the distasteful elements of this story in no way lessen the message of the importance of brit milah to the patriarchs and to their covenant with God.

Given the importance of brit milah, it is surprising that Moses does not perform it on his own son! In the biblical account, when Moses and his wife, Tzipporah, and young son, Gershom, are traveling to Egypt to confront Pharaoh and demand the freedom of the enslaved Israelites, Tzipporah has to circumcise her son, apparently to allay God’s wrath (see Exodus 4:25).

Even as the Israelites were leaving Egypt, God declared that only males who have been circumcised may participate in the paschal offering and the seder meal, celebrating and recounting God’s deliverance of the Israelites from slavery. It is clear from this that brit milah is also a requirement for boys and men not just to be included in the divine promise to the heirs of the biblical patriarchs, but also in some sense to be fully included in the community’s central activities.

Apparently the practice of brit milah was neglected during the forty years that the Israelites wandered in the desert, because one of the first things that Moses’ successor, Joshua, attended to before initiating the conquest of Canaan was the circumcision of all of the males who had been born during the years of wandering. The Bible explains this neglect in the following way: “This is the reason why Joshua performed the circumcision: all of the people who had come out of Egypt, all of the males of military age, had died during the desert wanderings after leaving Egypt. Now, whereas all of the people who came out of Egypt had been circumcised, none of the people born after the exodus, during the desert wanderings, had been circumcised…” (Joshua 5:4-5). To remedy this, the entire male population was circumcised before beginning the conquest of the promised land.

In the time of the kingdoms of Judah and Israel, the prophets used the term arel, or uncircumcised, to refer to people who acted rebelliously towards God and the practices of the Torah. The prophet Jeremiah accused the people of Israel of being uncircumcised in their heart, declaring, “all of these nations [non-Israelite peoples] are uncircumcised, but all the house of Israel are uncircumcised of heart” (Jeremiah 9:25).

Even today, the practice of brit milah remains one of the most enduring of all Jewish practices, indicating membership in the Jewish people.

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