Male, Female, Circumcision

Well, here’s something interesting. At least it interested me.

“Male” (Heb. zakar) first appears in Genesis 1:27, paired with female (Heb. neqevah). God creates ‘adam male and female, in His image and likeness. For the next several chapters of Genesis, zakar is always paired with neqevah. Genesis 5:2 reminds us again of the creation of “male and female,” and “male and female” animals enter the ark, in pairs (6:19; 7:9, 16) or in sevens (7:3). There must be male and female in the ark “to maintain seed on the face of the earth” (7:3), so the postdiluvian world can become fruitful.

Male and female, male and female, male and female. Never male alone nor female alone, but always both together. Six times, male and female.

Then: “This is my covenant . . . every male (zakar) among you shall be circumcised” (Genesis 17:10). Males are mentioned four other times in chapter 17 – eight-day-old males (17:12), uncircumcised males who are cut off (17:14), the actual males that Abram circumcised (17:23).

Genesis 17:10 is the seventh use of zakar in Genesis, and for the first time he is alone, cut off. The circumcised male is no longer one flesh with himself; he is divided between the foreskin that is removed and discarded and the rest of him. And the circumcised male is no longer one-flesh with the female.

Circumcision is a cut in the individual’s flesh. It is also a deep cut into the flesh of humanity. For the first time, the Bible speaks of a male-only society, the community of the circumcised.

What might that mean? The animals went on the ark male and female to preserve seed on the earth. If Noah had taken only males, there would be no seed. The all-male community of the circumcised is also incapable of preserving seed, incapable of fulfilling the promise to Abram. Circumcised males are full of semen, but they can't be fruitful as a male-only society.

The circumcised male is thus put in the same position as impotent, aging Abram, who is "as good as dead." Every circumcised male, and the band of circumcised males, are symbolically cut off from female community. And in their isolation they cannot procreate.

The paradox is that Abram becomes fruitful at precisely this moment. As soon as he cuts the flesh of his foreskin, Yahweh appears to announce an impending birth. His mutilated member becomes fruitful, by the power of Yahweh. So too, the company of circumcised males will be fruitful, not in the flesh by in the Spirit.

The separation of male and female continues into Passover, where only male lambs and goats are permitted (Exodus 12:5). Firstborn males belong to Yahweh (Exodus 13:12), not females. Male animals are slaughtered and burned in ascension offerings (Leviticus 1); male animals are required for some sin offerings, while females are required for others (Leviticus 4). Even when the worshiper has a choice, as with the peace offering (Leviticus 3), male and female animals are separated from one another in order to approach the altar. The cut of circumcision, the cut that separates male and female, runs through Israel's liturgical order.

That feels clumsy, but perhaps I've captured something of the logic of circumcision. In any case, the fact that circumcision creates an all-male Israel within Israel has to be part of the theology of circumcision, and somehow critical to the fulfillment of Yahweh's promise to multiply Abram's seed like sand and stars.

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