Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 11 (2011) - Review

Bernat,David A., Sign of the Covenant: Circumcision in the Priestly Tradition (Ancient Israel and its Literature 3; Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2009). Pp. xii +163. Paper. $24.95. ISBN 978-1-58983-409-5.

Bernat presents a reworked version of his 2002 dissertation completed under Marc Brettler at Brandeis University. He concentrates strictly on the Priestly document (in its final form) and its ideology as constructed around circumcision. Bernat is agnostic about the possibility of situating P in a precise time or location.

Bernat examines two issues: “Actual Genital Circumcision” and “Foreskin Metaphors.” Circumcision is described in its relationship to covenant, to status and sexuality, and to the cult. He argues that “heavy reliance upon comparative data is precluded” and that innerbiblical “comparative opportunities are all but absent” (p. 7). Frequent use of עולם “perpetual,” takes away any specific occasion for the laws, making them applicable for any time and any generation. Circumcision “is not a sacrifice, a rite of dedication, redemption, or purification, nor does it have any implications for fertility or sexual function” (p. 9). It involves neither “a sign of ethnicity” nor a boundary marker. Still Genesis 17 and 21—a priestly unit—“underscores that circumcision is an inviolable criterion for participation in the Passover festival offering” (p. 22).

Bernat finds P has two categories of berit, usually translated as covenant: promise voluntarily undertaken by God and obligation or command imposed by God (p. 28). The berit is “unidirectional” (p. 29). Humans neither accept nor reject. P does not reflect a Sinai ceremony nor use the idiom כרת ברית, “to cut a covenant.”

Covenant promises belong to Israelite men. Both foreigners, represented by Ishmael, and women, represented by Sarah, receive blessings but do not become part of the covenant promises passed on through Abraham (Gen 17). Such promises may be withdrawn from individuals who transgress the commandments “to a particular degree of gravity” but “corporate Israel … is never fully or irretrievable (sic) alienated from the berit promises of land and unique relationship with YHWH” (p. 36). The sign of the covenant testifies to Israel's commitment to obey YHWH's commands. Bernat's priestly author retrojected later commandments back into Abraham's day (pp. 39–40), creating a link between berit promises, YHWH's commandments, and circumcision. Abraham thus represents the potential Israelite waiting for promises to be fulfilled and commandments to be articulated.

Different social groups among non-Israelites have different relationships to circumcision. The slave is circumcised and eats Passover, not as a free individual but as an extension of the master. Day labourers whether living on the landowner's property or living elsewhere have their own Passover and circumcision requirements if they are Israelites. The master's state does not determine the workers' state. The ger or “alien” is a guest on the land and may choose or reject Passover participation. Acceptance commits the ger to be circumcised. This practice does not make circumcision a full-blown mark of Israelite ethnicity but indicates that non-Israelites are circumcised so that circumcision does not form a boundary with other peoples. Nor does it mark an ethnic group. Similarly, women—not being circumcised—are part of Israel as extensions of the father or the husband.

Whatever the case in other cultures, among the Canaanites, or among earlier Israelites, P allows no fertility connections or purity rituals related to circumcision.

P does not ritualize circumcision, giving no specific time outside the eighth day, no discussion of how to circumcise, and no rules for who performs circumcision and what accompanies circumcision. Circumcision is tightly connected to Passover, a connection made prior to the P or the Joshua 5 materials, perhaps based on a spring group dedicatory and renewal festival (p. 69).

Genesis 17 requires a keret penalty for failure to be circumcised or for any other defiant failure to obey God's commands (pp. 74–75). Bernat emphasizes loss of land tenure as part of this penalty along with being denied children and being ousted from God's presence (p. 76). Bernat turns to circumcision metaphors in Exodus 6 and Leviticus 19 and 26. Moses' foreskinned lips show immaturity and a refusal to follow God's command for which he received keret, losing land, progeny, and presence (p. 86). Here P, says Bernat, denigrates Moses in favor of Aaron. The foreskinned or uncircumcised heart is a metaphor that operates like metonyms or synecdoches. The heart stands for a person's character. “The image does not even refer to the personality of a single individual. Rather, the idiom encapsulates the wholesale intransigence of the nation of Israel portrayed in the texts as a corporate entity” (p. 109).

Bernat argues that the prophets ignore circumcision and exilic and post-exilic texts take circumcision for granted. Ezekiel 44:9 equates foreskin and foreignness as does Jer 9:24–25, implying that circumcision “is an established mark of Israelite identity” (p. 118). “No indisputably late biblical source either promotes the practice of circumcision or bemoans its neglect” (pp. 118–19). Thus “there is no evidence whatsoever that circumcision gained significance during the sojourn in Babylon” (p. 121). At no time can we measure the degree to which Israel actually practiced P's circumcision regulations.

Tracing circumcision through the canon and on through Jewish traditions reveals that “Jewish texts also ascribe new meaning to circumcision and raise the stakes for the rite's observance” (p. 130). Feuds with Christians and charges of Jews seeking to hide their circumcision or undo it altogether mark Jewish conflicts. Unlike P, Jewish tradition externalizes the meaning of circumcision in its culture wars, making it both a “defining mark of Jewish identity and a sign of the covenant between God and Israel” (p. 132).

Bernat has given us some new ways to look at P, if such a document ever existed. His own evidence shows that his P presupposed much about circumcision from earlier practices. Could it be that ethnicity, community borders, and group identity were also among elements assumed so that ā€œPā€ had no need to mention them? Still this volume is a must for anyone researching circumcision in the HB.

Trent C. Butler, T C B Editorial, Contract Writer and Editor