The Theological Revolution: Circumcision, Avraham Avinu, and the Akeidat Yitzchak

This was spawned by a trip today to a spot called Tel Gezer as well as some discussion point in my Jewish History class. Let's talk about a lot of things.



You should know as context that part of the focus of this part of the Jewish History class here is Documentary Hypothesis (for example, we separated out the story of Noach into the two separate stories it actually contains, which were later merged) as well as the process of examining the historical context of these biblical stories as well as contemporary sources (for example, we examined B'reishit at the same time as Enuma Elish, the Babylonian story that closely mirrors the first in many ways).

Anyway, we were talking about circumcision. When you, the pre-civilized man, discover agriculture, this shocks your world, right? (The correct answer is "Right!") Then religion happens. Why? If I, the farmer, have a bad season, I inevitably wonder why. Have I done something wrong? If I have done something wrong, who decided it was wrong and who, most importantly exacted punishment on me? The obvious answer one will create/come to/be struck with is the gods.

There is a paradox here. On the one hand, because of farming, you have gained infinitely more control over your life than you ever had before. You are in control of your own source of food! On the other hand, you've subsequently developed some sort of religion to explain the one thing that remains outside of your control; the weather. Once you've got gods, the amount of control over your world only shrinks as you cede more and more power over your daily life to gods.

In ancient Canaan, people came to the conclusion that sex was involved. This is not a particularly surprising conclusion when you think about it. Sex is a mystery to the early farmer. Farming itself is also a mystery to the early farmer. They both involve planting/impregnating the ground/a woman with seeds/sperm. After a process that is a complete mystery to this early civilized man, food/a baby appears. Farming to this early agriculturist is sex.

Why is this section of the post titled circumcision? Everything I just said brings us to the symbol of circumcision. When we pose the question, "Why does the sign of the covenant take the form of circumcision?" we might quickly come to an answer, which though good, is not absolute. That is, we might think to ourselves, well, this is a time when religion is dominated by men so obviously only men need the sign. Fine. We might also realize that the sign has to be readily apparent. What could be more apparent to a man than the physical alteration of his own penis? This is valid, but not absolute for the hypothetical devil's advocate in this conversation might say, "Why not a serious facial tattoo? Or the removal of a finger? Or something equally physically remarkable?" The answer to this harkens back to the relationship between sex and agriculture.

If my power over the world is derived from my ability to control it through farming, my symbolic source of power is my penis because of the parallel between sex and farming. Thus, when I enter into Avraham's covenant and give power over my life over to God, I must mark my source of power to show that it is not only mine, but God's. The reason for the mark only being required on the male sex organ is that only the male sex organ contains power in the metaphor. The female sex organ is simply symbolic in the metaphor of the hole dug in the ground to sow seeds. More on this at the wrap-up.



Going back to the polytheistic Canaanite farmer we spoke of earlier, we spoke of how his power shrinks as he cedes more supernatural powers to his gods. Then he wants to know how he can make them happy. "Well", he thinks, "if they're like me (and believe me, there is an element of ego contained herein so they are like me because I want to be godlike) then they like what I like. That means they like to be kept fed and to be supplied with wine." So the farmer begins the first sacrificial system. In return for a good harvest, the farmer gives back some of this fruits and veggies to the gods. Then he gives them some wine and some olive oil because those are products of his farming too.

It still all comes back to sex. How do you know where to put these sacrifices? Near something might that can represent the god you are sacrificing to. Like a monolith. These large rocks are highly phallic. Then the mighty gods demand more and more. Thus, sacrifice of the first born becomes commonplace. It is so commonplace, in fact that, Avraham has no argument with God about such an occurrence when God asks him to sacrifice Yitzchak, his favorite son. To Avraham, this is as normal is prayer is to us. In fact, it is prayer.

We could say that this is simply God testing Avraham's faith, but this answer is not absolute. The hole in it is from shortly before in the Tanach where we have the story of the twin cities of S'dom and Amorah. In this story, when confronted with God's perceived immorality, Avraham argues. However, once we reach the Akeidat Yitzchak Avraham seems so willing to accept this thing that we would perceive as highly ethically problematic, not to mention emotionally gut-wrenching, which he was not in the S'dom and Amorah story.



I would propose that this story is symbolic of what I'll call the Theological Revolution. The Theological Revolution was started, in the bible, by Avraham and in reality by somebody who may or may not have been Avraham. Point being, the Revolution realizes that the practices around the revolutionaries are not good. The Revolution takes a step back and says, "No! Sacrificing your own child is not normal!" The Revolution also says that rather than these petty people-like gods, there is only the one and that this one is above in some inconceivable way. This, of course, makes sense because how could something so similar to us as the Canaanite pantheon create us or control us? The Theological Revolution leads to a lot of very big ideas that will have massive effects on western society forever.


I hope to God that was coherent.


Next up on this blog: I don't really know. Good stuff is on its way though.


As ever, email me at d.profound@gmail.com for regular updates about this blog.





Gilanah Shoshanah said...

Why is the early farmer necessarily a man? If we're going from hunter/gatherer to ranching/farming, wouldn't it seem more likely that the early farmer didn't have a penis to alter?

David A. M. Wilensky said...

No. It is not.

Once the early farmers make the connection to sex, the male takes the lead role as he becomes the person with the power.

Then gender roles shift. Then the male becomes the person who requires the bodily symbol.

Brandon Kassof said...

another D'var from the orator of legends... all this and so early... we still have 4 months left dont push yourself

David said...

Read "Ishmael" by Daniel Quinn.

David A. M. Wilensky said...

David, if I had time right now to read extra things...

We have so much damn work here!

Anonymous said...

I miss your D'vars.
I'll go with the latter.

Anonymous said...

D'varim means words, the plural is d'vrei

David A. M. Wilensky said...

Actually, to pick nits, its Divrei, not D'vrei.

Brandon Kassof said...

yah but we like apostrophies

Lori Ramirez said...

Thank God it's not necessary for women to "mark" themselves. We have enough to worry about.

Though the other reason for circumcision is health related, right? To keep it clean? Plenty of people (most in our society) get it done without any religious intent.

I'm reading "Prelude to Foundation", Asimov, and he has this to say about religion (paraphrased): Religion is born out of history that becomes legend that becomes supernatural, and is then written down and passed around as a means of proselytization. That may seem elementary, but it's a good book.

I had to look up what proselytization means, and now I'm smarter because of it.

RabbiIsa said...

If we're going to be technical on grammar, I must step in. You can't actually just say D'var (or divrei, for that matter) on it's own; it's half of what is known in Hebrew as smichut--a noun cluster (which we don't really have in English). Basically D'var needs Torah after it...otherwise you're saying, "A word of." Same concept of saying Birkat HaMazon instead of just Birkat.