See Walter Burkert, Creation of the Sacred (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1996), pp. 34–55.


The controversy arises from the negative connotations of “mutilate.” Cultures that practice initiatory mutilation consider themselves not to be spoiling the body but perfecting it.


Our oldest textual reference to the operation is an Egyptian inscription from 2300 B.C.E. A man boasts, “When I was circumcised, together with one hundred and twenty men, there was none thereof who hit out” (trans. by John A. Wilson in James B. Pritchard, Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament [Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1969], p. 326). Our first graphic depiction of the operation also comes from Egypt, from a bas relief at Saqqara dated to about 2400 B.C.E.


The most recent, comprehensive study (ultimately coming down on the contra side) is David L. Gollaher, Circumcision: A History of the World’s Most Controversial Surgery (New York: Basic Books, 2000).


See Propp, “The Origins of Infant Circumcision in Israel,” Hebrew Annual Review 11 (1988), pp. 355–370, esp. p. 355 n. 1.


Apropos of the tassel: Many commentators emend the tautological “And it will be as a tassel for you” (wĕhāyâ lākem lĕṣîṣı̄t) (Numbers 15:38) to “And it will be as a sign for you” (wĕhāyâ lākem lĕ’ôt). This is as compelling as a conjectural emendation can be.


The classic treatment is Arnold van Gennep, The Rites of Passage, French original 1909, trans. M. Vizedom and G. Cafee (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1966), pp. 71–73. On rites of passage in the Bible, see Propp, “Symbolic Wounds: Applying Anthropology to the Bible,” Le-David Maskil: A Birthday Tribute for David Noel Freedman, eds. Richjard Elliott Friedman and William H.C. Propp (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2004), pp. 17–24.


On modern theories of the Torah’s composition, see Richard E. Friedman, Who Wrote the Bible? (New York: Summit, 1987).


The Semitic root ḫtn, which in Hebrew means “to become related through marriage,” bears an additional connotation in Arabic: “to circumcise.” Hebrew and Arabic are related languages; that is, like French and Spanish, they share a common ancestor. Because Arabic is vastly better attested than biblical Hebrew, scholars often look to Arabic to illuminate biblical obscurities. See John Kaltner, The Use of Arabic in Biblical Hebrew Lexicography Catholic Biblical Quarterly Monograph Series 28 (Washington, DC: Catholic Biblical Association of America, 1996). For fuller discussion of Exodus 4:24–26, see Propp, “That Bloody Bridegroom,” Vetus Testamentum 43 (1993), pp. 495–518; and Exodus 1–18, Anchor Bible 2 (New York: Doubleday, 1998), pp. 233–241.


Many have suggested that the use of stone tools here and in Exodus 4:24–26 implies the perpetuation of a Stone Age custom. But cheap and effective stone tools continued in use throughout the Iron Age; see Steven Rosen Lithics After the Stone Age (Walnut Creek, CA: Alta Mira Press, 1997).


Some would dispute the totality of amnesia, but certainly there is no conscious memory.


A few bad experiences would have shown the inadvisability of circumcising newborns, since their blood congeals slowly. After the first week, the clotting factor is more efficient, making circumcision fairly safe for all but hemophiliacs—whom later Judaism exempts from the rite. In modern hospital conditions, however, the circumcision of newborns is not dangerous.


While speculative, this makes more intuitive sense to me than the common theory that circumcision makes the bleeding penis into a symbolic vagina, reflecting Man’s envy of Woman’s procreative power (e.g., Bruno Bettelheim, Symbolic Wounds [London: Thames and Hudson, 1955]).


Note that “vagina” comes from Latin “sheath.” For ethnographic evidence that circumcision removes femininity from a boy, who must seek out a mate to restore his original bisexuality, see briefly Gollaher, Circumcision, pp. 59–63.


Baruch Halpern, “Jerusalem and the Lineages in the Seventh Century B.C.E.: Kinship and the Rise of Individual Moral Liability,” in Halpern and D.W. Hobson, eds., Law and Ideology in Monarchic Israel, Journal for the Study of the Old Testament Supp. Series 124 (Sheffield, UK: Sheffield Academic Press, 1991), pp. 11–107.


See Gollaher, Circumcision, for a thorough discussion of all these issues.