Pinchas and Circumcision, Loren Abraham

From the Desk of Loren Abraham

This week in the annual cycle of Torah Study, we are reading from Parashat Pinchas (English: Phinehas) - Numbers 25:10-30:1. The opening verses introduce the character of Phinehas, son of Eleazar the High Priest, who after the Israelite men are seduced by the women of Moab to commit sexual immorality, takes it upon himself to execute Zimri, a leader of the tribe of Simeon and Kozbi, the daughter of a Midianite Prince who are committing sexual intercourse openly before the people. As a result a plague which had up to that point killed 24 thousand Israelites was stopped and God confirmed that the Lord would grant to Phinehas His Covenant of Peace - a perpetual priesthood.

There is a connection between this Torah portion and the Jewish rite of Brit Milah - circumcision. When God made His covenant with Abraham (Genesis 17:10-14) he was required to circumcise every male as a sign of the covenant. We can understand this in several ways. Cut into the reproductive flesh, it was meant to intimately put the mark of the Lord at the point of contact with the lower reproductive nature. In this way it was meant as a sign of separation from Abrahams pagan past. In a deeper sense it represents the blood covenant God made with Abraham. When a blood covenant is struck between two parties, the flesh is cut producing blood. The blood was often intermingled between the parties symbolizing that they were now one family or blood. This type of ritual was done to seal the promises made. Through this blood covenant God was confirming three promises made to Abraham - promises of descendants as the stars of the heavens, of land, and of material blessings. So Abraham and his descendants are bound to this blood covenant through the right of circumcision. But one might ask how is it possible for God to bleed since he is a party to this covenant? The answer is that He would later be born in the flesh, fully man, live a sinless life, and be crucified, wherein He would bleed.

Until this very day, nearly all Jewish males are circumcised at the age of 8 days. A mohel — usually pronounced so it rhymes with boil — is the man or woman (mohelet) who performs the circumcision. Some mohels work full time in this profession, but many are also physicians, rabbis, cantors or nurse-midwives. A mohel is trained in the Jewish laws concerning circumcision, as well as in modern surgical hygiene. The ceremony performed is called Brit Milah - covenant of circumcision. Now, I want to be careful, here because what is done to the male child during this rite, is not necessarily what is commonly referred to as circumcision by western medical standards. In Brit Milah, it is only necessary to remove the tip of the foreskin, whereas in the medical procedure commonly referred to as circumcision, the entire foreskin is removed. (Source) Furthermore, some Jewish parents opt to have the circumcision done in the hospital rather then in the Synagogue by the Mohel (Rabbi) and some elect not to circumcise their children altogether. However, Circumcision is considered by most to be a requirement for entry into the Abrahamic Covenant and into the community of God’s chosen people, the Jewish people. In the eyes of most Jewish authorities, if you are not circumcised, you are simply not a Jew.

Is there any corollary in the Christian Faith to the Jewish rite of Brit Milah? No, the closest thing would be the Christening of a newborn by his or her parents before the congregation, where the child is set apart at an early age for God and both parents and congregation promise to raise the child according to the tenets of the Christian Faith. But you do not have to be christened as a newborn in order to be considered a Christian or a believer in Messiah. However it begs the question - should christian parents or Messianic Jewish Believers circumcise their male children? This is a very good but also a very contentious question. Therefore, I will address this a little later consumer begins with the presentation after exploring the connection between Brit Milah and Parashat Pinchas.

At the start of a traditional Jewish circumcision or Brit Milah, the mohel customarily begins with the recitation of the opening verses from the Torah portion Pinchas:

Phinehas, son of Eleazar, son of Aaron the priest, has turned away My wrath from the children of Israel, in that he was very zealous for My sake among them, so that I consumed not the children of Israel in my jealousy. Wherefore say: “behold I give unto him My covenant of peace,” _Numbers 25:11-12

As we have already discussed, Pinchas intervened in a moment of great sin involving perverse sexual immorality and lewdness on the part of the Israelite men who were seduced by the women who were enemies of Israel and therefore enemies of God. The things they were engaging in were clearly against the commandments of the Torah and the text implies that God allowed a plague to break out among the people and 24,000 died of the plague. The text credits Phinehas for acting zealously for God’s sake - i.e. to defend His reputation among the people.

Perhaps it is not surprising that God rewarded Phinehas even though he circumvented normal jurisprudence and acted on his own without Moses’ approval to stop the spread of Sexual Immorality and therefore the spread of the plague. But why was Moses impotent to act decisively in this situation rather than forcing Phinehas, who did not have judicial authority, to act? Rabbi Cohen explains:

The Midrash (Numbers Rabbah 20:25) states that Zimri dragged Cozbi by the hair in front of Moses and the elders, and challenged Moses, saying, "Tell me, son of Amram, is this woman permitted to me or not?" When Moses replied, "She is forbidden", Zimri gave an insolent riposte: "You call yourself a faithful interpreter of God's law. How can she be forbidden to me when you yourself, Moses, married a Midianite. Furthermore, this one is the daughter of a king, whereas your wife, Zipporah, is the daughter of an idolatrous priest!' Moses broke down in tears, unable to answer the personal insult hurled at him or to recollect the punishment Zimri deserved for his outrageous behavior. It was this embarrassing impasse which prompted Phinehas to leap into the breach and take the law into his own hands.

What is the connection of this to Brit Milah - the Jewish Covenant of Circumcision? Rabbi Cohen addresses this question also stating:

“This may, of course, be explained quite simply by the fact that during this ceremony we are bringing a child into the faith of Israel and giving him a Jewish identity. At that moment, we remind ourselves of the occasion in our early history when we were guilty of a flagrant act of apostasy and defection from the high moral standards that membership of Israel demands. The reference to Phinehas thus reinforces the implications of that membership, and it constitutes an implicit plea for the newborn initiate to live up to the exacting moral standards exhibited by Phinehas.”

He also connects the Covenant of Peace awarded to Phinehas to the Covenant of circumcision in this way:

“In addition, the climactic two words uttered by God in appreciation of Phinehas's action, I will give him et-beriti shalom – My covenant of peace, also have a close link with circumcision. Beriti, "My covenant", is, of course, the term used for circumcision, and shalom connotes (among its many biblical nuances) the sense of family continuity. For example, Psalm 128, which speaks of the blessing of a wife and a large family, concludes with the words: U-re'eh vanim le-vanekha shalom al Yisrael – When you look upon your children's children, you shall experience the peace[ful continuity] of Israel (verse 6). Thus, that final word (shalom) in our Phinehas episode also has a semantic association with the context of birth and circumcision.

In the footnotes, Rabbi Cohen further explains this apparent contradiction in this way:

“In a lighthearted vein, one might explain the connection between "seeing children's children" and "experiencing peace" as follows: the multiple chores, responsibilities and anxieties occasioned by the raising of one's children, afford little opportunity to enjoy peace and tranquillity. In the case of one's grandchildren, however, once they start to become obstreperous and to disturb one's peace, one can simply hand them back to their parents!”

As a grandparent of five grandsons, I can very readily affirm this clarification. But there is also a close connection of the personage of Elijah to the rite of Brit Milah and to the character of Phinehas. Rabbi Cohen explores this connection in this way:

“In midrashic tradition, the prophet Elijah was invested with the soul of Phinehas, both having shared the characteristics of zeal and the pursuit of peace. When Elijah says, ′′I have been very zealous for the Lord God of Hosts; for the children of Israel have forsaken Your covenant′′ (I Kgs. 19:10), this distinctly echoes the words used to describe Phinehas – be-kano et-kinati who was very zealous for My sake (Num. 25:11).”

He goes on to explain the actual physical place reserved for Elijah at the circumcision ceremony:

“Indeed, Elijah is called malakh ha-berit, "the angel of the covenant,” and immediately after reciting the verses from Pinhas, the mohel designates a seat of honour as Kisse shel Eliyyahu ha-navi, "the Chair of Elijah," presupposing that he attends every circumcision and occupies his seat.”

We must also allow the great Jewish sage, Maimonides weigh in on this question. According to Maimonides:

”As regards circumcision, I think that one of its objects is to limit sexual intercourse by weakening the organ of generation as far as possible, and thus causing man to be temperate." _Maimonides, Guide for the Perplexed (ed. M. Friedlander), part 3, p. 267ff.

So, here is the point of all of this. We can see that just as Phinehas stands out even more than Moses, as the one who sought to "counteract excessive lust" by wreaking vengeance on Zimri, the prince of Israel who publicly displayed and promoted that misguided passion, so it is incumbent upon every Jewish man (and His parents) to zealously resist the human inclination toward sexual immorality from an early age, for the betterment of the Jewish people and for all humanity.

On the question of whether Christians or Messianic Jews should circumcise their children, it would seem perfectly acceptable for both Christian parents and Messianic believers to desire to circumcise their children. And as long as one is seeking divine wisdom about it through prayer and doing their best to research the medical options available, I would not argue against circumcision. However, there are some important questions to address before making that decision. What are the risks to the child? …and what are my motives for making this decision for my son? …and what if my son at a later age wants to know why I chose this for him? How will I answer him?

Finally, if we believe that “All Scripture is inspired by God and is profitable for teaching, for rebuking, for correcting, for training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.” (2 Tim 3:16-17) Then we can definitively say that it is not necessary or compulsory in any way for Christian male children to be circumcised. Paul addresses the issue with the church in Corinth:

“Was anyone at the time of his call already circumcised? Let him not seek to remove the marks of circumcision. Was anyone at the time of his call uncircumcised? Let him not seek circumcision.” (1 Corinthians 7:18)

Therefore, if you’re circumcised when you come to Christ, no problem. Don’t try to hide it. If you aren’t, that’s fine too, don’t feel that you have to be circumcised. Paul further argues that if you do are circumcised out of a desire to keep the law, then you’ve rejected the grace that comes from Jesus’ sacrifice:

Look: I, Paul, say to you that if you accept circumcision, Christ will be of no advantage to you. I testify again to every man who accepts circumcision that he is obligated to keep the whole law. You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace. For through the Spirit, by faith, we ourselves eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love. (Galatians 5:1-11)

Again, it boils down to what are your motives for pursuing circumcision? If you are a Messianic Jewish believer, there may be more reasons to consider this physical sign of participating in the covenant of Abraham, however, whether as Messianic believers or Gentile believers we are all already grafted into this covenant and no physical right of entry is required.


Phinehas, Elijah and Circumcision by Jeffrey M. Cohen

Should Christian Parents Circumcise Their Infant Sons?

Should a Christian be Circumcised?

Is it wrong for Christians to be Circumcised?

Blessings and Shalom,

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