Almost 25 years after God calls Abram to leave his home in Mesopotamia and go to the land of Canaan, God formally establishes a covenant with him (Genesis 17:4ff.). Like that established with Noah, his descendants, and all living beings (9:8ff.), it is unconditional, everlasting, includes blessings and promises, and carries with it a sign decided upon by God. However, unlike the rainbow, placed in the clouds and passively received by humanity, the sign of God's covenant with Abraham — male circumcision — is something with which Abram and his descendants, not God, are entrusted. They are to circumcise their sons and other male children in their household on the eighth day after birth as a physical sign of the covenant. The punishment for failing to do so is severe. "An uncircumcised male who has not circumcised the flesh of his foreskin," says God, " … shall be cut off from his people; he has broken My covenant" (17:14).
By the early second millennium B.C.E., the time in which, according to tradition, Abraham and his wife, Sarah are said to have lived, male circumcision was not unknown in the ancient Near East, nor was the concept of covenant. The Egyptians, for example, circumcised their sons as part of a prenuptial ceremony or, more likely, near the age of puberty as an initiation into manhood (Jack M. Sasson, "Circumcision in the Ancient Near East," Journal of Biblical Literature, 1966, p. 474). The Canaanites, like the neighboring Ammonites, Edomites, and Moabites, also practiced circumcision (Roland de Vaux, Ancient Israel, Volume I: Social Institutions [NY: McGraw-Hill, 1965], p.47) and archeological discoveries have shown the resemblance of the Hebrew covenant to other covenants of the ancient Near East (George E. Mendenhall, "Covenant," The Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible, vol. 1, Abingdon Press, 1962, pp. 714-723). Indeed, the literary-juristic form of the covenant between God and Abraham bears a striking resemblance to covenants made between Hittite sovereigns and their vassals dating back to the third millennium B.C.E. Yet what is unique about God's covenant with Abraham is the explicit connection between the covenant and male circumcision, as well as, in contrast to the gods and goddesses of ancient Mesopotamia whose "capriciousness was taken for granted," specific unconditional and eternal commitments by God (Nahum M. Sarna, Understanding Genesis: The Heritage of Biblical Israel, vol. 1 [NY: Schocken Books, 1970], pp. 126-127). God promises Abram progeny (Genesis 17:4: "You shall be the father of a multitude of peoples") and land (Genesis 17:8: "the whole land of Canaan") and to signify his change in status, changes his name from Abram to Abraham, an expanded form of Abram indicating the many nations that will descend from him.
It is not arbitrary that God chooses circumcision as the covenantal sign. Fertility is central among God's promises here, as are concerns about lineage by the priestly editors of Genesis 17 (Lawrence A. Hoffman, Covenant of Blood: Circumcision and Gender in Rabbinic Judaism [Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1996], p. 41). Male blood, shed during circumcision, came to be seen as salvific, in contrast to women's impure menstrual blood (ibid., p. 100ff.) and by the end of the first century C.E., with the growth of Christianity, circumcision became recognized as a sign of Jewish difference and as a marking in the flesh of the intimate relationship between God and the Jewish people.
But what about women? When God changes Sarai's name to Sarah (Genesis 17:15) and tells Abraham: "I will bless her and she shall become [the progenitor of] nations; rulers of people shall come from her" (Genesis 17:16), it is made clear that the covenant will not be established through Abraham's first child, Ishmael, the son of Abraham and Hagar, Sarah's Egyptian slave, but rather through Isaac, the son of Abraham and Sarah. As with Abraham, God's covenantal promise to Sarah includes fertility, and her name change may symbolize the end of her barrenness (Babylonian Talmud, Rosh Hashanah 16b). While this promise isn't seared into Sarah's flesh or that of her female descendants, they too will be full covenantal members.
One can argue that Sarah is "not a covenantal person in her own right" since she does not bear the physical sign of the covenant, although as the one who gives birth to Isaac, she is "essential to the covenantal process" (Shaye J.D. Cohen, Why Aren't Jewish Women Circumcised: Gender and Covenant in Judaism [Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2005, pp. 12-13). Yet one might also claim, as I would, that the centrality of women to Judaism — a role that includes but is not solely predicated on our giving birth — belies this former argument. While one need not have a (circumcised) phallus to be a covenantal person in one's own right, perhaps we need more private acknowledgement and public celebration of this religious truth.
B'rit banot ( the covenant of daughters) rituals, alternately named simchat bat (celebration of a daughter) rituals, in which Jewish girls are named and welcomed as full members of the covenant, need to become more mainstream than they are today. They need to be seen as obligatory, in the same way that most Jews see male circumcision as a religious or cultural obligation. And I hope that the time when this ritual for baby girls takes place can be agreed upon, if not universally, then at least by individual Jewish communities or religious movements: on the eighth day after birth as a parallel ritual to b'rit milah; on the 13th day: the biblical end of women's state of impurity following the birth of a daughter; or on the first Rosh Chodesh (New Moon) following the girl's birth, in acknowledgement of Rosh Chodesh as a special holiday for women (Pirkei D'Rabbi Eliezer 45). "Abraham's covenant belongs to [all of] Israel, and the covenant of the flesh belongs to the people who mystically belong to the flesh of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob," including women (Tikva Frymer-Kensky, Studies in Bible and Feminist Criticism [Philadelphia: JPS, 2006], p. 154).
Dr. Ellen M. Umansky is the Carl and Dorothy Bennett Professor of Judaic Studies at Fairfield University in Fairfield, CT; Professor of Religious Studies; and director of the university's Bennett Center for Judaic Studies . She is a long-time member of Reform Congregation Kol Ami in White Plains, NY.