I really didn’t get it at first—the heaviness of the circumcision at the center of Dinah’s story. In fact, it took a friend to point out how easily I’d let it slip by. “Circumcision is a big deal,” he kept saying, or so I heard it, after he’d read my first attempt at Speak, Wood. Until I finally told him, “OK, I get it,” knowing I didn’t, and more important, that I didn’t want to get it—to make such a big deal of it, as he was insisting. But I also knew that he was probably right. And since I did want to tell Dinah’s story, I knew I’d better try at least to want to understand this.
There was, of course, the obvious problem of my not being male. I mean, how could I grasp what the prospect—to say nothing of the reality—of getting a chunk of my penis cut off would feel like? But I bolstered myself with that old saw about fiction—that it allows us to imagine our way beyond our own experience. So, all I had to do was will myself, and my imagination, to follow where this story led even if it took a lot of stumbling around in the dark to get there. Dutifully, I went back to Genesis 34 to ponder this circumcision, realizing as I pondered just how much of Dinah’s story it occupies, how centrally it figures. How definitely a big deal it is.
I hope it won’t be a spoiler—since it’s right there in Genesis 34—if I lay out the basics of how this big deal comes down: Shechem, the prince of the Canaanite city of the same name, falls in love with Dinah. So he and his father, King Hamor, head out to Dinah’s father’s camp to barter with her male kin. But Dinah’s brothers don’t ask for the customary dowry loot—chattel, gold, slaves. Instead, they insist that all the men of Shechem get circumcised before the wedding can take place. Why? Because to give their sister to a man “who has a foreskin” would be a “disgrace.” And the Bible calmly continues on, informing us that Dinah’s brothers’ words “seemed good in the eyes of Hamor and in the eyes of Shechem son of Hamor.” Good? Already I felt the story starting to slip away.
And now things move precipitously along with Shechem and his father heading back to town, gathering all the Shechemites to tell them what the Israelites want, and offering what are, to my ears at least, a few unconvincing reasons why everyone should agree. And in the space of one sentence (the Bible is nothing if not concise) we’re told the Shechemites “listened,” and “every male was circumcised.”
So how could I explain, even to myself, this voluntary mass circumcision rite undertaken by an entire city? How could I imagine what would make any sane person, male or female, participate, or encourage her loved ones to participate, in such a thing? And again I found myself squirming off the hook—or, I guess, the knife. Too deep, I thought—too long ago, too far-fetched—to fathom.
Yes, clearly I’d need help figuring this one out. So, predictably, I Googled “circumcision.” But what came up—“circumcision cost” and “female circumcision,” the “pros and cons of circumcision,” and even “circumcision and autism”—a spillover, I guessed, from the “inoculation and autism” controversy—seemed largely irrelevant to the case at hand.
So I went back to my books, and it was there in James Pritchard’s The Ancient Near East in Pictures Relating to the Old Testament that I found this image labeled “Circumcision.” Obviously an Egyptian relief—that sideways view, everybody in profile, the hieroglyphs rising in columns over their heads—this one dates back to the Sixth Dynasty (between 2350-2000 BCE). Right away I felt lucky, since this happens to coincide almost perfectly with Dinah’s story; in fact, it was carved just around the time when her great-grandfather Abraham was supposed to have lived.
Now remember, Abraham (or Abram as he went by then), the first of the patriarchs, was the one who made circumcision such a big deal for all his descendants when a strange desert god offered his blessing (and, oh yes, exclusive rights for Abram’s “seed” to the land of the Canaanites, where Abram was heading). That is, if Abram would only prove his devotion by getting circumcised (and, OK, vow that all his male offspring would do the same)—to which Abram complied.
But let’s take a look for ourselves.
You can see two boys are being circumcised, side-by-side, and in both cases, the “patients” (as Pritchard calls them) stand, left leg forward, right back, before two squatting men, who bear the foreboding title of “mortuary priests” as Pritchard helpfully translates from the hieroglyphics, or “operators” as he also calls them—the ones “performing the operation.” What we see in both cases is that these operators are reaching out, each holding a tool in his right hand, bearing down with it on something you can’t quite see (the penis, we can assume) which he holds in his left.
But what’s going on in the two circumcisions isn’t exactly the same. On the left, the boy—though maybe not a boy, maybe older, since Pritchard tells us he doesn’t “wear the lock of hair usually shown on children”—and the mortuary priest are joined by an assistant who reaches forward and “firmly,” as Pritchard notes, holds the patient’s wrists—or perhaps the victim’s, now we see what’s happening?—clearly to restrain him while the “operator” cuts. The dialogue which Pritchard translates from the hieroglyphs confirms this assistant’s role, with the mortuary priest instructing, “Hold on to him; do not let him faint,” and the assistant answering, “I shall act to thy pleasure.” Then there’s the object with which the mortuary priest is “operating,” something “rounded” as Pritchard describes, which we can see it is, and which Pritchard speculates is “a flint knife.”
A flint knife? Now that we think of it, is the operator actually sawing off the patient’s foreskin with a flint knife? And now that we think of it, how sharp could that flint knife be, how up for the job, how long will it take, and then, how clean will the wound be, how prone to infection? And the more we think of it, the more we might feel squeamish, squirming hypothetically away from this blunt instrument, even the ones of us who don’t have penises ourselves.
No wonder the assistant holds so “firmly” onto that poor patient’s wrists.
But now let’s turn to the other side, to the right, where you see only two people are involved. Here the boy stands unrestrained, and reaches out his left arm, gracefully arced, to brace himself, his hand resting on the head of the squatting man in front of him who performs the operation. There’s a clear determination in his pose. And again, the hieroglyphic commentary confirms this. As Pritchard reports, the patient is instructing, “Rub off what is (there) thoroughly,” taking charge of his own operation. And the operator is answering him, “I shall make (it) heal.” Which again raises that queasy feeling—how easy is that, “to make it heal,” when you’re hacking away at someone’s penis with a flint knife? Did they guess, back then, that sterilizing was helpful? Did they burn their flint between cuts, by some good fortune? Somehow I doubt it, since sterilization of surgical implements wasn’t fully established practice even in the modern era until pretty recently.
But queasy feelings aside, these side-by-side depictions make you wonder: could this relief have served as some kind of instruction manual for would-be circumcisées? How to, how not to, present yourself as patient? Heroic or lily-livered? Or perhaps, for circumcisers—how to handle your various cases?
Maybe. But in any case, this vivid visual rendering had done its job for me. Definitely, I could imagine the big-dealness of circumcision as it was performed in the Bronze Age. And as I kept reading around in the Bible, I could see that circumcision remained much on those Biblical folks’ minds, working its way forward from Abraham, and cropping up in some very weird contexts.
For example, check out Jeremiah 6:10:
To whom shall I speak and give warning, that they may hear? Behold, their ear is uncircumcised, and they cannot harken: behold the word of the Lord is unto them a reproach; they have no delight in it.
Or what about this in Acts 6:51:
Ye stiffnecked and uncircumcised in heart and ears, ye do always resist the Holy Ghost: as your fathers did, so do ye.
So, the heart, too, should be circumcised?
And then there’s what’s probably the most vivid and inscrutable of all Biblical references to circumcision:
And it came to pass on the way, at the encampment, that the Lord met him and sought to kill him. Then Zipporah took a sharp stone and cut off the foreskin of her son and cast it at his feet, and said, ‘Surely you are a husband of blood to me!’ So He let him go. Then she said, ‘You are a husband of blood’–because of the circumcision.”
Admittedly, it’s tough figuring out just what’s going on here. (Even the well-known Biblical scholar Brevard Childs says, “Few texts contain more problems for the interpreter than these few verses which have continued to baffle throughout the centuries.”) But it’s quite a story—Moses’ wife, that mother with the sharp stone who throws her son’s foreskin at somebody’s feet (Moses’, the Lord’s, her newly circumcised son’s?). And the epithet she coins, “husband of blood,” or “bloody husband,” or “blood bridegroom” (as it’s variously translated), is certainly arresting, capturing as it does the blood-soaked sacrificial nature of this covenant with—or marriage to, as implied here—the god of Abraham.
So was that the point of this grisly covenant? Were these people voluntarily cutting away pieces of their penises and then, less literally, their ears and hearts—maiming themselves all around—so that they couldn’t feel or hear or “delight in” anything but this one god? Was this their intent, as people whose lives were ruled by sacrifice? Which surely theirs were—woe be to their lambs, their kids, their children. To sacrifice themselves, not quite their lives, but just short of it, to curtail all their senses, to ensure that they would remain permanently “blood bridegrooms” in monogamous relationship with Him?
Weird. Far-fetched. Primitive really, I caught myself thinking, despite how fraught I know that word is. But if it could apply to anyone, why not them, so long ago and far away? So, I decided, I’d have to be satisfied. At least, that ancient circumcision rite wasn’t quite so opaque, so lost on me, as when I’d first encountered it. I’d tried to understand, I told myself, and now I’d move on.
And as I moved on, sure enough, some of this seeped into Dinah’s story. Her brothers’ circumcisions will seal her family’s conversion to the God of Abraham during their flight from Paddan-Aram (and I’ll find a way to clean the knife in between cuts). Then Jacob will insist on his family’s circumcised ears and hearts as they head into the land of Canaan, whose present inhabitants they must somehow evict if they’re to inherit it as promised. And Shechem speaks the words of the “patient” on the right—the brave one—during his circumcision, as he becomes the blood bridegroom he surely becomes.
But that wasn’t all. Because here I was, looking around, and here it still too was, fetched forward 4,000 years. Sure, it may have shifted some. Now we generally try to do it early if we can, at least with males, to babies, who can’t resist or tell us what it’s like. But, then, sometimes we don’t get around to it until later, and then the boys or men who aren’t just sentient beings but capable of describing what they’ve undergone can tell us.
Take Gary Shteyngart’s description in his recent memoir Little Failure. He’s come, an uncircumcised émigré from the Soviet Union, to find himself at Coney Island Hospital where “the knife is drawn.” And he recalls:
…Orthodox men davening out a blessing in the adjoining room, a sedation mask placed over my mouth (perfect for an asthmatic boy with an anxiety disorder), and then the public hospital walls—green on green on green on green—disappear to be replaced by a dream where the horrible things lovingly perpetrated upon Emmanuelle in a Hong Kong brothel are done to me by the men in black hats.
And then the pain.
Mama, Papa, where are you?
And the layers of pain.
Mama, Papa, help.
And the layers of pain and humiliation.
My mother has cut a hole in my underwear so that my broken penis will not have to touch polyester. I have been transferred from my army cot to my parents’ bed. I lie there with my ruined genital exposed to the outside world, and shockingly enough people come to visit, all of my relatives come to see the awful thing I have between my legs. “Nu, how do you feel?” they ask wolfishly.
“Bol’no,” I say. It hurts.
“Zato evreichik!” they cry in approval. But you’re a little Jew now!
You may smile as you read this, how could you not? But don’t you also feel yourself squirming away from that flinty knife? And don’t you find yourself thinking, how weird, how primitive? How far-fetched!
And if that’s not enough, just Google it, scroll through “circumcision cost,” and “female circumcision,” and “circumcision and death”—because, apparently, people do still die from it—to the Youtube video:
And here you’ll be taken into the pristine chapel of a hospital room, where you’ll see a tiny baby being laid down on the altar—no wait, the operating table— and as you listen to the somehow sadistic-sounding stolidly passive voiceover explain “the infant is not fed, “the genitalia is cleaned,” you’ll see his tiny penis being swabbed with red, then as it’s poking through the cloth, you’ll see the gloved hands reaching down. And as the needle jabs, and the probe’s inserted underneath the foreskin and twisted around, and the baby’s screaming escalates to wails, you’ll be informed “we know the infant experiences pain because the cry pattern indicating distress has been noted.” And here at two minutes in—with seven more to go—you’ll hear the baby’s wails rise to truly blood-curdling shrieks and see his open quaking mouth, and watch the gloved hand twist the probe around until…if you’re like me, you’ll click it off.