(On their flight from Paddan-Aram to Canaan, Jacob goes out to meet his god in the wilderness, and here he has returned to camp to show his family the sign he received.)
This is My covenant which you shall keep, between Me and you and your seed after you; every male among you must be circumcised.
— Genesis 17
Now after all of this, Father bowed his head and swayed. Thinking he wanted us to pray, I also bowed and closed my eyes until I heard my brothers’ shouts and opened them to see my father slumped on the ground.
Then quickly Mother brought a balm-soaked cloth, and when Father had revived, he sat with the cloth around his head.
And he began the familiar chant, “Open our eyes.”
And the men chanted a long time, circling Father. Then Father picked up the bone that had been his staff and held it out. And in the other hand he held the little bone he’d found inside his bitch’s bowels. Then he asked each man to come, one at a time, and look.
And I watched intently as the men returned, searching their faces for some clue of what they’d seen. But they all came back with their eyes averted and would not meet my gaze. Nor did any one of them speak.
So Father said again, his voice calm, “We will wait, be patient until the sign is clarified.”
And he led the chant.
“Let us hear Your will!
“Open our ears!
“Let us see Your sign!
“Open our eyes!”
Then finally Father hushed us with his hands, and we watched in silence as the sun turned bloody red on the horizon. And it seemed to hum as it reflected off the sand. And all else was still.
Then Father walked slowly to where the fires were lit. And he stood and held out the big bone again, and in his other hand the little one, and said, “Come, look again, touch. Pray that among us one holds the power to read the prophecy.”
Then after all the men had come and seen, and returned to their places, Father said, “Let the women also come. Who knows? One who has served us well in our flight may also serve as our oracle.”
And first he called my mother up, saying, “She puts her faith in Him.”
And my brothers beamed with pride as Mother walked and knelt and touched.
And then Aunt Rachel.
Then I too rose—and no one tried to stop me—and approached my father and bowed and peered into Father’s hand, and put out my own, and touched the two bones. And as I lowered my head to look at the smaller one more closely, I saw a groove around one end as if it had been gnawed by the dog, and I stared at this, and at the balled end where it fit into the hip. And I saw this matched, though it was small, the great balled thigh bone of the bull, and what they both resembled. And a sputter of laughter rose in my throat. And quickly I turned and went back to my place, my eyes averted as the others’ had been, as Father’s concubines, my aunts, came up as they were called.
And as the men chanted, “Open our eyes,” the foolish phrase came into my head, “to an old gnawed bone.” And tears pricked my eyes as I tried to force the laughter down, and I steeped myself in the chant to keep myself from thinking about what Father held and dissolving into laughter again.
And there at the back in the dark, with the men in front swaying as they chanted, “Open our ears and our eyes,” I fell into a trance, watching the men as they circled around the fire, until I heard the piercing cry of Joseph rising above the rest, turning the chant into the one word “circumcise, circumcise.”
And then, of course, I knew—as the others must have—this was the blood El wanted, the sacrifice, the choice they had to make, the flesh, the bone, the meaning of the knife in Father’s dream …so clear it seemed that I too had been blind, not to have seen it all along.
And I heard Reuben chanting, joining in with Joseph, “circumcise.”
But no one else.
And now Father held up his hand for silence and turned his gaze on the men and said, “Truly El is near. He welcomes you, and gives His blessings. He asks you to come another time and read His sign yourself.”
Then looking around, I saw some of the men were staring intently at my father, but some looked aside… And none came forward.
And Father said “I too was weak …I doubted…when this bone was all He sent, I compared it to the fiery pots that visited Grandfather’s carcasses. Until our little Joseph saw…”
And now I was shocked—blushed, turned away—for Father was baring himself, exposing himself to us. And then he called Reuben up, and he too exposed himself—and he too was cut to match the gnawed bone.
And now the men were joining, walking by my father and my eldest brother, looking down at their cut flesh, and then at the bone. And this time I didn’t take my eyes off Father’s face. And though he didn’t speak a word, I sensed all he had ever been—the boy favored by his grandfather, the brother bullied by his twin, the fleeing son of his beloved mother, the groom betrayed by his father-in-law—all concentrated now in conveying the meaning of his maimed skin.
Until weakly, one at a time, the men began to chant the word that Joseph had shouted—“Circumcise”—over and over again.
Then as they filed back and made the circle whole, the chant grew strong, and Father wept as he led my brothers calling out,
“We have seen the sign!
“We will be wed to El!
“We will be purified for Him!”
And I felt then what I’d never felt before—comfort in being born a daughter and pity for my Father’s sons.
And now Father was standing up and calling out, “I see how wrong I was! For boasting again—of all my suffering. What honor is yours! To prove yourself in the way of Abraham. To show your courage as he did, by choosing yourself to bear the sacrifice when you are old enough to know.”
And a coldness closed around my chest, for suddenly I doubted. Was Father feigning humbleness? And the thought occurred, Could he have carved the bone—the way he whittles sticks—to make the shape so perfect? And the blindness? And the bull’s thigh bone finding its way to his hand? Could he have also made these up? And was Reuben, even, complicit—chiming in with Joseph the way he did? All to convince my brothers to name the sacrifice my father always knew they’d have to give?
And I wondered if any of the others also guessed…
Then Father was saying, “Now my part is done and yours begins. Who, in your bravery, exceed me—whose flesh was sacrificed without my own consent.”
And he looked truly pleased in honoring his sons above himself. Though still it made me cringe to hear my father deferring to my brothers.
Then I heard one-eyed Simeon calling out, “Let me be first!”
And I had to duck my head and cover my mouth another time to check a burst of laughter. For now I saw my wildest brother as a little boy again, jumping up and down after all my brothers had competed and he’d won—marking the sand, the farthest out from where they stood, with his pee.
And I imagined El as host of this, another of my brothers’ boyhood contests, and Father as El’s appointed judge.
And I could only sober myself by imagining the cut, the blood.
Still Father didn’t hesitate but beckoned my half-blind brother forward, and his voice was kind, saying, “Come. Let the least perfect become the most. Let the wild grow meek in His embrace. Let the blind lead.” Granting the eldest of his uncircumcised sons this honor.
And of the rite itself?
First the men built up the fire, next to which my father placed his altar. Then standing beside it, he held his knife in the flames. And the men circled around him chanting.
And as each came forward, my father bent with his knife and swiftly made the cut. Then he held the son he’d cut in his arms and gently lowered him to the ground. And he took the bloody skin and placed it on the altar, then marked his own eyes and ears with the blood, then stooped to mark the eyes and ears of the one whose blood it was, and kissed him where he’d fainted, on the forehead.
Then he plunged his knife in the fire to make it clean, and the next man broke away from the rest and came forward and fell into Father’s fierce embrace.
And I recall standing back under the ledge among the women, hidden in that sheltered spot. Gazing as you might gaze into the flames at twigs as they break off a log and fall, turn incandescent as they’re consumed.
And afterwards Bilhah said, though I don’t recall, that she’d gripped my arm to hold me back from edging towards the fire myself.
But this I do recall. How, at the end, Father came and put his hand on my head and said, “You too will be blessed under the cloak of the covenant. Your womb will issue forth His kings. So vow now that you will never lie with one uncircumcised, who doesn’t belong to Him.”
And I burned then with shame for ever having doubted what my father said, and for being glad I stood unscathed inside that field of wounded men. And I knelt and murmured my assent, “Oh Lord, never will I lie with one who is not marked as Yours.”