On the Meaning of Being "Cut Off" in the OT
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Gen. 17:13-14 He that is born in thy house, and he that is bought with thy money, must needs be circumcised: and my covenant shall be in your flesh for an everlasting covenant. And the uncircumcised man child whose flesh of his foreskin is not circumcised, that soul shall be cut off from his people; he hath broken my covenant.

Does "cut off" mean "kill" -- making this a particularly harsh penalty?

In some cases, it does seem to, and some scholars agree. Driver's commentary, for example, argues that "cut off" is used for both a death penalty and for exclusion from the covenant people; he supposes it was an "archaic judicial formula" which originally meant a death sentence, but came to mean "a strong affirmation of divine disapproval." But we'll look at this more closely below.

The main issue at hand, though, is what this does with Josh. 5, where the post-Exodus generation was circumcised but not punished for disobedience as this passage would indicate. We may reply that they could hardly disobey if they did not receive a command to be circumcised. It has been said in retort:

1. An eight-day-old male child would also not know about the command to be circumcised, but according to Genesis 17:14, he was nevertheless to be "cut off" from his people; that is, he was to be killed. You might say that [Holding]'s god Yahweh didn't consider ignorance of the law to be any excuse.
2. Yahweh's original command was that Abraham's descendants were to be circumcised throughout their generations. Would that not have included the wilderness generation? If not, why not?
3. The Hebrews practiced circumcision during the time of their Egyptian bondage.

It is then asked why then Yahweh, or Caleb, Joshua and Moses, didn't go right out and kill all 600,000 or so of those uncircumcised disobeyers.

Here's the answer: Number 3 above is true, but all this amounts to is that Israel was disobedient in keeping this command. We are left with the implication being wrested from the texts, that if Gen. 17 is right, the post-Exodus generation should have gotten no breaks, since an unknowing baby didn't either.

Allowing the "kill" interpretation for the sake of argument, we could even take this to an extreme and suggest that all 600,000 of those Israelites should have been cut off on the ninth day of their life, not even waiting until they made it to Palestine. Or, we could plumb even greater depths of unreasonability and foresee the elders of a village hovering like vultures waiting to snatch a child on Day 9, minute 1 if it wasn't circumcised. We're also forced to see a scenario in which a person who doesn't want to be circumcised, but is bound and gagged and forced to get it done, is on good covenant terms with Yahweh even if he hates Yahweh.

That would be a very legalistic approahc to the matter, but here again we will bring the point that no ancient law code was ever regarded legalistically. We repeat a passage we have often used, and will continue to use, from Hillers' Covenant: The History of a Biblical Idea:

..(T)here is no evidence that any collection of Near Eastern laws functioned as a written code that was applied by a strict method of exegesis to individual cases. As far as we can tell, these bodies of laws served educational purposes and gave expression to what was regarded as just in typical cases, but they left considerable latitude to local courts for determining the right in individual suits. They aided local courts without controlling them.

"Considerable latitude" suggests that if someone was not circumcised due to parental neglect, or there was some other circumstance stopping circumcision (in the case of Josh. 5, rampant disobedience by parents), they would not just be given the axe the whole way on Day 9, second 1, no questions asked and no credit given. Answering this point requires depth examination of ancient Near Eastern law codes and their application, from the period of Hammurabi up until the rabbinic era, and will certainly not be answered by continuing to presume a fundamentalist, hyper-literalist hermeneutic.

And now to "cut off". The word for "cut off" in Gen. 17:14 is karath. Let's see what this is about, using instances of the word from Genesis to the Samuels. It is clear that "cut off" would be able to carry a figurative meaning of "kill". But is also is obviously not the exclusive meaning:

In the same day the LORD made a covenant with Abram, saying, Unto thy seed have I given this land, from the river of Egypt unto the great river, the river Euphrates...

The meaning here, if we may be anachronistic, is along the lines of "cut a deal" -- and alludes to the "cut" animals in the prior verses that signified working out of the covenant. (See also Gen. 21;27, 32; 26:28; 31:44; Ex. 23:32, 24:8, 34:10-27; Deut. 5:2-3, 7:2, 9:9, 29:12-25, 31:16; Josh. 9:6-23, 24:25; Judg. 2:2; 1 Sam. 11:1-2, 18:3, 20:16, 22:8, 23:18)

And can it indicate death or non-existence? It can indeed, quite clearly:

Gen. 41:36 And that food shall be for store to the land against the seven years of famine, which shall be in the land of Egypt; that the land perish not through the famine.
(See also Ex. 8:9, where the frogs are "destroyed"; Lev. 26:22, where it is cattle; Deut. 12:29 and 19:1, and Josh 23:4, the nations; Josh. 7:9, the name of Israel; Judg. 4:24, a king; Ruth 4:10, the name of a family; 1 Sam 20:15, enemies; 1 Sam. 24:21, descendants; 1 Sam. 28:9;

It also means your normal "cutting" of objects:

Ex. 4:25 Then Zipporah took a sharp stone, and cut off the foreskin of her son, and cast it at his feet, and said, Surely a bloody husband art thou to me.
(Also Lev. 22:24; Lev. 26:30, where images are cut down; Num. 11;33, where quail is "chewed"; Num. 13:23-4, where grapes are cut from a vine; Deut. 19:5 and 20:19-20, chopping down a tree; Deut. 23:1, one's "privy member"; Josh. 3:13-16, 4:7, water; Josh. 11:21, cutting off a path; Judg. 6:25-30, 9:48-9; 1 Sam. 2:33, cutting off access to the altar; 1 Sam. 5:44, Dagon's hands; 1 Sam. 17:51, Goliath's head; 1 Sam. 20:15, kindness; 1 Sam. 24:4-11, Saul's robe; 1 Sam. 31:9;

But then there are the class of cites like Gen. 17:14 which speak of a person being "cut off" from Israel:

Ex. 12:15 Seven days shall ye eat unleavened bread; even the first day ye shall put away leaven out of your houses: for whosoever eateth leavened bread from the first day until the seventh day, that soul shall be cut off from Israel. (See also Ex. 12:19, 30:33, 38; 31:14; Lev. 7:20-7, 17:4-14, 18:29, 19:8, 20:3-18; 22:3 [from the Lord's "presence"]; 23:29; Num. 4:18, 9:13, 15:30-1; 19:13, 20)

Karath is a word of some obvious complexity, and this is only to be expected: Ancient languages had only a few thousand words, so often, a single word had to have multiple semantic functions.

We feel it sufficient to tie off the matter with the comments of Biblical scholar Jacob Milgrom, who in his JPS commentary for Numbers synthesizes and examine the uses of karath and comes to the conclusion that its primary defining point is that it is a punishment "executed solely by deity". By Milgrom's reckoning karath means either extirpation or death - one may be "cut off" by either means, but God is the one who exacts the punishment of karath, and decides when to do it, and how. God punishes the soul with karath even as men punish the body by their own means.

It is therefore clear that Skeptics cannot simply and arbitrarily claim that the persons referenced in Gen. 17:14 are to be executed.

-JPH