Circumcision in the Bible, with flint blade for ancient knife


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Circumcision in the ancient world

Circumcision, the cutting away of the foreskin of the penis, was originally a rite of passage that tested the courage and endurance of young men in tribal societies. It was common among the Israelites and other peoples in the Near East. 
According to Jeremiah 9:25-26, the peoples of Edom, Moab and Ammon all practiced circumcision. 

Some scholars think that circumcision may have been a substitute for child sacrifice, the foreskin offered as a gift or symbolic offering instead of the child.It is food for thought that the only two incidents relating to child sacrifice in the Bible are adolescents: Isaac, who escapes death, and Jephtah's daughter, who does not.

Reliefs have been discovered in Egypt (below) showing circumcision, and written documents show the custom was common. 

Egyptian wall relief showing priests using knives to circumcise two young men

Above: Egyptian wall relief showing priests using knives to circumcise two young men who have reached puberty. The wall relief is from the tomb of Ankh-ma-hor, architect and vizier to Pharaoh Teti (ruled 2345–2333 B.C.E.); the tomb is in Saqqara, about 15 miles southwest of Cairo.


Above: Outline drawing of the wall relief above, with translations of the hieroglyphs

Herodotus reports that Egyptians, Phoenicians and Syrians - that is, all the countries in the vicinity of Palestine -  were circumcised. Israel simply followed a custom general throughout the area. The “uncircumcised” were the Philistines (I Samuel 18:25), a people who came from a totally different cultural background from that of Israel‘s other neighbours.


Flint productionHow it was done

In the earliest texts (Exodus 4:25) circumcision was effected by flint knives, good evidence of the antiquity of the custom. Historical and anthropological research have suggested that at first circumcision was a religious ceremony preceding marriage and designed to ensure fertility and propitiate unfriendly spirits by making a redemptive offering of the foreskin in preparation for married life. Many scholars accordingly interpret the story of Genesis 34 in this light, for there circumcision is explicitly connected with marriage. Exodus 4:24-26 can be interpreted in the same way, making the object of the story the circumcision of Moses himself. Zipporah, in this story, says to him A well-finished flint knife “You are a bridegroom", using a word which, in Hebrew, can mean bridegroom, son-in-law and father-in-law, and which comes from a word also known in Arabic where it means “to circumcize".

The origins of the custom are shrouded in obscurity. It has been suggested that circumcision was the equivalent of the initiation rites which, among primitive peoples, prepared the boy for his acceptance into adult society. The Egyptian reliefs above show boys being circumcized in adolescence, and the biblical account of lshmael’s circumcision at the age of thirteen (Genesis 17:25) apparently coincides with the custom among lshmaelite tribes of circumcizing at puberty, when the boy is ready to join society. 

The Bible Command of Circumcision

The Bible records that circumcision was commanded on three major occasions and these offer some clue to the development of the custom. According to Genesis, circumcision was first practiced by Abraham' clan after its settlement in Canaan.
The basic ruling is contained in Genesis 17:12-13, “every male throughout your generations... shall be circumcized in the flesh of his foreskin" as an everlasting covenant, and this is to apply to servants and slaves as well as to true-born Israelites. All the Patriarchs observed the rule. This aspect is also present in the Dinah story of Genesis 34:13-24. The Hivites of Shechem who are involved were uncircumcized for they were a foreign element within the land of Canaan. To become one people with the sons of Jacob, and thus be eligible for marriage with Jacob's daughter, they had to circumcize. 

Resumption of the Custom

Josiah 5:2-9 records that Joshua circumcized all the people of Israel at the sanctuary of Gilgal after the Exodus because males born since leaving Egypt had not been circumcized. Verse 5 states that “all the males who came out of Egypt had been circumcized” but from Exodus 4:24-26 it is clear that Moses had remained uncircumcised and it seems probable that the custom had been neglected during the sojourn in Egypt as well as in the desert. It was revived with the entry into the Promised Land.Rite of passage for a young man

It is not known either when circumcision at the age of eight days was substituted for the adolescent rite. 

Sign of the Covenant

When the practice of circumcision was renewed in Canaan it was given a distinctly religious significance and it has retained this ever since. Circumcision among the Israelites is always interpreted religiously. Moreover, the formula of Genesis 17 states explicitly that circumcision is to be the visible God-given sign of a special covenant, “b“rith”, between God and Israel.

This new interpretation was emphasized when their neighbours began to abandon the practice and the Jews remained the only circumcised people in the area. Ezekiel 32 lists almost all lsrael’s neighbours - including the Sidonians - as among the uncircumcized. 

'Running of the bulls' is a modern-day rite of passagePost-Exilic Period

With observance of the Sabbath and the shunning of idolatry, circumcision became the main characteristic distinguishing the Jews from all other men, and acquired the status of a confession of faith (side by side with the Sabbath). Converts to Judaism had to circumcise, the first evidence for this coming from the Apocrypha (Judith 14:10; Esther 8:17, in the Septuagint version). Hellenizing Jews who abandoned their religion and wanted to appear like other Westerners tried to conceal this "defect" in their bodies (1 Maccabees 1:14). 

As in more modern times, circumcision was the distinguishing feature of the Jews in the eyes of the Greeks and Romans. To prevent the possibility of effacing the sign of the Covenant, the Rabbis empasized the act of pushing back the skin to lay bare the glans, as a feature of the operation. The custom aroused the scorn of Martial, who died in 8BC, Horace and Persius, who lived until 62AD. It was again forbidden by Hadrian at the time of a later Jewish pogrom, after the Bar-Kochba revolt. Jewish-Christians and Gentiles were also forbidden to circumcize. 

Early Christianity and Circumcision 

Paul taught that what counted was “circumcision of the heart, in the spirit, not in the letter' (Romans 2:29). His declaration that the only effective circumcision was an inward, spiritual one, having nothing to do with the flesh, aroused some of the most bitter controversies of the early Christian church (Acts 15:1-35; 16:3; Galatians 2:3) In the event, the Jewish ordinance was dropped, and Christians abandoned circumcision as a general requirement.

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Circumcision in the Bible: a rite of passage, a sign of belonging: in Israel, Egypt and early Christianity 

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Copyright 2006 Elizabeth Fletcher