Removal of the foreskin or prepuce of the male genital organ, whether for religious reasons or as a purely hygienic measure. Circumcision was practiced in the ancient Near East by the western Semites, including the Ammonites, Moabites, Hebrews, and Edomites. The procedure was rejected by the east Semitic peoples of Mesopotamia, the Canaanites, and the Shechemites.
The Old Testament. The special meaning of circumcision for the people of Israel is found in Genesis 17 and occurs within the context of God's renewed covenant promise to Abraham, following the initial contractual relationship (Gen. 15). On the second occasion, God again promised lands and offspring to the still childless patriarch, and gave him the sign of circumcision, which was to be imposed upon Abraham and his descendants as a token of covenant membership ( Gen 17:10 ). For the Israelites circumcision was a religious rite and was intended to mark the beginning of covenant solidarity for Abraham's descendants rather than describing the historical origins of the procedure.
While Abraham and his household were circumcised forthwith, the Lord's command required that hereafter male infants were to be circumcised on the eighth day of life. This in itself was distinctively different from contemporary pagan practices, which seem to have associated the rite either with puberty or with approaching marriage.
From the beginning sharp knives made from chipped flints were used for the resection, since flint maintained a superior edge. For this reason the retention of flint instruments for purposes of circumcision endured for centuries after the beginning of the Iron Age (ca. 1200 b.c.). Traditionally the head of the household administered the rite in Israel, but on special occasions a woman might officiate ( Exod 4:24-26 ).
In the Mosaic law, a spiritual interpretation was imposed upon the procedure when the Israelites were instructed to circumcise their hearts ( Deut 10:16 ). This demand required them to recognize that, in addition to bearing the physical mark of covenant membership, they were also under obligation to manifest specific spiritual qualities of commitment and obedience to the Lord's will. Jeremiah (4:4) made precisely the same demands upon his contemporaries because of their evil deeds, which were the very opposite of what God required. For him, circumcision entailed consecration to the Lord and to the high moral ideals of the covenant, of which holiness was representative ( Lev 11:44 ). A true covenant member would be motivated by love of God ( Deut 6:5 ) and one's neighbor ( Lev 19:18 ).
The New Testament. When Greek paganism threatened to swamp Judaism some two centuries before Christ was born, circumcision became a distinctive indication of Jewish fidelity to the covenant. Thus John the Baptist was circumcised ( Luke 1:59 ), as were both Jesus ( Luke 2:21 ) and Saul of Tarsus ( Php 3:5 ), on the eighth day of life, making them accredited members of the covenant people. But Jesus was already casting doubt on the preeminence of the rite when he stated that his healings made people completely whole ( John 7:22-23 ). Stephen reinforced this by accusing contemporary Judaism of the very tendencies that Jeremiah had condemned ( Acts 7:51 ). Although in the period of the primitive church the believers maintained Jewish religious traditions, problems began to arise when the gospel was preached among Gentiles. Christians who had come from a Jewish background felt that Gentiles should become Jews through circumcision before being able to experience Christ's saving work.
This attitude rested partly upon the contemporary notion that circumcision was a necessary part of salvation, as well as being its effective guarantee. Others repudiated this view of salvation by works, particularly when uncircumcised Gentiles received God's outpouring of the Holy Spirit ( Acts 10:44-48 ). They saw that the prophecies of Ezekiel, in which the Lord promised a clean heart and an indwelling of his Holy Spirit ( 36:25-27 ), and the dramatic proclamation of Joel that God would pour out his Spirit upon all flesh ( 2:28 ; cf. Acts 2:17 ), were now being fulfilled. The spiritual significance of circumcision had been achieved by divine grace without the performance of the physical rite, thus making the latter obsolete.
Not all Jews rejoiced at their badge of pride and privilege being set aside ( Php 3:4-6 ), and consequently a group of Pharisaic Jews known as the "circumcision party" proclaimed at Antioch ( Acts 15:1-5 ) the necessity of circumcision for salvation. Peter opposed these Judaizers, affirming the saving efficacy of faith in Christ alone ( Acts 15:8-11 ), and denying the necessity of circumcision for the Gentiles.
To resolve the issue Paul and Barnabas consulted with the elders in Jerusalem, where it was agreed that Gentiles should not be compelled to be circumcised ( Acts 15:13-21 ). Paul was indifferent to the Judaizers' vaunted claims of "circumcision spirituality, " and although he circumcised the partly Jewish Timothy ( Acts 16:3 ) to facilitate his mission, he opposed circumcision for the Gentile Titus ( Gal 2:3 ). In Galatia, Paul resisted strenuously the Judaizers' doctrine of righteousness by works, which he stigmatized as a "different gospel" ( Gal 1:6-7 ), and reviled the proponents as "dogs" and "evil workers."
This controversy was to follow Paul throughout his ministry. To counter the Judaizers' position he conceded that, while circumcision was of great value for the old covenant, it carried no significance for the "covenants of promise" ( Eph 2:12 ). What was fundamentally important in God's sight was being a "new creation" ( Gal 6:15 ) and keeping God's commandments ( 1 Cor 7:19 ), apart from which circumcision or uncircumcision are meaningless, and allowing faith to work through love ( Gal 5:6 ). Paul taught resolutely that, in the new covenant, salvation came by grace and faith, not works ( Eph 2:8 ). For the believer, circumcision or the lack of it was a matter of total indifference. What really counted was the faith and obedience that have always characterized covenants between God and humankind.
R. K. Harrison
See also Judaizers
Bibliography. D. Jacobson, The Social Background of the Old Testament; R. Patai, Sex and Family in the Bible; R. de Vaux, Ancient Israel: Its Life and Institutions.
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cutting around. This rite, practised before, as some think, by divers races, was appointed by God to be the special badge of his chosen people, an abiding sign of their consecration to him. It was established as a national ordinance ( Genesis 17:10 Genesis 17:11 ). In compliance with the divine command, Abraham, though ninety-nine years of age, was circumcised on the same day with Ishmael, who was thirteen years old ( 17:24-27 ). Slaves, whether home-born or purchased, were circumcised ( Genesis 17:12 Genesis 17:13 ); and all foreigners must have their males circumcised before they could enjoy the privileges of Jewish citizenship ( Exodus 12:48 ). During the journey through the wilderness, the practice of circumcision fell into disuse, but was resumed by the command of Joshua before they entered the Promised Land ( Joshua 5:2-9 ). It was observed always afterwards among the tribes of israel, although it is not expressly mentioned from the time of the settlement in Canaan till the time of Christ, about 1,450 years. The Jews prided themselves in the possession of this covenant distinction (Judg. 14:3 ; 15:18 ; 1 Samuel 14:6 ; 17:26 ; 2 Sam 1:20 ; Ezekiel 31:18 ).
As a rite of the church it ceased when the New Testament times began ( Galatians 6:15 ; Colossians 3:11 ). Some Jewish Christians sought to impose it, however, on the Gentile converts; but this the apostles resolutely resisted ( Acts 15:1 ; Galatians 6:12 ). Our Lord was circumcised, for it "became him to fulfil all righteousness," as of the seed of Abraham, according to the flesh; and Paul "took and circumcised" Timothy ( Acts 16:3 ), to avoid giving offence to the Jews. It would render Timothy's labours more acceptable to the Jews. But Paul would by no means consent to the demand that Titus should be circumcised ( Galatians 2:3-5 ). The great point for which he contended was the free admission of uncircumcised Gentiles into the church. He contended successfully in behalf of Titus, even in Jerusalem.
In the Old Testament a spiritual idea is attached to circumcision. It was the symbol of purity ( Isaiah 52:1 ). We read of uncircumcised lips ( Exodus 6:12 Exodus 6:30 ), ears ( Jeremiah 6:10 ), hearts ( Leviticus 26:41 ). The fruit of a tree that is unclean is spoken of as uncircumcised ( Leviticus 19:23 ).
It was a sign and seal of the covenant of grace as well as of the national covenant between God and the Hebrews.
Under the Jewish dispensation, church and state were identical. No one could be a member of the one without also being a member of the other. Circumcision was a sign and seal of membership in both. Every circumcised person bore thereby evidence that he was one of the chosen people, a member of the church of God as it then existed, and consequently also a member of the Jewish commonwealth.
was peculiarly, though not exclusively, a Jewish rite. It was enjoined upon Abraham, the father of the nation, by God, at the institution and as the token of the covenant, which assured to him and his descendants the promise of the Messiah. Gen. 17. It was thus made a necessary condition of Jewish nationality. Every male child was to be circumcised when eight days old, ( Leviticus 12:3 ) on pain of death. The biblical notice of the rite describes it as distinctively Jewish; so that in the New Testament "the circumcision" and "the uncircumcision" are frequently used as synonyms for the Jews and the Gentiles. The rite has been found to prevail extensively in both ancient and modern times. Though Mohammed did not enjoin circumcision in the Koran, he was circumcised himself, according to the custom of his country; and circumcision is now as common among the Mohammedans as among the Jews. The process of restoring a circumcised person to his natural condition by a surgical operation was sometimes undergone. Some of the Jews in the time of Antiochus Epiphanes, wishing to assimilate themselves to the heathen around them, "made themselves uncircumcised." Against having recourse to this practice, from an excessive anti-Judaistic tendency, St. Paul cautions the Corinthians. ( 1 Corinthians 7:18 )
sur-kum-sizh'-un (mul, muloth; peritome):
The removal of the foreskin is a custom that has prevailed, and prevails, among many races in different parts of the world--in America, Africa and Australia. It was in vogue among the western Semites--Hebrews, Arabians, Moabites, Ammonites, Edomites, Egyptians, but was unknown among the Semites of the Euphrates. In Canaan the Philistines were an exception, for the term "uncircumcised" is constantly used in connection with them. Generally speaking, the rite of circumcision was a precondition of the enjoyment of certain political and religious privileges (Exodus 12:48; Ezekiel 44:9); and in view of the fact that in the ancient world religion played such an important role in life, it may be assumed that circumcision, like many other strange customs whose original significance is no longer known, originated in connection with religion. Before enumerating the different theories which have been advanced with regard to the origin and original significance of circumcision, it may be of advantage to consider some of the principal references to the rite in the Old Testament.
1. Circumcision in the Old Testament:
In the account of the institution of the covenant between Yahweh and Abraham which Priestly Code (P) gives (Genesis 17), circumcision is looked upon as the ratification of the agreement. Yahweh undertook to be the God of Abraham and of his descendants. Abraham was to be the father of a multitude of nations and the founder of a line of kings. He and his descendants were to inherit Canaan. The agreement thus formed was permanent; Abraham's posterity should come within the scope of it. But it was necessary to inclusion in the covenant that every male child should be circumcised on the 8th day. A foreigner who had attached himself as a slave to a Hebrew household had to undergo the rite--the punishment for its non-fulfilment being death or perhaps excommunication. According to Exodus 12:48 (also P) no stranger could take part in the celebration of the Passover unless he had been circumcised. In the Book of Jos (Joshua 5:2-9) we read that the Israelites were circumcised at Gilgal ("Rolling"), and thus the "reproach of Egypt" was "rolled away." Apparently circumcision in the case of the Hebrews was prohibited during the Egyptian period--circumcision being a distinctive mark of the ruling race. It is noticeable that flint knives were used for the purpose. This use of an obsolete instrument is one of many proofs of conservatism in religion. According to the strange and obscure account of the circumcision by Zipporah of her eldest son (Exodus 4:25) the performance of the rite in the case of the son apparently possesses a vicarious value, for thereby Moses becomes a "bridegroom of blood." The marriage bond is ratified by the rite of blood (see 4 below). But it is possible that the author's meaning is that owing to the fact that Moses had not been circumcised (the "reproach of Egypt") he was not fit to enter the matrimonial estate (see 3 below).
2. Theories of Origin:
The different theories with regard to the origin of circumcision may be arranged under four heads:
(1) Herodotus (ii.37), in dealing with circumcision among the Egyptians, suggests that it was a sanitary operation. But all suggestions of a secular, i.e. non-religious, origin to the rite, fail to do justice to the place and importance of religion in the life of primitive man.
(2) It was a tribal mark. Tattooed marks frequently answered the purpose, although they may have been originally charms. The tribal mark enabled one member of the tribe to recognize another and thus avoid injuring or slaying a fellow-tribesman. It also enabled the tribal deity to recognize a member of the tribe which was under his special protection. A mark was placed on Cain to indicate that he was under the special protection of Yahweh (Genesis 4:15). It has been suggested, in the light of Isaiah 44:5 the Revised Version, margin, that the employer's mark was engraved (tattooed) on the slave's hand. The prophet represents Jews as inscribing on their hands that they belong to Yahweh. The walls of Jerusalem are engraved on Yahweh's palms (Isaiah 49:16). On the other hand "cuttings in the flesh" are prohibited in Leviticus 19:28 because they were common in the case of the non-Jewish religions. Such tattooed marks might be made in conspicuous places when it was necessary that they should be easily seen, but there might be reason for secrecy so that the marks might be known only to the members of the tribe in question.
(3) It was a rite which celebrated the coming of age of the person. It signified the attainment of puberty and of the right to marry and to enjoy full civic privileges.
(4) As human sacrifices began to be done away with, the sacrifice of the most easily removed portion of the anatomy provided a vicarious offering.
(5) It was a sacramental operation. "The shedding of blood" was necessary to the validity of any covenant between tribes or individuals. The rite of blood signifies the exchange of blood on the part of the contracting parties, and therefore the establishment of physical affinity between them. An alliance based on blood-relationship was inviolable. In the same way the tribal god was supposed to share in the blood of the sacrificed animal, and a sacred bond was established between him and the tribe. It is not quite obvious why circumcision should be necessary in connection with such a ceremony. But it may be pointed out that the process of generation excited the wonder and awe of primitive man. The prosperity of the tribe depended on the successful issue of the marriage bond, and a part of the body which had so much to do with the continuation and numerical strength of the tribe would naturally be fixed upon in connection with the covenant of blood. In confirmation of the last explanation it is urged that in the case of the covenant between Yahweh and Abraham circumcision was the rite that ratified the agreement. In opposition to (3) it has been urged that among the Hebrews circumcision was performed in infancy--when the child was 8 days old. But this might have been an innovation among the Hebrews, due to ignorance of the original significance of the rite. If circumcision conferred upon the person circumcised the right to the enjoyment of the blessings connected with membership in the tribe it was natural that parents should be anxious that such an initiatory act should be performed early in life. The question of adult and infant baptism is capable of similar explanation. When we examine explanations (2), (3), (4), (5), we find that they are really different forms of the same theory. There can be no doubt that circumcision was originally a religions act. Membership in the tribe, entrance upon the rights of citizenship, participation in the religious practices of the tribe--these privileges are interdependent. Anyone who had experienced the rite of blood stood within the scope of the covenant which existed between the tribe and the tribal god, and enjoyed all the privileges of tribal society. It is easily understood why the historian carefully relates the circumcision of the Israelites by Joshua on their arrival in Canaan. It was necessary, in view of the possible intermingling of the conquerors and the conquered, that the distinctive marks of the Abrahamic covenant should be preserved (Joshua 5:3).
3. Spiritual Significance:
In Jeremiah 9:25 and Deuteronomy 30:6 we find the spiritual significance of circumcision. A prophet like Jeremiah was not likely to attach much importance to an external act like circumcision. He bluntly tells his countrymen that they are no better than Egyptians, Edomites, Moabites and Ammonites. They are uncircumcised in heart. Paul uses the term concision for this outward circumcision unaccompanied by any spiritual change (Philippians 3:2). The question of circumcision occasioned a protracted strife among the early Christians. Judaizing Christians argued for the necessity of circumcision. It was a reminiscence of the unrelenting particularism which had sprung up during the prolonged oppression of the Greek and Roman period. According to their view salvation was of the Jews and for the Jews. It was necessary to become a Jew in order to become a Christian. Paul consented to circumcision in the case of Timothy "because of the Jews" (Acts 16:3). But he saw that a principle was at stake and in most of his epistles he points out the sheer futility of the contention of the Judaizers. (See commentaries on Romans and Galatians.)
4. Figurative Uses:
In a few suggestive passages we find a figurative application of the term. For three years after the settlement in Canaan the "fruit of the land" was to be considered as "uncircumcised" (Leviticus 19:23), i.e. it was the property of the Baalim, the gods of Palestine The fruit of the fourth year belonged to Yahweh. Moses with characteristic humility describes himself as a man of "uncircumcised lips" (Exodus 6:30). Jeremiah charges his contemporaries with having their ear uncircumcised (Jeremiah 6:10) and their heart (Jeremiah 9:26). "An uncircumcised heart" is one which is, as it were, closed in, and so impervious to good influences and good impressions, just as an uncircumcised ear (Jeremiah 6:10) is an ear which, from the same cause, hears imperfectly; and uncircumcised lips (compare Exodus 6:12,30) are lips which open and speak with difficulty (Driver on Deuteronomy 10:16).
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