By October 29, 2008 Read More →

Circumcision, Philip J. King and Lawrence E. Stager, Life in Biblical Israel, Westminster John Knox Press, 2001.


Priests perform circumcisions on Egyptian boys. A relief of the sixth dynasty from Saqqara. (Drawing- A. M. Appa after H. Gressmann, Altorientalische Texte und Bilder zum Alten Testament [Berlin, 1927])

The practice of circumcision was widespread in antiquity, but its origin and purpose remain uncertain. Bas-reliefs from Egypt, dating from the third millennium, attest to the practice among the Egyptians. In biblical times, West Semitic peoples, comprising Israelites, Ammonites, Moabites, and Edomites, were circumcised, but not the East Semitic peoples of Mesopotamia, such as the Akkadians, Assyrians, and Babylonians. The non-Semitic Philistines, probably of Aegean or early Greek origin, did not practice this form of genital mutilation. Consequently, they were derogated by the Israelites as the “uncircumcised” (‘arelim) (Judg. 14-3; 15-18; 1 Sam. 18-25; Herodotus, History, ii.104).

Whether the Canaanites were circumcised is indeterminable. The painful story told about the Shechemites suggests that at least this group of Canaanites was not cir¬cumcised. The sons of Jacob required that the Shechemites be circumcised before they would give their daughters to them in marriage. “On the third day, when they [Shechemites] were still in pain. . . Simeon and Levi. . . took their swords and came against the city unawares, and killed all the males” (Gen. 34-25).

The Midianites probably were circumcised, since Zipporah, wife of Moses, cut off (karat) her son’s foreskin with a flint knife, if that is the correct interpretation of this obscure passage about a “bridegroom of blood” (Ex. 4-24-26). It is not clear whom she touched with the foreskin-her son or her husband. Despite ambiguity in the account, it underscores the importance of circumcision and the blood rite associated with it, as attested by Zipporah’s statement, “A bridegroom of blood by circumcision” (hatan damim lammulot) (Ex. 4-26).

An Israelite infant was circumcised eight days after birth (Gen. 17-12; Lev. 12-3). The procedure was performed by the father (Gen. 21-4), not by a priest, and never in the sanctuary. Indicative of the antiquity of the practice, circumcision in early Israel was done with a flint or stone knife (Ex. 4-25; Josh. 5-2-3). The male children of Israel’s neighbors were more apt to be circumcised during childhood or at puberty, instead of eight days after birth.

For the Israelites circumcision was a sign of covenant-kinship between Yahweh and Israel (Gen. 17-10-14). Accordingly, berit (or bris), “covenant,” is the term Jews use today for circumcision. The Hebrew idiom for making a covenant was karat berit, “cut a covenant,” and literal cutting occurs in some texts as well- The book of Genesis describes a rite of covenant making in which Abram (Abraham) cut in two (batter) a heifer (‘egla), goat, and a ram; afterward a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch, both representing God, passed between those pieces. Whoever violated the covenant would incur the same fate as the animals (Gen. 15-9-19). Jeremiah alludes to this rite- “And those who transgressed my covenant and did not keep the terms of the covenant that they made before me, I will make like the calf (‘egel) when they cut (karat) it in two and passed between its parts” (Jer. 34-18). Parallels to the covenant rite appear among the Amorites, who slew donkeys, goats, and puppies. This was an essential part of treaty making during the Mari period. Killing an animal to seal a treaty between two parties probably gave rise to the Hebrew idiom, karat berit, meaning “to make a treaty.” In the courtyard of the fortress at Haror (MB II), Eliezer Oren has discovered sacrificial remains in pits of birds and puppies (killed by break¬ing their necks; Isa. 66-3). One large pit contained a pair of donkey burials, the artic¬ulated skeleton of one outfitted with a bronze bridle bit.

Even adults had to undergo circumcision to become members of the community, as they do today. In addition to male infants, the household slaves and the gerim liv¬ing with the Israelites had to be circumcised. Only a circumcised male was qualified to participate in the Passover ritual (Ex. 12-48-49). There is a rather puzzling text in Joshua 5-2-9, set during the wilderness wanderings, in which Yahweh instructs Joshua to circumcise the Israelites “a second time” prior to their celebration of the Passover. Jack Sasson has clarified this text by comparing the Egyptian and the Israelite styles of circumcision-

Thus one can note a basic difference between the Israelites and the Egyptians in the surgical process involved in circumcision. Whereas the Hebrews amputated the prepuce and thus exposed the corona of the penis, the Egyptian practice consisted of a dorsal incision upon the foreskin which liberated the glans penis. Two passages from Joshua 5 are relevant to this problem. V. 2 consists of a command issued to Joshua- “Make for yourselves knives of flint and circumcise again the children of Israel the second time.” Some have thought that this passage has been altered by a later editor to harmonize it with other references in the Bible. But in the light of the foregoing, this can now be explained as an injunction for those who have accepted an Egyptian circumcision to “improve” on the ritual by undergoing a thorough removal of the foreskin. In this context, God’s remark in v. 9 becomes clearer. When the deed was accomplished, he states- “This day I have rolled away the reproach of Egypt from off you.”

At the same time, there is a clear biblical sense that the external rite of circumcision was worthless without interior conversion. With metaphorical language, Deuteron¬omy 10-16 orders, “Circumcise, then, the foreskin of your heart, and do not be stub¬born any longer” (see also Lev. 26-41; Jer. 4-4). And Jeremiah cautions that- “The days are surely coming, says Yahweh, when I will attend to all those who are circumcised only in the foreskin- Egypt, Judah, Edom, the Ammonites, Moab” (Jer. 9-24-25 [E.T. 9-25-26]).

Philo was the first Jewish writer to advocate hygiene as a reason for circumcision (De circumcisione 11-210). Herodotus (History, ii.37) also suggests sanitary considerations as the basis for the procedure among the Egyptians.

p. 43-45

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