Passages

Circumcision by Hannah K. Harrington

Was circumcision practiced only by the Hebrew people in ancient times?

Circumcision, the oldest known surgical procedure, refers to the complete or partial removal of the glans of the penis. The practice is first evidenced in northwest Syria where three statues of warriors dating to ca. 2800 BCE reveal the complete removal of the prepuce. Ancient Egyptian priests were partially circumcised as they were initiated into the service of the gods (ca. 2345 BCE). According to Genesis, the practice of circumcision among the Hebrews began with Abraham, who was told to circumcise all males, including slaves, in his household (Gen 17:10-14). The cut around the penis became a signifying mark of all descendants of Abraham and later served as a physical marker for the nation of Israel.

The biblical authors were well aware that some of Israel’s neighbors practiced circumcision while others did not. The book of Jeremiah lists “Egypt, Judah, Edom, the Ammonites, Moab, and all those with shaven temples who live in the desert” as circumcised (Jer 9:25-26). The Philistines, who lived in the land of Canaan but had migrated from western areas, however, did not circumcise and were often called “the uncircumcised” as a derogatory epithet (e.g., 1Sam 14:6; 1Sam 31:4; 2Sam 1:20). Circumcision was apparently not practiced in Assyria and Babylonia.

What is the significance of the rite in the Bible?

The significance of circumcision is multivalent and depends on time and place. Most accounts throughout the ancient Near East place circumcision around the time of puberty, either to prepare youth for marriage or, as in Egypt, the priesthood. This notion is reflected in the Bible as well. The Shechemites are forced to be circumcised in order for their leader to marry within Jacob’s clan (Gen 34:14-24). Zipporah, Moses’s wife, saves her family by circumcising her son but complains that Moses has been a “bridegroom” (a Semitic word related to circumcision) of blood to her.

In the Bible, circumcision is usually associated with the covenant relationship between the nation of Israel and Yahweh, first established with Abraham. Israel is consecrated to her God, not just from puberty but from infancy (Gen 17:12; Lev 12:3). As they perform circumcision, Israelites permanently acknowledge their responsibility to serve Yahweh. Just as priests in Egypt initiate their service to the gods by circumcision, so all baby boys in Israel, are physically devoted to Yahweh (see the description of Israel as a “kingdom of priests”; Exod 19:6). The sexual aspect of circumcision cannot be overlooked since the mark of the covenant is specifically cut on the male member of procreation, which will ensure the continuance of the covenant into the next generation. Only circumcised males may participate in the national festival of Passover. Those who refuse circumcision will be “cut off” from the nation and lose the blessings of fertility and land (Exod 12:43-49). Similarly, only the circumcised nation can inherit the promised land (Josh 5:2-9).
The Bible attaches symbolic value to the act of circumcision by reference to various body parts and unripe fruit as “uncircumcised.” The prophets, for instance, refer to rebellious hearts and ears as “uncircumcised” (Ezek 44:1-9; Jer 6:10). “Uncircumcised” fruit is that which is borne by a tree not yet four years old when the fruit may be pruned. This act releases it to be offered to God, as well as eaten by Israel (Lev 19:23-25). Metaphorically this practice may point to the “pruning” or disciplining of sexual activity itself (cf. Philo, Spec. Leg. 1.1-11).

During the Second Temple period, Greeks and Romans opposed circumcision as a mutilation of the body. King Antiochus IV “Epiphanes” outlawed circumcision, which triggered the Maccabean Revolt (1Macc 1:48). Circumcision became a do-or-die signifier of a man’s Judaism and many Jews were willing to be martyred rather than reject the practice (e.g., 2Macc 6:1). Some zealots even forced circumcision on fellow Jews, and after the success of the revolt, some Jewish rulers forced it on neighboring peoples (Josephus, Ant. 13.254-58, 314-19, 395-97). On the other hand, many Jews attempted to reverse their circumcision, a painful operation known as epispasm, in order to avoid persecution and to participate more fully in Hellenistic culture (e.g., athletic games in the nude and public bathhouses; see 1Macc 1:15; Josephus, Ant. 12.237-41; 1Cor 7:18).

Early Christianity sprang from Jewish roots, and thus most of the early believers were circumcised Jews. According to the gospels, both John the Baptist and Jesus were circumcised and named on the eighth day after their birth (Luke 1:59; Luke 2:21). The issue of whether or not circumcision was necessary for gentile believers in Christ, however, was hotly debated in the early church. The conclusion of the Apostolic Council was that the Holy Spirit had already approved gentile believers by public manifestation; hence, the church should not saddle them with the difficulty of performing circumcision (Acts 15:1-29; see also Acts 21:21; Col 3:11).

Hannah K. Harrington, "Circumcision", n.p. [cited 27 Oct 2020]. Online: https://www.bibleodyssey.org:443/en/passages/main-articles/circumcision

Contributors

harrington-hannah

Hannah K. Harrington
Professor of Old Testament, Patten University

Dr. Hannah K. Harrington, Professor of Old Testament at Patten University, Oakland, CA, holds a PhD in Near Eastern Studies from the University of California, Berkeley (1992). She has written over seventy publications relating to holiness and ritual purity in Second Temple Judaism and the Dead Sea Scrolls. Notable examples include: Holiness: Rabbinic Judaism and the Graeco-Roman World (Routledge, 2001); Purity Texts (Sheffield Academic, 2004); and, The Purity and Sanctuary of the Body in Second Temple Judaism (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2019).

In the ancient world circumcision was practiced by Israelites, Egyptians, and others (Jer 9:25-26) but was rejected by Greeks and Romans.

Did you know…?

  • Approximately 1/3 of the global population today practices circumcision on males.
  • The ancient Hebrews were not the first to perform circumcision on their children.
  • Some cultures practice female circumcision?
  • Non-Israelite cultures in antiquity usually connected circumcision to puberty.
  • Hebrews were the only culture in the ancient near east to perform circumcision on babies.
  • The ancient Greeks viewed circumcision as a mutilation of the body.
  • Health is not the biblical reason for circumcision in ancient Israel.
  • Some Jews in ancient times performed an operation to conceal their circumcision.
  • Jesus was circumcised.

A West Semitic language, in which most of the Hebrew Bible is written except for parts of Daniel and Ezra. Hebrew is regarded as the spoken language of ancient Israel but is largely replaced by Aramaic in the Persian period.

A region in northern Mesopotamia whose kings ruled most of the ancient Near East in the 8th and 7th centuries B.C.E.

Ancient lower Mesopotamia, which for much of the second and first millenniums was the under the control of an empire centered in Babylon.

Gen 17:10-14

10This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and your offspring after you: Every male among you shall be circumcised.11You shall circumcise t ... View more

Jer 9:25-26

25The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will attend to all those who are circumcised only in the foreskin: 26Egypt, Judah, Edom, the Ammonites, Moab ... View more

1Sam 14:6

6Jonathan said to the young man who carried his armor, “Come, let us go over to the garrison of these uncircumcised; it may be that the Lord will act for us; fo ... View more

1Sam 31:4

4Then Saul said to his armor-bearer, “Draw your sword and thrust me through with it, so that these uncircumcised may not come and thrust me through, and make sp ... View more

2Sam 1:20

20Tell it not in Gath,
proclaim it not in the streets of Ashkelon;
or the daughters of the Philistines will rejoice,
the daughters of the uncircumcised will exu ... View more

A region notable for its early ancient civilizations, geographically encompassing the modern Middle East, Egypt, and modern Turkey.

Ruler of the Seleucid Empire from 175 to 164 BCE, he was emperor during the Maccabean Revolt.

The meeting described in Acts 15, in which the apostles and elders decided that Gentile Christians would only be subject to a few limited rules from Jewish law.

ability to bear offspring

a person who is not Jewish

Of or relating to Greek culture, especially ancient Greece after Alexander the Great.

Associated with a deity; exhibiting religious importance; set apart from ordinary (i.e. "profane") things.

A Jewish historian from the first century C.E. His works document the Jewish rebellions against Rome, giving background for early Jewish and Christian practices.

The religion and culture of Jews. It emerged as the descendant of ancient Israelite Religion, and is characterized by monotheism and an adherence to the laws present in the Written Torah (the Bible) and the Oral Torah (Talmudic/Rabbinic tradition).

An uprising led by the priest Mattathias against the Hellenizing agenda of Aniotchus IV Epiphanes. It turned into full-scale war with Judah Maccabee taking the reins and paving the way for the Hasmonean dynasty.

Visible or tangible form of something ethereal, abstract, or invisible.

A Jewish philosopher who lived from roughly 20 B.C.E. to 50 C.E. whose writings bridge Greek culture and Jewish thought.

The land that Yahweh promised to Abraham in Genesis, also called Canaan.

The structure built in Jerusalem in 516 B.C.E. on the site of the Temple of Solomon, destroyed by the Babylonians seventy years prior. The Second Temple was destroyed in 70 C.E. by the Romans responding to Jewish rebellion.

residents of the city Shechem

Gen 34:14-24

14They said to them, “We cannot do this thing, to give our sister to one who is uncircumcised, for that would be a disgrace to us.15Only on this condition will ... View more

Gen 17:12

12Throughout your generations every male among you shall be circumcised when he is eight days old, including the slave born in your house and the one bought wit ... View more

Lev 12:3

3On the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised.

Exod 19:6

6but you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation. These are the words that you shall speak to the Israelites.”

Exod 12:43-49

43The Lord said to Moses and Aaron: This is the ordinance for the passover: no foreigner shall eat of it, 44but any slave who has been purchased may eat of it a ... View more

Josh 5:2-9

2At that time the Lord said to Joshua, “Make flint knives and circumcise the Israelites a second time.” 3So Joshua made flint knives, and circumcised the Israel ... View more

Ezek 44:1-9

1Then he brought me back to the outer gate of the sanctuary, which faces east; and it was shut. 2The Lord said to me: This gate shall remain shut; it shall not ... View more

Jer 6:10

10To whom shall I speak and give warning,
that they may hear?
See, their ears are closed,
they cannot listen.
The word of the Lord is to them an object of scorn ... View more

Lev 19:23-25

23When you come into the land and plant all kinds of trees for food, then you shall regard their fruit as forbidden; three years it shall be forbidden to you, i ... View more

1Cor 7:18

18Was anyone at the time of his call already circumcised? Let him not seek to remove the marks of circumcision. Was anyone at the time of his call uncircumcised ... View more

Luke 1:59

59On the eighth day they came to circumcise the child, and they were going to name him Zechariah after his father.

Luke 2:21

Jesus Is Named
21After eight days had passed, it was time to circumcise the child; and he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived ... View more

Acts 15:1-29

1Then certain individuals came down from Judea and were teaching the brothers, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved ... View more

Acts 21:21

21They have been told about you that you teach all the Jews living among the Gentiles to forsake Moses, and that you tell them not to circumcise their children ... View more

Col 3:11

11In that renewal there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all!

The historical period from the beginning of Western civilization to the start of the Middle Ages.

Relating to or associated with people living in the territory of the northern kingdom of Israel during the divided monarchy, or more broadly describing the biblical descendants of Jacob.

 NEH Logo
Bible Odyssey has been made possible in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities: Exploring the human endeavor
Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this website, do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.