Circumcision is the cutting away of the foreskin of the penis. It was originally a rite of
passage to test the courage of young men in tribal societies. It became common
among the Israelites of the Bible. According to Jeremiah 9:25-26, the peoples of
Edom, Moab and Ammon also practised circumcision.
Where did the practice come from? Some scholars think that circumcision may have
been a substitute for child sacrifice. The foreskin was offered as a gift to the gods,
instead of the child.
Herodotus tells us that Egyptians, Phoenicians and Syrians were also circumcised. Israel
was simply following a local custom. The dreaded Philistines did not (I Samuel 18:25),
but then they were from a different cultural background.
Why was it done? It was a religious ceremony preceding marriage, designed to ensure
fertility and appease unfriendly spirits.
Many scholars interpret the story of Genesis 34 in this light, for circumcision is explicitly
linked with marriage.
Exodus 4:24-26 can be interpreted in the same way: the object of the story is the
circumcision of Moses himself. Zipporah, wife of Moses says to him “You are a
Zipporah’s quick thinking and awareness of God’s presence saved the life of Moses.
Without her, the Hebrews would never have left Egypt and settled in Canaan.
Moses knew he was special to God, but even so he had neglected to circumcise his son.
The command to circumcise in Genesis 17:14 was seriously intended, and now God rose
up to enforce this requirement.
Somewhere along the road, they stopped for the night and the Bible says that ‘God tried
to kill Moses’.
Zipporah, sensing that God was angry that their son wasn’t circumcised and that this
omission had caused Moses’ illness, stepped in. She took it upon herself to do what
Moses should have done. She circumcised her son herself, cutting the foreskin with
a razor-sharp flint blade, then linking Moses with the act by touching his feet
(‘feet’ may be a euphemism for genitals) with the blood from the circumcision
Then she said: “Surely, a bridegroom of blood thou art to me.” Her words are
probably of relief and gratitude that her husband is thus saved. He has become her
bridgroom once again thanks to the blood of the circumcision.
The effect of this incident cannot be exaggerated. Deeply ingrained now in Moses’ heart
is the belief that it is God’s anger, not Pharaoh’s, that he must fear.
Where did the custom of circumcision come from? The origins of the custom are
shrouded in mystery. It has been suggested that circumcision was part of a tribe’s
initiation rites. Among primitive tribes, these rites prepared a boy for his acceptance into
The Egyptian relief above show boys being circumcized in adolescence. Similarly, the
biblical account of lshmael’s circumcision at the age of thirteen (Genesis 17:25)
coincides with the time the boy entered society as a man.
Circumcision was performed on three major occasions.
It was first practiced by Abraham’s clan after its settlement in Canaan.
Genesis 17:12-13 says that “every male throughout your generations… shall be
circumcized in the flesh of his foreskin”. This was an everlasting covenant. It applied to
servants and slaves as well as true-born Israelites. All the Patriarchs observed the rule.
In the story of the rape of Dinah in Genesis 34:13-24, the Hivites of Shechem were
uncircumcized. To become one people with the sons of Jacob, and thus be eligible for
marriage with Jacob’s daughter, they had to circumcise.
Josiah (5:2-9) circumcised all the people of Israel at the sanctuary of Gilgal after the
Exodus. Verse 5 states that “all the males who came out of Egypt had been
circumcised”. But from Exodus 4:24-26 it is clear that Moses had remained
uncircumcised. This suggests 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.
It is not known when circumcision at the age of eight days was substituted for the
adolescent rite. Although it's generally accepted that the mother's antibodies that protect
the baby, stays in the baby's system for 8 days.
Eventually the Jews remained the only circumcised people in the area. Ezekiel 32 lists
almost all lsrael’s neighbours – including the Sidonians – as uncircumcised.
Circumcision became one of the main characteristics distinguishing the Jews from all
other people. Converts to Judaism had to circumcise, the first evidence for this coming
from the Apocrypha (Judith 14:10; Esther 8:17).
1 Maccabees 1:14 tells us that Jews who abandoned their religion and wanted to appear
like other Westerners tried to conceal this “defect” in their bodies.
Circumcision was the distinguishing feature of the Jews in the eyes of the Greeks and
St. 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).