Now here is a commentary from Dr Ian Elmer with a sting in the tail. The body of the commentary is an examination of the fascinating history of how circumcision came to be so tied up with religion and religious identity. How did these rituals emerge? What did they mean? Are they God-given or man-made? What do they mean today? Are there lessons we can learn today from the changing meaning?
Why was Circumcision the Sign of the Covenant? (Gen 17:11)
According to the Scriptures, male circumcision is the quintessential "sign of the covenant", deriving originally to a direct command from God to the patriarch Abraham (Gen 17:10-12; cf. Jos 5:2). Indeed, the command to circumcise was laid not only on the immediate male members of the family and their male issue down through time, but also upon "the slave born in your house and the one bought with your money from any foreigner who is not of your offspring" (Gen 17:13; cf. Exod 12:44, 48; Jgs 14:10).
In this passage, circumcision is described as the "marking in flesh" of the "everlasting covenant"; and Scripture decrees that those males unmarked by circumcision are "cut off" from the family of God; apostates who "have broken the covenant" (Gen 17:14). For natural born sons, the ceremony was performed on the eighth day after birth; and all babes in arms and adult converts alike, had to submit to this trial under the ministrations of priest wielding a traditional flint knife (Lev 12:3; Jos 5:3).
Later authors will interpret the act as symbolic of excising the ill intensions and illicit desires of the heart (Deut 10:16; Jer 4:4). Under pressure to conform to Gentile ways, some Jews even tried to surgically cover up their circumcised penises (1 Macc 1:15). But the practice continued; indeed, continues to this day, despite persecution.
The story of the Maccabean revolt tells us that the Greek overlords executed mothers who circumcised their sons (1 Macc 1:60-61). After the success of the revolt the victorious rebels "forcibly circumcised all the uncircumcised boys that they found within the borders of Israel" (1 Macc 2:46).
To us it appears a barbaric act; a primitive practice that no longer has meaning for us modern people. We are puzzled as to why such a strange practice would be chosen as the "sign" or "mark" of YHWH's covenant with Israel. Other primitive peoples practiced circumcision, as do some modern societies; although the purposes for which such peoples adopted or retain the practice varies.
The Origins of Circumcision...
Circumcision has a long history in the ancient world, although its origin and purpose remain uncertain. The practice can be traced as early as the 23rd century B.C.E. in Middle Egypt (King, 2006). We have a number of memorial stones and stone reliefs from the period that portray young boys being circumcised. Some mummies also show signs of circumcision. But the ritual may be much older than this.
Archaeologists working in the Middle East have uncovered human statuettes from the Early Bronze Age (c. 3200 B.C.E.). Similarly, scholars have remarked that the use of flint knives in the Israelite ceremony may indicate that circumcision harks back to a very ancient and hallowed Stone Age ritual. "To use flint knives when iron ones were available is [only] explicable as a frozen archaic trait, a part of the ancient ritual that resisted change and took on the aura of sacred tradition" (Hendel, 2002: 58).
The ritual was widespread in the ancient Near East. The prophet Jeremiah admits that circumcision was common to "Egypt, Judah, Edom, the Ammonites, Moab, and all the desert dwellers who clip the corners of their hair" (Jer 9:25). All of these ancient peoples shared views about the importance of patrilineal descent, sexual fertility, and male initiation, which might help explain why they adopted the practice.
A photograph of the Egyptian relief (above) illustrating the circumcision of two adolescent boys in the Sixth Dynasty tomb of the royal architect Ankh-ma-hor at Saqqara referred to by Dr Elmer and below a modern graphic representation of the relief.
In many of these cultures, circumcision was clearly a puberty rite (Wreszinski, 1936). A famous Egyptian relief illustrates circumcision on two adolescent boys in the Sixth-Dynasty (2350–2000 B.C.E.) tomb of the "royal architect" Ankh-ma-hor at Saqqara, which is about 25 kilometres southwest of Cairo.
The aforementioned relief depicts the preparation for the circumcision performed by a mortuary priest who is squatting. The accompanying text includes a dialogue between the circumciser and an assistant.
In the relief, the priest tells his assistant "Hold him; do not let him faint", and the assistant responds: "I shall act to thy pleasure". To the right is a dialogue between the circumciser and the boy: "Rub off what is [there] thoroughly," the boy says to the priest, who responds: "I shall make [it] heal".
As a puberty rite, circumcision appears to be "regarded as that which makes a man fit for normal sexual life; [in other words,] it is an initiation to marriage" (Mitchell, 1969: 94). In Arabic hatana means "to circumcise". The words for "bridegroom" "son-in-law" and "father-in-law" are all derivatives of htn.
Turning to the Bible, we find a number of passages that suggest similar connections. In the story of Shechem's rape of Dinah (Genesis 34:14–17), which we will return to below, the circumcision is prenuptial, thus making a connection with marriage. In two other Biblical stories, circumcision is also connected to the rite of marriage. For the bride-price (mohar) for Saul's daughter Michal, David is to pay his father-in-law a hundred Philistine foreskins (1 Sam 18:25) (King, 2006) — which, in itself, is telling.
The Philistines were one of the Near Eastern peoples who did not practice circumcision. They were the primary enemy of Ancient Israel and, accordingly, disparaged as the "uncircumcised" (e.g., Jgs 15:18; 1 Sam 14:6, 31:4) — that is, different, other, strange, and uncouth even. They represented the dangerous and dominant "Other", and they would later be associated with the Assyrians and Babylonians, and Greeks, who similarly did not circumcise. This raises important questions about why circumcision emerged as the "sign of the covenant" for Ancient Israel.
Circumcision in Ancient Israel...
The practice of circumcision in Ancient Israel was not a puberty rite. It was not administered to adolescents as a trial to demonstrate their manhood or to signal their readiness for marriage — despite the fact that the practice probably emerged as such originally. It was administered to baby boys on the eighth day after birth as a sign of their membership in the clans of Israel. In this sense it was an initiation rite, not into manhood, but into the family.
The concept of family is integral to the concept of Israel. According to the bloodlines of ancient Israel, the members of the Twelve Tribes were related to each other through the patriarchs. But, so too, were they related to other peoples in Canaan and its surrounds; and the "sign" that demonstrated this kinship was circumcision.
We noted above that many West Semitic peoples, including the Canaanites, Ammonites, Moabites, Edomites, and Arameans were also circumcised (Jer 9:25). Israel recognised a common bond with these people, even when they contested with them over land and resources (cf. 1 Chr 1:28-54).
Edom, in particular, were one kindred people with whom Israel had a somewhat ambiguous relationship — a liaison that Genesis (25-28) traces back to the patriarchs of the two peoples, the brothers Isaac (Israel) and Esau (Edom) (Gen 25:30; 32:3; 36:1, 8, 19, 43). We can find a similar relationship between the earlier generation of Jacob and Ishmael, who came to represent the forefathers of Israelites and Arabs respectively (cf. Gen 17:20; 25:12-23).
By contrast, there were other peoples with whom Israel contested who did not practice circumcision; for example, the Hivites, whom Israel displaced as the dominant people in Canaan around the year 1000 B.C.E. Recall the story of the much earlier Hamor the Hivite, who was a legendary prince of Shechem — the key political and commercial centre of Canaan. Israel had to take Shechem if it was to effectively control the land. But, of course, one must always justify a blatant land-grab by sullying the reputation of its present land-holders and demonstrate the righteousness of the aggressor's claim to the land.
According to Genesis, the duplicity of Shechem's citizens goes centuries back to Hamor's son, named like the city, Shechem, who defiled Dinah, the daughter of the Patriarch Jacob. The offense was exacerbated by the fact that the Shechemites were uncircumcised. Shechem was intent upon marrying Dinah however. Shechem "loved the girl and spoke tenderly to her" (Gen 34:3).
Given his son's fondness for girl Hamor said to Jacob's sons: "Intermarry with us; give us your daughters in marriage and marry ours" (Gen 34:9). The sons of Jacob (Simeon and Levi) insisted, however, that marriage could never take place between the Shechemites and the Israelites unless the Shechemites first submitted to circumcision. This was a ruse; after the Shechemites concurred with the condition, the Israelites massacred them "on the third day, when they were still in pain" (Gen 34:25) — which is one way to render a superior enemy powerless; "hit 'em where it still hurts!"
In this story, we find that circumcision was seen as a symbol or "sign" of difference and, perhaps, even defiance in the face of foreign hegemony. It is no accident that the great powers who regularly occupied Israelite territory did not practice circumcision — the Philistines, Assyrians, Babylonians, and Greeks.
Circumcision as Personal "Sign"...
But for all that, circumcision is a hidden sign, which indicates that its significance was primarily personal. It served to remind the Israelite males, the leaders of the clans of Israel, that they and their families were duty-bound to the covenant — a covenant that was not so much written in stone, but "marked in [the] flesh" of the agency by which the clans were propagated (Gen 17:14). It was a covenant wrought in human relationships and obligations; and those obligations pertained primarily to how those human relationships were pursued. Hence, the uncircumcised Hevites were condemned and massacred because they countenanced marriage by rape. Similarly, the Philistines, Assyrians, Babylonians, and Greeks were condemned, not because they did not practice circumcision, but because they invaded, pillaged and carried off into exile the people of Israel.
Even the Edomites who did practice circumcision and who were related ethnically to Israelites were condemned. Their crime was to forget their historical kinship to Israel; indeed, it seems that they were complicit in the destruction of Jerusalem (586 B.C.E.) (Jer 49:7. 17-22; Ezk 25:12-14; 35:15; 36:5; Oba 1:8-14). Accordingly, Ezekiel (32:29) dismisses them as no better than the "uncircumcised" and predicts that their fate will be with all the "uncircumcised" who act with similar immorality and duplicity (cf. Joel 3:19). The entire work of the prophet Obadiah is a condemnation of Edom's scandalous duplicity; "for the slaughter and violence done to their brother Jacob" (Oba 1:10).
By the same token, there were non-Israelite people with whom the Israelites cohabited peacefully and with whom they intermarried. So for instance, the Canaanite inhabitants of Gezer, in the Judean foothills, practiced circumcision and continued to "live amongst" the Israelites peacefully (Jgs 1:29) right up to the time of Solomon, when the town was destroyed by Egypt (1 Kgs 9:16) (King, 2006). The survivors were assimilated into Israelite society, probably through intermarriage.
Up until after the Babylonian Exile (586 B.C.E.), Israelite Law permitted intermarriage. All that was required was that any male kin or offspring were to be circumcised before foreign women could become Israelite brides.
In this way, David could marry an Aramean princess (2 Sam 3:3); Solomon could wed an Egyptian princess (1 Kgs 3:1) along with Moabite, Ammonite, Edomite, Phoenician, and Hittite women (1 Kgs 11:1); Ahab married the Phoenician Jezebel (1 Kgs 16:31); and Chilion married the Moabite Ruth (Ruth 1:4). And all were expected to live according to the covenant law.
Icon of St. Basil the Great and the Circumcision of Christ by Fr. John Matusiak on the website Orthodoxy in China
Initially, circumcision functioned as a national boundary marker and a personal pledge of allegiance to the tribes of Israel and their covenant with YHWH. Later, however, in the post-exilic period national boundaries become geographical and Judahites are forbidden to marry "the peoples of the land" (Ezra 9–10; Neh 10:31, 13:23–27) and circumcision became a mark of ethnic purity more than moral imperatives.
The origins of Israelite practice of male circumcision are shrouded in the mists of history. Elements of the ritual, for example the flint knives used to excise the foreskin, indicate that the practice may be go back to the Stone Age — which is probably why its origins are traced back to Abraham. While the ritual may have begun as a rite of passage for pubescent males, it emerged as a "mark" or "sign" of the covenant with YHWH. With time, it became one of the essential boundary markers delimitating Israelite from non-Israelite. But its ultimate meaning was personal — a "hidden sign" of one's obligations under the covenant with YHWH and the communal nature of those obligations.
What ancient rites and practices have we as modern-day covenanted members of the Judeo-Christian tradition adopted and adapted to our faith practice? There is a salutary lesson here. When it comes to considering our rites and rituals, how much is from God and how much is "man-made" (the non-gender inclusive language is intended)? This question has huge implications for issues such as the translation of missal, the relaxation of the rule governing the use of the Tridentine rite, and, more broadly, liturgical renewal per se, as well as structural issues such as the imposition of mandatory celibacy for clerics and the retention of an exclusive male clergy. To what extent have we "put the cart before the horse", privileging the form over the function of our rituals and rites?
Bibliography and Further Reading:
Cohen, S.J.D. (1999), The Beginnings of Jewishness. Berkeley: University of California.
Hendel, Ronald S. (2002) “That Old Time Religion”, Bible Review, October 12, 58.
King, P. J. (2006) “Circumcision”, Biblical Archaeology Review, July/August, 48-55.
Mitchell, T. C. (1969), “The Meaning of the Noun htn in the Old Testament”, Vetus Testamentum 19: 93–112.
Wreszinski, J. W. (1936), Atlas zur altagyptischen Kulturgeschichte, vol. 3. Leipzig; Hinrich, 25–26.
The illustration used in the headline was sourced from: kansasfamilymedicine.wordpress.com. Clicking on the other images used in the story will take you to the original source.
Dr Ian Elmer is the Lecturer in Biblical Studies at St Paul's Theological College, ACU (Australian Catholic University). He is also on staff at the CECS (Centre for Early Christian Studies), and a member of various professional associations, including ACBA (Australian Catholic Biblical Association) and SBL (Society of Biblical Literature). His research specialities are Paul and First-Century Christianity. He is the author of published articles in the Australian Ejournal of Theology (AJET), Prayer and Spirituality in the Early Church IV and V, and the Australian Biblical Review (ABR). His most recent publication is the monograph Paul, Jerusalem and the Judaisers, WUNT II.258 (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2009).
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