Holman Bible Dictionary
Circumcision is the act of removing the foreskin of the male genital. In ancient Israel this act was ritually performed on the eighth day after birth upon children of natives, servants, and aliens (Leviticus 9:3 ). Circumcision was carried out by the father initially, utilizing a flint knife (compare Joshua 5:3 ). Later specialists were employed among the Jewish people.
Origin Several theories seek to explain and describe the nature and origin of circumcision: (1) initiatory rite—before marriage (as the Shechemites in Genesis 34:14-24 ) or at puberty; (2) physical hygiene—to prevent the attraction or transmission of diseases; (3) tribal mark of distinction; (4) rite of entry into the community of faith. In the Old Testament the origin of Israelite practice was founded upon the circumcision of Abraham as a sign of the covenant between God and the patriarch (Genesis 17:10 ). Physical hygiene and tribal distinction resulted from circumcision, but the aspect of covenant sign which marked one's entry into the community of Yahwistic faith is the focus in the Hebrew Scriptures.
Ancient Near Eastern background Several Semitic and non-Semitic peoples practiced circumcision according to biblical and other sources. Jeremiah depicts Egyptians, Edomites, Ammonites, Moabites, and the desert-dwelling Arabians as circumcised peoples (Jeremiah 9:25-26; compare Ezekiel 32:17-32 ). On the other hand Philistines, Assyrians, and Babylonians are counted among the uncircumcised. That the Canaanites are not mentioned in either regard is noteworthy. Evidence of their perspective of circumcision is lacking. In modern times the practice exists among Mohammedan Arabs and many African and Australian tribes, as well as much of Western society.
Israelite practice The circumcision of Abraham and the male members of his entourage followed the repetition of the covenant promise (see Genesis 15:1 ) of land and national descendants (Genesis 17:1 ). Isaac, Ishmael, and other descendants of the patriarchal family were circumcised (Genesis 17:23-27 ). Moses' circumcision took place only immediately prior to his confrontation with the Pharaoh (Exodus 4:24-26 ). The tie between land and circumcision in the covenant is reflected in the purification of Israelites at Gilgal following the entry of Israel into the Promised Land (Joshua 5:2-9 ). Passover was limited to those who had been circumcised (Exodus 12:48; Joshua 5:10-11 ).
Ethical implications of circumcision can be observed in the metaphorical usage of the term. The uncircumcised are those who are insensitive to God's leadership. Circumcision of the heart implies total devotion to God (Deuteronomy 10:16; Jeremiah 4:4 ); however, the uncircumcised ear cannot hear so as to respond to the Lord (Jeremiah 6:10 ); and the uncircumcised of lips cannot speak (Exodus 6:12 ). Circumcision was therefore an external sign of an internal singularity of devotion of Yahweh.
Circumcision and Christianity Controversy arose in the early church (Acts 10-15 ) as to whether Gentile converts need be circumcised. First century A.D. Jews disdained the uncircumcised. The leadership of the apostle Paul in the Jerusalem Council was crucial in the settlement of the dispute: circumcision was not essential to Christian faith and fellowship. Circumcision of the heart via repentance and faith were the only requirements (Romans 4:9-12; Galatians 2:15-21 ).
R. Dennis Cole
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