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Bible Dictionaries

Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible


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CIRCUMCISION . This rite is not of Israelite origin; there are some good grounds for the belief that it came to the Israelites from the Egyptians. The fact of a flint being used for its performance ( Joshua 5:2-3 ) witnesses to the immense antiquity of the rite. Its original meaning and object are hidden in obscurity, though the theory that it was regarded as a necessary preliminary to marriage has much to commend it. Among the Israelites it became the sign of the Covenant People; whoever was uncircumcised could not partake of the hopes of the nation, nor could such join in the worship of Jahweh; he could not be reckoned an Israelite ( Genesis 17:14 ). Not only was every Israelite required to undergo circumcision, but even every slave acquired by the Israelites from foreign lands had likewise to be circumcised ( Genesis 17:12-13 ); according to Exodus 12:48-49 even a stranger sojourning in the midst of Israel had to submit to the rite, at all events if he wished to join in the celebration of the Passover. Originally male children were not circumcised in Israel (cf. Joshua 5:5-9 ), but boys had to undergo it on arriving at the age of puberty; but in later days the Law commanded that every male child should be circumcised on the eighth day after birth ( Leviticus 12:3 ).

In the OT there are two accounts as to the occasion on which circumcision was first practised by the Israelites; according to Genesis 17:10-14 the command was given to Abraham to observe the rite as a sign of the covenant between God and him, as representing the nation that was to be; while according to Exodus 4:25-26 its origin is connected with Moses. It was the former that, in later days, was always looked upon as its real origin; and thus the rite acquired a purely religious character, and it has been one of the distinguishing marks of Judaism ever since the Exile. The giving of a name at circumcision ( Luke 1:59; Luke 2:21 ) did not belong to the rite originally, but this has been the custom among Jews ever since the return from the Captivity, and probably even before.

In the early Church St. Paul had a vigorous warfare to wage against his Judaizing antagonists, and it became a vital question whether the Gentiles could be received into the Christian community without circumcision. As is well known, St. Paul gained the day, but it was this question of circumcision, which involved of course the observance of the entire Mosaic Law, that was the rock on which union between the early Christians and the Judaizing Christians split. Henceforth the Jewish and the Christian communities drifted further and further apart.

Circumcision in its symbolic meaning is found fairly frequently in the OT; an ‘uncircumcised heart’ is one from which disobedience to God has not been ‘cut off’ (see Leviticus 26:41 , Deuteronomy 10:16; Deuteronomy 30:6 ); the expression ‘uncircumcised lips’ ( Exodus 6:12; Exodus 6:30 ) would be equivalent to what is said of Moses, as one who ‘spake unadvisedly with his lips’ ( Psalms 106:33 , cf. Isaiah 6:5 ); in Jeremiah 6:10 we have the expression ‘their ear is uncircumcised’ in reference to such as will not hearken to the word of the Lord. A like figurative use is found in the NT ( e.g. Colossians 2:11; Colossians 2:13 ).

W. O. E. Oesterley.

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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'CircuMcIsion'. Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible. 1909.

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