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Kitto's Popular Cyclopedia of Biblical Literature


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The history of Jewish Circumcision lies on the surface of the Old Testament. Abraham received the rite from Jehovah, Moses established it as a national ordinance, and Joshua carried it into effect before the Israelites entered the land of Canaan. Males only were subjected to the operation, and it was to be performed on the eighth day of the child's life: foreign slaves also were forced to submit to it, on entering an Israelites family. Those who are unacquainted with other sources of information on the subject besides the Scriptures might easily suppose that the rite was original with Abraham, characteristic of his seed, and practiced among those nations only who had learned it from them. This, however, appears not to have been the case.

First of all, the Egyptians were a circumcised people. It has been alleged by some writers that this was not true of the whole nation, but of the priests only. A great preponderance of argument, however, appears to us to prove that the rite was universal among the old Egyptians, as long as their native institutions flourished; although there is no question that, under Persian and Greek rule, it gradually fell into disuse, and was retained chiefly by the priests and by those who desired to cultivate ancient wisdom.

The Colchians, who, according to Herodotus, were a colony from Egypt, learned the practice from the Egyptians, as also did the savage Troglodytes of Africa. Herodotus, moreover, tells us that the Ethiopians were also circumcised; and he was in doubt whether they had learned the rite from the Egyptians, or the Egyptians from them. By the Ethiopians we must understand him to mean the inhabitants of Meroe or Sennaar. In the present day the Coptic Church continues to practice it; the Abyssinian Christians do the same; and that it was not introduced among the latter with a Judaical Christianity appears from their performing it upon both sexes. Oldendorp describes the rite as widely spread through Western Africa—16° on each side of the Line—even among natives that are not Muhammadan. In later times it has been ascertained that it is practiced by the Kafir nations in South Africa, whom Prichard supposes to form 'a great part of the native population of Africa to the southward of the Equator.'

How far the rite was extended through the Syro-Arabian races is uncertain, but there can be no doubt that it was widely diffused among them. The Philistines, in the days of Saul, were however uncircumcised; so also, says Herodotus, were all the Phoenicians who had intercourse with the Greeks. That the Canaanites, in the days of Jacob, were not all circumcised, is plain from the affair of Dinah and Shechem. The story of Zipporah (), who did not circumcise her son until fear came over her, that Jehovah would slay her husband Moses, proves that the family of Jethro, the Midianite, had no fixed rule about it, although the Midianites are generally regarded as children of Abraham by Keturah. On the other hand, we have the distinct testimony of Josephus, that the Ishmaelite Arabs, inhabiting the district of Nabataea, were circumcised after their thirteenth year. The fact that the books of Moses, of Joshua, and of Judges, never bestow the epithet uncircumcised as a reproach on any of the seven nations of Canaan, any more than on the Moabites or Ammonites, the Amalekites, the Midianites, or other inland tribes with whom they came into conflict, taken in connection with the circumstance, that as soon as the Philistines became prominent in the narrative, after the birth of Samson, this epithet is of rather common occurrence, and that the bringing back, as a trophy, the foreskins of slain enemies, never occurs except against the Philistines (1 Samuel 18), would lead us to conclude, that while the Philistines, like the Sidonians and the other maritime Syrian nations known to the Greeks, were wholly strangers to the practice, it was common among the Canaanites and all the more inland tribes.

How far the rite of circumcision spread over the south-west of Arabia no definite record subsists. The silence of the Koran confirms the statement of Abulfedâ, that the custom is older than Mohammed, who, it would appear, in no respect regarded it as a religious rite. Nevertheless it has extended itself with the Mohammedan faith, as though it were a positive ordinance. Pocock cites a tradition, which ascribes to Mohammed the words—'Circumcision is an ordinance for men and honorable in women.' This extension of the rite to the other sex might, in itself, satisfy us that it did not come to those nations from Abraham and Ishmael. We have already seen that Abyssinian circumcision has the same peculiarity: so that it is every way probable that Southern Arabia had the rite from the same source or influence as Ethiopia. In fact, the very closest relations are known to have subsisted between the nations on the opposite coasts of the Red Sea.

The moral meaning of the word 'uncircumcised' was a natural result of its having been made legally essential to Hebrew faith. 'Uncircumcised in heart and ears' was a metaphor to which a prophet would be carried, as necessarily as a Christian teacher to such phrases as 'unbaptized in soul,' or 'washed by regeneration.' If, however, we try to take a step farther back still, and ask why this ordinance in particular was selected, as so eminently essential to the seed of Abraham, we probably find that we have reached a point at which we must be satisfied with knowing the fact without the reason. Every external ordinance, as for instance baptism, must have more or less that is arbitrary in it. It is, however, abundantly plain that circumcision was not intended to separate the Jews from other nations generally, for it could not do so: and, least of all, from the Egyptians, as the words in Joshua () show. Rather, it was a well known and already understood symbol of purity.





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Bibliography Information
Kitto, John, ed. Entry for 'CircuMcIsion'. "Kitto's Popular Cyclopedia of Biblical Literature".

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