Ritual circumcision was already practiced by some heathen people before the time of Abraham. Even though the original significance is no longer remembered, the rite was known to be used by some cultures as a sanitary operation, a tribal mark, or a sacrificial portion of flesh to gods after human sacrifices began to decline. Another reason for circumcision was during a rite celebrating the coming of age of a person, and that ancient custom is still being performed, today, in many cultures around the world.1 Ritual male circumcision was also demanded by Almighty God of the Holy Bible in a contract with his people and this use is the focus of our study.
Male circumcision is the removal of the foreskin of the genital organ used in sexual reproduction. The sign or special meaning for this surgical operation in the Old Testament is mentioned in Genesis, chapter 17, when God repeats his covenant of solidarity with Abraham and his descendants and explains his demands.
God said to Abraham, ‘As for you, you shall keep my covenant, you and your offspring after you throughout their generations. This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and your offspring after you: Every male among you shall be circumcised. You shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and you. Throughout your generations every male among you shall be circumcised when he is eight days old . . . .’ (Genesis 17:9-12a).2
“At first, this requirement of circumcision seems very strange. To some extent, no doubt, sanitary and health reasons were involved. If the nation so formed was indeed to endure and to be a witness for God through all generations to come, then it must be physically strong and clean. There is some medical evidence that this practice has indeed contributed to the long-lasting vigor of the Jewish race.”3 More about this will be discussed later.
Although uncomfortable, this original biblical circumcision, as demanded by God, was really a minor procedure where only the very tip of the foreskin was removed. This was that small portion which extended past the bulbous structure (the glans) at the end of the flaccid human penis. The penis bled and needed time to heal, but would still contain a considerable portion of the foreskin, so that the glans was still protected. In its flaccid condition, the penis would appear as uncircumcised.4
An interesting side note is that many art “experts” argue that Michelangelo’s famous statue, ‘David’, should not show him as uncircumcised. But Michelangelo presented him precisely as he should have appeared; he is circumcised, as it would have been done during his time.5
This would be the type of circumcision that Jesus received eight days after his birth. For thousands of years the procedure never changed, from Abraham until around the year 140 A.D., when a second and more radical step to the ritual was introduced. It was dictated by man — not God. The Jewish religious governing body “sought to put an end to the practice of youths desiring to appear uncircumcised by stretching the remaining foreskin for social [and] economic benefits and for sports competitions.” This stretching would obliterate the Jewish cut, so as to disguise ‘the seal of the covenant’.6
In the apocryphal book of 1 Maccabees, there mentions a passage concerning this stretching problem.7 In order for the Jews to get along with Gentiles, “they built a gymnasium in Jerusalem, according to Gentile custom, and removed the marks of circumcision, and abandoned the holy covenant. They joined with the Gentiles and sold themselves to do evil,” (1 Maccabees 1:14-15). The word ‘gymnasium’ comes from the ancient Greek term gymnós meaning ‘naked’.8 This was the way men trained for sport.
To remove the circumcision bloodlessly, they used a restoration device called the pondus Judaeus (Jewish weight). This “was a special weight made of bronze, copper, or leather, which was fixed to [the] . . . skin and pulled it downward.” When it was applied for a long period of time, the foreskin was lengthened, which covered the exposed glans as desired.9
The change in procedure around 140 A.D., to stop the extension process, was to completely excise the remaining foreskin completely exposing the glans. Needless to say, a godly requirement then became a very painful and complicated man-made procedure. This last type of circumcision is basically what was introduced as a popular and routine infant circumcision for Christians during the late eighteenth century and well into the 1900’s. The idea being, if Jesus was circumcised, than Christians should be, too. Most people don’t know that today’s circumcision is vastly different from the one God required and Jesus received.
There were breaks in the practice.
Circumcision was not constantly practiced throughout ancient history, but had periodic breaks, depending upon political, rebellious, or other reasons. As an example, it was abandoned during the Israelite’s 40 year journey in the wilderness. God ordered Joshua to renew the covenant by performing the ritual on all those not circumcised after leaving Egypt. This effectively gave that new generation a fresh start as they were about to enter the land of Canaan.10
Also, “when Greek paganism threatened to swamp Judaism some two centuries before Christ was born, circumcision became a symbolic and distinctive indication of Jewish fidelity to the covenant” and there was a resurgence in the practice.11 Although most Jews during the time of Christ followed the practice, soon after the Christian Church began to form, this practice began to wane, as it was felt no longer necessary (1 Corinthians 7:17-20).
There was, however, some disapproval, such as the protest proclaimed at Antioch, “But some believers who belonged to the sect of the Pharisees stood up and said, ‘It is necessary for them to be circumcised and ordered to keep the law of Moses’,” (Acts 15:1-5).12 For the most part, Christian circumcision has now fallen a bit out of vogue, but it mostly continues in this modern day for followers of Judaism and Islam.
It is Different Now
The fact is, today in this Christian age, the circumcision is no longer biblically required. The Bible tells us in the New Testament, “This is my rule in all the churches. Was anyone at the time of his call already circumcised? Let him not seek to remove the marks of circumcision. Was anyone at the time of his call uncircumcised? Let him not seek circumcision. Circumcision is nothing, and uncircumcision is nothing; but obeying the commandments of God is everything. Let each of you remain in the condition in which you were called,” (1 Corinthians 7:17-20).
Now days, except for Jews, this procedure is usually performed by physicians in hospitals and clinics.13 Concerning the pain of this newer extended surgery, some Jewish scholars believe that the child should not be sedated, although pain-relieving ointment may be used, if necessary. Some say that the act should be painful, as a reminder that it was only necessary because of man’s failures.14 That may help the parents to justify the reason for a screaming child, but the infant sure can’t rationalize why he is in pain.
In more modern times, there have been occasional reasons for a ‘reverse circumcision’ or foreskin restoration process. Although there is not much documentation (because of political reasons), during the Nazi era there was widespread surgical restoration to produce the look of being uncircumcised. Let’s face it, nobody wanted to be denounced as a Jew during that time in history.
Today, English-speaking countries of the West have the most circumcised male populations, but for the larger part, it is not a custom in continental Europe, Scandinavia, or South Africa.15 Of course our discourse is specific to Abrahamic-related circumcision customs (Christian-Jewish-Islamic), not those for other reasons such as fertility rites or tribal rituals or local customs, which are rather widespread in third world countries.16
The United States and England, during the latter Victorian years and even into the 1930s, were especially fond of circumcision, especially to combat masturbation among young men, believing that the procedure would make the male member less sexually sensitive. The irony, however, is that circumcised men believe their penises are more sensitive, but uncircumcised men believe they have more sensitivity. “Sexual sensitivity appears to be in the mind of a man, not in his foreskin,” said Karen Ericksen, psychology professor at the University of California, Davis. It should be noted that during the Victorian era, female circumcision was also practiced in the United States to combat masturbation, although to a much lesser extent.17
But there are some medical reasons for having a male circumcision, as stated in an older issue of British Medical Journal, which actually helped bring on male circumcision popularity in the mid-20th century. Some doctors urged the surgery as a means of preventing paraphimois,18 venereal infection, penile cancer, and even to prevent cervical cancer of women (said to be caused by the introduction of irritant material by the uncircumcised husband during coitus).19
More modern references have further added to the positive effects of male circumcision. Current medical sources, both personal and web-based,20 indicate these are some other advantages: reduction of urinary tract infections, reduced inflammation of the glans or foreskin, and reduced inability to retract the foreskin (balanitis).
And there are more advantages for women, too, if their male partner is circumcised. Besides decreasing chances of cervical cancer, chances are lessened for acquiring HPV (human papillomavirus [technically classified as a sexually transmitted infection]) and BV (bacterial vaginosis).
What does the Bible mean by circumcision of the heart?
“We profess to believe in a God of unspeakable power and goodness, but even while we do so, we find it impossible to attach a sense of reality to his promises. . . . How hard it is for us to learn that God is the great reality, and that the reality of all else may be measured by its relation to him.”21
The lesson of circumcision is old, but the inner circumcision of the heart, to which the outward circumcision cut pointed to, is forever required. That is the true seal of our fellowship with God. It is this turning to God, with our faith and our life, which constitutes the true circumcision of the heart.22 Circumcision of the penis never really promised a righteous position in God’s eyes, but was just a symbol which demonstrated the need for our love, faith, and dependance in God. Therefore, in the course of time, circumcision took much deeper roots.23
If you return, O Israel, declares the LORD, to me you should return. If you remove your detestable things from my presence, and do not waver, and if you swear . . . in truth, in justice, and in righteousness, then nations will bless themselves in him, and in him will they glory. . . . Circumcise yourselves to the LORD; remove the foreskin of your hearts . . . lest my wrath goes forth like fire, and burn with none to quench it, because of the evil of your deeds (Jeremiah 4:1-2,4, ESV).
Like so much in the Bible that has a double meaning, the circumcision is one of those things. Circumcision of the penis was an outward physical sign of a contract; it demonstrated the man (and his family) were members of a chosen people and have faith in God. Circumcision of the heart is an inner sign of a contract; it is spiritual, like baptism, that makes all of us (women and men) individually part of the Church through our faith in Christ.
Why were biblical circumcisions done on the 8th day?
I have often been asked what was the biblical significance of performing the circumcision on the 8th day after birth. The Bible does not state the reason for the ‘8th day rule’, but a couple of notes can be made. In Exodus 22:30 it is implied that first born sons were to be dedicated to God when they were eight days old and the first born of animals were to be sacrificed at that time.24 But also interesting is a modern medical discovery concerning the body’s vitamin ‘K’ production!25 It is a little technical, but here is the reason.
When vitamin K was discovered, it was found to be related to preventing hemorrhaging. It has since been learned that it is responsible for the production of an enzyme (prothrombin) in the liver which, if deficient, could cause hemorrhaging. “Oddly, it is only on the fifth through the seventh days of the newborn male’s life that vitamin K (produced by bacteria in the intestinal tract) is present in adequate quantities. Vitamin K, coupled with prothrombin, causes blood coagulation, which is important in any surgical procedure.” The researchers observed that “a newborn infant has peculiar susceptibility to bleeding between the second and fifth days of life . . . [and] hemorrhages at this time, though often inconsequential, are sometimes extensive; they may produce serious damage to internal organs, especially to the brain, and cause death from shock and exsanguination.”26
On the eighth day, the amount of that enzyme (prothrombin) present is actually elevated above one-hundred percent of normal — and is the only day in the male’s life in which this will be the case under normal conditions. If surgery is to be performed, day eight is the perfect day to do it.27 Was this God’s plan? Knowing that no one of that primitive time could possibly know or understand this information, could he have demanded that the circumcision procedure be performed at the proper time for best survival? It could be, our creator just wanted to make sure the blood would clot after circumcision. What an awesome God — right?
I have always said that I do not believe that science is the enemy of faith, but that science and Christian doctrine can be accommodated together. There are more science-religion related articles on our website; just go down to “Articles by Category” on the right-hand sidebar and chose “Science” to bring up those available articles.
Now, this was a weighty study, but I do wish to add a bit of triviality and humor to end this article. I tried to find a serious and quality song about this subject, but to no avail. So instead, let me add a bit of humor on this circumcision subject. See the last listing in References & Notes for an interesting video.28
Copyright © 2019, Dr. Ray Hermann
→ Leave comments at the end, after References & Notes.
OBS respects your privacy and is also compliant with the European Union GDPR regulation.
References & Notes
- Lewis, T., “Circumcision,” in The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, (Ed.), James Orr, et al., (Chicago: The Howard-Severance Company, 1915), vol. 1, pp. 656–657.
- Unless otherwise noted, scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible (NRSV), ©1989 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
- Morris, Henry M., The Genesis Record: A Scientific and Devotional Commentary on the Book of Beginnings, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1976), p. 333.
- Person, James E., “Circumcision: Then and Now,” (Many Blessings Magazine, Spring 2000), vol. 3, p. 41.
- Ibid., pp. 41-42.
- Werblowsky, R.J. Zwi and Wigoder, Geoffrey., (Eds.), The Oxford Dictionary of the Jewish Religion, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), p. 161.
- Note: The word gymnasium is the Latinization of the Greek noun γυμνάσιον (gymnasion), ‘gymnastic school’, which in turn is derived from the common Greek adjective γυμνός (gymnos) meaning ‘naked’.
“Gymnasium (ancient Greece),” (Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, Inc., 18 September 2019), https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gymnasium_(ancient_Greece)
- Schultheiss, Dirk, et al., “Uncircumcision: A Historical Review of Preputial Restoration,” (Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery, June 1998), vol. 101, no. 7, pp. 1990-1998.
- Dockery, David S., (Ed.), Holman Bible Handbook, (Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers, 1992), 196-197.
- Harrison, R. K., “Circumcision,” in Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology, electronic ed., Baker Reference Library, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1996), p. 98.
- Ibid., p. 99.
- Person, James E., “Circumcision: Then and Now,” (see above), p. 42.
- Montrose, Yaakov, “Lech Lecha – No Pain, No Bris?” in Halachic World – Volume 3: Contemporary Halachic Topics Based on the Parshah, (Spring Valley, NY: Feldheim Publishers 2011), pp. 29-32.
- Gairdner, Douglas, “The Fate of the Foreskin: A Study of Circumcision,” British Medical Journal, December 24, 1949, vol. 2, pp. 1433-1437.
- Note: Today, third world countries can be defined by high poverty rates, economic instability, and lack of basic human resources compared to the rest of the world. This term was originally used to describe political ideologies, but is now used to define economic status.
“Third World Countries 2019,” (World Population Review, 24 October 2019), http://worldpopulationreview.com/countries/third-world-countries/
- Paige, Karen Ericksen, “The Ritual of Circumcision,” (Human Nature Magazine, May 1978), pp. 40-48.
- Note: Paraphimosis is a medical condition in which the foreskin of a penis becomes trapped behind the glans, and cannot be returned to its original normal flaccid position.
“Paraphimosis,” (Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, Inc., 17 October 2019), https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paraphimosis
- Gairdner, Douglas, “The Fate of the Foreskin: A Study of Circumcision,” BMJ, (see above).
- “Circumcision Basics,” (WebMD, retrieved 14 November 2019), https://www.webmd.com/sexual-conditions/guide/circumcision
- Dods, Marcus, “The Book of Genesis,” in The Expositor’s Bible: Genesis to Ruth, W. Robertson Nicoll, (Ed.), (Hartford, CT: S.S. Scranton Co., 1903), vol. 1, p. 46.
- Exell, Joseph S., The Biblical Illustrator: Genesis, (London: James Nisbet & Co., n.d. [about 1905]), vol. 1, 657.
- Hannah, John D., “Exodus,” in The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures, Ed. by J. F. Walvoord and R. B. Zuck, (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1985), vol. 1, p. 143.
- Note: Vitamin K is a related group of fat-soluble vitamins found in foods and in dietary supplements. The human body requires vitamin K for complete synthesis of certain proteins that are needed for blood coagulation (‘K’ from Koagulation [Danish for “coagulation”]) or for controlling binding of calcium in bones and other tissues.
“Vitamin K,” (Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, Inc., 11 November 2019), https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vitamin_K
- Holt, L.E. and McIntosh, R., Holt Pediatrics, (New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1953), 12th ed., pp. 125-126.
- “Hugh Jackman Loses It Over Sir Patrick Stewart’s Ridiculous Circumcision Story,” The Graham Norton Show (UK comedy-chat show on BBC), uploaded 24 February 2019, VIDEO – https://youtu.be/8utAagjD8SE