Monday, June 3, 2013

The origins of Jewish circumcision

The first time we are introduced to the idea of circumcision in the Bible is in Genesis chapter 17 where God makes an everlasting covenant with Abram (Abraham) and orders circumcision as a sign of the pact he has made.

Circumcision: (Lat. To cut around) Removal of a man's foreskin. In Judaism, it is ritually performed when a boy is eight days old in a ceremony called a brit milah,which indicates that the ritual establishes a covenant between God and the individual. Jewish Virtual Library

  Circumcision ceremony

4“As for me, this is my covenant with you: You will be the father of many nations. 5No longer will you be called Abram ; your name will be Abraham, for I have made you a father of many nations. 6I will make you very fruitful; I will make nations of you, and kings will come from you. 7I will establish my covenant as an everlasting covenant between me and you and your descendants after you for the generations to come, to be your God and the God of your descendants after you. 8The whole land of Canaan, where you now reside as a foreigner, I will give as an everlasting possession to you and your descendants after you; and I will be their God.” Genesis 17:4-8

In the passage cited above God makes several promises to Abraham. He promises that Abraham would be the fruitful and the father of many nations from which Kings will be born.The covenant is binding to Abraham and his descendants as an everlasting covenant. The land of Canaan is promised to Abraham and his descendants as an everlasting possession. Notice also that God changes Abram's name to Abraham there is a reason for this.

'Abram  (ab-rawm')
high father; Abram, the original name of Abraham -- Abram.

'Abraham  (ab-raw-hawm')
father of a multitude; Abraham, the later name of Abram -- Abraham.
"In Jewish thought, a name is not merely an arbitrary designation, a random combination of sounds. The name conveys the nature and essence of the thing named. It represents the history and reputation of the being named." Jewish Virtual Library 

 That was God's part of the covenant but of course God also had assigned for man certain conditions that he also had to adhere to.

9Then God said to Abraham, “As for you, you must keep my covenant, you and your descendants after you for the generations to come. 10This is my covenant with you and your descendants after you, the covenant you are to keep: Every male among you shall be circumcised. 11You are to undergo circumcision, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and you. 12For the generations to come every male among you who is eight days old must be circumcised, including those born in your household or bought with money from a foreigner—those who are not your offspring.  Genesis 17:9-12 

According to the above cited text mans part in this pact or covenant with God was to be marked on his flesh in the form of circumcision. Basically the foreskin of a child is removed from the penis once that child is eight days old. Like the other stipulations of the covenant on God's part man part was also meant to be  an everlasting covenant.

13Whether born in your household or bought with your money, they must be circumcised. My covenant in your flesh is to be an everlasting covenant.  Genesis 17:13

Some theists trying to demonstrate the "wisdom" of God try to point out that circumcision has certain health benefits as opposed to those that do not undergo the procedure. A quick overview and more detailed look at these benefits can be researched at  Some of those benefits are as follows derived from the above cited source:

• Decrease in physical problems involving a tight foreskin [Ohjimi et al., 1995].
• Lower incidence of inflammation of the head of the penis [Escala & Rickwood, 1989; Fakjian et al., 1990; Edwards, 1996].
• Reduced urinary tract infections.
• Fewer problems with erections, especially at puberty.
• Decrease in certain sexually transmitted infections (STIs) such as HIV, HPV, genital herpes, syphilis and other micro-organisms in men and their partner(s).
• Almost complete elimination of invasive penile cancer.
• Decrease in urological problems generally.

Although this may be true, I don't think that the authors of the bible had this in mind when they came up with the idea. So you may ask yourself if this is true of the Jewish nation then why don't Christians practice circumcision ritually? Stay tuned, for that my friends is the subject of my next post. 

Note: All biblical quotations are from the New International Version and Hebrew definitions of terms are derived from the Jewish Virtual Library. The information on circumcision and its medical benefits is derived from


  1. If god's "advice" to Abram was so "wise," why were foreskins created in the first place?

    1. Yeh if they were that bad god would have not been that silly to create them in the first place. Unless.....god does not exist. ;)

    2. Because thankfully God does not exist and foreskins like any other part of our anatomy comes from our genetic make up and natural selection. No god required!

  2. I suspect that ritual circumcision came about in a manner similar to other Judaic rites and taboos. For example, folks noticed that (undercooked) pork could result in illness or death, so swine were declared "unclean." Likewise, uncircumcised males often experienced the problems already cited, and so circumcision was made a ritual.

    The easiest way to enforce resistance to self-destructive behavior was for the priesthood to declare that the solutions were ordained by god. People have, unfortunately, always been more willing to follow religious dogma than to observe common sense.

    1. Nicely put Paul! I've always had a similar theory about such matters. Modern readers try to read into the ancient texts today's knowledge, or to cite a popular biblical passage they try to put "new wine into old bottles." Mark 2:21-22

      Although the text is about the question of fasting the wine can also easily represent knowledge.