Male circumcision requires the amputation of the foreskin in order to expose the glans of the penis. The Bible mentions that this procedure was common not only among the Israelites but also in Egypt, Edom, Ammon, Moab, and among “all who live in the wilderness” (Jer 9:25-26); conspicuous by its absence is any mention within Mesopotamian cultures. Consequently, when the Lord spoke with Abraham about circumcision (Gen 17:1-14), any familiarity he had with the procedure probably was gleaned during his Egyptian stay rather than from his experience in his former homeland.
Western Semitic people apparently practiced circumcision as a rite of passage into manhood prior to marriage. But it had special meaning for the Israelites. As the Lord confirmed his covenant promises to Abraham, he directed Abraham to circumcise himself and every male member of his household, slave or free, blood relation or not (Gen 17:10-14).
This surgery was likely done with a flint knife (Josh 5:2) and was henceforth to be done on every male child eight days after his birth (Lev 12:3). From this time forward, circumcision became a “sign of the covenant” and a “covenant in your flesh” for the descendants of Abraham (Gen 17:11, 13), showing one’s allegiance and commitment to the divine agenda.
Though this procedure was limited to the male members of the community, females were not left out. Culturally among God’s Old Testament people, no act was perceived as an individual act but had ramifications for the entire clan. So it was that the implications of circumcision extended to all the female members of the clan as well.
The many acts of circumcision during the time of the Old Testament are largely unmentioned; those that are usually involve some misuse of the procedure. For example the shadow of the Lord’s disapproval hung over the act of Jacob’s sons when they persuaded the males of Shechem to undergo circumcision, luring them with the hope that they would enjoy economic advantages when their real intention was to disable the men of the city before attacking them (Gen 34:13-27). We also sense the Lord’s disapproval of the Israelites’ failure to be circumcised when we learn that many Israelites had to be circumcised again because they either had been improperly circumcised in Egypt or were never circumcised at all during their stay in the wilderness (Josh 5:2-5). This is a remarkable omission given the Lord’s statement that those who ignored this right were to be cut off from the people (Gen 17:14). A third misuse of circumcision was merely skin deep. Things were to change on the inside as well. If the external act did not change the inner convictions, then the biblical authors began to address the malady metaphorically: “Circumcise yourselves to the Lord, circumcise your hearts” (Jer 4:4; Deut 10:16; 30:6). END OF PART 1