The removal of the prepuce, or foreskin, from the male penis. The Hebrew verb mul (circumcise) is used in a literal and a figurative sense. The Greek noun pe·ri·to·meʹ (circumcision) literally means “a cutting around.” (Joh 7:22) “Uncircumcision” is rendered from the Greek term a·kro·by·stiʹa, which was used in the Greek Septuagint to translate the Hebrew word for “foreskin.”—Ro 2:25; Ge 17:11, LXX.
Jehovah God made circumcision mandatory for Abraham in 1919 B.C.E., a year before Isaac’s birth. God said: “This is my covenant that you men will keep . . . Every male of yours must get circumcised.” Every male in Abraham’s household of both his descendants and dependents was included, and so Abraham, his 13-year-old son Ishmael, and all his slaves took upon themselves this “sign of the covenant.” New slaves brought in also had to be circumcised. From then on, any male of the household, slave or free, was to be circumcised the eighth day after birth. Disregard for this divine requirement was punishable by death.—Ge 17:1, 9-14, 23-27.
Circumcision was practiced in Egypt, as is illustrated in wall paintings and observed in mummies, but it is uncertain when it was first introduced in that country and to what extent it was performed. Some say that Joseph as food administrator introduced it to Egypt. Others cite Herodotus as authority for their claim that Abraham simply borrowed the custom from the Egyptians. Answering these latter claims, W. M. Thomson says: “As to the testimony of Herodotus, who came into Egypt fifteen centuries after, and, with great learning and research, often writes a good deal of nonsense, I refuse utterly to put it in the same category with that of Moses. The great founder of the Jewish commonwealth—the greatest lawgiver on record—born and bred in Egypt, states the facts in relation to the introduction of circumcision among his people. A mere traveller and historian—a foreigner and a Greek—comes along very much later, and makes statements which are partly true, partly erroneous, as Josephus shows in his answer to Apion; and then sceptical authors, more than twenty centuries later than Herodotus, bring up his imperfect statements, and, twisting and expanding them, attempt to prove that Abraham did not receive circumcision from God (as Moses plainly says he did), but from the Egyptians! Not with such weapons can the veracity of Moses be successfully assailed.”—The Land and the Book, revised by J. Grande, 1910, p. 593.
Not only did the Egyptians practice circumcision but the Moabites, the Ammonites, and the Edomites also did. (Jer 9:25, 26) Later, the Samaritans that adhered to the requirements set out in the Pentateuch were also circumcised. On the other hand, the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Greeks, and notably the Philistines did not practice circumcision. The latter in particular, rather than the Canaanites in general, are derogatorily spoken of as “the uncircumcised,” and it was from fighting with them that trophies of foreskins were brought.—Jg 14:3; 15:18; 1Sa 14:6; 17:26; 18:25-27; 2Sa 1:20; 1Ch 10:4.
Abraham’s descendants through Isaac and Jacob faithfully kept the covenant of circumcision. “Abraham proceeded to circumcise Isaac his son when eight days old, just as God had commanded him.” (Ge 21:4; Ac 7:8; Ro 4:9-12) The great-grandsons of Abraham told Shechem and his fellow townsmen: “We cannot possibly . . . give our sister [Dinah] to a man who has a foreskin . . . Only on this condition can we give consent to you, that you become like us, by every male of yours getting circumcised.” (Ge 34:13-24) Apparently because Moses neglected to circumcise his son, he incurred God’s wrath until his wife Zipporah did it for him.—Ex 4:24-26; see ZIPPORAH.
Circumcision Under the Law. Circumcision was made a mandatory requirement of the Mosaic Law. “On the eighth day [after the birth of a male] the flesh of his foreskin will be circumcised.” (Le 12:2, 3) So important was it that, if the eighth day fell on the highly regarded Sabbath, circumcision was to be performed anyway. (Joh 7:22, 23) Examples of parents under this Law who faithfully had their children circumcised on the eighth day include the parents of John the Baptizer, Jesus, and Paul. (Lu 1:59; 2:21; Php 3:4, 5) The Law also required aliens to be circumcised before they were allowed to eat the passover.—Ex 12:43-48.
Why did the Law specify that circumcision be done on the eighth day?
Jehovah did not explain, nor was it necessary that he do so. His ways are always right; his reasons, the best. (2Sa 22:31) However, in recent years man has learned some of the physical reasons why the eighth day was a good time to circumcise. Normal amounts of the blood-clotting element called vitamin K are not found in the blood until the fifth to the seventh day after birth. Another clotting factor known as prothrombin is present in amounts only about 30 percent of normal on the third day but on the eighth day is higher than at any other time in the child’s life—as much as 110 percent of normal. So, following Jehovah’s instructions would help to avoid the danger of hemorrhage. As Dr. S. I. McMillen observes: “From a consideration of vitamin K and prothrombin determinations the perfect day to perform a circumcision is the eighth day . . . [the] day picked by the Creator of vitamin K.”—None of These Diseases, 1986, p. 21.
Circumcision was usually, though not always, performed by the head of the house. In later times an official designated and trained for this operation was used. By the first century it appears to have become the custom to name the boy when he was circumcised.—Lu 1:59, 60; 2:21.
During the 40-year wilderness wandering, circumcision of the baby boys was not performed. So after crossing the Jordan, Joshua had all those males circumcised with flint knives at Gilgal, and Jehovah protected them until they recuperated.—Jos 5:2-9; see REPROACH.
After the Exile. Two centuries after the Jews returned from Babylon, Greek influence began to dominate the Middle East, and many peoples abandoned circumcision. But when Syrian King Antiochus IV (Epiphanes) proscribed circumcision, he found Jewish mothers willing to die rather than deny their sons the “sign of the covenant.” (Ge 17:11) Years later Roman Emperor Hadrian got the same results when forbidding the Jews to circumcise their boys. Some Jewish athletes, however, who desired to participate in Hellenistic games (in which runners wore no clothing) endeavored to become “uncircumcised” by an operation aimed at restoring some semblance of a foreskin in an effort to avoid scorn and ridicule. Paul may have alluded to such a practice when he counseled Christians: “Was any man called circumcised? Let him not become uncircumcised.” (1Co 7:18) The Greek verb here rendered “become uncircumcised” (e·pi·spaʹo·mai) literally means “draw upon,” evidently referring to drawing the prepuce forward in order to become as if uncircumcised.—Compare Int.
Not Required of Christians. After Jehovah showed his acceptance of Gentiles into the Christian congregation, and since many from the nations were responding to the preaching of the good news, a decision had to be made by the governing body at Jerusalem on the question, Is it necessary for Gentile Christians to get circumcised in the flesh? The conclusion of the matter: The “necessary things” for Gentiles and Jews alike did not include circumcision.—Ac 15:6-29.
Paul circumcised Timothy shortly after the decree was issued, not as a matter of faith, but to avoid prejudicing Jews to whom they were going to preach. (Ac 16:1-3; 1Co 9:20) The apostle dealt with the subject in several letters. (Ro 2:25-29; Ga 2:11-14; 5:2-6; 6:12-15; Col 2:11; 3:11) “We are those with the real circumcision [of the heart], who are rendering sacred service by God’s spirit,” Paul wrote Gentile Christians at Philippi. (Php 3:3) And to those in Corinth he wrote: “Circumcision does not mean a thing, and uncircumcision means not a thing, but observance of God’s commandments does.”—1Co 7:19.
Figurative Usage. “Circumcision” is used figuratively in a number of ways. After planting a tree in the Promised Land, for example, it was said to “continue uncircumcised” for three years; its fruit was considered its “foreskin” and was not to be eaten. (Le 19:23) Moses said to Jehovah: “Look! I am uncircumcised in lips, so how will Pharaoh ever listen to me?” (Ex 6:12, 30) In a figurative way “uncircumcised ones” describes with repulsive contempt those worthy only of burial in a common place with slain ones of the lowest sort.—Eze 32:18-32.
Circumcision of the heart was a divine requirement of even the Israelites who were already circumcised in the flesh. Moses told Israel: “You must circumcise the foreskin of your hearts and not harden your necks any longer.” “Jehovah your God will have to circumcise your heart and the heart of your offspring, that you may love Jehovah your God with all your heart and all your soul for the sake of your life.” (De 10:16; 30:6) Jeremiah reminded that wayward nation in his day of the same thing. (Jer 4:4) ‘Circumcision of the heart’ means getting rid of anything in one’s thinking, affections, or motives that is displeasing and unclean in Jehovah’s eyes and that makes the heart unresponsive. Similarly, ears that are not sensitive or responsive are spoken of as “uncircumcised.”—Jer 6:10; Ac 7:51.