Removal of the prepuce or foreskin from the male penis or the clitoris or internal labia of females. Circumcision literally means “cutting around” and is a relatively simple operation when performed on infant boys, but more painful when done to adult men. (Gen. 34:24, 25) Circumcision of females, although practiced among certain pagan societies, sometimes in a most brutal fashion, is not mentioned in the Scriptures.
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 thirteen-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.—Gen. 17:1, 9-14, 23-27.
Circumcision was practiced in Egypt, as illustrated in wall paintings and observed in mummies, but when it was first introduced in that country, and to what extent it was performed, is uncertain. 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, pp. 590, 591.
The Assyrians, Babylonians, 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.—Judg. 14:3; 15:18; 1 Sam. 14:6; 17:26; 18:25-27; 2 Sam. 1:20; 1 Chron. 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.” (Gen. 21:4) 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.” (Gen. 34:13-24) When Moses neglected to circumcise his son, he incurred God’s wrath until his wife Zipporah did it for him.—Ex. 4:24-26.
PERFORMED ON THE EIGHTH DAY
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.” (Lev. 12:2, 3) So important was it that, if the eighth day fell on the highly regarded sabbath, circumcision was to be performed anyway. (John 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 Baptist, Jesus and Paul. (Luke 1:59; 2:21; Phil. 3:4, 5) The Law also required aliens to be circumcised before they were allowed to eat the passover.—Ex. 12:43-48.
Why was the eighth day specified for circumcision? Jehovah did not explain, nor was it necessary that he do so. His ways are always right; his reasons the best. (2 Sam. 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, 1963, pp. 22, 23.
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.—Luke 1:59, 60; 2:21.
During the forty-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.—Josh. 5:2-9.
AFTER THE EXILE
Two centuries after the Jews returned from Babylon, Greek influence began to dominate the Near 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.” (Gen. 17:11) Years later Roman Emperor Hadrian got the same results when forbidding the Jews to circumcise their boys. Some Jewish athletes, however, who thought more of participating naked in the Hellenistic games than remaining faithful to Jehovah endeavored to become “uncircumcised” by an operation aimed at restoring some semblance of a foreskin and thus 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.”—1 Cor. 7:18.
NOT REQUIRED OF CHRISTIANS
After Jehovah had shown 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.—Acts 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. (Acts 16:1-3; 1 Cor. 9:20) The apostle dealt with the subject in several letters. (Rom. 2:25-29; Gal. 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. (Phil. 3:3) And to those in Corinth this same apostle wrote: “Circumcision does not mean a thing, and uncircumcision means not a thing, but observance of God’s commandments does.”—1 Cor. 7:19.
In a symbolic sense “circumcision” is used as a figure of speech in a number of ways. After planting a tree in the Promised Land, for example, “for three years it will continue uncircumcised for you”; its fruit was considered its “foreskin” and not to be eaten. (Lev. 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.—Ezek. 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.” (Deut. 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 affections or motives that is displeasing and unclean in Jehovah’s eyes and which makes the heart unresponsive. Similarly, ears that are not sensitive or responsive are spoken of as “uncircumcised.”—Jer. 6:10; Acts 7:51.
Characteristic of the various health regulations of the Mosaic law, there are numerous hygienic advantages resulting from circumcision. The folds of the foreskin allow accumulations to collect that, together with the warmth and moisture, provide a fertile breeding ground for microorganisms of various diseases. Circumcision removes such a condition. Cancer of both the male penis, and, in turn, of the wife’s cervex is drastically reduced. Reports Science News Letter (October 31, 1964, p. 281): “The reason for circumcision is cleanliness, to prevent accumulation of an irritating mixture called smegma in the narrow space between the male glans and the overlying foreskin. There is little cervical cancer among Jewish women, studies have shown, and this is believed due to the fact that Jewish males are customarily circumcised.” Recently, uncircumcision has also been implicated as a factor in epilepsy. These good health and sociological merits, therefore, were additional advantages enjoyed by the descendants of Abraham who respected God’s covenant and took upon themselves the sign or seal of circumcision.—Acts 7:8; Rom. 4:9-12.