Old Testament

Understanding Circumcision in the Bible

Circumcision is a prominent theme in both the Old and New Testaments. Many Christians have not given much thought to the significance behind circumcision. Why were Israelites circumcised? Although circumcision was practiced by other cultures and religions, it holds a special value for the Israelites. In this article, we will explore the reasons behind this ancient practice of circumcision and what it meant for the Old Testament Israelites.

Photo of ancient Egyptian flint knife used for circumcision
Egyptian Flint Knife

Circumcision and the Egyptians

Although we know about circumcision primarily through the Old Testament description, it was not a unique custom known only to Israel. Jeremiah 9:25–26 provides a list of nations that seem to have practiced circumcision. Besides Judah, this list specifies Egypt, Edom, the sons of Ammon, and Moab. Out of all the nations listed, Abraham appears to have had the most significant interactions with Egypt. He spent time in Egypt during a severe famine in Canaan (Gen 12:10–20) and at least 23 years with Hagar, an Egyptian maidservant (Gen 16:1–3; 17:25). In the time after Abraham, Israel spent over 400 years in Egypt where they developed as a nation and continued to practice the rite of circumcision, apparently unaltered (cf. Exod 4:24–26; 12:44, 48; Lev 12:3; Josh 5:2–9). Although Scripture is silent on the issue, it seems reasonable that when God instituted the sign of circumcision with Abraham, he interpreted circumcision in light of his familiarity with Egypt. 

Egyptian circumcision differed from Israelite circumcision in a variety of ways. First, Egyptian circumcision involved only a slight incision in the foreskin, rather than a removal of the entire foreskin as practiced by Israel. Second, the Egyptians performed circumcision on males 6–14 years old, rather than on male infants eight days old. Third, the evidence seems to indicate that circumcision was obligatory for only the rulers and priests of Egypt, but in Israel it was required for every male Israelite (Gen 17:10). After presenting and evaluating the Egyptian evidence, Meade concludes, “Egyptian circumcision functioned as a specific, voluntary, and initiatory rite to identify and affiliate the subject with the deity and to signify devotion to the same deity” (Meade, 45).

Given the above information, I believe we can reasonably establish the purpose of Egyptian circumcision. Since Egyptian circumcision focused primarily on the royal and priestly class, it seems correct to understand Egyptian circumcision as some sort of divine dedication of royalty or priests. If Israel was aware of the dedicatory implications of the Egyptian rite of circumcision for the royal and priestly class, then it would be natural to associate the sign of circumcision with the role of being a kingdom of priests. The title “kingdom of priests” is exactly how God labels Israel in Exodus 19:6. If this understanding is correct, circumcision would at least be marking Israel out for a special role as a kingdom of priests. But it is unlikely that this nuance exhausts the full meaning of circumcision for the ancient Israelites.

The Context of Biblical Circumcision

In addition to the likely Ancient Near Eastern background of Egyptian circumcision, Scripture itself provides a helpful description that allows us to discern the meaning and significance of circumcision. Genesis 17 is the initial mention of circumcision in the Bible, and the context of the sign of circumcision is God’s promise of an eternal covenant (Gen 17:7, 13, 19). Importantly, Genesis 17 was not the initiation of the covenant. God had already initiated and instituted His covenant with Abraham previously (cf. Gen 12:1–3, 7; 13:14–17; 15:7–21). As part of the covenant, God had promised Abraham blessing, descendants, land, nations, and kings. Circumcision was a sign that was tied to these promises of the Abrahamic covenant.

How Signs Work in the Old Testament

A sign in the Old Testament can function in three different ways. First, a proof sign endeavors to prove a proposition through extraordinary display. An example of this would be Isaiah 38, where God promises Hezekiah that He will add 15 years to his life (in response to his repentance), as well as deliver Jerusalem from the king of Assyria. To prove that this prophecy would occur, the prophet Isaiah says God will give a sign, specifically, the sundial will turn back ten steps (vv. 7–8). Second, a symbol sign represents something through association or similarity. An example of this is when Ezekiel sets up a model of Jerusalem under siege using a brick and an iron griddle, which is called “a sign for the house of Israel” (Ezek 4:1–3). Finally, there can also be a cognition sign, the purpose of which is to bring to remembrance something in the mind of an observer. One can further subdivide a cognition sign into two categories: identity signs, which mark something as having a specific identity or function, and mnemonic signs, which bring to mind something already known. An example of an identity sign would be the banners of Numbers 2:2, which each tribe would fly to identify the encampments. Although the ESV translates this word as “banners,” the Hebrew word simply means signs. An example of a mnemonic sign is Exodus 13:9, where the eating of unleavened bread is a sign which reminds Israel of the Exodus experience and how God brought them out of Egypt.

In light of the above categories, how is the sign of circumcision functioning within the Abrahamic covenant? To answer this question, some scholars point to similarities in Genesis 9:8–17, where the rainbow functions as a mnemonic sign to remind God of His covenant between the creation and Creator. The rainbow reminds God that He will never again destroy the world by flood (vv. 15–16). If the sign of circumcision is like the sign of the rainbow, then the sign of circumcision could be a reminder to God to be faithful to His covenant with Abraham to make his descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky (Gen 15:5).

However, although there are a few parallels with the Noahic covenant, Genesis 17 does not indicate that the sign of the covenant is to remind God of anything. Thus, it is conjecture to say that the sign of circumcision is to remind God of something. Moreover, in contrast to the Noahic covenant, there are significant obligations placed upon Abraham to walk blamelessly (v. 2). As such, although it is possible that the sign of the covenant reminds God of His promises, it seems more in line with the context of Genesis 17 and the command to be blameless that the sign would remind Abraham and his descendants of the need to live holy and righteous lives before God as His chosen people in light of His promises. This emphasis would seem to coincide with the Egyptian concept of circumcision being a mark of dedication and commitment to a deity.

Putting it All Together

Within the context of Genesis 17, circumcision as a mark of dedication and commitment to God makes sense. However, there are later texts where this idea of dedication and commitment to God do not seem to be the best understanding of circumcision. When we look further into the Old Testament, we regularly see the idea of uncircumcision being used as a figurative depiction of ineffective body parts. The best example of this is probably Exodus 6:12 where Moses wonders how Pharaoh would listen to him, because he was of “uncircumcised lips.” This description most likely parallels Moses’s previous complaint in Exodus 4:10, where Moses claimed he was “slow of speech and of tongue.” Hence, the significance of the phrase “uncircumcised lips” most likely refers to a lack of ability.

That uncircumcision refers to inability seems supported by how Scripture writers use the language of uncircumcision to refer to other body parts as well. For example, Jeremiah 6:10 says that the people of Israel had ears that were uncircumcised, and therefore “they cannot listen.” The picture is one of having skin over the ears, and therefore the ears are incapable of hearing. Like Exodus 6, this illustration of uncircumcision seems to indicate inability. Similarly, elsewhere Scripture refers to an uncircumcised heart as a metaphor for a dull, insensitive heart (cf. Deut 10:16; 30:6; Jer 4:4; 9:25). Leviticus 26:41 notes that the solution to an uncircumcised heart is humility and turning from iniquity. All of these examples seem to be consistent with the idea that language of uncircumcision emphasizes the inability to function as one ought to.

In summary, circumcision likely was a visible reminder to Israel of their special, holy status before God. They were to function as a kingdom of priests to the watching nations. Additionally, circumcision was a reminder of God’s promises to Abraham—namely, a multitude of descendants, nations, kings, land, and blessing. Due to the prevalence of circumcision in Israelite society, uncircumcision became a ready illustration of dysfunction and inability. Prophets regularly referred to mouths, ears, and hearts as uncircumcised in order to describe a failure to function properly.

For Further Research

John D. Meade, “The Meaning of Circumcision in Israel: A Proposal for a Transfer of Rite from Egypt to Israel,” Southern Baptist Journal of Theology 20, no. 1 (2016): 35–54.

Michael V. Fox, “The Sign of the Covenant: Circumcision in the Light of the Priestly ʾôt Etiologies,” Revue Biblique 81 (1974): 562–69.

Peter serves at Shepherd's Theological Seminary in Cary, NC as the professor of Old Testament and Biblical Languages. He loves studying the Bible and helping others understand it. He also runs the Bible Sojourner podcast.

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