The traditional answer to why Jews circumcise their sons is that the ceremony marks the covenant between God and Abraham. But the story of the covenant seems to be a later artifact, and the real roots of the practice lie in the shadows of prehistory.
Let us first see what light the Bible can shed on the practice.
The first mention of circumcision is in Genesis 17. God appears before Abraham and promises that his descendants will become a great nation and inherit the land. The price for this covenant is that Abraham must circumcise the males of his household, and his descendants must all undergo the ritual too. Genesis 21 continues this tale with the birth and circumcision of Isaac.
Circumcision is next mentioned in the rape of Dinah (Isaac's granddaughter, Genesis 34). The rapist, Shechem, falls in love with her; but when his father Hamor seeks out Dinah’s brothers to arrange the nuptials, they balk: “We cannot do this thing, to give our sister to one that is uncircumcised”. Hamor agrees to have Shechem circumcised – and himself and their entire tribe too. Unfortunately, this turns out to be a ruse: as they were recovering from the operation, Dinah’s brothers attacked and slayed them all. No wedding takes place.
A bewildering circumcision by Moses' wife
The third mention of circumcision is in Exodus 4, and is profoundly obscure.
After Moses accepts his divine mission to free the Israelite slaves from their Egyptian bondage, as he makes his way from Midian to Egypt, he meets God. For some reason not specified, God is extremely angry at him and wants to kill him. But Moses’ wife Zipporah saves the day: “Zipporah took a sharp stone, and cut off the foreskin of her son, and cast it at his feet, and said, Surely a bloody husband art thou to me.”
This strange and highly ambiguous story – whose feet exactly? – who is "thou"? has puzzled commentators for centuries. But whatever its original meaning, Zipporah's actions seem to have placated God, and the family continues on its way.
The fourth mention of circumcision appears in Exodus 12, in the context of God's instructions about celebrating Passover: Even a "servant that is bought for money" may participate in the Seder ceremony, but only if he is circumcised.
Then, in Leviticus 12, God lists commandments for Moses to pass on to the Israelites as they sojourn in the desert. One order, essentially repeating what he had already told Abraham to do, is to circumcise their sons on their eighth day.
The sixth mention is in the Book of Joshua. After the Israelites cross the Jordan River and enter the land of Israel, God commands their leader Joshua: “Make thee sharp knives, and circumcise again the children of Israel the second time”. Since it isn’t clear how one can be circumcised “again” and “a second time,” possibly the writer meant that the practice of circumcision was to be reinstated after it had ceased. Supporting that theory, the text goes on: “Now all the people that came out were circumcised: but all the people that were born in the wilderness by the way as they came forth out of Egypt, them they had not circumcised.”
The seventh and last mention of circumcision is in the story of David’s ascent to the monarchy (1 Samuel 18). After David slays Goliath, he becomes too popular for the liking of King Saul, who devises a plot to eliminate the upstart. He has his henchmen tell David that if he brings 100 foreskins of Philistines, the king will marry his daughter Michal to him. Saul thought it a suicide mission, but David returns with 200 foreskins and goes on to become king.
Summing up the history of circumcision in the Bible: Circumcision was commanded by God to Abraham, and was carried out throughout the age of the Patriarchs and the sojourn in Egypt. For some reason, it was discontinued while the Jews wandered the desert, though God had commanded otherwise. Then upon entering the Promised Land, circumcision was reinstated by Joshua, from which point it has been carried out to this very day.
Things are not as they seem
But why didn’t the Israelites circumcise themselves in the desert? The Bible doesn’t tell us. But "source criticism" – the theory that the Bible was not written by Moses but by different people over the ages, then later edited by yet more people – leads to the theory that the circumcision stories were not written in the order in which they appear. Some "early" stories were evidently rewritten "later", without much regard for historical veracity.
The covenant between God and Abraham, the circumcision of Isaac, the rape of Dinah, the Passover exhortation to circumcise servants too and the divine command to conduct circumcision in the desert are believed to have been written during the Babylonian Exile and in the early Second Temple period (from about the 6th century BCE to the 4th century BCE).
The circumcision conducted by Joshua, as well as David’s foreskin hunt, were written earlier, in the late First Temple period. And the oldest tale is the circumcision conducted by Zipporah, which was written in the middle of the First Temple period.
So, the biblical narrative as we know it, was apparently formed by stitching together these various sources and stories during the early Second Temple period. What are the implications of this theory for the origins of circumcision?
Circumcision in the First Temple Period
Of the seven explicit mentions of circumcision, three originated before the Babylonian exile: Zipporah’s circumcision of her son, Joshua’s circumcision of the Israelites, and David’s circumcision of the Philistines. (None, note you, indicate that the ceremony was performed on infants.) But if circumcision had been a central tenet of the pre-exilic Israelite religion, surely mention would have appeared more often?
The answer to this curious lack of interest in circumcision on the part of First Temple-era scribes is probably that circumcision was not unique to the Judeans at that period.
Practically all the local nations were also circumcised, with the exception of the Philistines, who are known to have come from elsewhere and are singled out as “the uncircumcised” several times in the Bible.
We know that circumcision was commonplace in the region from Jeremiah 9:25-26, where the prophet states that “Egypt, and Judah, and Edom, and the children of Ammon, and Moab” are all circumcised (in the original Hebrew; many English translations say the opposite). Also, Herodotus’ "Histories" states that the region's peoples were circumcised.
Conclusion: In First Temple times, circumcision was not perceived as a unique marker of Judean identity. There was no reason for it to be featured with any prominence.
Life among the uncircumcised
Only during the Babylonian Exile, where the Judeans found themselves living among uncircumcised peoples, did circumcision come to be seen as unique to the Jews and receive "nationalistic" significance.
It was in Babylonia or perhaps in Jerusalem after the return, that the exiled priests rewrote the story of Abraham's covenant with God, giving the now important and uniquely Jewish ritual the air of antiquity and thus prominence.
The original version of the covenant story (Genesis 15) was written in the First Temple era. It does not mention circumcision. The later version (Genesis 17), adding circumcision, was written by Second Temple priests.
Another story apparently written by the Second Temple priests is the rape of Dinah. At the time, the Samaritans were trying to integrate with the Jews. The rapist, Shechem, has the exact same name as the Samaritan capital. The moral of the story seems to be that that even if the Samaritans take on Jewish customs, circumcision among them, Jews mustn’t marry them.
Essentially, the Bible tells us that the command to circumcise all generations was handed down three times: to Abraham, to Moses and to Joshua. The priests who put together the Bible seem to have felt this contradictory. They therefore rewrote the ancient story of Joshua, stressing that circumcision was re-handed down to Joshua, not given anew. Hence the term "a second time" in verse 2; and also the verse explaining that circumcision was discontinued in the desert.
Bronze-Age mohel: The father of the bride?
Apparently it was these same priests who decreed that circumcision should take place on the eighth day, since the significance of that day stems from the priestly laws of purity that were unknown in the First Temple period.
The commandment to circumcise babies on the eighth day follows a verse (Leviticus 12) that says that a woman who gives birth to a male child is ritualistically unclean for a week (or two weeks if she has a daughter). By touching his mother, the newborn would incur the uncleanness too; thus only on the eighth day would the newborn be ritualistically clean, and able to undergo the sacrament.
However, during the First Temple era, circumcision may have been conducted not on babies but at puberty, possibly upon marriage. This theory is based on two legs.
One is that contemporary primitive societies that circumcise usually do it as a rite of passage at puberty (as some Arab communities do to this day). Also, First Temple texts don't mention circumcision of infants, though that is a "sin" of omission.
The second is linguistic theory regarding the meaning of the Semitic root H-T-N.
Returning to the baffling biblical verse where Zipporah conducts a circumcision, upon completing the act, she twice asserts that someone is a hatan, meaning "bridegroom", of blood - but what exactly might a bloody bridegroom be? Some scholars hypothesize that in ancient Hebrew, hatan didn't only mean "bridegroom" but "man undergoing circumcision."
This double meaning of "someone undergoing circumcision" and "bridegroom" may seem bizarre. But in Arabic, the same root H-T-N carries both the meaning of circumcision and marriage.
Zipporah's statement may attest that ancient Hebrew also used this same root to mean circumcision and marriage.
If so, H-T-N had this double meaning before Arabic split off from the rest of the West Semitic languages to which Hebrew belongs.
There is physical support for this thesis: the peoples who spoke West Semitic languages roughly correspond to the ancient peoples who practiced circumcision. Speakers of the East Semitic languages did not practice circumcision, and they don't use this root neither for marriage nor for circumcision. This tidy separation implies that circumcision arose after the West and East Semitic people split, but before the West Semitic peoples split again into the different language communities, including the speakers of Arabic and Hebrew.
The way West Semites used H-T-N may hint at how the root took on the meaning of both "wedding" and "circumcision". West Semitic languages don't use this root for just any marriage related words. Words of the root H-T-N appear in words for "bridegroom" but not bride, for "father of the bride" but not for "father of the bridegroom." Why would this be?
Perhaps, at some ancient time, before Arabic and Hebrew diverged, weddings were events at which the father of the bride circumcised the bridegroom.
A study published in 2009 applying Bayesian regression models (used by geneticists to determine biological family trees) to determine the family tree of Semitic languages concluded that West and East Semitic languages split in about 3750 BCE, so circumcision probably came about after that date.
The same study also concluded that Arabic split from the rest of the other West Semitic languages at around 2450 BCE, so circumcision probably came about before that. Otherwise it is difficult to explain how Arabic and the rest of the West Semitic languages share the root H-T-N in relation to marriage.
According to the same research, these West Semitic people from whom proto-Arabic speakers splintered probably lived in modern-day Syria.
So: circumcision probably came about sometime between 3750 BCE to 2450 BCE in the area that is today Syria.
Since the first archaeological evidence of circumcision is a tomb drawing from ancient Egypt dating to the 24th century BCE, it could have been introduced to the Egyptians by Semitic tribes as they expanded southward.
Looking further into the past
So it seems that Jews circumcise their sons because their ancient Semitic forebears did, but why did they start circumcising in the first place? These ancient Semitic people didn’t write, so we can’t know what they were thinking, but we can speculate.
Since circumcision was carried out on the sexual organ, and probably at puberty, we can assume they thought it would improve fecundity.
Indeed, fertility is exactly what is promised Abraham by God in return for circumcision.
But where would these ancient Semitic people get the idea that cutting their foreskin off would improve fertility?
The answer may be from their farming habits. Archaeological evidence shows that the farming of grapevines and olive trees was spreading through the region during this period. These plants require regular pruning to increase yields. Maybe some ancient Semitic sage came up with the idea that if pruning vines increases yields, why not prune penises too?
In fact, there is evidence in the Bible that the ancient Hebrews tied circumcision to pruning “And when ye shall come into the land, and shall have planted all manner of trees for food, then ye shall count the fruit thereof as uncircumcised [literally: ye shall foreskin their foreskins]: three years shall it be as uncircumcised [literally: foreskins] unto you: it shall not be eaten of” (Leviticus 19:23).
If this is all true, Jews circumcise their sons because an ancient tribe converted an agricultural innovation into a questionable method to increase male fertility, and later a small group of their descendants bestowed this practice with a national meaning, which endures to this day.
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