Normally I write about women and religion, but this one is for you men. Up until quite recently, it was a common practice, at least in the United States, to remove part of the prepuce or foreskin of the penis in infant boys. It is now considered not only unjustifiable as a medical practice, but will likely someday be considered abusive. In this post I will discuss the origins of the practice, its significance for Jews, its elimination as a Christian practice, and the reasons it still continued to be practiced outside the Jewish tradition.
Prior to the record written in the pages of the Bible, there is evidence of circumcision in several cultures in Northern and sub-Saharan Africa. The website Circumcision Information and Resource Pages, from which much of the research in this post is drawn, states that the practice existed long before the story of Abraham in the Bible. There are many possible reasons why this practice arose including the following: a rite of passage for young boys, a means to assure virility and fertility, a way to curb sexual desire, and a method to become purified or clean. One of the more interesting hypotheses is found in the writings of Dr. Duane Voskuil which links the long known association between women’s menstrual cycles and the cycles of the moon to the origin of circumcision. Just maybe there was some envy of the relationship that women had with nature that men did not. Wouldn’t that be fascinating if it were proven to be true?
Evidence of the practice of circumcision is found in Egypt on the remains of mummies and in paintings as the drawing above attests. This scene is from the northern wall of the Temple of Khonspekhrod at the Precinct of Mut in Luxor, Egypt. It dates from the 18th dynasty of Amenhotep III, c. 1360 BCE. The oldest artwork depicting circumcision is even older, from around 2400 BCE with the written record dating from around 2300 BCE. Egyptian hieroglyphs can be very revealing and this case does not disappoint. The hieroglyph for penis is either a penis that is circumcised or one that is erect. Leave it to the Egyptians to be direct.
So how did this Northern African practice, that was not commonly found throughout the rest of the Mediterranean Basin, become the symbol of the covenant between Yahweh and his chosen people? While one might hypothesize that the Israelites learned about and adopted this practice during their exile in Egypt, there is no proof outside of the Biblical texts of the resettlement of hundreds of thousands of Hebrews in Egypt with a dramatic escape through the parting of the Red Sea and a long trek home through the desert. However, there is ample evidence that tribes approached the fertile land of Egypt during times of drought in their homelands. The name Moses as well has some Egyptian counterparts. In addition, Egypt ruled over the territory of what was then Canaan for hundreds of years spreading its culture wherever it went. Some historians hypothesize that the Levites, who became the elite priests of the Jews, may have had some Egyptian origin as well.
The Bible has numerous references to the rite of circumcision. In Genesis 17:10-13 the practice is portrayed as a special covenant between Yahweh and Abraham. “This is my covenant with you and your descendants after you, the covenant you are to keep: Every male among you shall be circumcised. You are to undergo circumcision, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and you. Whether born in your household or bought with your money, they must be circumcised.” Exodus 4:25 states that Moses and his sons were not circumcised and Joshua 5:5 states that Moses prohibited the practice during the wilderness. After the return from the exile in Egypt outlined in the Bible, Joshua reinstated the practice. During the 6th century CE, Jews adopted a procedure where the blood is sucked from the penis of the infant boy being circumscribed. In some Jewish sects, this process continues today. Because of the exchange of bodily fluids during this process, infection and death to the infant have occurred. The Reform movement of Judaism declared in 1843 that “circumcision was not necessary.”
One of the impacts of the practice of circumcision in the Bible, according to author Lawrence Shlain, is to create one more reason why females were not allowed to be priests. As stated earlier, the sign of the covenant was placed upon men, not women. Throughout the Old Testament, women are seen as dirty and unclean. They are relegated to the “red tent” during their menstrual periods, they take twice as long to be “purified” after the birth of a daughter versus a son, and cannot even enter the temple during menstruation.
There is little debate that the followers of Jesus and Jesus himself were Jews. “On the eighth day, when it was time to circumcise the child, he was named Jesus, the name the angel had given him before he was conceived.” (Luke 2:21 NIV) Thus, they would all have undergone circumcision. However, when the Jewish population largely rejected this new sect and Paul and others started preaching to those who were not Jewish (i.e. Gentiles) the issue of circumcision came to the foreground. The culture in this area of the Middle East in the first century was largely influenced by Greek thought and practice. Greeks did not practice circumcision. While there are ambivalent references to whether Christians should or should not need to be circumcised in the Gospels, the practice as a mark of faith was soon eliminated for those wishing to convert to Christianity. “Here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all.” (Colossians 3:11 NIV) The Council of Jerusalem outlined in Acts 15 definitively states that the practice is not required. This book, likely written at the end of the first century CE, became the basis for elimination of the practice as a Christian requirement up until the present era.
Why then did the practice not die out except for Jews, other populations in Africa, and Muslims? The 19th century in the United States was the dawn of a medical profession dominated by men. The American Medical Association was formed in 1847. (I have explored the implications of the formation of the AMA on women’s role in healing and abortion.) This was the fledging establishment of a true profession that alleged to base itself on scientific findings. However, many of the early findings bore little or no resemblance to what we would deem good scientific research today. The CIRP states that the modern use of circumcision as a medicalized practice dates from about 1865 in England and about 1870 in the US. There was some belief that circumcision could prevent syphilis and other sexually transmitted diseases at this time, a belief that still continued throughout the 20th century. Not surprisingly, the early 20th century also saw the belief that circumcision would stop masturbation. Really? It gets worse. Dr. John Harvey Kellogg promoted circumcision and his signature corn flakes as a cure for masturbation! In the 1950’s both in the United States and the United Kingdom medical professionals started to come out against the procedure. By the 1970’s opinion had clearly shifted in Canada, the United Kingdom, and the United States that the procedure was unnecessary. The foreskin that was excised in circumcision is now considered by medical experts to be an erogenous zone. The CIRP was formed in 1995 to give information on the web. The history of circumcision is yet another example of how culture endures and how elements of one culture are transferred to another. It also illustrates how deeply embedded religion can become in a society, be seen as the norm, and not examined closely.
Karen L. Garst
The Faithless Feminist
 Leonard Shlain, The Alphabet Versus the Goddess: Male Words and Female Images (London, England: Penguin Press, 1998), 92.