1902 Encyclopedia > Circumcision


CIRCUMCISION. The importance of this rite is so largely due to its quasi-sacramental character in Judaism, that any inquiry into its history and meaning must be prefaced by a reference to the Old Testament.

I. There are three distinct narratives in the sacred literature of the Jews which claim to be considered. It is related in Gen. xvii. that when Abram the Hebrew was ninety-nine years of age, he became a party on behalf of himself and his descendants to a covenant with his God. Of this covenant the sign and condition was circumcision, which was directed to be performed (a peculiarity of Judaism) on the eighth day after the child’s birth. Is this account, we may ask, based on a historical tradition ? If so, the circumcision of the Israelites is entirely unconnected with that of other nations unless indeed other nations have borrowed theirs from the Israelites. This has actually been maintained in the case of the Egyptians by Archdeacon Hardwicke, but the theory is not only improbable in itself, considering the imitative character of the Israelites, and their low importance in Egypt (Gen. xlvi. 34), but contrary to the evidence of the Egyptian monuments (see below). If, as has been supposed by some, the document to which Gen. xvii. belongs is of post-captivity origin, this would put it out of court as a witness to the popular tradition of the Hebrews. But there is another narrative, apparently of a more archaic complexion, which leads to a directly opposite historical result. We read in Exod. iv. 25, 26, that when Moses was returning from Midian to Egypt, he was in danger of his life owing to the neglect of circumcision in his family. "And Zipporah," his Midianitish wife, "took a sharp stone, and cut off the foreskin of her son, and cast it at his feet, and said, Sure a khatan (Auth. Vers., ‘husband’) of blood art thou to me ; so he (sc., the offended deity) desisted from him. At that time she said, a khathan of blood with reference to the circumcision." The meaning of the story can still be discerned. Khathan, or khatan, meant originally not "husband" (as Auth. Vers. of Exodus), nor "son-in-law" (as in ordinary Arabic), but a "a newly-admitted member of the family." This appears from the sense of Arab. khatana "to provide a wedding-feast," and khatana, "to give or receive a daughter in marriage." So that in the sense of the old Hebrew tradition, "a khathan of blood meant "one who has become a khathan, not by marriage but by circumcision," a meaning which is still further confirmed by the derived sense of Arab. khatana "to circumcise," circumcision being performed in Arabia at the age of puberty. To sum up:—an Arabian woman plays the chief part in the story, and her words are only explicable from the Arabic ; it is far from improbable that Yahweh (or Jehovah) was himself first made known to the Jews in Arabia (comp. Judg. v. 4, Hab. iii. 3) ; putting all which together, we obtain a strong case for the hypothesis of the Arabian origin of Jewish circumcision.

The third narrative is Josh. v. 2-9, where Joshua is said to have circumcised the children of Israel a second time with " knives of stone," and have thus "rolled away the reproach of Egypt from them." It is not unnatural that this should have been used by some to confirm the view of an Egyptian origin of circumcision, among others by Dr Ebers, whe refers to the additional words in the Septuagint, Josh. xxiv. 31, " There they buried with him. . . . . the stone knives with which he had circumcised the children of Israel in Gilgal." But, first, with regard to his singular statement of the Alexandrine version, it must henceforth be abandoned by all scholars. It is simply an unscientific attempt to account for the existence near Joshua’s supposed tomb of flint instruments, such as those discovered by M. Guérin on this very site. It need hardly be added that the flint instruments discovered by the French savant were really pre-historic ; they consist not only of knives, but of saws, which would have been available for the purpose ascribed to Joshua (see Burton and Drake’s Unexplored Syria, ii, 295-300). And, secondly, Bishop Colenso has shown some reason for the suspicion that verses 2 to 8 (not verse 9) are later additions to the narrative, in which case the " reproach of Egypt" means, not the state of uncircumcision, but the contempt of the Egyptians so forcibly expressed in Exod. xxxii. 12, Num. Xiv. 13-16. As for the " knives of stone " (comp. Josh. xxiv. 31, Sept.), on which Ebers has laid some stress, such implements are not distinctively Egyptian, if they were even employed at all by the Egyptians for the purpose of circumcision. It is true that Herodotus (ii. 104, comp. Diod. Sic., i. 28) asserts the Egyptian origin of circumcision to have been admitted in Palestine, but he is probably right on so far as the Phoenicians or Canaanites are concerned.

II. We may now proceed to consider circumcision from an ethnographical point of view. It was not a specially Semitic rite, being only known to the southern and western Semites, who probably derived it directly or indirectly from the Egyptians, if not from some entirely non-Semitic source. Though not referred to in the Koran, it was a primitive Arabian custom to circumcise youths at their entrance on puberty (i.e., between their tenth and fifteenth year), as appears not only from Gen. xvii. 25, Jos. Antiq., i. 12, 2, but from the express statement of Ibn-al-Athir (quoted by Pococke, Specimen Hist. Arabum, p. 319), which is confirmed by a remarkable passage in the life of the old Arabian poet Dhû-l-isba (Zeitschr. F. d. Kunde des Morgenlandes, iii. 230). From Arabia it was carried by the preachers of Islam to Persia, India, and Turkey ; from Arabia, too, as we have seen, it probably came in remote times to the Israelites. The circumcision of the Phœnicians or Canaanites has been disputed, but is attested by Herodotus (ii. 104), and is confirmed by the story in Gen. xxxiv., as also by the fact that the term of contempt, "the uncircumcised," is reserved in the Old Testament for the Philistines. The rite seem, however, to have fallen into disuse in later times in Phœnicia as well as in Egypt ( Dr Ebers refers to the uncircumcised figures on the stele of Pianchi, comp. also Herod. L. c., Jos. Antiq., viii. 10, 3, Contr. Ap. i. 22, and perhaps Ezek, xxxii. 24, 30), which may partly account for its being afterwards regarded as distinctive of the Jews. The Egyptians, too, were circumcised, and that prior to the immigration of the Hebrews (Wilkinson), as appears from the representations on the very earliest monuments. The most striking of these is the sceneon a bas-relief discovered in the temple of Chunsu at Karnak, a drawing of which is given by M. Chabas and Dr. Ebers. Their age, says Dr Ebers, must be between six and ten, which agrees with the present custom in Egypt, where, as Mr Lane tells us, circumcision is generally performed in the fifth or sixth year, though often postponed by peasants to the twelfth, thirteenth, or even fourteenth year (Modern Egyptians, i. 71). It has often been asserted that only the priests underwent the operation, but there is no earlier evidence for this than that of Origen (ed. Lommatzsch, iv. 138), in whose time it is quite possible that the Egyptians, like the later Jews, sought to evade a peculiarity which exposed them to ridicule and contempt.

But the rite of circumcision is known among nations which cannot be suspected of communication with Egypt. Similar causes produce similar effects all the world over. It was in use in some form among the ancient civilized peoples of Central America, though this is better attested of the Nahua branch (including the Aztecs) than of the Maya (Bancroft, Native Races, vol. iii.) It is still kept up among the Teamas and Manaos on the Amazon ; also among three different races in the South Seas, among most of the tribes of Australia, among the Papuans, the New Caledonians, and the inhabitants of the New Hebrides. It is widely spread in Africa, especially among the Kaffir tribes. Among the Bechuanas the boys who are circumcised form a sort of society, for which among other reasons, Waltz conjectures that the Bechuanas communicated the rite to the other Kaffirs. Prichard (Physical History of Mankind, ii. 287) rightly dismisses the idea that the Kaffirs borrowed the rite from Mahometan nations, though the progress of Islam will help to account for its prevalence in other parts of Africa.

III. Very different views were held in antiquity as to the meaning of the rite of circumcision. There was a myth common to Egypt and Phœnicia, though not of very ancient date in its extant Egyptian form, which seems to bring circumcision into connection with the Sun-god. In the Book of the Dead, chap. xvii., we read of the " blood which proceeded from the limb of the god Ra, when he wished to cut himself," which the late Vicomte de Rougé interpreted, with much plausibility, of circumcision (Revue archéologique, nouveau série, i. 244). And in a fragment of the Philonian Sanchoniathon (Fragmenta Historicorum Graecorum, ed. Müller, iii, 568, 569), we find a similar tale of El circumcising his father Uranos, or, according to another version, himself, and the blood flowing into the springs and rivers. Space forbids us to discuss the bearings of this myth. Herodotus (ii. 37) ascribes the Egyptian custom to the motive of cleanliness (kathariotetos eineka [Gk.]) This is also one of the four causes reported on the authority of tradition by Philo the Jew (Opera, ed. Mangey, ii. 210), the three others being avoidance of carbuncle, the symbolizing of purity of heart, and the attainment of numerous offspring. Mere cleanliness, however, seems hardly an adequate motive for the practice. Sanitary reasons seem much more probable, judging from the well-ascertained physical advantages of circumcision to the Jewish race. But even this is not a complete explanation. Why was the practice adopted by some nations and not others ? The most scientific theory is that which refers it to a religious instinct common to all nations, though not always expressing itself in the same way, and this seems to be at least obscurely indicated by the tradition of the Israelites. The prophet Jeremiah (ix. 25,26), too puts it in the same class with cutting off of the hair (comp. Herod. iii. 8), which, like other bodily mutilations, has been shown to be of the nature of a representative sacrifice (Tylor’s Primitive Culture, ii. 363, 364). The principle of substitution was familiar to all ancient nations, and not least to the Israelites. Witness the story of Gen. xxii., the pascal lamb, and the redemption of the first-born by an offering (Exod. xiii. 11-16), and compare the similar phrase ascribed to Saul in 1 Sam. xviii. 25. On this principle circumcision was an economical recognition of the divine ownership of human life, a part of the body being sacrificed to preserve the remainder. But it was more than this ; otherwise it would scarcely have asserted its claim to existence among the Jews, when all other mutilations were strictly forbidden as heathenish (Lev. xix. 27, xxi. 25). It can scarcely be doubted that it was a sacrifice to the awful power upon whom the fruit of the womb depended, and having once fixed itself in the minds of the people, neither priest nor prophet could eradicate it. All that these could do was to spiritualize it into a symbol of devotion to a high religious ideal (comp. Jer. iv. 4 ; Deut. x. 16 ; Jer. ix. 25).

In conclusion, we must briefly refer to an analogous rite, of which women are in many countries the subjects. It is said to consist in mutilation of the clitoris, which is sometimes connected with the degrading practice of infibulation. It was prevalent at the time of Strabo (pp. 771, 824) in Arabia and in Egypt, and, as Mr Lane attests, is still native to those regions (Modern Egyptians, i. 73, Arabic Lexicon, s.v. "hafada"). Carsten Niebuhr heard that it was practised on both shores of the Persian Gulf, and at Baghdad (Description de l’Arabie, p. 70). It appears in some parts of West Africa, e.g., Dahomey, but it is said to be still more common in the eastern part of that continent.

See F. C. Baur, Tübinger Zeitshrift, 1832, Heft 1; Ewald, Antiquities of Israel, Eng. Trans., pp. 89-97; Büdinger, "Egyptische Einwirkungen auf Hebraïsche Culte," in Berichte of Vienna Academy ; Sir Gardiner Wilkinson, Ancient Egypt, vol. v. p. 318; Chabas, Revue archéologique, n. s., vol. iii. pp. 298-300; Ebers, Egypten und der Bücher Mosis, vol. i. pp. 278-284; G. Grey, Travels in Australia, vol. ii, p. 343; Waitz, Anthropologie der Naturvölker, vol. ii. pp. 111, 390; Peschel, Völkerkunde; Burton, " Note connected with the Dahomans," in Memoirs of the Anthropological Society," 1863-64. (T. K. C.)

The above article was written by Rev. Thomas Kelly Cheyne, D.Litt., D.D.; sometime Fellow of Balliol College, Oxford; Oriel Professor of the Interpretation of Scripture, Oxford; Canon of Rochester, 1885; one of the Old Testament revisers; Bampton Lecturer, 1889; author of Notes and Criticisms on the Hebrew Text of Isaiah; joint editor of Encyclopaedia Biblica.

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