A cutting around, because in this rite the foreskin was cut away. God commanded Abraham to use circumcision, as a sign of his covenant; and in obedience to this order, the patriarch, at ninety-nine years of age, was circumcised, as also his son Ishmael, and all the male of his household, Ge 17:10-12. God repeated the precept to Moses, and ordered that all who intended to partake of the paschal sacrifice should receive circumcision; and that this rite should be performed on children on the eighth day after their birth, Ex 12:44; Le 12:3; Joh 7:22. The Jews have always been very exact in observing this ceremony, and it appears that they did not neglect it when in Egypt, Jos 5:1-9.
All the other nations sprung from Abraham besides the Hebrews, as the Ishmaelites, the Arabians, etc., also retained the practice of circumcision. At the present day it is an essential rite of the Mohammedan religion, and though not enjoined in the Koran, prevails wherever this religion is found. It is also practiced in some form among the Abyssinians, and various tribes of South Africa, as it was by the ancient Egyptians. But there is no proof that it was practiced upon infants, or became a general, national, or religious custom, before God enjoined it upon Abraham.
The Jews esteemed uncircumcision as a very great impurity; and the greatest offence they could receive was to be called "uncircumcised." Paul frequently mentions the Gentiles under this term, not opprobriously, Ro 2.26, in opposition to the Jews, whom he names "the circumcision," etc.
Disputes as to the observances of this rite by the converts from heathenism to Christianity occasioned much trouble in the early church, Ac 15; and it was long before it was well understood that "in Christ Jesus neither circumcision availeth any thing, nor uncircumcision, but a new creature," Ga 5:2-3; 6:15.
The true circumcision is that of the heart; and those are "uncircumcised in heart and ears," who will not obey the law of God nor embrace the gospel of Christ.
cutting around. This rite, practised before, as some think, by divers races, was appointed by God to be the special badge of his chosen people, an abiding sign of their consecration to him. It was established as a national ordinance (Ge 17:10-11). In compliance with the divine command, Abraham, though ninety-nine years of age, was circumcised on the same day with Ishmael, who was thirteen years old (Ge 17:24-27). Slaves, whether home-born or purchased, were circumcised (Ge 17:12-13); and all foreigners must have their males circumcised before they could enjoy the privileges of Jewish citizenship (Ex 12:48). During the journey through the wilderness, the practice of circumcision fell into disuse, but was resumed by the command of Joshua before they entered the Promised Land (Jos 5:2-9). It was observed always afterwards among the tribes of israel, although it is not expressly mentioned from the time of the settlement in Canaan till the time of Christ, about 1,450 years. The Jews prided themselves in the possession of this covenant distinction (Jg 14:3; 15:18; 1Sa 14:6; 17:26; 2Sa 1:20; Eze 31:18).
As a rite of the church it ceased when the New Testament times began (Ga 6:15; Col 3:11). Some Jewish Christians sought to impose it, however, on the Gentile converts; but this the apostles resolutely resisted (Ac 15:1; Ga 6:12). Our Lord was circumcised, for it "became him to fulfil all righteousness," as of the seed of Abraham, according to the flesh; and Paul "took and circumcised" Timothy (Ac 16:3), to avoid giving offence to the Jews. It would render Timothy's labours more acceptable to the Jews. But Paul would by no means consent to the demand that Titus should be circumcised (Ga 2:3-5). The great point for which he contended was the free admission of uncircumcised Gentiles into the church. He contended successfully in behalf of Titus, even in Jerusalem.
In the Old Testament a spiritual idea is attached to circumcision. It was the symbol of purity (Isa 52:1). We read of uncircumcised lips (Ex 6:12,30), ears (Jer 6:10), hearts (Le 26:41). The fruit of a tree that is unclean is spoken of as uncircumcised (Le 19:23).
It was a sign and seal of the covenant of grace as well as of the national covenant between God and the Hebrews. (1.) It sealed the promises made to Abraham, which related to the commonwealth of Israel, national promises. (2.) But the promises made to Abraham included the promise of redemption (Ga 3:14), a promise which has come upon us. The covenant with Abraham was a dispensation or a specific form of the covenant of grace, and circumcision was a sign and seal of that covenant. It had a spiritual meaning. It signified purification of the heart, inward circumcision effected by the Spirit (De 10:16; 30:6; Eze 44:7; Ac 7:51; Ro 2:28; Col 2:11). Circumcision as a symbol shadowing forth sanctification by the Holy Spirit has now given way to the symbol of baptism (q.v.). But the truth embodied in both ordinances is ever the same, the removal of sin, the sanctifying effects of grace in the heart.
Under the Jewish dispensation, church and state were identical. No one could be a member of the one without also being a member of the other. Circumcision was a sign and seal of membership in both. Every circumcised person bore thereby evidence that he was one of the chosen people, a member of the church of God as it then existed, and consequently also a member of the Jewish commonwealth.
The cutting off all round of the foreskin (the projecting skin in the male member, the emblem of corruption, De 10:16; Jer 4:4) of males, appointed by God as token of His covenant with Abraham and his seed (Ge 17:10-14). The usage prevailed, according to Herodotus (2:104, section 36-37), among the Egyptians, Ethiopians, and Syrians. But his statement may refer only to the Egyptian priests, and those initiated in the mysteries. The Jews alone of the inhabitants of the Syrian region were circumcised. So, circumcision kept them distinct from uncircumcised Canaanite pagan around. If the rite existed before Abraham it was then first sanctioned as a token of God's covenant with Abraham and his seed, and particular directions given by God as to the time of its being performed, the eighth day, even though it were a sabbath (Joh 7:22-23), and the persons to be circumcised, every male, every slave, and (at the Exodus it was added) every male foreigner before he could partake of the Passover (Ge 17:12-13; Ex 12:48).
So, the rainbow existed before the flood, but in Ge 9:13-17 first was made token of the covenant. The testimony of the Egyptian sculptures, mummies, and hieroglyphics, is very doubtful as to the pre-Abrahamic antiquity of circumcision. (See note Genesis 17, Speaker's Commentary.) The Hamite races of Palestine, akin to the Egyptians, as (Jg 14:3) the Philistines and Canaanites (the Hivites, Genesis 34), were certainly not circumcised. The Egyptian priests probably adopted the rite when Joseph was their governor and married to the daughter of the priest of On. The Israelites by the rite, which was associated with the idea of purity, were marked as a whole "kingdom of priests" (Ex 19:6; De 7:6-7). In Jer 9:25, "I will punish all them which are circumcised with the uncircumcised: Egypt, and Judah, and Edom," two classes seem distinguished: Israel circumcised in flesh, but uncircumcised in heart; and the Gentile nations uncircumcised both in flesh and heart.
Hyrcanus first compelled the Edomites to be circumcised (Josephus, Ant. 13:9, section 1; compare Eze 31:18). Its significance is, the cutting the outside flesh of the organ of generation denotes corruption as inherent in us from birth, and transmitted by our parents, and symbolizes our severance from nature's defilement to a state of consecrated fellowship with God. Jehovah consecrated the nation to Himself; and whatsoever male was not circumcised on the eighth day was liable to be "cut off." Moses had neglected to circumcise his son, owing to Zipporah's repugnance to it, as a rite not generally adopted in the East, even by the descendants of Abraham and Keturah, the Midianites. Therefore he was attacked by some sudden seizure in the resting place for the night, which he and his wife were divinely admonished arose from the neglect. She took a sharp stone or flint (compare margin Jos 5:2,8), the implement sanctioned by patriarchal usage as more sacred than metal (as was the Egyptian usage also in preparing mummies), and cut off her son's foreskin, and cast it at Moses' feet, saying, "a bloody husband art thou to me," i.e., by this blood of my child I have recovered thee as my husband, and sealed our union again (Ex 4:25).
The name was given at circumcision, as at baptism (Lu 1:59; 2:21). The painfulness of Old Testament initiatory rite, as compared with the New Testament sacrament of baptism, marks strongly the contrast between the stern covenant of the law and the loving gospel. Jesus' submission to it betokened His undertaking to fulfill the law in all its requirements, and to suffer its penalty incurred by us. "Oh wherefore bring ye here this holy Child? Such rite befits the sinful, not the clean; Why should this tender Infant undefiled Be thus espoused in blood, while we have been So gently into covenant beguiled? No keen edged knife our bleeding foreheads scored With the sharp cross of our betrothed Lord: But we belike in quiet wonder smiled. While on our brow the priest, with finger cold, Traced with the hallowed drops the saving sign; While Thou, unsparing of Thy tears, the old And sterner ritual on Thyself didst take: Meet opening for a life like Thine, Changing the blood to water for our sake." - Whytehead.
Uncircumcised is used of the lips (Ex 6:12,20), the ears (Jer 4:4; 6:10), the heart (Le 26:41; De 10:16; Ac 7:51), in the sense closed by the foreskin of inborn fleshliness; impure, rebellious (De 30:6; Isa 52:1). Even the fruit of the Canaanites' trees was called "uncircumcised," i.e. unclean (Le 19:23). Christians "are circumcised with the circumcision made without hands in putting off the body (not merely the foreskins, as in literal circumcision) of the sins of the flesh (i.e. the whole old fleshly nature with its sins) by the circumcision of Christ" (Col 2:11; Ro 2:28-29).
The reason of the omission of circumcision in the wilderness (Jos 5:5-6) was, while suffering the penalty of their unbelief the Israelites were practically discovenanted by God, and so were excluded from the sign of the covenant. "The reproach of Egypt" was the taunt of the Egyptians that God brought them into the wilderness to slay them (Nu 14:13-16; De 9:23-28); which reproach lay on them so long as they were in danger of being "cut off" in the wilderness as uncircumcised, but was rolled off the younger generation by their circumcision at Gilgal. Paul warned Christians who regarded circumcision as still possessing spiritual virtue, that thereby they made themselves "debtors to do the whole law," and "Christ should profit them nothing" (Ga 5:2-3,12). He calls its practisers "the concision," in contrast to the true circumcision (Php 3:2-3), a mere flesh cutting.
So he resisted the demand that Titus should be circumcised; for, being a Greek, Titus did not fall under the rule of expediency that Jewish born Christians should be circumcised, as Timothy was (Acts 15; Ac 16:1,3; Ga 2:3-5). Christianity did not interfere with Jewish usages, as social ordinances (no longer religiously significant) in the case of Jews, while the Jewish polity and temple stood. After their overthrow the Jewish usages necessarily ceased. To insist on them for Gentile converts would have been to make them essential to Christianity. To violate them in the case of Jews would have been inconsistent with the charity which in matters indifferent becomes all things to all men, that by all means it may win some (1Co 9:22; Romans 14). The Arabians circumcised in the 13th year, after Ishmael's example (Ge 17:25). The Muslims and the Abyssinian Christians practice it still.
This rite is not of Israelite origin; there are some good grounds for the belief that it came to the Israelites from the Egyptians. The fact of a flint being used for its performance (Jos 5:2-3) witnesses to the immense antiquity of the rite. Its original meaning and object are hidden in obscurity, though the theory that it was regarded as a necessary preliminary to marriage has much to commend it. Among the Israelites it became the sign of the Covenant People; whoever was uncircumcised could not partake of the hopes of the nation, nor could such join in the worship of Jahweh; he could not be reckoned an Israelite (Ge 17:14). Not only was every Israelite required to undergo circumcision, but even every slave acquired by the Israelites from foreign lands had likewise to be circumcised (Ge 17:12-13); according to Ex 12:48-49 even a stranger sojourning in the midst of Israel had to submit to the rite, at all events if he wished to join in the celebration of the Passover. Originally male children were not circumcised in Israel (cf. Jos 5:5-9), but boys had to undergo it on arriving at the age of puberty; but in later days the Law commanded that every male child should be circumcised on the eighth day after birth (Le 12:3).
In the OT there are two accounts as to the occasion on which circumcision was first practised by the Israelites; according to Ge 17:10-14 the command was given to Abraham to observe the rite as a sign of the covenant between God and him, as representing the nation that was to be; while according to Ex 4:25-26 its origin is connected with Moses. It was the former that, in later days, was always looked upon as its real origin; and thus the rite acquired a purely religious character, and it has been one of the distinguishing marks of Judaism ever since the Exile. The giving of a name at circumcision (Lu 1:59; 2:21) did not belong to the rite originally, but this has been the custom among Jews ever since the return from the Captivity, and probably even before.
In the early Church St. Paul had a vigorous warfare to wage against his Judaizing antagonists, and it became a vital question whether the Gentiles could be received into the Christian community without circumcision. As is well known, St. Paul gained the day, but it was this question of circumcision, which involved of course the observance of the entire Mosaic Law, that was the rock on which union between the early Christians and the Judaizing Christians split. Henceforth the Jewish and the Christian communities drifted further and further apart.
Circumcision in its symbolic meaning is found fairly frequently in the OT; an 'uncircumcised heart' is one from which disobedience to God has not been 'cut off' (see Le 26:41; De 10:16; 30:6); the expression 'uncircumcised lips' (Ex 6:12,30) would be equivalent to what is said of Moses, as one who 'spake unadvisedly with his lips' (Ps 106:33, cf. Isa 6:5); in Jer 6:10 we have the expression 'their ear is uncircumcised' in reference to such as will not hearken to the word of the Lord. A like figurative use is found in the NT (e.g. Col 2:11,13).
W. O. E. Oesterley.
The rite appointed by God to be a token of the covenant that He made with Abraham and his seed, and also the seal of the righteousness of his faith. Every male in Abraham's house was to be circumcised, and afterwards every male of his seed on the eighth day after birth. It signified the separation of a people from the world to God. During the 40 years in the wilderness this rite was not performed, but on entering God's land all were circumcised at Gilgal, when the reproach of Egypt was rolled away. Jos 5:2-9. Circumcision became a synonym for Israel, so that they could be spoken of as 'the circumcised,' and the heathen as 'the uncircumcised.' Jg 14:3; Eze 31:18; Ac 11:3. Contrary to the design of God, circumcision became a mere formal act, when the covenant itself was disregarded, and God then speaks of Israel as having 'uncircumcised hearts.' Stephen charged the Jewish council with being 'uncircumcised in heart and ears.' Le 26:41; Ac 7:51. In Rom. 4. Abraham is shown to be 'the father of circumcision,' that is, of all that believe as the truly separated people of God.
Hence circumcision is typical of the putting off the body of the flesh by those who accept the cross as the end of all flesh, because Christ was there cut off as to the flesh: see Col 2:11: "In whom also ye are circumcised with the circumcision made without hands, in putting off the body of the sins of the flesh by the circumcision of Christ;" and again, "We are the circumcision which worship God by the Spirit, and rejoice in Christ Jesus, and have no confidence in the flesh." Php 3:3. "Mortify therefore your members which are upon the earth." Col 3:5.
was peculiarly, though not exclusively, a Jewish rite. It was enjoined upon Abraham, the father of the nation, by God, at the institution and as the token of the covenant, which assured to him and his descendants the promise of the Messiah. Gen. 17. It was thus made a necessary condition of Jewish nationality. Every male child was to be circumcised when eight days old,
on pain of death. The biblical notice of the rite describes it as distinctively Jewish; so that in the New Testament "the circumcision" and "the uncircumcision" are frequently used as synonyms for the Jews and the Gentiles. The rite has been found to prevail extensively in both ancient and modern times. Though Mohammed did not enjoin circumcision in the Koran, he was circumcised himself, according to the custom of his country; and circumcision is now as common among the Mohammedans as among the Jews. The process of restoring a circumcised person to his natural condition by a surgical operation was sometimes undergone. Some of the Jews in the time of Antiochus Epiphanes, wishing to assimilate themselves to the heathen around them, "made themselves uncircumcised." Against having recourse to this practice, from an excessive anti-Judaistic tendency, St. Paul cautions the Corinthians.
CIRCUMCISION is from the Latin, circumcidere, "to cut all around," because the Jews, in circumcising their children, cut off after this manner the skin which covers the prepuce. God enjoined Abraham to use circumcision, as a sign of his covenant. In obedience to this order, Abraham, at ninety-nine years of age, was circumcised: also his son Ishmael, and all the males of his property, Ge 17:10. God repeated the precept of circumcision to Moses: he ordered that all who were to partake of the paschal sacrifice should receive circumcision; and that this rite should be performed on children, on the eighth day after their birth. The Jews have always been very exact in observing this ceremony, and it appears that they did not neglect it when in Egypt. But Moses, while in Midian with Jethro his father-in-law, did not circumcise his two sons born in that country; and during the journey of the Israelites in the wilderness, their children were not circumcised. Circumcision was practised among the Arabians, Saracens, and Ishmaelites. These people, as well as the Israelites, sprung from Abraham. Circumcision was introduced with the law of Moses among the Samaritans and Cutheans. The Idumeans, though descended from Abraham and Isaac, were not circumcised till subdued by John Hircanus. Those who assert that the Phenicians were circumcised, mean, probably, the Samaritans; for we know, from other authority, that the Phenicians did not observe this ceremony. As to the Egyptians, circumcision never was of general and indispensable obligation on the whole nation; certain priests only, and particular professions, were obliged to it. Circumcision is likewise the ceremony of initiation into the Mohammedan religion. There is, indeed, no law in the Koran which enjoins it, and they have the precept only in tradition. They say that Mohammed commanded it out of respect to Abraham, the head of his race. They have no fixed day for the performance of this rite, and generally wait till the child is five or six years of age.
CIRCUMCISION, Covenant of. That the covenant with Abraham, of which circumcision was made the sign and seal, Ge 17:7-14, was the general covenant of grace, and not wholly, or even chiefly, a political and national covenant, may be satisfactorily established. The first engagement in it was, that God would "greatly bless" Abraham; which promise, although it comprehended temporal blessings, referred, as we learn from St. Paul, more fully to the blessing of his justification by the imputation of his faith for righteousness, with all the spiritual advantages consequent upon the relation which was thus established between him and God, in time and eternity. The second promise in the covenant was, that he should be "the father of many nations;" which we are also taught by St. Paul to interpret more with reference to his spiritual seed, the followers of that faith whereof cometh justification, than to his natural descendants. "That the promise might be sure to all the seed, not only to that which is by the law, but to that also which is by the faith, of Abraham, who is the father of us all,"