Genesis (Part 69)

Welcome back to my study/review of Genesis. If you missed the previous parts of this study, you can find them HERE.

Genesis 17:9-14

And God said to Abraham, “As for you, you shall keep my covenant, you and your offspring after you throughout their generations. 10 This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and your offspring after you: Every male among you shall be circumcised. 11 You shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and you. 12 He who is eight days old among you shall be circumcised. Every male throughout your generations, whether born in your house or bought with your money from any foreigner who is not of your offspring, 13 both he who is born in your house and he who is bought with your money, shall surely be circumcised. So shall my covenant be in your flesh an everlasting covenant. 14 Any uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin shall be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant.”


The first half of Chapter 17 laid out what God will do for Abraham. Now we find out Abraham’s end of the covenant bargain.

In verse 9, God “(‘elohiym) tells Abraham that he will keep the covenant.

From the Pulpit Commentaries:

Verse 9. – And God said unto Abraham, Thou – literally, and thou, the other party to the covenant, the antithesis to I (ver. 4) – shalt keep my covenant – literally, my covenant thou shalt keep – therefore, thou, and thy seed after thee in their generations.

Starting in verse 10, we learn the terms. From Ellicott’s Bible Commentary we get some speculation about the origins of the practice of circumcision.

(10) Shall be circumcised.—It is stated by Herodotus (Book ii. 104) that the Egyptians were circumcised, and that the Syrians in Palestine confessed that they learned this practice from the Egyptians. Origen, however, seems to limit circumcision to the priesthood (Epist. ad Rom., § ii. 13); and the statement of Herodotus is not only very loose, but his date is too far posterior to the time of Abram for us to be able to place implicit confidence in it. If we turn to the evidence of Egyptian monuments and of the mummies, we find proof of the rite having become general in Egypt only in quite recent times. The discussion is, however, merely of archaeological importance; for circumcision was just as appropriate a sign of the covenant if borrowed from institutions already existing as if then used for the first time. It is, moreover, an acknowledged fact that the Bible is always true to the local colouring. Chaldæan influence is predominant in those early portions of Genesis which we owe to Abram, a citizen of Ur of the Chaldees; his life and surroundings subsequently are those of an Arab sheik; while Egyptian influence is strongly marked in the latter part of Genesis, and in the history of the Exodus from that country. In this fact we have a sufficient answer to the theories which would bring down the composition of the Pentateuch to a late period: for the author would certainly have written in accordance with the facts and ideas of his own times. If, however, Abram had seen circumcision in Egypt, when the famine drove him thither, and had learned the significance of the rite, and that the idea of it was connected with moral purity, there was in this even a reason why God should choose it as the outward sign of the sacrament which He was now bestowing upon the patriarch.

The fitness of circumcision to be a sign of entering into a covenant, and especially into one to which children were to be admitted, consisted in its being a representation of a new birth by the putting off of the old man, and the dedication of the new man unto holiness. The flesh was cast away that the spirit might grow strong; and the change of name in Abram and Sarai was typical of this change of condition. They had been born again, and so must again be named. And though women could not indeed be admitted directly into the covenant, yet they shared in its privileges by virtue of their consanguinity to the men, who were as sponsors for them; and thus Sarai changes her name equally with her husband.

I sidetracked here to see a modern explanation for “why circumcision” and found the following article:

The bris is a physical symbol of the relationship between G‑d and the Jewish people. It is a constant reminder of what the Jewish mission entails (a reminder which men need more than women). Let’s look at its details:

If circumcision is what G‑d wants, why aren’t we born circumcised? G‑d created the world imperfect, and gave us the mission to perfect it. G‑d created wheat; humans make bread. G‑d created a jungle; humans create civilization. The raw materials are given to us, and we are to use our ingenuity to improve on the world that we were born into. This is symbolized by the bris—we are born uncircumcised, and it is up to us to “finish the job.” This is also true metaphorically. We each have instincts and natural tendencies that are inborn, but need to be refined. “I was born that way” does not excuse immoral behavior: we are to cut away any negative traits, no matter how innate they may seem.

Why on earth would G‑d choose circumcision to represent something sacred? Jewish spirituality is about making the physical world holy. The way we eat, sleep, work and procreate should be imbued with the same holiness as the way we pray; our homes should be as sanctified as our synagogues. We find G‑d on earth just as much (and perhaps more) than in the heavens. So we put a sign on the most physical and potentially lowly organ, to say that it can and should be used in a holy way. In fact, it is in sexuality that we can touch the deepest part of our soul—when we approach it with holiness.

Why circumcise a baby? Wouldn’t the statement be more powerful if it were made by a mature adult? The circumcision is performed when a child is still not aware of what is happening. This is because the Jewish connection to G‑d is intrinsic: whether our minds believe in G‑d or not, whether our hearts love G‑d or not, our souls know G‑d. We can join the covenant with G‑d even without being consciously aware of Him, because subconsciously we already know Him.

Why specifically on the eighth day? The number seven represents nature—seven days of the week, seven colors of the rainbow, seven musical notes (do re mi, etc.); the number eight is the number that surpasses seven, and thus represents the miraculous, what is beyond nature. We do the bris on the eighth day because the Jewish people survive on miracles. Our history defies the laws of nature. We welcome a new Jewish child into this miraculous existence on the eighth day of his life, as if to say, “Expect miracles!”

I’ve always imagined Abraham going back to his family after. “Alright, here is what we’re going to do…” and undoubtedly being met with some measure of concern. Of course, if circumcision was something practiced elsewhere, the notion might not have been wholly unfamiliar.

“circumcision” = מוּל mûwl, mool; a primitive root; to cut short, i.e. curtail (specifically the prepuce, i.e. to circumcise); by implication, to blunt; figuratively, to destroy:—circumcise(-ing), selves), cut down (in pieces), destroy, × must needs.

David Guzik’s Commentary notes mention some of the health benefits – particularly in the ancient world – from the practice:

c. You shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskins: The sign was circumcision, the cutting away of the male foreskin. God chose this sign for many important reasons.

i. Circumcision was not unknown in the world at that time. It was a ritual practiced among various peoples.

ii. There were undoubtedly hygienic reasons, especially making sense in the ancient world. “There is some medical evidence that this practice has indeed contributed to the long-lasting vigor of the Jewish race.” (Morris) McMillen, in None of These Diseases, noted studies in 1949 and 1954 that showed a remarkably low rate of cervical cancer for Jewish women, because they mostly have husbands who are circumcised.

iii. But more importantly, circumcision is a cutting away of the flesh and an appropriate sign of the covenant for those who should put no trust in the flesh.

iv. Also, because circumcision deals with the organ of procreation, it was a reminder of the special seed of Abraham, which would ultimately bring the Messiah.

In addition to the adults in the first generation who would be getting circumcised, God tells Abraham that going forward, baby boys eight days old will also be subject to the practice. From Guzik’s notes again:

e. He who is eight days old among you shall be circumcised: God probably commanded the circumcision of children to take place on the eighth day because this is the day when an infant’s immune system is at the optimum level for such a procedure.

i. McMillen also notes newborn children have a peculiar susceptibility to bleeding between the second and fifth days of life. It seems an important blood-clotting agent, vitamin K, is not formed in the normal amount until the fifth to seventh day of life. Another blood-clotting agent, prothrombin, is at its highest levels in infants on precisely the eighth day of life, making the eighth day the safest, earliest day to circumcise an infant.

God makes the consequences for non-compliance quite serious. From the Pulpit Commentary again:

And the uncircumcised man child whose flesh of his foreskin is not circumcised, that soul shall be cut off from his people; he hath broken my covenant.Verse 14. – And the uncircumcised man child whose flesh of his foreskin is not circumcised, that soul shall be cut off from his people. Ἐξολοθρευθήσεται ἐκ τοῦ γένους αὐτῆς (LXX.), i.e. shall be destroyed from amongst his nation, from among his people (Leviticus 17:4, 10Numbers 15:30), from Israel (Exodus 12:15Numbers 19:13), from the congregation of Israel (Exodus 12:19), by the infliction of death at the hands of the congregation, the civil magistrate, or of God (Abarbanel, Gesenius, Clericus, Michaelis, Rosenmüller, Keil, Wordsworth, Alford); or shall be excommunicated from the Church, and no longer reckoned among the people of God (Augustine, Vatablus, Piscator, Willet, Calvin, Knobel, Murphy, Kalisch, Inglis). That excision from one s people was in certain cases followed by the death penalty (Exodus 31:14Leviticus 18:29Numbers 15:30) does not prove that the capital infliction was an invariable accompaniment of such sentence (videExodus 12:19Leviticus 7:20, 21Numbers 19:13). Besides, to suppose that such was its meaning here necessitates the restriction of the punishment to adults, whereas with the alternative signification no such restriction requires to be imposed on the statute. The uncircumcised Hebrew, whether child or adult, forfeited his standing in the congregation, i.e. ceased to be a member of the Hebrew Church. He hath broken my covenant.

David Guzik adds a Christian perspective to the practice and relates it to the Christian practice of baptism:

f. The uncircumcised male child… he has broken My covenant: Those who rejected circumcision rejected the sign of the covenant. They were no friends of the covenant God made with Abraham. It wasn’t that circumcision made them a part of the covenant (faith did), but rejection of circumcision was a rejection of the covenant.

i. Unfortunately, through the centuries, the Jews began to trust more in the sign of the covenant (circumcision) than in the God of the covenant, believing that circumcision by itself was sufficient and necessary to save. Paul refutes this idea extensively, especially in light of the finished work of Jesus (Galatians 5:1-15).

ii. Therefore, Christians are free to either circumcise or not. One may do so for social or hygienic reasons, but it doesn’t get us any closer to God: For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision avails anything, but faith working through love (Galatians 5:6).

iii. Again, Paul spoke of circumcision and baptism in Colossians 2:11-12, connecting them without saying they are the same thing. In this sense, at least, they are connected: circumcision did not save a Jewish man, but refusing to be circumcised meant disobedience to the covenant, and perhaps rejection of it. In the same sense, being baptized does not save us, but no Christian should refuse baptism.

If you are completely unfamiliar with this practice, it might seem to be a bizarre expectation on the part of God. However, we do see that it appears to be a practice that may have been for the long term good health of God’s people. I also find the answer mentioned in the article above compelling, too, which relates the practice to spiritual well-being.

Jewish spirituality is about making the physical world holy. The way we eat, sleep, work and procreate should be imbued with the same holiness as the way we pray; our homes should be as sanctified as our synagogues. We find G‑d on earth just as much (and perhaps more) than in the heavens. So we put a sign on the most physical and potentially lowly organ, to say that it can and should be used in a holy way. In fact, it is in sexuality that we can touch the deepest part of our soul—when we approach it with holiness.

Concerning the practice in modern times, more generally, let us look to the article on the topic.

Circumcision is the removal of the foreskin from the human penis. In the most common procedure, the foreskin is opened, adhesions are removed, and the foreskin is separated from the glans. After that, a circumcision device may be placed, and then the foreskin is cut off. Topical or locally injected anesthesia is generally used to reduce pain and physiologic stress. The procedure is most often an elective surgery performed on babies and children for religious or cultural reasons. Medically, circumcision is a treatment option for problematic cases of phimosis and balanoposthitis that do not resolve with other treatments, and for chronic urinary tract infections (UTIs). It is contraindicated in cases of certain genital structure abnormalities or poor general health.

The positions of the world’s major medical organizations range from a belief that elective circumcision of babies and children carries significant risks and offers no medical benefits to a belief that the procedure has a modest health benefit that outweighs small risks. No major medical organization recommends circumcising all males, and no major medical organization recommends banning the procedure. Ethical and legal questions regarding informed consent and human rights have been raised over the circumcision of babies and children for non-medical reasons; for these reasons, the procedure is controversial.

Male circumcision reduces the risk of HIV infection among heterosexual men in sub-Saharan Africa. Consequently, the World Health Organization (WHO) recommends consideration of circumcision as part of a comprehensive HIV prevention program in areas with high rates of HIV. The effectiveness of using circumcision to prevent HIV in the developed world is unclear; however, there is some evidence that circumcision reduces HIV infection risk for men who have sex with men. Circumcision is also associated with reduced rates of cancer-causing forms of human papillomavirus (HPV), and UTIs. It also decreases the risk of cancer of the penis via effectively curing phimosis. Prevention of these conditions is not seen as a justification for routine circumcision of infants in the Western world. Studies of other sexually transmitted infections also suggest that circumcision is protective, including for men who have sex with men. A 2010 review found circumcisions performed by medical providers to have a typical complication rate of 1.5% for babies and 6% for older children, with few cases of severe complications. Bleeding, infection, and the removal of either too much or too little foreskin are the most common acute complications. Meatal stenosis is the most common long term complication. Complication rates are higher when the procedure is performed by an inexperienced operator, in unsterile conditions, or in older children. Circumcision does not appear to have a negative impact on sexual function.

An estimated one-third of males worldwide are circumcised. Circumcision is most common among Muslims and Jews (among whom it is near-universal for religious reasons), and in the United States, parts of Southeast Asia, and Africa. It is relatively rare for non-religious reasons in Europe, Latin America, parts of Southern Africa, and most of Asia. The origin of circumcision is not known with certainty; the oldest documented evidence for it comes from ancient Egypt. Various theories have been proposed as to its origin including as a religious sacrifice and as a rite of passage marking a boy’s entrance into adulthood. It is part of religious law in Judaism and is an established practice in IslamCoptic Christianity, and the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. The word circumcision is from Latin circumcidere, meaning “to cut around”.

You can do the reading yourself. The practice is somewhat controversial in modern times for ethical reasons but there also appear to be potential health benefits even in modern times (with a few health risks also.)