Sunday, July 6, 2008

Circumcision Among Abraham's People

Alice C. Linsley

Circumcision of both males and females appears to originate among Nilotic tribes such as the Samburu. Among the Samburu circumcision of boys marks the initiation to moran (warrior) status and for girls it signifies becoming a woman. Once circumcised, a girl can be married and start her own family. However, not all Nilotic tribes practice circumcision. The principal initiation rite of the Luo involves removing six front teeth.

Since Abraham's ancestors came out of the Upper Nile region and the rulers of his people were kin to the rulers of Egypt, so we should not be surprised that circumcision was practiced among his Horite people.  Circumcision originated among the Kushites and Egyptians and the Horites (called "Horim" by the Jews) were ethnically Kushite.

Found at Tel Gezer (dated 12th to mid-11th century BC)
The Egyptian word for phallus was khenen (hnn) related to khenty, meaning before or in front of 

Genesis on Circumcision

The practice of circumcision is first mentioned in Genesis 17 in relationship to a covenant and an heir born to the elderly Abraham and Sarah. Here there is a natural relationship between the gift of fertility and the rite of circumcision. At this point in the narrative Abraham's only first-born son is Ishmael and it is he who is circumcised. Later we are told that Abraham had all the males of his household circumcised. This suggests that all Abraham's sons were to be regarded as priests, since it was generally only priests and rulers who were circumcised among the ancient Nilotic peoples. Likely, this is what stands behind the scripture (II Sam. 18:8) which calls David's sons ruler-priests.

Source critics claim that this section of Genesis is the work of the Priestly source. That would make sense seeing that circumcision was apparently performed among priests in Egypt and required of their slaves also. This suggests that circumcision has to do with ritual purity. Even today uncircumcised women are regarded as ritually unclean and unsuitable as wives among peoples throughout Egypt, Sudan, Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia and in Chad and parts of Nigeria.

Circumcision was also required of Egyptian rulers, as evidenced by circumcised royal mummies. This would indicate that Abraham and his sons were nobles, as is suggested also by their being listed among the Horite rulers in Genesis 4, 5 and 11:10-32.

In Genesis 17:11 we read that God told the elderly Abraham to "circumcise the flesh of your foreskin, and that will be the sign of the covenant between myself and you." The divine instructions said to circumcise all males of his household on the 8th day after birth, but Ishmael was circumcised at age 13 (Gen. 17:25). The instructions also include the circumcision of slaves.

Genesis doesn't say much else about circumcision, although it is likely that Joseph, as a ruler in Egypt and husband to the daughter of the high priest of On, was circumcised. Nothing is said about female circumcision, but this doesn't mean that it wasn't practiced.

It is clear that Abraham's people practiced circumcision, but it is not likely that circumcision originated with Abraham. In fact, there is a suggestion of another origin in Exodus.

Exodus on Circumcision

In Exodus 4, we find another reference to circumcision. This also is connected to the first-born son. The story of Zipporah circumcising her first-born son has as its backdrop these words to Pharaoh: "Thus says the Lord: Israel is My first-born son. I have said to you, 'Let my son go, that he may worship Me,' yet you refuse to let him go. Now I will slay your first-born son." (Ex. 4:22-23)

The Exodus narrative speaks of a more primitive view of circumcision as a warding off of evil and death, just as the blood of the Passover lamb warded off death. Using a ritual flint knife like the high saline flint knives found at al-Badar, Zipporah cut off her son's foreskin and touched Moses' "legs" (genitals?) with it, saying "You are truly a bridegroom of blood to me!... A bridegroom of blood because of the circumcision."

Two ideas are consistent between the Genesis and Exodus narratives. First, circumcision is a blood rite connected to fertility and most especially with the hope of male heirs. Second, circumcision in itself did not guarantee protection from divine judgment.

Circumcision in Egypt

In ancient Egypt the circumcised penis was a fertility symbol. According to Egyptologist, E. A. Budge (The Gods of the Egyptians, Dover Publications), an early deity of Egypt was a god of circumcision who maintained the fertility of the Nile banks. Early Egyptian mythology also includes the belief that the universe was created by the blood that was shed when God circumcised himself. Here we find the recurring theme of "life in the blood."

Circumcision and Metal Workers

Whatever the origin of circumcision, it is most certain that it comes out of Africa. Even today in many parts of central Africa, when a boy is to be circumcised, the metal worker is called to perform the rite. This may explain why Zipporah circumcised Moses' first-born son. Zipporah was a Midianite and the Midianties were itinerant metal workers. Moses, having been raised in the palace in Egypt, was not qualified to circumcise his own son.

Does this suggest that Abraham, a descendent of the smithy Tubal-Cain, was also a metal worker? It is certainly a good possibility. Even today in central Africa metal working chiefs maintain 2 wives in separate households and intinerate between those homesteads. This is one of the fascinating discoveries of fellow Kentuckian, Michael Kirtley, who traveled through Niger hoping to meet a renowned metal worker named Ahoudan. Michael was told, "You'll be lucky to find him. He has two homes and two wives, in Abardokh and Tabelot." (The Inadan: Artisans of the Sahara, National Geographic, August 1979)

Abraham also had 2 wives and maintained them in separate households. He itinerated between those locations, which led to the idea of Abraham as a "wandering Aramean." If his route was between Hebron (Sarah) and Beersheba (Keturah), we can well understand one of his sources of wealth. His business brought him into contact with merchants who traveled the ancient caravan routes between Heliopolis, a shrine city on the Nile, to Mesopotamia. There is a reference in the Rig Veda (9.112.2) to itinerant metal-smiths who made arrows of metal to sell to wealthy customers, so the itinerant life of metal workers must have extended even to the Indus River Valley.

Abraham refers to himself as an resident alien in Genesis 23:4, but significantly, the people living in the land regarded him as a "great prince of God" living among them (verse 5).


Anonymous said...

The circumcision of the foreskin turned Abram into Abraham - he yeilded to God's will and dominion, and risked the 'excesses' of the flesh, his health, power, appearance, identity, pleasure, progeny and prosperity.

The circumcision of Abraham and his tribe fortold Christ's crucifixion and the crucifixion and dying of the old man of the flesh for the New Covenant people.

There are also circumcisions of the heart, lips, ears, eyes in the OT that seemingly would still apply in the NT.

I'd like to know what changed and how did the 'husband of one wife' relate to Genesis? (I'm sure it is foretold there in some manner)

Alice C. Linsley said...

Georgia, are you refering in your last statement ('husband of one wife') to the catholic guidelines for ordination in 1 Timothy 3:2? These guidelines reflect St. Paul's established work among the Gentiles and are intended to set the Church in contrast to the paganism of the Greek-speaking world.

The point here is that the overseer must manage his household well. How can he be excepted to manage the church well if his own household is in disorder?

More importantly, since the practice of having 2 wives pertained to chiefs, men seek worldly status by following the custom of the ruler. Polygyny in Africa is about status and wealth. 1 Tim 3:2 also states that the overseer is "not to be a lover of money." The Christian leader is exhorted to instead seek the things of God.

Anonymous said...

Yes, that is the Scripture I meant.

I suppose a Christian is to be a different kind of 'chief' or ruler (by the power of the Holy Spirit, of the Cross, of Truth and Love)...
- over his or her own nature, with its passions and lusts
- over their household in God's order with husband as chief (what about single and divorced women with children?)
- over their field of influence, calling, time, resources and gifts.

Anonymous said...

In Genesis 17, Circumcision instituted as sign of Abrahamic Covenant. They were to be every male. What about the women? Were they not a part of this everlasting covenant with God?

Alice C. Linsley said...

Circumcision was performed on females of royal status in Ancient Egypt and along the Nile. This is the point of origin of Abraham's ancestors.