Thursday, September 29, 2011

The Origin of Circumcision

Alice C. Linsley

The Upper Nile appears to be the point of origin of the features of religion that are associated with Moses and his people. This includes animal sacrifice, the burning of incense, circumcision, ruler-priests, the Holy Name YHWH or Yahu, and the solar imagery of the ancient Horite Hebrew.

Circumcision originated among the ancient Nilo-Saharans before 3200 BC. It is likely that both males and females of the ruling class were circumcised. It is not known whether the common people were circumcised, probably not. This appears to have been a practice of the ruler-priest caste called "Horim" or Horites, after 580 BC known as Jews, though some Arabs were also in this caste.
3200 BC flint knife
from al-Badari

Flint or obsidian knives were used to perform the circumcisions. These often had edges sharper than modern surgical steel. Flint workshops have been found throughout the Negev, suggesting that even after the production of iron tools, the flint knife was preferred for circumcision, possibly because infection was less of a risk given the high saline composition of the flint.

The largest flint knives, dating to about 3200 B.C., were found at Nekhen, a center for the worship of Horus, who was called the "seed of God." Votive offerings at the temple of Horus were gigantic, up to ten times larger than the normal mace heads and stone bowls found elsewhere. These objects are found only at Nekhen (Hierakonpolis), suggesting that the 4000 B.C. temple there was extremely prestigious.

Today circumcision of boys is widely practiced among Jews, and circumcision of boys and girls is practiced among many Nilotic peoples such as the Samburu. The circumcision of Samburu boys is a rite of initiation to moran (warrior) status.  This is reflected in Joshua 5:4 which says, "And this is the reason why Joshua circumcised them: all the males of the people who came out of Egypt, all the men of war."

For Samburu girls circumcision of the clitoris signifies availablity for marriage and childbearing. Until she is circumcised, she is regarded as unfit for marriage.  Here are some first-hand conversations that express the respect felt for circumcised wives in the part of Africa where this practice originated.

A Somali man said: “You had better treat your mother with more respect, boy! A circumcised woman! A woman whose womb has brought forth three sons into this family! That is a circumcised woman, my son, not some loose woman who can be treated as of little account. Without her, this family would have no one to pass along the name! Now you listen: you start giving her gifts, you cast your eyes down when she enters a room; do you hear me?”

A Sudanese man said: “Is this how you speak to your sister-in-law? Have you forgotten that she is circumcised? If this is how you treat circumcised women, then does your own family mean nothing to you?"

Biblical References to Circumcision

There are three references to circumcision in the Bible that tell us about this practice.  The first concerns Moses' cousin wife, Zipporah. Then Zipporah took a flint and cut off her son's foreskin, and touched his legs with it. She said, "You are truly a bridegroom of blood to me!"  And when He let him alone, she added, "A bridegroom of blood because of the circumcision."  Exodus 4:25, 26

This is believed to be the oldest biblical reference to circumcision and it pertains to the ruler's cousin wife. Moses' first wife was his half-sister, a Kushite (Numbers 12). Her designation as Kushite means that Moses' father married a Kushite. Likely this refers to Ishar, the mother of Korah and Moses' half-sister wife.  She was a descendant of Seir the Horite (Gen. 36).  So this oldest reference to circumcision connects it to the Horim or Horite Hebrew.

The next reference concerns God's command to Abraham to circumcise all the males of his household (Gen. 17:10-14). This account shows evidence of the covenant theology of a later period. Probably the source is the same as the book of Deuteronomy. It is almost certain that Abraham was circumcised before the passage in Genesis 17 because in Genesis 12 we are told about his meeting with the Pharaoh, an understated account of a remarkable moment in the patriarch's life. Likely he met with Nebhepetre Mentuhotep II, a powerful ruler of the 11th Dynasty who reigned for 51 years. Only circumcised males were permitted to appear before Pharaoh. Therefore, it is highly probable that Abraham was already circumcised at the time of his audience with Mentuhotep.

Finally, there is the somewhat ambiguous account of the renewal of the covenant whereby Joshua was to circumcise the "people" a second time.  At that time the Lord said to Joshua, "Make flint knives and circumcise the people of Israel again the second time." So Joshua made flint knives, and circumcised the people of Israel at Gibeath ha-aralot. (Joshua 5:2,3)

Some translations read "children" instead of people and some read "Israelites," allowing for the possibility that females were circumcised also.  It is argued that "ha-aralot" can refer only to male circumcision since it means "hill of foreskins," but in Pharaonic circumcision, the clitorus was regarded as foreskin.

The Bible offers this explanation for the second circumcision: Though all the people who came out had been circumcised, yet all the people that were born on the way in the wilderness after they had come out of Egypt had not been circumcised. (Joshua 5:5) 

Today what is called "female genital mutilation" should properly be called "Pharaonic circumcision" and it shares the same point of origin as male circumcision. Therefore it is irrational to argue against the one and not the other.

In November 1982, Canadian Anthropologist Janice Boddy's fascinating essay on Pharaonic circumcision appeared in American Ethnologist. The essay was titled "Womb as Oasis: The symbolic context of Pharaonic circumcision in rural Northern Sudan" (Vol.9, pgs. 682-698). Here Boddy sets forth her research on Pharaonic circumcision among the Sudanese. Among the Sudanese this practice of female circumcision parallels the circumcision of males and reflects the binary distinction between females and males, one of the more important binary distinctions found throughout the Bible.

Boddy explains: "In this society women do not achieve social recognition by becoming like men, but by becoming less like men physically, sexually, and socially. Male as well as female circumcision rites stress this complementarity. Through their own operation, performed at roughly the same age as when girls are circumcised (between five and ten years), boys become less like women: while the female reproductive organs are covered, that of the male is uncovered. Circumcision, then, accomplishes the social definition of a child's sex by removing physical characteristics deemed appropriate to his or her opposite: the clitoris and other external genitalia, in the case of females, the prepuce of the penis, in the case of males." (Boddy, pg. 688)

The Egyptian word for phallus was khenen (hnn) related to khenty, meaning before or in front of. The relief above shows circumcision as depicted in the tomb of Ankhmahor in Saqqara, Sixth Dynasty. This was a practice of a royal priest caste. This depiction appears with images pertaining to ritual purification of priests.

Herodotus (BC 485-425) wrote concerning the origins of circumcision:

"Egyptians and the Ethiopians have practiced circumcision since time immemorial. The Phoenicians and the Syrians of Palestine themselves admit that they learnt the practice from the Egyptians, while the Syrians in the river Thermodon and the Pathenoise region and their neighbours the Macrons say they learnt it recently from the Colchidians. These are the only races which practice circumcision, and it is observable that they do it in the same way with the Egyptians."

Related reading:  Pharaonic Circumcision in the Sudan: A Case StudySudan is Archaeologically RichCircumcision Among Abraham's People; Circumcised Phallus an Egyptian Hieroglyph; Circumcision and Binary Distinctions; The Nubian Context of YHWH


Alice C. Linsley said...

My intent with this post is to provide information that helps us understand Abraham's people and how their beliefs shape the biblical worldview.

Additionally, this research supports that biblical assertion that Abraham's ancestors came out of the Upper Nile region, since that is exactly the point of origin of the practice.

Anonymous said...

(1)What is the importance of carrying out circumcision after a certain number of days, especially on the 8th day after birth of the male child?

Alice C. Linsley said...


The level of vitamin K, which enables the blood to clot, is highest on the eighth day after birth.