Circumcision involves the removal of the foreskin that normally covers the glans of the penis using a surgical procedure.[1] Male circumcision is a common practice across the world as a rite of passage or for medical and hygienic reasons. In ancient Egypt, the surgical procedure involved making a dorsal infection of the foreskin instead of removing the foreskin. It is believed that circumcision was practiced for the first in the ancient Near East before the practice was introduced to Abraham and his descendants. Genesis chapter 17 highlights the introduction of circumcision to Abraham and his descents as one of the elements of God’s covenant with Abraham.[2] The command of circumcision introduces new covenant conditions that Abraham and his generation are supposed to keep. The only way Abraham and his descendants would enjoy the benefits was by obeying all the covenant conditions including circumcision. It was the responsibility of all fathers to ensure that their sons are circumcised on the eighth day after birth.[3] There are some communities across the world that practice both male and female circumcision, but his research paper will only focus on male circumcision. The paper will discuss the origin, function and significance of circumcision in the Old Testament, including where and why circumcision was practiced in the Ancient Near East (ANE); the meaning and significance of circumcision in Genesis 17; why circumcision is extended to all of Abraham’s family and servants and at the same time provide a summary of other texts in the Old Testament where circumcision is mentioned, and its significance in such texts.


Circumcision in the Ancient Near East (ANE)

Israel’s initiation to the circumcision came after the practice was already widespread in the ancient Near East. It is believed that early Egyptian circumcision was practiced for the first time in the Sixth Dynasty (c. 2345-2200) and this discovery is supported by bas-relief from Sakkarah archeological discovery. The bas-relief from Sakkarah is one of the oldest archeological discoveries from the ancient Near East and has some evidence of early Egyptian circumcision.  The pictures in the bas-relief show two boys being circumcised by several priests. Apart from the pictures, the relief has some inscriptions with one of the priests urging the other to hold onto the boy and that he should not let the boy faint[4]. The 23rd century B.C. Stela from Naga ed-Der in Middle Egypt is another notable piece of evidence when it comes to circumcision in the ancient Middle East. In this case, a man describes how he was successfully circumcised in a text. Therefore, the Egyptians are always believed to the founders of circumcision.  In Braham’s covenant with God, he as commanded to circumcise infants on the eight-day after birth, but the Egyptians used to circumcise young boys. Herodotus suggests that the only nations that practiced circumcision in the earlier times include Ethiopians, Egyptians and Colchians. Circumcision was one of the earliest customs of the Egyptians and there is even a confession from the Syrians and the Phoenicians that they learnt it from the Egyptians[5].  The two nations were known for imitating the Egyptians on many things, but it is not clear whether the Ethiopians learnt the practice of the Egyptians or things happened the other way round. However, the Phoenicians stopped to circumcise their children the moment they started interacting with the Greeks in commerce. There is a need to identify the Egyptians with the circumcision institution according to the testimony of early witnesses to the practice.  The Amuq valley archeological discoveries in North Syria are normally used by some historians that object the fact that circumcision was founded in Egypt. This piece of archeological evidence indicates that Northern Syria was the place where bronze figurines of circumcised worriers were discovered in around 3200 B.C. However, this argument has always been disputed by the majority of historians who insist that circumcision originated in Egypt and later spread to other countries and regions.  According to Herodotus, Egypt practiced circumcision for the  hygiene of claims purposes. The Egyptians believed that being clean was better than being comely, and that is why they use to circumcise young men.  Although the Egyptians considered the act of circumcision to be very unbecoming in terms of appearance, they agreed that it was medically prudent for young men to undergo the practice. Archeological findings also indicate that circumcision was used by the Egyptians and other people in the Near East as a rite of passage from childhood to maturity or puberty. It was used as a mark of adulthood and therefore any man without the circumcision mark was considered a child.  Circumcision in the Near East is connected to the practices of El of Canaanite mythology that also entails observance of the rite[6].

According to this mythology, El circumcised himself and the offered his son as a sacrifice in order to appease the demons. Therefore, the practice of circumcision in Canaan had a significant effect on the circumcision practice in the Near East. Circumcision among Israelites was introduced as a sign of the covenant between God and Abraham and therefore the practice was not based on the reasons provided by people in the ancient Near East[7]. Before circumcision was introduced to Abraham in Genesis chapter 17, it was never perceived as a religious act. The practice was simply a rite of passage and a procedure to maintain cleanliness in the Near East. In other words, the circumcision practice in the Near East was just an external procedure that did not have any religious ramifications. Apart from the Philistines, Assyria and Babylon, most of the ancient Semitic cultures practiced circumcision, but was only viewed as an outward sign of transition from childhood to adulthood. Thompson argues that it is clear that Yahweh rejects the boast of any nation to be circumcised, for circumcision in the flesh which was not linked to[8]. In addition, obedience from the heart only was not acceptable to him God instituted circumcision as an outward sign of an inward recognition of dependence upon Him. Dependence expresses itself through an obedience of faith. Israel’s sinfulness demonstrated that their circumcision was in vain. The designation, circumcision of the characterized circumcision was also viewed as a connection to marriage and sexual life, female circumcision was part of the initiation practices in the Middle East. The Egyptian male circumcision involved the removal he liberation of the glans penis by making a dorsal incision upon the foreskin[9]. The way the practice was done was completely different from later Hebrew circumcision that involved the complete removal and disposal of the foreskin. Following Israel’s crossing the Jordan into Canaan, the inhabitants of the land were filled with fear. Instead of immediately attacking these people, God instructed Joshua to circumcise Israel.

The meaning and significance of circumcision in Genesis 17

Genesis chapter 17 portrays circumcision as the sign of the covenant between God and Abraham and the significance of the importance of this institution of rite in Israel is extensively highlighted in the chapter. The practice is identified as a sign of covenant in verse 11 while the participants of the rite are clearly outlined in verse 12 to verse 13. The consequences of failing to observe the circumcision rite disobeying the covenant are clearly stipulated in verse 14.  Genesis chapter 17 is a narrative that highlights the command of circumcision and the consequences of disobeying the command. At the beginning of this chapter, God issues the command on after appearing to Abram and revealing himself as Elshadai. Abraham was reminded to be perfect and walk in the presence of the Lord for his promises to be established in Abraham’s life. The blessing of Abraham also depended on the fulfillment of the circumcision and that is why it is included as an important part of the God’s covenant with Abraham. Circumcision is viewed as the sign born in the flesh of the male covenant member that is supposed to guard the covenant between God and Abraham. According to this covenant, those that fail to be circumcised are cut off from the covenant because circumcision is assign of accepting the covenant. Abraham represents a nation and that is why God goes ahead to establish a covenant with him. In Genesis chapter 15 God had already established an unconditional covenant with Abraham outlining the future of the nation, including the life of bondage and suffering in Egypt. However, the covenant in chapter 17 is conditional and is based on an individual basis instead of the nation as a whole. All the rights in the covenant would be forfeited by Abram and his descents failed to obey the circumcision command. However, one the one thing about the covenant that would not be altered its established longevity. The individual faith possessed by each person that God can accomplish the impossible is highlighted in the central issue of the covenant where Abraham is promised by God that all the nations of the earth would be blessed through his seed.

Reason why circumcision is extended to all of Abraham’s family and servants

The reason why circumcision is extended to all of Abraham’s family and servants. The circumcision was made as an obligation of the master to his servants. It was also supposed to generally, protect the rights of the servants. After circumcision, the servant became the member of Abraham family as well as a part of the Israel nation. The God’s permission to allow the servants in to the Abraham’s covenant community complied with the universal aspects of the Abrahamic covenant. Genesis 17: 14 states than any male that is not circumcised had breached the covenant and was to be “cut off from his people”. Furthermore, no individual Israelite would be able to receive the blessing of the covenant unless they undergone the circumcision ritual. This Abrahamic covenant held promises to Israel of optimum land, redemption and national identity.  Circumcision marked a crucial sign, which reminded Israelites of their full dependence upon God to fulfill the provision of the covenant. It also acted as a constant reminder to the Israel of their obligation to purity in this covenant relationship. It should however be noted that circumcision was not the covenant itself but was used as a cognition sign of the covenant between God and Abraham.

Taking the emphasis in chapter 17 on the promise to Abraham that his descendants would be numerous, circumcision would be a constant reminder to Abraham and his descendants that God was the source of the promised seed. According to Genesis 17: l-8, the bible goes on to also account how God reaffirms to Abraham that He would give his descendants an everlasting possession and He will be their God. Circumcision should always remind Israelites of their total dependence upon God to deriver those provisions of the covenant. According to Genesis 17:23-27 the bible accounts on how Abraham and all his family were circumcised; so receiving the token of the covenant, and distinguishing themselves from other families that had no part or lot in the matter. It was an implicit obedience; Abraham did as God said unto him, and did not ask why or wherefore. Abraham did it because God bade him. It was a speedy obedience; in the self-same day. Sincere obedience makes no delay. Not only the doctrines of revelation, but the seals of God’s covenant, remind Individuals that one is guilty polluted sinners. Circumcision shows us the need of the blood of atonement and it also points to the promised Savior, and teach on how to exercise faith in God. The other reason of Circumcision of Abraham’s family and servants is to show that without regeneration, and sanctification by the Spirit[10], and the mortification of the corrupt and carnal inclinations, an individual cannot be in covenant with God. But let an individual remember that the true circumcision is that of the heart, by the Spirit, according to Romans 2:28, 29. Both under the old and new dispensation, many have had the outward profession, and the outward seal, who were never sealed by the Holy Spirit of promise.

A summary of other texts in the Old Testament where circumcision is mentioned, and its significance in such texts.

In Genesis, 21: 4 there is the mention of the circumcision of Isaac. The birth and circumcision of Isaac is a fulfillment of Gods promise in Genesis 17 where by God promised to establish His covenant to Abraham by blessing Sarah, Abraham’s wife, with a son. This chapter signifies Gods faithfulness to his promise to Abraham. As indicated in Genesis 17: 9, at the age of eight years, Abraham circumcised Isaac. This indicates Abraham’s commitment to keep his part of promise to God as part of the covenant. In Genesis 17: 23 there is an account of how Abraham took his son Ishmael as well as those born in his household or bought with his money, ever male in his household and circumcised them, as God told him. Abraham was ninety-nine years old when he was circumcised, Gen 17:25 and his son Ishmael was thirteen; 26 Abraham and his son Ishmael were both circumcised on that very day. Gen 17;27 And every male in Abraham’s household, including those born in his household or bought from a foreigner, was circumcised with him.

In Genesis, 22: 4 The Bible relates Isaac’s circumcision and the sacrifice[11].  The death of a ram signified the fate of the covenant breaker as well as marked the ratification of the covenant. Circumcision whether partial or complete was an act of consecration.  Klein adds that this indicates that there is a structural correlation between Genesis 17 and 21, which stresses that Isaac’s circumcision reminded Abraham of his total dependence upon God to carry out His covenant promises to his descendants through Isaac. It was important to have faithfulness and obedience in order for an individual to have the blessings of the covenant. Nonetheless, Isaac’s circumcision, when interpreted in according to Genesis 22, could also be interpreted as a deed of consecration to God.

In Genesis 34 there this the narration of the story of Jacob particularly in the case of Dinah rape. The issue of circumcision had a big implication in this episode[12]. Jacob’s son could not allow their sister to be married by Shechem who was uncircumcised. The Israelites could not intermarry with tribes who did not practice circumcision because these tribes were considered unclean. In Gen. 24:3, it reads that Abraham made his servant swear that he would not get a Canaanite wife for his son Isaac. In Deut. 20:16-18 the bible states that afterwards in Israel’s history they were told to finish the Canaanites to prevent being made unclean by them. Jacob’s sons went ahead in requiring the circumcision of these Canaanite men. Eventually, Jacob’s sons used circumcision with their anger making God to punish them because His original reason for circumcision was to act as a sign to remind the Israel community of their total dependence on Him for fulfillment of the provision of the covenant. Therefore, Jacob’s sons erred in using circumcision as a means of weakening their enemies in preparation for their attack.

In Exodus 4:24-26 the bible states that after about 400 years after the incidence of Dinah, there is another mention of circumcision as a prominent feature in the event of Zipporah intercession on behalf of Moses’ life[13]. Although this incident happened much later from the event described in Genesis 17, Moses must have led the scripture due to its relation to the covenant. The bible in exodus 4: 25-26a describes that Zipporah took a flint knife, cut of her son’s foreskin and touched Moses’ feet with it, she then told him that he was a bridegroom of blood to her. There the Lord spared his life. Zipporah’s actions solved the problem between God and Moses. By doing the circumcision to her son, which is a male role, Zipporah had taken the place of her father

Jethro and symbolically touched his genital with the cut off foreskin. Lords’ annoyance toward Moses and Zipporah’s intervention appear to come from a much larger problem than just the failure to circumcise Moses. The penalty for nonfulfillment of the rite as agreed in Genesis 17:14 applies to the uncircumcised male himself and not the father. However, regarding to the Moses’ role as a leader of the covenant community, God’s anger may be due to Moses’ failure to comply with the sign of the covenant and circumcise his son. It is likely that Moses was uncircumcised, and God’s anger was because of his disobedience. Joshua 5:5 may suggests to the fact that Israel still practiced circumcision while in captivity. Verse five, states that all the people that came out from bondage had been circumcised. In addition, this context gives no evidence that Moses was not circumcised when by the time God called him into service. This circumcision renewed the Israel commitment to the covenant and God replenished His commitment to be the Lord of Israel in Exodus 3 stating that His name was to be remembered for generation to come. The circumcision account of Exodus 4 was straightaway preceded by God’s declaration of the Passover night. In Exodus 12, circumcision is revisited again within the context of the Passover. Exodus 12:42 states, ” because the LORD kept vigil that night to bring them out of Egypt, on this night all the Israelites are to keep vigil to honor the LORD for the generations to come.” [14]Following this explanation of the observance, verses 43-49 list Passover regulations. Therefore, circumcision took a very significant role in the freeing of the Israelites in the Passover night. The story of circumcision is again repeated in the Exodus 4 verse 15 when Zipporah took a knife and cut the foreskin of his son so as to usher him into manhood and fulfil the requirement of the Lord. This was also aimed at making the marriage between Moses and Zipporah acceptable according to Mosaic law. Later in the book of Joshua, the servant of God was again asked to make flint knives again and circumcise Israelites again. The aim of these was allow the Israelites to cerebrate Passover at Gilgal in accordance with the law of the Lord[15]. In Leviticus circumcision is referred to towards the end of the book. In this context, circumcision is referred to three times with emphasis being circumcision of the heart[16]. Here, circumcision is made to make people holy in accordance with the holiness of the Lord. The demand for holiness in the book of Leviticus was kind of a code which emphasized on the need for an internal holiness for one to be acceptable before the Lord and out of an already existing outward sanctified relationship with God. On its part the book of Deuteronomy shares literary meaning of a treaty or a covenant specifically to the form used by Hittites. In this regard, the book represents the reciprocal loyalty or faithfulness that God and the Israelites shared during this time. The word “heart” as expressed in Deuteronomy and other parts of the old testament refers to the inward faithfulness that was expected of the Israelites by the Lord[17]. The book presents the issue of heart circumcision as an important aspect of attaining the covenant vision of inward loyalty.


In conclusion, it is evident that circumcision was very significant in the covenant between the Israelites and God. Although there is the belief that circumcising has a much greater ancient history, its most significant documentation is in the Old Testament during the covenant between God and Ibrahim where by circumcision and change of names was involved. This marked a significant beginning of long lasting between him and the lord. It acted as the binding symbol between the two parties as a constant reminder of the covenant. The paper discusses the origin, function and significance of circumcision in the Old Testament, including the places and the reason for circumcision practice in the Ancient Near East (ANE) This paper has discussed different incidences in the Old Testament where circumcision was commanded to different personalities in the Israelites for significant symbolic purposes. Circumcision was important because it was important in order to be included in the chosen covenant community of Israel. In addition, the paper has highlighted the penalties imparted on the one who failed to fulfill the requirement of the covenant as stipulated by the Lord. The failure meant a big penalty being initiated towards the offender, which includes being cut off from the society, which some scholar beliefs meant being put to death.  Finally, the paper has explored the various verses in the scriptures where the issue of circumcision has been discussed


















Barker, Kenneth L.’ “False Dichotomies Between the Testaments.” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 25 (1982):3-16.

Barker, Kenneth L.’ “False Dichotomies Between the Testaments.” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 25 (1982):3-16.

Calvin, John. A Commentary on Genesis. Geneva Series. Edited and translated by John King. London: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1965.

Flusser, David. and Safrai, Shmuel. “Who Sanctified the Beloved in the Womb.” Immanuel 11 (1980):46-55.

Fox, Michael V. “The Sign of the Covenant: Circumcision in the Light of the Priestly ‘OT Etiologies.” Revue Biblique 81 (1974):557-96.

Kaplan, Lawrence. “And the Lord Sought to Kill Him’ (Exod. 4:24): Yet Once Again.” Hebrew Annual Review 5 (1981):65-74.

Kline, Meredith G. By Oath Consigned: A Reinterpretation of the Covenant Signs of Circumcision and Baptism. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., I968

Meade, John (2014). Circumcision of the heart in Leviticus and Deuteronomy: Divine means for resolving curse and bringing blessing. SBJT, 18(3): 59-85

Pritchard, J., ed. Ancient Near East in Pictures Relating to the Old Testament. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1954.

Sasson, Jack M. Circumcision in the Ancient Near East.” Journal of Biblical Literature 85 (1966):473-76.

The New Illustrated Medical and Health Encyclopedia, 1970 ed. S.V. “Circumcision” 2:409.

Thompson, J. A. The Book of Jeremiah. The New International Commentary on the Old Testament. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1980.




[1] The New Illustrated Medical and Health Encyclopedia, 1970 ed. S.V. “Circumcision” 2: p. 409

[2] Calvin, John. A Commentary on Genesis. Geneva Series. Edited and translated by John King. London: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1965, p. 38

[3] Fox, Michael V. “The Sign of the Covenant: Circumcision in the Light of the Priestly ‘ot Etiologies.” Revue Biblique 81 (1974): p. 557

[4] J Pritchard, ed., Ancient Near East in Pictures Relating to the Old Testament, pp. 206,325.

[5] Herodotus, The History of Herodotus, p. 115

[6] Flusser and Safrai, pp. 46-47.

[7] Ibid

[8] J. A. Thompson, Deuteronomy, TOTC, p. 322.

[9] The New Illustrated Medical and Health Encyclopedia, S.V. “Circumcision,” 2:409.

[10] Kenneth L. Barker, “False Dichotomies Between the Testaments,” JETS 25 (1982):5.

[11] Meredith G. Kline, By Oath Consigned: A Reinterpretation of the Covenant Signs of Circumcision and Baptism, p. 44.

[12] John Calvin, A Commentary on Genesis, pp. 222-23.

[13] Lawrence Kaplan, “‘And the Lord Sought to Kill Him’

(Exodus 4:24): Yet Once Again,” HAR 5 (1981):65.

[14] Michael V. Fox, “The Sign of the Covenant: Circumcision in the Light of the Priestly ‘ot Etiologies,” – RB 81 (1974):557-58.

[15] Jack M. Sasson, “Circumcision in the Ancient Near East,” JBL 85 (1966):474.

[16] John Meade. Circumcision of the heart in Leviticus and Deuteronomy: Divine means for resolving curse and bringing blessing. SBJT, 18(3) (2014): 65


[17] John, 2014, p. 70


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