Overview:

No one really knows how circumcision became a thing for Jews (in particular). One of the better theories is that it started as a mark of slavery.

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Nothing says religious belief better than disfiguring your own genitalia. Or better still, someone else’s. But, seriously, why?

From a philosophical point of view, and considering OmniGod (all-powerful, -knowing, and-loving) who designed and created everything, the procedure of circumcision, the removal of the foreskin from the penis, is bizarre. Why would God, who designed human male bodies, decree that the very thing he designed needs to be altered in such a way? Was the design not good enough?

Anthropologists and skeptics seek to explain phenomena such as this in naturalistic ways. This is, indeed, what Christians and Jews assume of every other culture’s rituals. Why do men of this particular cultural background disfigure their genitalia in the name of God? Why does the Bible make frequent reference to, and demand men get, circumcision.

Circumcision is one of the oldest practiced planned surgical procedures, possibly dating back 15,000 years. So that’s a lot of foreskins. A lot of enforced pain and suffering for very little obvious sense.

It’s a powerful procedure because it appears to have gotten the infallible, immutable God to change his mind, as we see from Moses’ wife’s actions in Exodus 24:

24 But it came about at the overnight encampment on the way, that the Lord met Moses, and sought to put him to death. 25 So Zipporah took a flint and cut off her son’s foreskin and threw it at Moses’ feet; and she said, “You are indeed a groom of blood to me!” 26 So He left him alone. At that time she said, “You are a groom of blood”—because of the circumcision.

Of course, this makes absolutely no philosophical sense, despite apologists’ best attempts. As one apologist source rightly admits:

No matter how you slice it, this passage is a little strange! We seem to be plunged into some kind of weird spat that lacks any description of prior context, and without detail of important preceding action that might tell us what this is all about. So even the best scholars are left with a fair amount of speculation to fill in those blanks. This answer will therefore have plenty of speculation, but a core lesson is still very clear.

Circumcision is actually considered one of the most important commandments (mitzvot) for Jews, and the ramifications of not doing so are dire and existential.

But, let’s face it, none of that is real. God doesn’t exist, and if he did, he certainly wouldn’t demand the ends of men’s penises be cut off. So what does explain the existence of Jewish circumcision?

The true answer is that we don’t really know. And it’s okay to speculate in this case because we are not looking to promote a divine and perfect moral revelation of supreme clarity.

Circumcision is one of the oldest practiced planned surgical procedures, possibly dating back 15,000 years. So that’s a lot of foreskins. A lot of enforced pain and suffering for very little obvious sense. Various theories exist such that it started in one place and spread, or started in different cultural groups independently. It may well have originally been a way to emasculate captured enemies where full penectomies or castrations were too often fatal.

Before Jews and Muslims practiced circumcision, other cultures in the area prior to their development carried it out, such as the Ancient Egyptians and the Semites, cultures that had a huge influence on the development of Judaism. There is an apparent depiction of the procedure on a bas-relief from Saqqara, Egypt, from 2400 BCE. See a papyrus illustration here at biblical scholar James Tabor’s blog with a translation of the hieroglyphics. Caleb Strom states of this:

However, in ancient Egypt and other cultures in Africa, only part of the foreskin was removed. In the Pacific islands, the frenum was snipped but the foreskin was left unmodified. This is interesting considering a Biblical reference where Yahweh commands the Israelites to circumcise their children again, “a second time” (Joshua 5:2). This could imply that some of them had already been circumcised the Egyptian way and had to be circumcised the Jewish or Israelite way.

One of the most plausible theories I have seen is one that claims that the procedure started as a slave mark (similar to or the same as the captured prisoners noted above). As this paper states (and you can find this at The Circumcision Reference Library, which appears to be a thing):

Others believe that circumcision arose as a mark of defilement or slavery. In ancient Egypt captured warriors were often mutilated before being condemned to the slavery. Amputation of digits and castration was common, but the morbidity was high and their resultant value as slaves was reduced. However, circumcision was just as degrading and evolved as a sufficiently humiliating compromise. Eventually, all male descendents of these slaves were circumcised. The Phoenicians, and later the Jews who were largely enslaved, adopted and ritualized circumcision. In time, circumcision was incorporated into Judaic religious practice and viewed as an outward sign of a covenant between God and man.

W.D. Dunsmuir and E.M. Gordon, “The history of circumcision”, BJU INTERNATIONAL, Volume 83, Suppl. 1: Pages 1-12, January 1, 1999.

In his excellent book Slavery, Abolitionism, and the Ethics of Biblical Scholarship, the late Dr. Hector Avalos gives some arguments to defend the theory.

The key biblical scripture is from Genesis 17, where God expresses the aforementioned covenant:

10 This is My covenant, which you shall keep, between Me and you and your descendants after you: every male among you shall be circumcised. 11 And you shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskin, and it shall be the sign of the covenant between Me and you.”

The key idea here is servitude. Circumcision is a sign of a covenant, but one that is very one-sided, requiring subservience to God in the subjugation of his chosen people. One can read this as recipients being in bondage to or enslaved by Yahweh. Circumcision is not voluntary and is demanded by God.

Does the mark of slavery theory hold up?

Avalos presents four basic arguments for his slave mark thesis. Let us put aside God-belief, and specifically the particularity of Yahwism and Judaism, to see whether the slave mark theory is a reasonable one to best explain circumcision for Jewish people.

First, people don’t normally submit to such procedures without coercion. Not initially. Anthropologically speaking, such forms of mutilation, even if eventually ritualistic and “desired,” are in first instances coerced against the will of the recipient. One can imagine that, as the process is less than desirable for the average adult (medical issues aside), it was moved as a ritual for infants such that there is far less lasting pain and discomfort. That said, this move to an early incision might also be because early followers of Judaism held the belief that one’s body healed better on the eighth day of life (eight was an important number).

Second, body modification is a well-known method of slave-marking (including tattoos). Branding as a mechanism for distinguishing human property began in 2000-1800 B.C. with Babylonian slaves. This can happen in any number of ways and we even see it in the Bible itself in other contexts and manners (Exodus 21):

then his master shall bring him to God, then he shall bring him to the door or the doorpost. And his master shall pierce his ear with an awl; and he shall serve him permanently.

Third, this can be seen as a test of loyalty such that the master would require something of a slave that would otherwise be undesirable. “That is to say, if a slave master wanted to test whether a new slave would be obedient then the master could require the slave to mutilate himself as a test (see Gen. 34.22).” (Avalos, p. 72.)

The key idea here is servitude. Circumcision is a sign of a covenant, but one that is very one-sided, requiring subservience to God in the subjugation of his chosen people. One can read this as recipients being in bondage to or enslaved by Yahweh.

The final reason that Avalos gives is that no other explanations offered have withstood scrutiny, including scientific analysis of the health benefits (and as would be known by these historic peoples).

Perhaps this all started when a community was enslaved in some way (such as we know from the Amarna Letters that a few Canaanites were enslaved to the Egyptians at various points). I’m not talking about the mass bondage of the Hebrews as claimed in the Exodus accounts since that clearly never happened (I am presently writing a book on that), but about a much smaller scale community. Perhaps one such community came to be Yahwists and this symbol of previous slavery that marked some or many of their men out became an identity marker for their wider beliefs.

Given that circumcision was a mark of servitude, it could have taken on a more spiritual meaning to identify servitude to Yahweh. This then morphed into a rite of passage or a ritual that marked this community, that set their identities out more permanently.

As far as I am concerned, a theory along these lines is as good as any and seems imminently plausible. It does a far better job of explaining the data than OmniGod coming down and decreeing that his chosen people defile themselves as some kind of contractual obligation: A contract he supposedly knew would only last a short while until he sent himself down to be sacrificed to himself to pay himself for the sins of humanity that he knowingly designed and created such that their shortcomings would require payment.

The mark of slavery being co-opted is, then, a much more plausible theory.

Jonathan MS Pearce

A TIPPLING PHILOSOPHER Jonathan MS Pearce is a philosopher, author, columnist, and public speaker with an interest in writing about almost anything, from skepticism to science, politics, and morality,...