Some think that all the Bible says about circumcision is to order it to be done. Not so! The Bible makes it clear that circumcision only applied to Jews, to their slaves and to converts to Judaism (Gen. 17:10-14, Exod. 12:48). All other peoples were described as uncircumcised, even those who practised circumcision (Jer. 9:25-26). Circumcision never applied to Christians (Acts 15:5-11), and anyone who doubts this should read Acts 15 and the letter of Paul to the Galatians carefully, noting how and why these passages say that circumcision is not needed.
The New Testament is hostile to those who pushed circumcision on others. It insists that circumcision is not needed and questions the motives of those who were promoting it1. In the Hebrew Bible there is also an enormous difference between the commands to circumcise, and what the rest of the Hebrew Bible reveals about this practice.
The difference between the law and other Hebrew Scriptures is not just confined to circumcision. Hebrew Law allows slavery, but the cry `Let my people go’ (Exod. 5-14) gave courage and inspiration for slaves to seek freedom. The Law says nothing against polygamy, but the Bible vividly pictures the misery that flowed from such arrangements (Gen. 16:3-6, 30:1-22, 1 Sam. 1:1-11). The Law occasionally appears to render women almost powerless, as in the text that allows a man to sell his daughter into slavery (Exod. 21:7-11)2, but stories in the Bible give overwhelming evidence of how powerful ancient women could be3. Similarly, while Hebrew Law commands circumcision for Jews and their slaves, the circumcision stories in the Jewish scriptures confront us with darker aspects of the practice.
There is a great gulf between Jewish ethics and the stories we shall examine. Jewish ethics prohibit `the torture or causing of pain to any living creature’4. `It is a violation of Torah law to physically assault or harm another person’ (Exod. 21:18-27)5. Exodus 20:13 prohibits stealing. Jews also have a moral obligation to help those who are helpless6. Jewish law says the human body must not be cut or marked (Lev. 19:28)7. Indeed, as some Jewish critics of circumcision have commented, these rules would appear to be at odds with the requirement to circumcise. They are certainly at odds with the actions described in the stories that follow.
The Hundred Foreskin Dowry
This is the most notorious circumcision story in the Bible. However, to understand it, we need some background information about the people involved. When David slew the giant Goliath, the captain of the army took him to King Saul. Immediately, Jonathan, Saul’s son and heir, formed a relationship with David.
`When David had finished speaking to Saul, the soul of Jonathan was bound to the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul. Saul took him that day and would not let him return to his father’s house. Then Jonathan made a covenant with David, because he loved him as his own soul. Jonathan stripped himself of the robe that he was wearing, and gave it to David, and his armor, and even his sword and his bow and his belt.’
(1 Sam. 18:1-4, New RSV)
David is described as the man after God’s own heart (see 1 Sam. 13:14, Acts 13:22). It does not contradict this to point out that David’s adversaries saw him in quite a different light. We do not have to agree with their assessment of David. Nevertheless, their comments show what they thought of him and help to explain the actions that followed.
David’s first great adversary, Goliath, said to him:
`Am I a dog, that you come to me with sticks?’
`Come to me, and I will give your flesh to the birds of the air and to the wild animals of the field.’ (emphasis added)
(1 Sam. 17:43-44, New RSV)
Dog was the name given to male prostitutes. (Deut. 23:18) Stick or staff is a word that Strong’s Concordance links with the meaning `to germinate’ (word 4731). Flesh is also used as a euphemism for the penis (Lev. 15:2-3)8. If even some of these meanings carried over into Goliath’s insult, they would give it even more bite.
Michal, the bride whose dowry was those Philistine foreskins, commented about David’s behaviour when he danced before the LORD wearing only an ephod (a short apron).
`How the king of Israel honored himself today before the eyes of his servants’ maids, as any vulgar fellow might shamelessly uncover himself!’
(2 Sam. 6:20, New RSV)
The withering sarcasm of this attack helped to cause to a complete estrangement between the couple (2 Sam. 6:21-23).
We do not have to to agree with what Goliath or David’s wife thought or said about David. However, to understand why Michal’s dowry was set at a hundred Philistine foreskins, we need to understand what King Saul thought of the relationship between his son Jonathan and David. We know what he thought of their friendship because of his accusation to Jonathan:
`Do I not know that you have chosen the son of Jesse to your own shame, and to the shame of your mother’s nakedness?’
(1 Sam. 20:30, New RSV)
Clearly, Saul saw the relationship between the two men as shameful. Nakedness is a word used in Leviticus to describe forbidden sexual relationships, (Lev. 18:6-19 ). It sounds like a direct accusation of sexual misconduct. Certainly, Jonathan took it as a humiliating attack on both him and David.
`Jonathan rose from the table in fierce anger and ate no food on the second day of the month, for he was grieved for David, and because his father had disgraced him.’
(1 Sam. 20:34, New RSV)
When Saul offered David his daughter’s hand in marriage, he said:
`The king desires no marriage present, except a hundred foreskins of the Philistines…’
(1 Sam. 18:25, New RSV)
The text acknowledges one reason for this extraordinary request:
`…Saul planned to make David fall by the hand of the Philistines.’
from (1 Sam. 18:25, New RSV)
Saul’s desire for a dowry of foreskins was clearly sexual bait. Of course, there was the girl and the prospect of a good marriage. However, there is also the question whether Saul tempted David with slicing off foreskins because he thought it would appeal to David’s sexual tastes.
As it turned out, David turned the tables on Saul in a spectacular way.
`David arose and went, along with his men, and killed two hundred of the Philistines; and David brought their foreskins, which were given in full number to the king, that he might become the king’s son-in-law.’
(1 Sam 18:27, RSV)
This double measure of foreskins, given in full number, both obeys and mocks the command of King Saul. It is macabre and grisly. It has as much to do with sex as with violence.
This story has shocked and appalled generations of Bible readers but it is not without significance. The indecent interest in male genitals displayed in this story can be seen even in medical literature. One doctor was quoted as saying: `[C]ircumcision is a beautification comparable to rhinoplasty, and a circumcised penis appears in its flaccid state as an erect uncircumcised organ – a beautiful instrument of precise intent.’9 Two other medical writers said: `While the foreskin of an uncircumcised penis can be retracted, the circumcised penis exists in exposed beauty whether flaccid or erect.’10 In 1942, a prominent New Zealand doctor commented that some itinerant nurses `appear to collect foreskins with the same enthusiasm as the Red Indians did scalps.’ because of the way they persuaded parents to get their boys circumcised by the doctors.11. A Minister for Tourism in Malaysia wished to promote circumcision ceremonies to tourists as `something different’12. On the net, web sites appealing to those with that particular fetish even present stories of forced circumcision as a way to titillate readers13.
Though we might find it appalling and indecent, circumcision raids do happen. The book of Maccabees tells us that Mattathias and his friends forcibly circumcised all the uncircumcised boys they found within the borders of Israel (1 Macc. 2:45). `At Srirangapatnam [Mysore, India] in the 1780s perhaps three hundred British troops, and probably more, were physically subdued, drugged, circumcised, fitted with silver earrings which they believed marked them out as slaves, and drawn into Mysore’s service as soldiers and artisans.’14 Uncircumcised New Zealand born Samoan, Tongan and Niuean boys are at risk of being seized by `raiding parties’ of relatives and forcibly circumcised.15. On the Island of Ambon in Indonesia, Islamic fanatics forcibly circumcised men, women and children as recently as 200116.
Such actions demonstrate the hostility some feel towards those who still have their foreskins. This hostility was common amongst the early Hebrews (Genesis 17:14, Judges 14:3, 2 Samuel 1:20). Saul certainly felt this way (1 Sam. 31:4) and Saul knew that this hatred was shared by David (1 Samuel 17: 26, 36). It is also reflected in the command to circumcise:
`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.’
(Gen. 17:14, New RSV)
Note how this punishment is directed towards the child with the foreskin rather than the parents who left him intact.
Modern psychology explains the reaction. Circumcision involves the loss of sexually sensitive tissue 17, 18. The presence of men or boys with foreskins is a constant reminder to the circumcised that they have lost something, and this can generate an urge to deprive others of their foreskins, too19. A similar explanation is as old as Aesop, in the story of the fox who lost his tail20. The poor fox was teased so badly that he devised a scheme. He called a meeting of the foxes and advised them all to get rid of their tails, too. Life, he said, was better without the encumbrance of a tail! They, of course, saw through his ruse straight away.
The story of the foreskin dowry points to a truth that the New Testament also alludes to: the sexual element in this mania to circumcise.
Mass Circumcision before a Massacre
One of the Bible’s best-known circumcision stories is the mass circumcision at Gilgal, the hill of the foreskins 21. It says that Joshua revived the custom of circumcision, which had fallen into disuse under Moses’ leadership (Josh. 5:2-9). The passage notes that the circumcised warriors who left Egypt had all died on the way (Josh. 5:4). The reference to circumcised warriors links this mass circumcision with the violence that followed.
Jericho’s walls came tumbling down (Josh. 6:20) and this is trumpeted in story and song. The massacre that followed is not greatly publicized:
`Then they devoted to destruction by the edge of the sword all in the city, both men and women, young and old, oxen, sheep and donkeys.’
(Josh. 6:21, New RSV)
The past century has seen too many pogroms, too many slaughters, too many massacres, too many killing fields, too much `ethnic cleansing,’ too much of the `final solution’ not to know what to call this. Its name is genocide22.
However, the prostitute who sheltered the Hebrew spies was spared (Josh. 6:25).
Once again circumcision is linked with violence, and there is a disturbing sexual undertone to the story.
The Slaughter of the Shechemites
This story is often called `The Rape of Dinah’ though we cannot be completely sure that it was a rape. Dinah went out to see the women of the area:
`…when Shechem the son of Hamor the Hivite, prince of the country, saw her, he took her, and lay with her, and defiled her.’
(Gen. 34:2, King James Version)
Yes he took her. Yes he lay with her. Yes he defiled her; that is, he took her virginity and so reduced her status. However, it is an open question whether she was raped or seduced.
Nevertheless, one thing is clear, the anger of Dinah’s brothers.
`When they heard of it, the men were indignant and very angry, because he had committed an outrage in Israel by lying with Jacob’s daughter, for such a thing ought not to be done.’
(Gen. 34:7 New RSV)
The outrage for these men was that Shechem had intercourse with their sister. As the text says, such a thing ought not to be done. However, rape is not mentioned. The brothers were concerned about the loss of their sister’s `honour’ and theirs23.
Hamor, Shechem’s father, admitted that his son was in the wrong in having deflowered Dinah. He offered to pay whatever price the sons of Jacob demanded for Dinah’s marriage. This offer exceeded the requirements in the Torah for the seduction of a virgin (Exod. 22:16-17). It therefore suggests honour and good faith on the part of Hamor and his family, and respect for Dinah, herself. In addition, the sons of Jacob were offered an alliance and a merging of the two groups (Gen. 34:8-12). Significantly, it was Jacob’s sons who replied to this offer, and not Jacob, the girl’s father.
`The sons of Jacob answered Shechem and his father Hamor deceitfully, because he had defiled their sister Dinah.’
(Gen. 34:13, New RSV)
The passage admits the deceit, but explains it as a reaction to the `defilement’ of their sister. Their expressed concern about the foreskins of the townsmen was feigned. The show of good faith by the Shechemites registered with them as a weakness to exploit.
`They said to them, “We cannot do this thing, to give our sister to one who is uncircumcised for that would be a disgrace to us. Only on this condition will we consent to you: that you will become as we are and every male among you be circumcised. Then we will give our daughters to you, and we will take your daughters for ourselves, and we will live among you and become one people. But if you will not listen to us and be circumcised, then we will take our daughter and be gone.”‘
(Gen. 34:14-17, New RSV)
The Shechemites were disarmed by this approach, agreed to it and were circumcised without delay. The sons of Jacob must also have had some regard for Shechem, for they said that he was more honourable than all the household of his father (Gen. 34:19). Not that this stopped what happened next:
`On the third day, when they were still in pain, two of the sons of Jacob, Simeon and Levi, Dinah’s brothers, took their swords and came against the city unawares, and killed all the males. They killed Hamor and his son Shechem with the sword, and took Dinah out of Shechem’s house, and went away.’
(Gen. 34:25-26, New RSV)
Having now slaughtered all the males in the city, they plundered the settlement.
`And the other sons of Jacob came upon the slain, and plundered the city, because their sister had been defiled. They took their flocks and their herds, their donkeys, and whatever was in the city and in the field.’
(Gen. 34:27-28 New RSV)
We cannot be sure if Dinah was seduced, coerced or raped. We do know that Shechem was conceded to be the most honourable of his group, that he fell in love with Dinah, and that she was valued by his family. We now discover that the women and the children of the city became prey to the vengeful brothers.
`All their wealth, all their little ones and their wives, all that was in the houses, they captured and made their prey.’
(Gen. 34:29 New RSV)
If we suspect that Shechem was a rapist, then the same suspicion hangs over Jacob’s sons.
Jacob, who apparently played no part in the negotiations about his own daughter, was most perturbed by what happened. His reaction shows that his sons behaved appallingly by the standards of their time, let alone ours. He must have been aware that his passivity had contributed to this situation. Perhaps that explains why he expressed his concerns in pragmatic rather than moral terms.
`”You have brought trouble on me by making me odious to the inhabitants of the land… my numbers are few, and if they gather themselves against me and attack me, I shall be destroyed, both I and my household.”‘
(Gen. 34:30 New RSV)
The sons respond by going for the high moral ground:
`”Should our sister be treated like a whore?”‘
(Gen. 34:31, New RSV)
This stinging rebuke carries an implicit criticism of Jacob’s negligence as a parent. Jacob’s concern about his sons’ violence was thus dismissed. It mattered as little to Jacob’s sons as the good faith that Hamor and his clan showed to them, and which the sons so cynically exploited and betrayed. After destroying the household gods and hiding the booty, (Gen. 35:3-4) Jacob and his sons left Shechem. The account then says:
`As they journeyed, a terror from God fell upon the cities all around them, so that no one pursued them.’
(Gen. 35:5, New RSV)
This unsavoury episode, with its deceit and betrayal, its mass circumcision and the massacre that followed, shows that the circumcisions were a preparation for and a foretaste of the violence that followed. The incident reflects badly on Jacob who was shown to be negligent in supervising and guiding both his daughter and his sons. As for the sons, it is a scathing inditement of both their behaviour and their mindset. There is also a sexual element in their violence that raises unsettling questions about their underlying motives in circumcising and then slaughtering all the men of this village and making a prey of the women and children who remained.
Zipporah’s Encounter with Yahweh (the LORD)
The story of Moses, Zipporah and Yahweh also shows a connection between circumcision, violence and sex. The violence is obvious:
`And it came to pass on the way in the lodging place, that the LORD met him, and sought to kill him. Then Zipporah took a flint, and cut off the foreskin of her son, and made it touch his feet, and said, Surely a bridegroom of blood art thou to me. So he let him alone: then she said, A bridegroom of blood art thou, because of the circumcision.’
(Exod. 4:24-26, RV, 1884, margin)
The text of the King James Version and the Revised Version read: `cast it at his feet.’ The more literal `made it touch his feet’ was relegated to the margin of the Revised Version, probably for reasons of decency. You see, in Hebrew, feet was used as a euphemism for the genitals. Hence this rendering:
`Zipporah picked up a sharp flint, cut off her son’s, foreskin, and touched Moses’ genitals with it…’
(Exod. 4:25, Revised English Bible)
The Hebrew did not specify if it was Moses’ or Yahweh’s feet that were touched, and it did not specify how we should take the word feet. The Revised English Bible accepts that the word feet refers to the genitals. However, it interpolates Moses’ name as the one whose genitals were touched with the newly severed foreskin. To say it was Yahweh or to leave it to the reader to decide was apparently not an option for them.
There is another sexual reference in the passage. Zipporah calls Moses a `bridegroom of blood.’ This expression is used in modern day tribal circumcisions in the Near East. Raphael Patai says:
`Zipporah’s expression, `hatan damim’ (bridegroom of blood), derived from the same Semitic root verb which in its Hebrew form means to perform marriage, while in its Arabic form it denotes to perform circumcision. More than that, in several localities in the Middle East, folk custom retained the older, more primitive, form of circumcision in which it was a part or a preliminary of the marriage ceremony.‘24
Once again, a circumcision story is full of violence and explicit sexual references. The passage, which stands apart from the rest of the story of the call of Moses25, presents Yahweh as a violent demonic figure. The connection with other Middle East customs shows that the sexual connection with circumcision was far more than coincidental.
The First Circumcision and its aftermath
The connection between violence, sex and circumcision can also be seen in the account of the first circumcision and what followed.
`Then Abraham took his son Ishmael and all the slaves born in his house or bought with his money, every male among the men of Abraham’s house and he circumcised the flesh of their foreskins that very day, as God had said to him. Abraham was ninety-nine years old when he was circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin. And his son Ishmael was thirteen years old when he was circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin. That very day Abraham and his son Ishmael were circumcised; and all the men of his house, slaves born in the house and those bought with money from a foreigner, were circumcised with him.’
(Gen. 17:23-27, New RSV.)
The literal rendition, given above, with its repetitive references to circumcision and the pointed and repeated references to the flesh of the foreskin is too much for many modern speech versions. They contrive to limit or omit this feature of the text. The Bible for Today, (Contemporary English Version) reshapes it thus:
`On that same day Abraham obeyed God by circumcising Ishmael. Abraham was also circumcised, and so were all other men and boys in his household, including his servants and slaves. He was 99 years old at the time, and his son Ishmael was 13.’ (Gen. 17:23-27, Contemporary English Version)
Repetitive references to circumcision, and all references to the flesh of the foreskin have been removed. What remains, however, is still significant. Readers may have noticed the emphasis on the fact that Ishmael was 13 when he was circumcised, a sensitive age for any boy. Because it mentions the ages of both Abraham and Ishmael this passage has been used as an ideological tool to promote circumcision to young and old.
Ishmael, after the circumcision
Ishmael is not only known for being circumcised at 13. There is another story about him that has troubled commentators ever since. It can put his circumcision in quite a different light.
It is unusual for the Hebrew Scriptures to note the age of someone, except at their death. Ishmael is an exception. The fact that he was circumcised at 13 must have been of some importance. Part of this may have been connected with what followed.
In this account, Ishmael is not referred to by name, and the Hebrew text bears the mark of censorship at a crucial point. Versions we read today sound innocent enough:
`The child [Isaac] grew, and was weaned; and Abraham made a great feast on the day that Isaac was weaned. But Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne to Abraham, playing with her son Isaac. So she said to Abraham, “Cast out this slave woman with her son; for the son of this slave woman shall not inherit along with my son Isaac.” The matter was very distressing to Abraham on account of his son.’
(Gen. 21:8-11, New RSV)
You may think that this is only a question of inheritance. Sarah didn’t want a rival for her son and was determined to get rid of Ishmael, Abraham’s firstborn. After all she said:
“Drive out this slavegirl and her son, for the slavegirl’s son shall not inherit with my son, with Isaac.”
(Gen. 21:10 in Robert Alter, Genesis Translation and Commentary, W.W Norton & Company, New York, 1996, p. 99)
Also, when God reassured Abraham about sending the slavegirl and her son away he specifically said:
`”…it is through Isaac that offspring shall be named for you”‘
(Gen 21:12, New RSV)
However, there is another straw in the wind. An astute reader may wonder why the words `with her son Isaac’ should be missing from the Hebrew26. This is, in fact, an important clue, that we will return to later. However, God having reassured Abraham that all will be well with both of his sons, gives this command:
“…whatever Sarah says to you, do as she tells you…”
(Gen. 21:12, New RSV)
`And Abraham rose early in the morning and took bread and a skin of water, and gave it to Hagar, placing them on her shoulder, and he gave her the child, and sent her away. And she went wandering through the wilderness of Beersheba.’ (Gen. 21:14, Robert Alter’s translation)27
The consequences of this appeared to be grim:
`When the water in the skin was gone, she cast the child under one of the bushes.’
(Gen. 21:15, New RSV)
‘Cast’ means throw. You might think this is a mistake but Robert Alter says it is an understatement. His translation is that `she flung the child!.’
`…she flung the child under one of the bushes and went off and sat down at a distance, a bowshot away, for she thought, “Let me not see when the child dies.”‘
(Gen. 21:15-16, Robert Alter’s translation) 28
Here was a child whose stepmother had cast him out, whose father had sent him away, and whose own mother had flung him aside. Would anyone hear him and defend him? The Bible gives a very clear answer:
`And God heard the voice of the lad…’
(Gen. 21: 17, Robert Alter’s translation) 29
Note what it says. God heard the voice of the lad . Not his mother, not his father, God heard the voice of the boy himself, the boy whose own mother had distanced herself from him with such force. This fact is crucial in the whole story. Ishmael means God hears.
But why did his own mother treat him with such hostility? There is a clue in that innocent-sounding word, `play.’ The word, as Alter explains, can refer to mocking or joking, but most often refers to sexual dalliance. He argues against a sexual interpretation, because it would be `homosexual.’ I believe that this misses the point. I believe the passage alludes to sex play between an older and younger child, which is distasteful, but clearly credible.
Of course, Sarah had a history of acting harshly towards Hagar, and had sent her away once before (Gen. 16:6). This time, however, God was on Sarah’s side, and told Abraham to listen to his wife. If there was sex play between an older and much younger child it makes good sense to separate them. God’s instruction, therefore, was not arbitrary or inexplicable, but exactly what we would recommend today in this situation.
Hagar did treat her son harshly when she flung him away. However, if your older son had been caught playing sexually with a three-year-old, and you and your son had been thrown out into the desert as a result, your reaction might be the same.
See how this detail clicks into place in the story. Ishmael was playing sexually with Isaac, and Sarah caught him at it. No wonder she was so furious! No wonder God supported her demand that the children be separated! No wonder Hagar acted with such harshness towards her own son!
It also explains why the phrase `with his brother Isaac’ was cut from the Masoretic text. In Hebrew there is no getting away from the sexual implications in the word play. The Masoretes, shocked at the thought that the patriarch Isaac was sexually abused, cut the words from the text. If Ishmael played like that, better that he play with himself rather than with the chosen one, Isaac! The only way we know that Ishmael was interfering with Isaac was because translations of the Hebrew Scriptures were made before the Masoretes did their work, and the missing words were preserved in them.
However, this story tells us that though Sarah threw Ishmael out and his own mother thrust him aside, God did not abandon him. It says that God was with the lad and heard his cry and that the boy grew up to be a skilled bowman. His mother found him a wife from Egypt, her country, (Gen. 21:17-21) and he became the father of a nation. The last we hear of Ishmael in the Bible is that he was present at his father’s burial (Gen. 25:9) that he had 12 sons who all did well, and that he died at the age of 137 (Gen. 25:12-18).
By tackling the most confronting implications of this story head on we can see that it contains a profound insight into the human condition. For believers, it gives even more, a powerful picture of how the love of God reaches out to protect both those who are abused but also to the abuser as well. It therefore contains a message of hope, that those involved in aberrant sexual behaviour can change. Perhaps this was an instance of `tough love’ in action.
And the circumcision connection? Ishmael was circumcised at the sensitive age of 13 and this could help account for his subsequent actions towards his younger brother. There are several accounts of the sexual stimulation of adolescents or young men undergoing circumcision even apart from plainly pornographic sources30. There are also explicit warnings about a sexual involvement in circumcision in the New Testament 31.
Once again, a Bible story shows us a connection between circumcision, aberrant sexuality and violence. This time, however, it comes with a message of hope for all concerned.
Insights from Modern Psychology
Modern psychology has something to say on the relationship between circumcision, violence and twisted sexual urges.
Rhinehart32 recounted the traumatic effects of circumcision on some patients and argued that the trauma of circumcision can have profound and deleterious effects on the individual and even on society. B. A. van der Kolk14 gave an extensive array of evidence to show that those who have suffered trauma are more likely to re-enact the trauma or to inflict the same trauma on others. Cansever33 studied the effects of childhood circumcision on Turkish boys and reported many detrimental effects, including an increase in aggressive behaviour. Prescott 34 showed evidence of a link between traumatic events at birth and an increased incidence of self destructive behaviour. He said:
`It is this developmental neuropsychologist’s conviction that these early experiences of genital pain contribute to the encoding of the brain for sado-masochistic behaviors, that men who experience genital pain and loss of pleasure as a result of circumcision are encoded for sado-masochistic disorders.’ (author’s emphasis)
Every one of these accounts shows a connection between circumcision, violence and aberrant sexual behaviour. Psychologists and psychoanalysts have noted the same links between circumcision and violent or sexually deviant behaviour. Indeed some of their comments can read as if they were made in response to some of the Biblical stories. The Apostle Paul in the New Testament also noted the same connection between circumcision and the sexual involvement of those who pushed it on others. He said:
`…they desire to have you circumcised that they may glory in your flesh.’
(Gal. 5:13, RSV)
`Beware of the dogs, beware of the evil workers, beware of those who mutilate the flesh!’ Philippians 3: 2, New RSV
As noted before, the word dog was used in Hebrew to describe a male prostitute. (Deut. 23:18)
Paul’s opinion of circumcisers and their motivation would have been influenced by his reading of the Hebrew Scriptures as well as his own personal observation.
What are we to do with the circumcision stories and accounts in the Hebrew Scriptures? We cannot use them as models of behaviour. Nor are they put forward as such. When the Bible shows us people, it shows them warts and all. This is how it reveals the psychology of those involved in circumcision so vividly, why Biblical insights are so applicable today and why the parallels between these Bible stories and the psychological literature are so striking.
Both Jewish and Christian Scriptures show clear evidence of a link between circumcision and both violence and aberrant sexual behaviour. It is a warning that we should take to heart because it is still relevant today.
I am indebted to George Hill for drawing attention to the parallels between these stories and modern psychological explanations for their actions and to Frederick Hodges and Van Lewis for other valuable input. I would like to thank them and others for all their valuable comments and suggestions.
1. See Michael Glass. (2001) `The New Testament and Circumcision‘.
2. See also Exod. 22:18, Deut. 21: 10-14, 22: 20-21, 28-29 and Deut. 24:1 for other examples of laws that do not accord with modern ideas of justice towards women.
3. Examples of strong women abound in the Bible. There is the perfect wife (Prov. 31:11-31), the heroine Esther (Esther 3-7), the forthrightness of Sarai/Sarah in family matters (Gen. 16:1-15, 21:1-13), Rebecca’s scheming (Gene. 27:1-29, 27:41-28:5), Leah and Rachel’s contest for their husband’s love and for children (Gen. 29:31-30: 24), the ruthless determination of Lot’s daughters to achieve parenthood (Gen. 19:30-38) and also that of Tamar (Gen. 38). There is the viciousness of Potiphar’s wife (Gen. 39: 1-20) but also the wit and courage of the Hebrew midwives in Egypt (Exod. 1:8-22), the courage of Moses’ sister (Exod. 2: 1-10) and the assertiveness of the daughters of Zelophehad in defence of their rights (Numbers 27: 1-11), even though their rights were watered down because of tribal interests (Numbers 36: 1-12). There was Rahab’s action to save both herself and her family (Josh. 2, & 6:20-25), the wise counsel of Deborah, the prophet and military leader (Jgs 4:1-16, 23) and the ruthlessness of Jael (Jgs 4:17-22). Delilah (Jgs 16:4-22) and Jezebel (1 Kgs. 19:1-3, 21:1-29) were also powerful and ruthless operators, and Jezebel showed herself to be brave in facing death (2 Kgs. 9:30-37).
4. Goldman, R. Circumcision: A Source of Jewish Pain, Jewish Spectator, Fall, 1997, pages 16-20, quoting Donin, H., To Be a Jew (New York: Basic Books, 1972), page 56. (See the subheading, Application of Jewish Laws and Values)
7. Jewish Circumcision Questioned on NPR “All Things Considered“
8. The Meaning of words to do with sex in the Hebrew Bible is discussed in Raphael Patai, Family, Love and the Bible, McGibbon & Kee, London, 1960, pages 141-42.
9. Quoted in Preston EN. `Whither the foreskin.’ JAMA 1970; 213(11):1853-1858. Preston attributes the quote to `Goodwin, quoted by Kaufman JJ: Should circumcision be done routinely? Med Aspects Hum Sexual 1:27-28, 1967′ (footnote 13 of Preston’s article).
10. Marvel L. Williamson, & Paul S. Williamson, M.D., Women’s Preferences for Penile Circumcision In Sexual Partners. J Sex Educ Therapy 1988;14:8-12.
11. Hugh Young and Ken McGrath. The Rise and Fall of Circumcision in New Zealand, Presented at the Sixth International Symposium on Genital Integrity, Sydney, December 8, 2000.
12. This account can be found in two places. The prior reference is in Roadside America, December 14, 1997. See ‘Malaysian Circumcisions on Your Next Vacation’. However, it was also seized on by Circlist where it would be more accessible to those who had a sexual interest in young boys: Circumcision in Malaysia, December 14, 1997.
13. `A Blade for Ryan’ <http://www.icon.co.za/~hugot/circum/Blade.htm> is straight out pornography, and doesn’t pretend to be anything else. `Our British Heritage and the Sword of Islam‘ puts itself forward as history, but even if it does have a basis in fact it is written to titillate, not to inform.
14. Linda Colley, `Going Native, Telling Tales: Captivity, Collaborations and Empire’, Past & Present, 168, August 2000, Oxford University Press, pages 172, 182-184.
15. Forcible circumcision is especially likely to occur if an uncircumcised boy visits his ancestral homeland, but there have been instances of it in New Zealand. See Nick Smith, `Foreskin’s Lament, Metro, Auckland, New Zealand, September 1999, page 83. This is also alluded to in `Polynesians’ in The Rise and Fall of Circumcision in New Zealand.
16. Terror attacks in the name of religion, Sydney Morning Herald News Review 27 January 2001, page 25, and < http://old.smh.com.au/news/0101/27/review/review8.html> and also Christina’s Story
17. Warren J, Bigelow J. `The case against circumcision.’ Br J Sex Med 1994; Sept/Oct: 6-8.
18. Taylor JR, Lockwood AP, Taylor AJ. `The prepuce: specialized mucosa of the penis and its loss to circumcision.’ Br J Urol 1996;77:291-295.
19. van der Kolk B.A. `The Compulsion to repeat the trauma: re-enactment, revictimization, and masochism,’ Psychiatric Clinics of North America 1989;12(2): 389-411.
20. Ã†sop. The Fox Who Had Lost His Tail. Circa Sixth Century B.C.
21. For the Children of Israel, Gilgal was a historic site, but it became a place of notoriety rather than fame. It was here that the Gibeonites deceived the Israelites into making a binding treaty with them not to massacre the people (Josh. 9: 3-27). It was at Gilgal that Saul offered a burnt offering without the presence of the prophet, Samuel (1 Sam. 13:9). When Samuel found out, he told Saul that because of his rashness his kingdom would pass to another (1 Sam. 13:10-14). The later prophets condemned Gilgal as a place of wickedness (Hos. 9:15, 12:11, Amos 4:4, 5:5)
22. The same fate awaited Ai (Josh. 8:21-26), Makkedah (Josh. 10:28), Libnah (Josh. 10:29-30), Lachish (Josh. 10:32), Gezer (Josh. 10:33), Eglon (Josh. 10:34-35), Hebron (Josh. 10:36-37), Debir (Josh. 10:38-39), Merom (Josh. 11:6-9) and Hazor (Josh. 11:10-12).
23. A non-virginal sister would be `damaged goods’ and therefore much harder to marry off.
24. Raphael Patai, Family, Love and the Bible, MacGibbon & Kee, London, 1960, p. 181
25. The story of the call of Moses (Exod., Chapters 3 and 4) tells us that Moses had two sons (Exod. 4:20) and in it, Moses was told to tell Pharaoh that the LORD would slay Pharaoh’s firstborn son (Exod. 4:21-23). However, Exodus 4:24-26, mentions only one son, and in this passage the LORD threatens to slay Moses’ son. This apparent inconsistency could suggest that Exodus 4:24-26 had a different origin from the rest of the story of the call of Moses.
26. A marginal note in many editions of the Bible would alert readers to the fact that `with his brother Isaac’ was missing from the Hebrew.
27. Gen. 21:14 in Robert Alter, Genesis Translation and Commentary , W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 1996, p. 99
28. Gen. 21:15-16 Robert Alter’s translation, ibid., pp 99-100
29. Gen. 21:17 ibid., p. 100
30. There can be a sexual component in the circumcision of an adolescent or adult. One website has an account of the the stimulation to erection of a man undergoing a ritual circumcision. See JA’s account in
<http://members.aol.com/Davock/menspeak2.html>. Another example is the cooing nurse whose manner stirred the sexual feelings of a 13 year old boy immediately before his circumcision , Jeremy Jusay panel 7
<http://www.angelfire.com/ny/karassnyc/panel_07.html>, panel 8
<http://www.angelfire.com/ny/karassnyc/panel_08.html> and panel 9
<http://www.angelfire.com/ny/karassnyc/panel_09.html>. An involuntary erection can also happen during a forcible circumcision. An example of this is recorded in J. Bigelow, The Joy of Uncircumcising!, Hourglass Book Publishing, California, 1995, pages 11 and 13 [in `Men’s Voices…’] Circlist, a sexually charged website that promotes circumcision, has many stories of this.
31. When Paul found out that the Galatians were turning to the Jewish law (and to circumcision) he accused them of starting with the Spirit and then turning to the flesh (Gal. 3:3). Then, after warning the Galatians not to gratify the desires of the flesh (Gal. 5:16) Paul says `It is those who want to make a good showing in the flesh that try to compel you to be circumcised’ (Gal. 6:12) and `They want you to be circumcised so that they may boast about your flesh’ (Gal. 6:13). See also Phil. 3:2 where Paul warns the Philippians against `the mutilation,’ and describes those who push it as dogs and evil workers.
32. Rhinehart J. Neonatal circumcision reconsidered. Transactional Analysis Journal 1999; 29(3):215-221.
33. Cansever G. Psychological effects of circumcision. Brit J Med Psychol 1965;38:321-31.
34. Prescott J. Genital Pain vs. Genital Pleasure: Why the One and Not the Other? The Truth Seeker (San Diego) 1989;1(3):14-21. (Prescott’s evidence about the link between traumatic events at birth and later self-destructive behaviour is important to consider, whether or not one accepts Prescott’s religious beliefs.)
Boyle GJ, Goldman R, Svoboda JS, Fernandez E. Male circumcision: pain, trauma and psychosexual sequelae. J Health Psychology 2002;7(3):329-43.
Chamberlain DB. What babies are teaching us about violence. Pre- and Perinatal Psychology Journal 1995;10(2):57-74.
Goldman R. The psychological impact of circumcision. BJU International 1999;83 Suppl. 1:93-103.
Larue G. Religious traditions and circumcision. Second International Symposium on Circumcision, San Francisco, California. April 30-May 3, 1991.
Moss LB. The Jewish roots of anti-circumcision arguments. Second International Symposium on Circumcision, San Francisco, California. April 30-May 3, 1991.
Michael Glass is an Australian teacher, husband and father.
© 2003 by Michael Glass. All rights reserved.
- Michael Glass. What the Bible Reveals About Circumcision and Sexual Violence. April 2003.
By Michael Glass