What Was Circumcision?

The Question Box, by Father John Dietzen

The Messenger, weekly newspaper of the diocese of Covington, Kentucky,
Vol. 57, No.14, April 5, 1987

Q. THE PRACTICE of circumcision puzzles me. I understand the medical reasons why circumcision may be recommended. But what could circumcision possibly have to do with religion? It is said in the Bible that Jewish men were to be circumcised. And the Bible says Jesus was circumcised. Is there any reason?

A. Not too many years ago I would have had to say no one knows the answer to your question.

Perhaps that is still true, but there is the possibility of an answer in what we have learned from ancient inscriptions discovered in the last few years.

It is quite possible that circumcision is closely related to human sacrifice, a practice apparently widespread in some ancient cultures of the Middle East and perhaps Far East.

A few years ago archeologists in the Near East discovered a text supposedly written by a priest of the Phoenician culture. According to this writing a god named El, to prevent destruction of his city,
sacrificed his son to his father, a god named Heaven.

El then circumcised himself and commanded that all his followers should themselves be circumcised to avoid destruction of the city.

The rite of circumcision, in this tradition at least, seems to be a substitute and symbol for human sacrifice, a part of the body is substituted for the whole.

Ancient culture saw an intimate relationship between the individual and the entire tribe or community. Thus the fact that this sacrifice involved part of the organ of procreation proclaimed that the whole nation or clan, present and future, was consecrated to the god it worshipped.

In this context it is easy to see why the descendants of Abraham came to view circumcision as a fitting and necessary expression of their covenant with the God of Israel.