About Circumcision – Information you really don’t need to know.
“Wherefore David arose and went, he and his men, and slew of the Philistines two hundred men; and David brought back their foreskins, and they gave them in full tale to the king, that he might be the king’s son-in-law. And Saul gave him Michal his daughter to wife.” Isaiah 18 
Have you ever wondered why you are circumcised or not? I did not make a personal decision to be. A rabbi or doctor never told my parents that I should be. The city, state, or federal government never told my parents I had be, and God never told me he wanted me to be. So, why have I, and millions of other males been circumcised? Was there a good reason? When, where, and why did circumcision become popular.
If you are Jewish, you need not read further. Your parents, at the urging of their Rabbi, decided for you. My parents, like most others, had me circumcised because it was customarily done in those days, and still is to this day. Religious/social customs usually have practical origins.
The usual reasons given for circumcision, besides being the custom of the day are: 1) Circumcised penises are cleaner, or at least easier to keep clean. 2) Parents can make a subconscious statement about being Jewish or not. 3) Parents believe their children will have fewer sex problems, enjoy sex more, and have more kids. 4) Parents don’t want to run the risk of having their sons ostracized from circumcised kids in the locker room. 5) Parents think their God favors circumcision, and finally 6) Parents believe a circumcised penis will be a healthier penis. Parents are the ones who decide, although while working in a US Army hospital the most common operation done was circumcisions of teenage troopers at the encouragement of Company officers. Did you know circumcised soldiers fight better?
It is commonly thought among anthropologists that early Semitic tribes first initiated circumcision as a way to identify themselves from other tribes. Lack of privacy made the act of washing or urinating an open and public act, easily viewed by others. An uncircumcised penis would prevent a non-tribe member from receiving favored treatment in commerce and marriage, as well as to identifying him as a likely enemy.
The above may have been contributing reasons for circumcision, but there must be other reasons. Why would early Semitic tribes and a few other societies, go to such drastic measures to identify themselves? After all, there are many easier ways to identify tribal members, such as hairstyle, tattoos and physical alteration, clothing, facial decoration, language, accent, habits, and other natural physical differences such as height or lack of, size of body parts, texture of hair, color of eyes and skin, etc.
Here is one of two more theories on why circumcision became popular. Sexually transmitted diseases plagued early cultures as they do today. Infections of the penis are painful, ugly, and easily evident in primitive societies. If infections of the tip of the penis were common, tribal religious leaders might deduce a connection between uncleanliness and infection, and then mandate cleanliness. Although the germ theory was thousands of years in the future, an astute leader might guess that the surgical removal of the infected body part such as a foreskin might help the unfortunate male recover. The next deduction might have been that removal of a newborn’s foreskin would avoid potential infections. It’s logical. Furthermore, infants and adult males who were circumcised may have demonstrated fewer incidents of sexually transmitted disease. Penile diseases are readily spread to female partners and would compromise normal healthy births and the vitality of the tribe.
Once a relationship was established between disease and circumcision a tribal leader would have to convince his tribe to practice circumcision. The easiest way to do that was to claim to have received a direct command from a deity that all children must be circumcised. Choice was not an option when the command came from God.
The second theory is somewhat similar to the first. Tribal leaders must have noticed that occasionally babies were born with an affliction that we now call Phimosis. Phimosis is a disease that causes a stricture of the foreskin during penile erection and causes strangulation of the penis and excruciating pain. In extreme cases without relief, restricted blood circulation in the penis may result in gangrene, the loss of the penis, and loss of life. As childbearing was the lifeblood of ancient tribes, a remedy to this condition was of prime importance. Initial treatment would logically be, to relieve the constriction by cutting the constrictive skin. Secondarily, a tribal leader would logically come to the conclusion that by removing the potential constrictive skin at birth, the problem and the hassle of surgery on an adult could be avoided. There is also the religious custom of Rabbis to suck the newborn’s circumcised penis to prevent infection and excess bleeding. Modern medicine tells such behavior does not prevent infection or prevent bleeding.
It seems obvious now that ancient tribal leaders had two strong reasons why circumcision was beneficial to his tribe and better insure the increase its growth. Both infection and strangulation of the male organ are excellent reasons to incorporate circumcision into ritual religious practice, and to enforce the practice on all male tribal members as God’s command. It seems to make sense to me, and I have not heard any good contrary reasons why this is not true.
As you know, during the first century after Christ’s death, his followers required converts to be circumcised. This practice apparently was perceived by some to be a deterrent in increasing the number of Christians so, after heated debate it was abandoned. Circumcising newborns was favored because it was believed that they do not retain the memory of being circumcised, so if pain was present it is not remembered.
Today, in the USA almost a million and a half circumcisions are performed yearly. 30 % of all males are circumcised world wide of which 68% are Muslim and 1% are Jewish. Circumcision was practiced long before it was required in Judaism and Islam.
It has been practiced for thousands of years, as depicted in thirty thousand year old cave art. Australian aboriginals, pacific Islanders, ancient Egyptians, and Aztecs discovered and practiced it independently, as their art depicted. The Hebrew leader Moses supposedly practiced it while captive in Egypt on the eighth day celebration, but temporarily discontinued it during the Hebrew’s wanderings. In 1960, the Catholic Church proclaimed the eighth day after Christmas as “Circumcision Day”.
Today modern science has verified the health benefits of circumcision. Circumcised males have fewer incidences of urinary track infections, sexually transmitted disease, herpes, syphilis, Human Papilloma Virus, cancer, and other urological problems. Sexual partners of circumcised males have a lower incidence of cervical and uterine cancer, sexually transmitted disease, urological problems, fertility and birth problems.
In Madagascar, women insist their male partners are circumcised so as to increase sexual pleasure. One hundred percent of males are circumcised.
In the Hebrew language, circumcision means obstruction and to impede, possibly referring to the erectile difficulties inherent in phimosis.
It is interesting to note that there is a procedure performed upon males in overpopulated societies, which is/was considered the opposite of circumcision. Male infibulation is a type of male birth control in which a metal ring is placed through the foreskin so as to block the penis’s exit through the foreskin opening. It causes painful erections and make intercourse impossible. Infibulation also discourages masturbation, which is considered a sin by some religions.
Modern and ancient military commanders encouraged and ordered circumcision to eliminate urologic disorders and infection, especially in hot, dry, and dusty dessert conditions. Sand, dirt and infections are readily harbored beneath the foreskin thus promoting disease in unsanitary conditions.
Christ was supposedly circumcised, as were all Jewish youths. Twenty-one churches and abbeys claim to have a piece of his venerated foreskin. If true, this leads me to the conclusion that Christ had multiple foreskins or they had small pieces of his unusually large foreskin. Does any bible scholar know of any place in the scriptures that verifies Christ’s foreskin had been preserved for later display? I think not, especially since the Catholic Church proclaimed in 1900 that anyone who talked about Christ’s foreskin would be excommunicated.
It is interesting to note that some Asian surgeons practice a different kind of circumcision which removes a portion of penile skin immediately adjacent to the pelvis skin, undermines the distal skin, and pulls the skin back toward the body so as not to have to remove the foreskin, which is believed to contain many sensitive nerve endings.
Greek athletes during the ancient Olympics competed while naked with foreskins intact so as to protect them and preserve modesty. Greeks that had been previously circumcised had their remaining penile skin stretched downward and fastened so as to cover and protect the naked penis.
Evolutionary reasons for the existence of the foreskin are thought to be for protection from tall abrasive grass during early human evolution in a savanna environment. Primates with exposed penises are thought to have foreskins for protection from environmental factors. New Guinea natives cover their circumcised penises with kotekas, penile sheaths made from dried gourds of various shapes or woven material. It is unclear if this is worn for religious/social customs, sexual attraction, or for protection, or all of the above.
The Hebrews trace reasons for circumcision back to this biblical verse: “And ye shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskin; and it shall be a token of the covenant betwixt me and you.” Genesis 17 . The custom, as mentioned above, existed long before these words were ever written. Hebrews acquired this custom from ancestral early humans and other populations they came in contact with.
The religious significance of circumcision like, dietary practices (not eating pork) have explainable practical origins. It is fascinating to search and find the facts behind religious practices that are claimed to be from the mouth of God. I will deal with religious dietary laws in future blogs.
Granted, I have probably told you more than you needed to know. But, this information may come in handy at a cocktail party, if you will excuse the pun.