Circumcision, Hebrew mullah; Greek peritome, "a cutting away," as a ceremony, is the cutting away of the foreskin, which is the hood or fold of skin covering the head of the male organ. It is generally done by using a knife, but in primitive times sharp stones were used (Exodus 4:28; Joshua 5:2, "knives of flint"). According to law, the father usually performed the act (Genesis 17:23), although any Israelite could do it, even women in time of necessity (Exodus 4:25), but never a Gentile. In later times the procedure was preformed by physicians in case of adults. Presently, the Jews entrust the act to a person called a mohel, and the child may be named at the same time (Luke 1:59).
The history of circumcision reaches back to the covenant which God made with Abraham (Genesis 15); there within God commanded that circumcision become a token of the covenant. Every male child was to be circumcised; not merely the children and bodily descendants of Abraham, but also those born in his house and purchased slaves, and that in the case of children on the eighth day after birth. Every one not circumcised was to be "cut off from his people" as having "broken the covenant" (Genesis 17:10-14).
Circumcision was formally enacted as a legal institute by Moses (Leviticus 12:3; John 7:22, 23), and was made to apply not only to one's own children, but to slaves, home-born or purchased; to foreigners before they could partake of the Passover or become Jewish citizens (Exodus 12:48).
However, during the wilderness journey circumcision fell into disuse. A satisfactory explanation for this neglect seems to be the following: The nation, while bearing the punishment of disobedience in its wanderings, was regarded as under a temporary rejection by God, and was therefore prohibited from using the sign of the covenant.
Since the Lord had only promised his assistance on the condition that the law given by Moses was faithfully observed, it became the duty of Joshua, when entering Canaan, to perform the rite of circumcision upon the generation that had been born in the wilderness. The rite was performed immediately crossing the Jordan, at or near Gilgal (Joshua 5:2, sq.)
From that time forward circumcision became the pride of Israel, and they look with contempt upon people not observing it (Judges 14:3, 15:18; 1 Samuel 14:6; Isaiah 52:1…). It became so distinctive of the Israelites that their oppressors tried preventing their observing of it, an attempt of which they refused submission (1 Maccabees 1:48, 50, 60, 62).
Some attempted surgically to restore themselves to their pre-circumcised condition from a desire to disguise their Jewish identity in order to assimilate themselves with their oppressors or when appearing naked in games; for example, athletes in early Olympic Games participated naked. Paul preached to the Corinthians against this practice, which was considered an anti-Judaistic tendency (1 Corinthians 7:18, 19).
The attitude of the early Christians toward circumcision seems to be one of hostility; they did not see the necessity for it with regard to salvation. To them, the rite possessed no religious or moral meaning (Acts 15:5; Galatians 5:2). As to the spiritual significance of circumcision itself, there is speculation that it in the fact that corruption of sin can manifest itself in the peculiar energy produced during the sexual act, and the sanctification of the life begot from the act was symbolized by purifying the organ responsible for that life. Also, in connection to the Abrahamic covenant, circumcision does not assume a sacramental nature thus conveying God's sanctifying influenced onto his people, but remains a token of the relationship between God and the people provided by the covenant.
Circumcision of the child on the eighth day seems to have been founded upon the significance attached to the number seven, in that the number denotes a period of time. On the eighth day, when a new cycle of life began, the child entered into the covenant with God. Again, it was not until the eighth day that the child was supposed to possess an independent existence.
According to rabbis obeying the commandment of circumcision is so important that heaven and earth would cease to exist without the blood covenant (B. Shab. 137b). Any child born of a Jewish mother is Jewish whether circumcised or not. However, it is the duty of the Jewish father to have his son circumcised on the eighth day (Shulhan Arukh YD 260. 1). The operation is performed by a mohel, who must be an observant Jew (Shulhan Arukh YD 264. 1), and traditionally it is a part of the religious ceremony that the infant's name is announced then. Male proselytes are expected to undergo circumcision as well as immersion.