Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory
Let's talk about penises.
That's right, we're talking about wee-wees, ding dongs, or in Latin, the membrum virorum. Get your chuckles out now, because that's what circumcision is about—the distinctively male private part, the all-important reproductive organ of the male human species.
First, the run down. Every male is born with a foreskin over his penis, and circumcision snips that right off. The majority of newborns in the United States today are circumcised by doctors for various reasons, and it's absolutely a hot-button issue.
In Genesis, circumcision is a symbol of the special promises the deity makes to Abraham and his offspring. God's end of the deal: he'll give them the land of Canaan and make them a huge nation. Abraham's end? He has to circumcise himself and then circumcise every male in his household.
From then on, the deity lays down the rule that every male newborn is to be circumcised when he's eight days old. And the consequences for not doing so are harsh: "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" (17:14). It's a physical act, yes, but it's a sign of the Israelites' promise to God.
Circumcision starts to make waves right away.
Later in Genesis, when the Hivite Hamor wants to marry Jacob's daughter Dinah, her brothers require that Hamor and every Hivite be circumcised first:
"We cannot do this thing, to give our sister to one who is uncircumcised, for that would be a disgrace to us." (34:14 NRSV).
Hamor agrees, and while Hivite males are recovering from the removal of their foreskins (remember, this is a time before anesthetics), Dinah's brothers take the opportunity to kill them all (34:25-31), "while they were still in pain" (34:25 NRSV). What are we supposed to make of this? Are Jacob's sons abusing their covenant with God? Or did Hamor plain-old deserve it?
Much later, during the Roman empire, circumcision became one of the distinctively Jewish practices. Writers mocked this practice constantly, and some Jews went to great lengths to hide the fact that they were circumcised just so that they could fit in. Remember, these people exercised in the gym buck naked.
Even the Apostle Paul, who was himself Jewish, gets in on the action, when he warns people who want to circumcise newly initiated Christians that they might as well cut off the whole thing (see Galatians 5:12). This was in fact a big issue in the early Christian movement. Should non-Jewish converts be circumcised or not?
Today, people are all abuzz about circumcision. People who are pro-circumcision cite, among other things, religious freedom and the reduced chance of transmitting HIV. And those who are anti-circumcision highlight, among other things, the lack of choice on the part of the baby boy being circumcised and the potential damage done to the body.
Either way, we're still talking about it. Thanks for the tip, Genesis.