Genesis 17:10-14 - "Any uncircumcised male, who has not been circumcised ..."

"This is My covenant with you and your descendants after you, the covenant you are to keep: Every male among you shall be circumcised. You are to undergo circumcision, and it will be the sign of the covenant between Me and you. For the generations to come every male among you who is eight days old must be circumcised, including those born in your household or bought with money from a foreigner--those who are not your offspring. Whether born in your household or bought with your money, they must be circumcised. My covenant in your flesh is to be an everlasting covenant. Any uncircumcised male, who has not been circumcised in the flesh, will be cut off from his people; he has broken My covenant." (Genesis 17:10-14)

So circumcision is a covenant?

While there is certainly a scriptural and devotional basis for understanding this instruction, the translation of these verses has taken God's instruction to some understandings not originally intended. The translation confuses the time and circumstances of the instruction, taking the instruction out of its context.

First, the translation confuses two different contexts of the Hebrew word ברית (bĕriyth), here being translated to "covenant" in every circumstance.

We can see a hint of this mistranslation as we look at the redundancy of the word within these verses. Does God really repeat the same word "covenant" so many times, even within a single sentence?

As discussed previously, the Hebrew word ברית (bĕriyth), being translated to "covenant" can have multiple contexts. It can mean "treaty," "agreement," "alliance" and of course "covenant." But it can also mean "ordinance" or "constitution" according to the lexicon.

In these verses, both contexts are being used, making the use of the translation to "covenant" in both instances incorrect.

When it pertains to the relationship "alliance," "treaty" between God and Abraham - their relationship of loving service - "covenant" could be appropriate, but a better translation would be "relationship."

And in the second context, a better translation would be to "instruction." We can see how this is appropriate as we look at the end of the first sentence:

"the covenant you are to keep"

This phrase in the discussion is obviously about an instruction. The Hebrew word שמר (shamar) in this verse is translated to "keep" but it also means to "observe" or "give heed" according to the lexicon. These are words describing following an instruction.

These and other mistranslations are rooted in zealous ecclesiastical scribes of the Fifth and Sixth Century BCE and those ecclesiastical teachers after them who wanted to exercise their authority by overseeing rules and mandates that cemented their positions. This was the issue that Jesus protested as he criticized these ecclesiastical leaders.

As to the instruction itself, there may have been a very good reason for circumcision - especially amongst those nomadic populations of the Middle East - where bathing water was at a premium. But there is also a larger, broader meaning of the Hebrew term, which we will discuss below.

What are the pros and cons of circumcision?

The foreskin does have a purpose in protecting the urethra. This serves the purpose of helping to prevent the spread of infections into the male physical body. This is the primary reason the male human body was designed with a foreskin.

However, in locations where daily hygiene and bathing are not practiced, the foreskin can harbor infectious microorganisms, as we discuss below.

This is confirmed by recent research - some sponsored by the World Health Organization - finding that circumcised men have 60% less chance of passing on HIV to others, and women have a 50% decreased risk when their partners are circumcised. However, this benefit is only seen among poorer countries and not among countries with high-income status (and clean running water).

Furthermore, there is a significantly reduced risk of HPV cancer, vaginal cancer and other vaginal diseases in women when their partner is circumcised. Again, this is from global data, predominantly among poorer countries.

This points to the reality that the issue is rather about hygiene. In those countries where men keep their foreskins clean on a daily basis, there is little evidence of non-circumcision increasing the risk of these sexually-transmitted diseases.

Circumcision also has its issues. One large global study showed that babies that are circumcised a few days after birth have a significantly higher risk of sudden infant death syndrome. This may be related to the trauma involved in the operation, according to the researchers.

The risk of penile infection and sexually transmitted diseases among nomadic peoples of the Middle East could have been a problem due to the lack of readily available clean water to wash with. This means theoretically, these infections could spread to women, infecting child-bearing-age women with diseases that could certainly affect future generations.

In other words, assuming this translation and instruction by the Supreme Being, it would have been meant to help protect the population of these nomadic followers of Abraham, who traveled through lands where bathing water and the opportunities for personal hygiene were scarce.

Is circumcision a spiritual rite of passage?

Noting the above, then it was not meant to be a spiritual rite of passage. It was a practical matter of health. Such an interpretation would be confirmed by the inclusion that even household servants and foreigners - who were obviously not Israelites - were also to be circumcised according to this translation.

This would illustrate that it was not a spiritual rite of passage it has been overblown to be: It was a practical matter of preventing disease among Abraham's tribe during their missionary journeys.

That is, assuming such a translation and interpretation of circumcision being about cutting the penile foreskin.

IF this is true, why was such a big deal been made about this cleansing ritual, then?

This is typical among ecclesiastical religious leaders who wish to utilize rituals to boost their power and authority amongst the people.

Indeed, for centuries, the practice of circumcision has become increasingly ritualized and rigid, to the point where an uncircumcised person would not be accepted into a temple. This is by its definition, fanaticism.

Yet this instruction could still be appropriate today for people living in regions where clean water is not readily available to wash every day. But could providing clean water and educating those populations be a more humane solution?

For those who have ready access to clean water, the answer is simply for men to simply wash the foreskin on a daily basis.

This would also be applicable to women, who should also keep their vaginal regions washed on a daily basis to help prevent the growth of disease-causing bacteria.

Is there a deeper meaning behind circumcision?

First, we should notice that in no Old Testament verse is there a mention of the male penis. There is no mention of this term nor is the word genitals used in conjunction with the term circumcision. That is rather curious since we are speaking of a part of the male genitalia.

Should we accept that this is discussing the mutilation of male genitalia, such an instruction has often been fanatically applied beyond its practical usefulness by those who stress ritualistic endeavors in the name of religion.

The reality is that the Hebrew word being translated to circumcision is מוּל (muwl) has other meanings, especially in this context of devotion to God. This word means, literally, to "cut off" but also "to purge" according to the lexicon. It also means, when used more broadly, according to Gesenius' lexicon, to "put away all wickedness and consecrate oneself to Jehovah."

Such an understanding of the deeper meaning of God's statement also points to the use of the word covenant, which again, relates in this context to a devotional commitment to God.

If we consider the act of cutting off of the foreskin as a practical health matter (in some regions where water was scarce), then we might question the interpretation that a mutilation ritual is an act of devotion. It may be an act related to physical survival, yes.

But there is a good case to be made that the original Hebrew was not indicating an act of physical mutilation at all. Such a case is indicated by some of the many other verses that use this Hebrew word מוּל (muwl) in the Old Testament:
The LORD your God will circumcise your hearts and the hearts of your descendants, so that you may love him with all your heart and with all your soul, and live. (Deut. 30:6)

Circumcise your hearts, therefore, and do not be stiff-necked any longer. (Deut. 10:16)

All the nations surrounded me, but in the name of the LORD I cut them down. (Psalm 118:10)

They surrounded me on every side, but in the name of the LORD I cut them down. (Psalm 118:11)

They swarmed around me like bees, but they were consumed as quickly as burning thorns; in the name of the LORD I cut them down.
(Psalm 118:12)

Circumcise yourselves to the LORD, circumcise your hearts, you people of Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem, or my wrath will flare up and burn like fire because of the evil you have done— burn with no one to quench it. (Jeremiah 4:4)

“The days are coming,” declares the LORD, “when I will punish all who are circumcised only in the flesh— (Jeremiah 9:25)
These statements indicate that the use of the term that literally means "to cut off" may be pointing to a deeper spiritual journey to be taken by the aspiring lover of God.

They indicate that God is speaking of purification. Cutting oneself off of the proclivities of materialism and society and undergoing a purification of the heart.

This very practice was illustrated by Jesus when he went into the desert for 40 days and fasted. The point was to cut himself off from society in order to focus his heart and mind on the Supreme Being.

This is the "circumcision of the heart" - or the "cutting off" of one's focus upon materialism, which aligns more closely to the context of an important instruction from God.

Indeed, the Hebrew word that has been assumed to mean "foreskin" - עָרְלָה (`orlah) - relates to the skin of fruits, but also, metaphorically, to "the foreskin of the heart" - or more tangible, "the covering over the heart."

As such, removing or "cutting off" of the covering over the heart is a specific devotional issue relating directly to developing one's relationship with the Supreme Being.

This can also be exercised on a practical matter, by removing oneself from material influences and carefully pondering our relationship with the Supreme Being.

Such a "cutting off" may be expressed as getting away from one's societal influences for a few days. It can also be expressed by periods of silence. It can also be expressed as withdrawing from certain foods and certain activities that may take one's mind off of the Supreme Being.

Consider in this light, another statement made by the Supreme Being according to Joshua:
At that time the LORD said to Joshua, “Make flint knives and circumcise the Israelites again.” (Joshua 5:2)
How could someone be circumcised a second time? Once the skin is gone, it is gone.

However, assuming the instruction is a practice of purification, to withdraw from society, then this would be appropriate. A period of withdrawal, whereupon the person may fast and worship God outside of the community, is an act of devotion and could certainly be carried out more than once.

Notice also the use of "flint" here. A "flint" was used to make fire. This would mean God is speaking of them withdrawing and going somewhere away from the community where they would make a fire. The Hebrew word עָשָׂה (`asah) - translated to "knife" here, can also be translated to "tool." In other words, a "flint tool."

This would be consistent with the ancient practice of having ceremonial fires used to offer food to God.

Is human mutilation an act of devotion?

Except for the medical purpose for those who live in regions without clean running water, the reason for ritualistic removal of the foreskin is better defined as mutilation.

Genital mutilation has been expanded to both men and woman in some sectarian institutions.

Over the centuries, sectarian institutions created a new rationale for mutilation rituals - that of reducing the pleasure of a woman. This of course further increased the authority of ecclesiastical institutions and their teachers - who saw themselves as the guardians of pleasure.

With this logic came another ritual that has been exercised amongst some religious sects - now spread throughout the world - that of female genital mutilation. This gruesome practice - also done in the name of religion but with a purpose of reducing the possibility of the female orgasm - is another ritual that has supported certain ecclesiastical religious leaders' positions of authority over the population.

Trying to remove or mutilate a part of the human body in order to reduce its ability for physical pleasure removes the very freedom that the Supreme Being granted to us as we came to occupy a body in the physical world. Each of us is here in this physical world because we wanted to exercise our desires to be independent of the Supreme Being.

The question remains: Why would God have created the human body with a foreskin in the first place if He wanted it removed?

We were given these physical bodies within this virtual physical dimension in order to exercise our God-given freedom. We are not these physical bodies. They are vehicles we were given in order to carry out our desires. Each body part is a physical manifestation of these desires to enjoy away from the Supreme Being.

By removing or mutilating body parts for this reason, these fanatical zealots are taking away another person's God-given right to exercise their freedom, and freedom is a fundamental element of love. We cannot love God without the freedom not to.

Consider the various body parts connected with pleasure:
  • The tongue is built with the sense of taste so we can enjoy sweets and sour tastes.
  • The ears are built with the sense of hearing so we can enjoy music and other sounds.
  • The nose is built with olfactory senses so we can enjoy smelling.
  • The eyes are built with rods and cones to sense beauty.
  • The skin is built with the sense of touch to facilitate smoothness.
  • The sexual organs are built with orgasmic senses to facilitate sexual pleasure.
Each of these body parts can provide a sense of temporary physical pleasure for the pleasure-seeking person within the body. They can also provide for more practical, meaningful purposes. Are we to remove the eyes so we cannot see beauty, or remove the ears so we cannot hear music - or perhaps hear an important teaching?

There is also a practical purpose for the sexual organism: Without it, humans would not be motivated to reproduce - as the sexual act in itself is quite grotesque when the sensation of physical pleasure is removed from the equation. (Think about the last time you witnessed two dogs doing it.)

To remove body parts in order to attempt to decrease the pleasure potential of the body is false renunciation. There is no value to it because by removing them, we take away the ability to reject physical pleasures for the sake of pleasing the Supreme Being. Since our choice has been taken away, there is no contrary behavior - removing our choice and ability to conquer the senses.

Is there a reason for physical pleasure?

Many fanatical sectarians assume that all physical pleasures are sinful. This is despite that fact that even the simple act of eating - necessary for survival - is by design pleasurable, as the taste buds transmit pleasure signals to the brain.

The pleasures of the physical world act in three ways. First, they provide our ability to exercise our desires to seek self-centered pleasure outside the confines of our original relationship with the Supreme Being.

Second, pleasure provides for a means of education, along with pain. Pleasure and pain teach us about consequences, and about caring about the pleasure and pains of others.

Third, for those who seek to rise above pleasure and pain and return to the Supreme Being, attraction to sense pleasures offers the ability to test our determination to return to our relationship with God.

It is not as if God is testing us so He can gauge our level of determination. He already knows our level of seriousness and determination. The tests brought by the senses of pleasure provide a means for us to measure how serious we are.

In other words, a person who succumbs to every physical pleasure - going from one type of pleasure to another - is obviously not very interested in spiritual life. Their interest is their own pleasure.

In fact, these very same physical senses can be used in the service of the Supreme Being. The eyes can gaze upon God's altar. The ears can hear His praises. The hands can make offerings to God. The voice can praise God. And the sexual organs can be used to have children we can teach about God. Thus all of our senses can be used to please God.

But as a person's determination to please the Supreme Being develops, that person will - by the mercy of the Supreme Being - increasingly be tested with self-centered physical pleasures as they attempt to execute their devotional practices.

And to the degree a person succumbs measures our level of seriousness - just how serious we are about returning to our relationship with God.

The bottom line is that spiritual life is about commitment, but also about love. It is about committing oneself to learn to love the Supreme Being and do God's will. This is the real covenant between Abraham and God.

Did Abraham exercise the covenant?

Abraham illustrated those activities that please the Supreme Being as his exercise of the true covenant. They included setting up an altar to Him and making offerings to Him. They included praising God's Holy Names:
There he built an altar to the LORD and called on the Name of the LORD. (Gen. 12:8)

where he had first built an altar. There Abram called on the Name of the LORD. (Gen. 13:4)

Abraham planted a tamarisk tree in Beersheba, and there he called upon the Name of the LORD, the Eternal God. (Gen. 21:33)
What does it mean to erect an altar and call upon God's Holy Name? It means to worship and praise God. An altar was meant to provide offerings. Thus we find Abraham was focused on going to different places to erect temples (altars) for him and others to worship God.

It was not as if Abraham would tear down the altar when he left. These temples provided a means to the people of that region to first hear about God - and then come to worship Him.

This means that Abraham and his followers were focused on spreading the worship of God. Abraham was a missionary, in the same way that Moses was, Jesus was, Job was, Noah was, David was, John the Baptist was, and Jesus' disciples were.

And what teachings did they spread? They taught us to pray to God, offer to God, give homage to God, read and hear God's words. And sing and praise God and His Holy Names.

These are all practical ways we can apply ourselves to grow in our relationship with the Supreme Being. To the extent we are determined to do these - and oppose our desires to please ourselves and our extensions - the closer we will get to Him and the closer He will be to us.

Do his descendants inherit the covenant by birth?

In addition to the changes in the translation to "covenant" in God's statement, we can offer that "descendants" in this context is better translated to "followers" as documented with previous verses regarding the Hebrew word זרע (zera`). This is in addition to the translation of יליד (yaliyd) to the word "born."

This word can be used specifically to a physical birth, or those who became followers of Abraham - and thus were considered to have a spiritual rebirth. This figurative use is documented elsewhere in the scriptures:
Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.” (John 3:3)
If this is considered, the "eight days" could also be considered that the purification practice be made within eight days of a person's spiritual rebirth. But in reality, the word translated to "days" is the Hebrew word, יוֹם (yowm), which can also be translated to "years" or "time" - periods of time. So it doesn't necessarily say 8 days after birth - that is one interpretation. It could be eight years or eight weeks or eight months for that matter.

As for "household", the Hebrew word בית (bayith) can mean "house" in the context of a physical family, or it can mean "temple" according to the lexicon. Since God's instruction about "cutting off" obviously was not limited to the people in Abraham's household - and since he really didn't have much of a house as he was nomadic - and besides, Sarai was barren to that point - the correct translation of בית (bayith) would be something akin to Abraham's following - his group of followers.

The fact that God's "cutting off" (or removing the covering over the heart) instruction is a sign of their covenant takes us to the practical level - that loving service to the Supreme Being means following His instructions. This is the meaning of devotion: Acting in a way that is pleasing to God. Using our senses in a manner pleasing to the Supreme Being.

As for the translation to "My covenant in your flesh is to be an everlasting covenant," this translation is also confused. Obviously, a change in the flesh is not everlasting, because the physical body dies after a few decades, and then decomposes, along with its foreskin or lack thereof. But the service to the Supreme Being - wanting to please Him - is everlasting. This does not die when the body dies.

As for the translation regarding circumcision, we will leave this to the reader to decide (just as the text does). There is a good case to make that God wasn't speaking of cutting off the foreskin from the penis at all. That he was referring to an act of purification from within, perhaps expressed "in the flesh" by separating oneself from the community for a few days to undergo introspection and purification.

This would contrast with this being a ritual at all - rather simply an action taken from within the heart to dedicate oneself to the Supreme Being from within.

This would be consistent with the term quoted above, "circumcise your hearts."

Such an interpretation would leave behind the element of rituals completely. The fact that this part of Genesis and Exodus puts so much emphasis on rituals is not necessarily due to the original Hebrew - much of which could be interpreted as metaphorical. The element at heart could be the push of ecclesiastic scribes - which Jesus himself criticized - converting so many instructions of the heart into fanatical rituals in order to control the people.

As to the other textual references, we have seen many cases where words are filled in around a central interpretation. Hebrew is a very old and figurative language, one that can teach through analogy and metaphor, as well as practical elements.

The takeaway is that the Supreme Being wanted those who portend to follow Him to remove (or "cut off") the covering over our hearts and reach out to Him with love.

Consider another translation of these verses in Chapter 17 of the New Book of Genesis.