The cutting off all round of the foreskin (the projecting skin in the male member, the emblem of corruption, Deuteronomy 10:16; Jeremiah 4:4) of males, appointed by God as token of His covenant with Abraham and his seed (Genesis 17:10-14). The usage prevailed, according to Herodotus (2:104, section 36-37), among the Egyptians, Ethiopians, and Syrians. But his statement may refer only to the Egyptian priests, and those initiated in the mysteries. The Jews alone of the inhabitants of the Syrian region were circumcised. So, circumcision kept them distinct from uncircumcised Canaanite pagan around. If the rite existed before Abraham it was then first sanctioned as a token of God's covenant with Abraham and his seed, and particular directions given by God as to the time of its being performed, the eighth day, even though it were a sabbath (John 7:22-23), and the persons to be circumcised, every male, every slave, and (at the Exodus it was added) every male foreigner before he could partake of the Passover (Genesis 17:12-13; Exodus 12:48).
So, the rainbow existed before the flood, but in Genesis 9:13-17 first was made token of the covenant. The testimony of the Egyptian sculptures, mummies, and hieroglyphics, is very doubtful as to the pre-Abrahamic antiquity of circumcision. (See note Genesis 17, Speaker's Commentary.) The Hamite races of Palestine, akin to the Egyptians, as (Judges 14:3) the Philistines and Canaanites (the Hivites, Genesis 34), were certainly not circumcised. The Egyptian priests probably adopted the rite when Joseph was their governor and married to the daughter of the priest of On. The Israelites by the rite, which was associated with the idea of purity, were marked as a whole "kingdom of priests" (Exodus 19:6; Deuteronomy 7:6-7). In Jeremiah 9:25, "I will punish all them which are circumcised with the uncircumcised: Egypt, and Judah, and Edom," two classes seem distinguished: Israel circumcised in flesh, but uncircumcised in heart; and the Gentile nations uncircumcised both in flesh and heart.
Hyrcanus first compelled the Edomites to be circumcised (Josephus, Ant. 13:9, section 1; compare Ezekiel 31:18). Its significance is, the cutting the outside flesh of the organ of generation denotes corruption as inherent in us from birth, and transmitted by our parents, and symbolizes our severance from nature's defilement to a state of consecrated fellowship with God. Jehovah consecrated the nation to Himself; and whatsoever male was not circumcised on the eighth day was liable to be "cut off." Moses had neglected to circumcise his son, owing to Zipporah's repugnance to it, as a rite not generally adopted in the East, even by the descendants of Abraham and Keturah, the Midianites. Therefore he was attacked by some sudden seizure in the resting place for the night, which he and his wife were divinely admonished arose from the neglect. She took a sharp stone or flint (compare margin Joshua 5:2; Joshua 5:8), the implement sanctioned by patriarchal usage as more sacred than metal (as was the Egyptian usage also in preparing mummies), and cut off her son's foreskin, and cast it at Moses' feet, saying, "a bloody husband art thou to me," i.e., by this blood of my child I have recovered thee as my husband, and sealed our union again (Exodus 4:25).
The name was given at circumcision, as at baptism (Luke 1:59; Luke 2:21). The painfulness of Old Testament initiatory rite, as compared with the New Testament sacrament of baptism, marks strongly the contrast between the stern covenant of the law and the loving gospel. Jesus' submission to it betokened His undertaking to fulfill the law in all its requirements, and to suffer its penalty incurred by us. "Oh wherefore bring ye here this holy Child? Such rite befits the sinful, not the clean; Why should this tender Infant undefiled Be thus espoused in blood, while we have been So gently into covenant beguiled? No keen edged knife our bleeding foreheads scored With the sharp cross of our betrothed Lord: But we belike in quiet wonder smiled. While on our brow the priest, with finger cold, Traced with the hallowed drops the saving sign; While Thou, unsparing of Thy tears, the old And sterner ritual on Thyself didst take: Meet opening for a life like Thine, Changing the blood to water for our sake." - Whytehead.
"Uncircumcised" is used of the lips (Exodus 6:12; Exodus 6:20), the ears (Jeremiah 4:4; Jeremiah 6:10), the heart (Leviticus 26:41; Deuteronomy 10:16; Acts 7:51), in the sense closed by the foreskin of inborn fleshliness; impure, rebellious (Deuteronomy 30:6; Isaiah 52:1). Even the fruit of the Canaanites' trees was called "uncircumcised," i.e. unclean (Leviticus 19:23). Christians "are circumcised with the circumcision made without hands in putting off the body (not merely the foreskins, as in literal circumcision) of the sins of the flesh (i.e. the whole old fleshly nature with its sins) by the circumcision of Christ" (Colossians 2:11; Romans 2:28-29).
The reason of the omission of circumcision in the wilderness (Joshua 5:5-6) was, while suffering the penalty of their unbelief the Israelites were practically discovenanted by God, and so were excluded from the sign of the covenant. "The reproach of Egypt" was the taunt of the Egyptians that God brought them into the wilderness to slay them (Numbers 14:13-16; Deuteronomy 9:23-28); which reproach lay on them so long as they were in danger of being "cut off" in the wilderness as uncircumcised, but was rolled off the younger generation by their circumcision at Gilgal. Paul warned Christians who regarded circumcision as still possessing spiritual virtue, that thereby they made themselves "debtors to do the whole law," and "Christ should profit them nothing" (Galatians 5:2-3; Galatians 5:12). He calls its practisers "the concision," in contrast to the true circumcision (Philemon 3:2-3), a mere flesh cutting.
So he resisted the demand that Titus should be circumcised; for, being a Greek, Titus did not fall under the rule of expediency that Jewish born Christians should be circumcised, as Timothy was (Acts 15; Acts 16:1; Acts 16:3; Galatians 2:3-5). Christianity did not interfere with Jewish usages, as social ordinances (no longer religiously significant) in the case of Jews, while the Jewish polity and temple stood. After their overthrow the Jewish usages necessarily ceased. To insist on them for Gentile converts would have been to make them essential to Christianity. To violate them in the case of Jews would have been inconsistent with the charity which in matters indifferent becomes all things to all men, that by all means it may win some (1 Corinthians 9:22; Romans 14). The Arabians circumcised in the 13th year, after Ishmael's example (Genesis 17:25). The Muslims and the Abyssinian Christians practice it still.
These dictionary topics are from Fausset Bible Dictionary, 1949. Public Domain.
Fausset, Andrew R. "Entry for 'Circumcision'". "Fausset Bible Dictionary".