Foreskin: A 3000 Year Epic

4 min read

The Bible is an anthology of foreskin stories and penis parables.

The mythical history of Israel begins in Genesis with Abraham, the legendary Iraqi-born patriarch of Hebrew patriarchs. Living in northern Syria, he agrees to practice circumcision in exchange for a divine land grant of several thousand square miles in Palestine [Genesis 17]. Abraham cuts off his 99-year-old foreskin, that of 13-year-old Ishmael, and later the tiny foreskin of 8-day-old Isaac. According to this “Abrahamic Covenant”, the punishment henceforth for a Hebrew man keeping his foreskin will be excommunication.

From the Hebrew Tanakh through the Christian New Testament, the Bible’s narrative arc hinges on foreskin removal policy: If Abraham hadn’t gone under the knife to secure the divinely-promised land, then Moses couldn’t later lead Hebrew-speakers from Egypt back to that land, and thus Judaism wouldn’t have become a thing in Palestine, and therefore a dissident Palestinian Jew wouldn’t one day be posthumously deemed a salvific demi-god, et cetera.

Ritual circumcision was common to many of the Bronze and Iron Age cultures around Biblical Canaan. The practice may have originated as a substitute for child sacrifice. For Hebrew-speaking Canaanites, removing the foreskin symbolized submission to and bond with God. Accordingly, their scriptures exhort men to also remove the “foreskin of their hearts” [Jeremiah 4, Deuteronomy 10].

The Hebrew Bible portrays male genitalia as potent. Damaged testicles disqualify a man from Yahveh worship [Deuteronomy 23]. Divine law says that, if a woman grabs a man’s junk to stop him beating up her husband, her hand can be amputated as punishment [Deuteronomy 25]. Back in the opening story in Genesis, women and men are created concurrently and equally. But, in the second version of creation that follows, God fashions the first woman out of a man’s “lateral limb” (tsela) [Genesis 2]. Hebrew scholars lack certainty about the word’s meaning and have suggested it may be the penis.

Biblical-era men could rape their way into marriage, given a 50-shekel fee to the assault victim’s father [Deuteronomy 22]. In contrast to the Bible’s pervasive penis focus, knowledge of female genitalia is entirely absent. For example, if a bride’s hymen was already broken (as we now know most naturally are) or she didn’t bleed on the wedding night (which we now know is caused by unlubricated intercourse, rather than a physiological condition) she could be executed by stoning [Deuteronomy 22].

Penis entitlement also shows up as Sodomites demanding to gang rape male visitors [Genesis 19] and Benjaminites demanding to gang rape a fellow male Israelite traveler [Judges 19]. In both cases, a lower-value woman is offered to the mob. Logically, the Bible regulates male homosexual sex because it was prevalent. It’s described as an “abomination” (toevah) only as horrifying as the “abominations” of uneven scales [Proverbs 20], incense [Isaiah 1], and Egyptians dining with Hebrews [Genesis 43].

The Hebrew Bible writers apparently considered penis power dynamics too self-evident to necessarily warrant a full explanation. For example, the story of Moses violating the Abrahamic Covenant remains one of the Torah’s most perplexing passages. God is about to kill off Moses for neglecting to circumcise his infant son; but, the resourceful Zipporah snips off the baby’s foreskin just in time [Exodus 4]. That one bloody, little foreskin changes history: Moses survives to later liberate some 1.5 million Israelites out of Egypt and receive divine legislation that shapes the course of Western civilization. Zipporah doesn’t get her hand cut off, thankfully; but she doesn’t get acknowledged as a heroine either.

The ponderous “Law of Moses” emphasizes the importance of foreskin removal. In fact, the “rest-on-the-Sabbath-or-die” commandment [Exodus 31] is interpreted to exempt 8th-day circumcision work, which is theologically more important than Sabbath observance [Mishnah, Gospel of John 7]. Even so, the Israelites fall off the circumcision wagon during their legendary time in Sinai. After wandering in the desert for 40 years, the Israelites launch a genocidal (and now known to be non-historical) invasion of the territory purportedly promised to Abraham six centuries prior. D-Day for Canaan begins with a pit stop at the “Hill of Foreskins” to circumcise 40,000 Israelite troops [Joshua 5]. 

Once living in the Promised Land, the Israelites spend centuries skirmishing with the uncircumcised Philistine “Other”. Archaeology identifies the Philistines as an amalgam of Aegean and European peoples who maintained a culturally-distinct civilization on the Canaanite coast from about 1200 to 604 BCE when they were permanently wiped out by Babylonian conquest. In the Hebrew Bible, when Philistines steal the sacred Torah scroll, Yahveh punishes them with an unspecified genital affliction [1 Samuel 5]. Archaeologists suggest that Philistine gold phallus totems may relate to this tale.

Next, an ambitious young Bethlehemite named David trades 200 dead Philistines’ foreskins for permission to marry princess Michal [1 Samuel 18]. David’s circumcision-murders pave his way to kingship…and to a thousand-year lineage that will be credited with producing a Messiah named Jesus. Today, Jesus is considered a god or important prophet by 55% of the world population – a massive “butterfly effect” dependent on butterflying enemy foreskins.

In the 8thc BCE, the Bible narrative begins to align with history. Assyria subsumes Israel, whose refugees trigger a renaissance in Judah. The Hebrew cultic ritual policy triad (foreskins-bacon-idols) oscillates between liberalism and conservatism for a few generations, until the caesura of Babylonian conquest. Exile of the elites — a trauma so definitive that all subsequent Jewish scripture will be generalized as “post-exilic” — is also explained within the familiar penis-power framework: Donkey-sized penises producing voluminous ejaculate tempted the body of Israel away from her husband-god Yahveh [Ezekiel 23].

When Hellenist darkness descends upon late 4th century BCE Palestine, circumcision suddenly constitutes a capital offense. Foreskin restoration also becomes a thing, so that Jewish men can participate in naked sports without offending the Greeks [1 Maccabees 1]. But, the foreskin policy pendulum soon swings to the opposite extreme, when the Levitical Jewish Hasmoneans assume power in the mid-2nd century BCE. Jews forcibly circumcise lapsed brethren at home and conquered Gentiles in modern-day Lebanon, western Jordan, and southern Israel [1 Maccabees 2, Josephus]. 

The turn of the millennium era in Jerusalem produces the secular erotic poetry book “The Song of Solomon”. In stark contrast to the exploitative, non-consensual sex elsewhere in the Bible, this text celebrates mutual devotion and sexuality between an earnest, tender man and an empowered, eager woman. Penises make an appearance (as sweet fruit), but so do vaginas (as a pomegranate orchard). Foreskins are not mentioned and presumably absent.

Around the same timeframe, a certain Torah-abiding couple in Bethlehem has their infant son Jesus circumcised on the traditional 8th day. Over subsequent centuries, multiple alleged foreskins of Jesus surface in the sacred relics circuit.

The New Testament doesn’t ascribe any penis talk to Jesus. For once in the long history of Canaan, penises and penis sheaths are not the main focus. Nonetheless, a 2nd or 3rd century CE lost scripture describes Jesus presenting a handful of his own semen to Mary Magdalene after pulling out of another woman [The Greater Questions of Mary].  

After Jesus’ untimely death, foreskin policy controversy erupts again. Many of his early followers assert that spiritual salvation requires foreskin removal — even for Greeks eager to join the new movement. Another faction notes that pre-Abrahamic Hebrews like Noah and Enoch had fared just fine with foreskin-covered penises. Some aver that foreskin removal is not just unnecessary, but spiritually harmful. Symptomatic of this rancorous debate, the New Testament mentions circumcision almost as often crucifixion.

The Apostle Paul (himself a circumcised Jew) has the game-changing epiphany that, as a practical matter, adult male circumcision inhibits conversion rates. His advocacy of foreskin preservation enables Christianity’s rapid spread across Europe and the Middle East. “We are the circumcision!” goes one placard-worthy argument [Philippians 3].

Paul treks 400 miles from Antioch south to Jerusalem to consult authority figures regarding his radical policy of foreskin retention [Acts of the Apostles 15]. Because Paul wins his case, Christian men will be identifiable by their intact foreskins for the next couple millennia – a feature exploited to unspeakable horror in the Holocaust. As one exception, circumcision has been common among British Christian aristocrats, because the royal house of Windsor conceptualizes its lineage back to the Jewish House of David. 

Some six hundred years later, the Quran incorporates many Jewish and Christian ideas, but not the theological centrality of foreskins, which are not mentioned. If there were a historical Muhammad, he likely would have had an intact foreskin, living in the Christian-majority 7th century CE Roman province of Arabia Petraea. It was in post-Quranic commentary that Islam adopted the Jewish custom of male circumcision.

In the 20th century, non-religious circumcision suddenly became popular in the West, fueled by pseudo-scientific health claims. By the 1950s, circumcision rates peaked at 90% in the United States (compared to 20% in Britain). Today, the rate has declined to 60% (5% in Britain). Increasingly, even Biblical literalists decide the issue on medical or aesthetic grounds. Abrahamic religion’s 3000-year-long foreskin story is over.

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