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Just a Little Off the Top

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So here I am, thumbing through the stacks of typical barbershop magazines, all at least 14 months old. American Rifleman, Golf Digest, Popular Mechanics, Guns, golf, gear-boxes.

Wait a second. Here's a different one. Some Biblical Archaeology Review thing. How'd that get here? No matter. It's different, different than yet another article on the sight on that new .50-caliber handgun or the challenges on the back nine at Colonial.

Whoa! Here, about 50 pages in, an article titled "Circumcision: Who Did It, Who Didn't and Why."

Even in a guy-friendly place like a barbershop, that's a headline that will cause a shudder. Even in America, where a majority of the male population is circumcised and a large majority of that majority has been so marked since they were a week old and so have a very poor memory of the procedure.

Be brave and read on. Circumcision has a long history in the ancient world, as early as 23 centuries before it was practiced on Jesus Christ. The Egyptians did it, as did the Canaanites, Ammonites, Moabites, Edomites, Phoenicians, Arameans and — perhaps most famously — the Israelites. The Assyrians and the Babylonians did not.

The oldest known depiction of circumcision is on a wall relief of a tomb just southwest of Cairo. Two boys reaching puberty are being altered by a priest. One of the boys tells the priest, "Rub off what is there thoroughly," and the priest answers him, "I shall make it heal."

Neither priest nor pubescent apparently addresses the single most glaring unanswered question raised by the whole matter: Who started this whole business and why? If a guy comes by pointing a jagged oyster-shell at your groin, wouldn't you expect him to be able to give you some sort of an explanation why this process is desirable?

(The most logical explanation is simple. The male organ simply looks better post-circumcision than it does pre-circumcision. And looks matter: Consider how visual an animal the human male is and just how much time he spends gazing at himself.)

But even if the origins weren't clear, the effects could be. In something known as the Ebers Papyrus, Egyptians offered a remedy for the discomforts of circumcision: "dzrt, honey, cuttle-bone, sycamore, fruit of dzja are mixed together and applied thereto." There's no further explanation of dzrt and dzja. These must be archaeologist talk.

Then there was the account given in the Great Karmack Inscription of the Libyan-Mediterranean invasion of Pharaoh Merneptah (1212-1202 B.C.). In this account, we learn that the Egyptians had different punishments for prisoners of war. Circumcised prisoners had their hands whacked off. Uncircumcised prisoners lost their genitals.

Among the Egyptians and most other Semitic peoples, circumcision was commonly a puberty rite or an initiation to marriage. In Arabic hatana means "to circumcise" and the words for "bridegroom," "son-in-law" and "father-in-law" are all derivatives. (It's amazing the depth and width of knowledge that can be collected at a barbershop. Ladies, study your man when he returns from his favorite tonsorial parlor. Doesn't he look smarter?)

Obviously, the Israelites put a different spin on everything by mandating circumcision for every boy-child who had reached the ripe age of eight days. (Genesis 7:12, Leviticus 12:3) No longer is it a matter of hygiene or matrimony. Yahweh himself told Abraham: "Every male among you shall be circumcised. You shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskin (besar "orlatkem) and it shall be a sign ("ot) of the covenant (berit) between me and you."

Not that the Israelites of the Old Testament didn't sometimes find ways to take advantage of their special custom in intertribal squabbles. The article tells of the Hivites of Canaan, whose prince Shechem "defiled" Dinah, daughter of the Israelite patriarch Jacob. Shechem, the Book of Genesis tells us, "loved the girl and spoke tenderly to her." So his father proposed a compromise to Jacob's sons: "Intermarry with us; give us your daughters in marriage and marry ours." But Jacob's sons declared no marriages could take place because the Hivites weren't properly altered.

The Hivites agreed to the new conditions — ah, the price of diplomacy — and it was done. But it was all a ruse. The Israelites slaughtered them "on the third day, when they were still in pain." (When I read this, I let out a moan that resounded throughout the barbershop.)

My shuddering continues as the article cites the First Book of Samuel, in which David purchases Saul's daughter Michal for the bride-price of 100 Philistine foreskins. But the topper comes at the end of the story of the Israelite wandering in the desert. Poised to lead his people back to the Promised Land and celebrate Passover, Joshua is instructed by Yahweh to "Make flint knives and circumcise the Israelites again a second time."

In the name of all that's holy, why? Scholars speculate that perhaps the Egyptians didn't involve the entire glans and corona while the ancient Israelite practice involved the complete prepuce or foreskin. Maybe during their long captivity, the sons of Abraham had adapted the Egyptian method and thus the need for "a second time."

I put the magazine back on the stack, fishing for my handkerchief to deal with the chilly sweat now covering my forehead. All the while reflecting on the full meaning of "a second time."

The man behind the barber's chair is motioning to me. He's holding scissors. Snip, snip

That's OK pal. Maybe some other time.

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