Saturday, January 28, 2012

Circumcision: The Elephant in the Room

Note on July 21, 2012:  I have noticed this post gets a lot of traffic and that there is another website with the same title.  This one is about the biblical meaning of circumcision.  It has nothing to do with the medical practice as done today on male babies.  However, since you're here, we did have our son circumcised because we believed it to be healthier and cleaner, and so he would not see himself as looking unusual if it came to that.  He would kill me if he read that!  Anyway, if you're looking for information on the medical practice, this is not it.

That's a really silly title but I have been thinking about this subject for a long time, which is also a silly thing to admit to.

I have taught a women's Bible class for many years, and although I have taken a break, I'll be teaching tomorrow.  This subject isn't technically in the passage but sort of.  Anyway, it comes up quite often in both the Hebrew Bible (I am trying to be politically correct here and not call it the Old Testament, which is incorrect from the Jewish point of view) and the New Testament (which from the Christian point of view might be called the Applicable Testament?  The Gentile Testament?)

How often has the word circumcision come up in my teaching?  I am committed to dealing with the text and not skipping over matters that are clearly there despite their causing discomfort.  So this post is about the subject and how it fits into our understanding of the Bible today, and what to do about it if you are teaching such a passage.

As a side note, I realize that the whole subject is even humorous to some, although I have no idea why.  Of course, I am not a male, and males tend to cringe when they think about it (let them get a mammogram every year!).  The debate over whether it is healthier for men to be circumcised (or healthier for their wives) is over; of course it is.  Calling it genital mutilation is offensive, even though they did so in San Francisco.  All the males in my family are circumcised, and I'm glad of it.

Circumcision and covenant are two related terms in the Old Testament.  Covenant has to do with a word related to "cut."  When the LORD (I don't use the transliterated version of that name from the Hebrew letters, because Jews and Catholics don't) made His covenant with Abraham, He cut the animals and walked between them while Abraham was asleep (Genesis 15).  As a sign that the Jewish males were in the covenant, their foreskin was to be cut.  This made them personally aware, in the most intimate physical sign, that they were in the covenant.

Now the questions that arise are, what about the women?  and was this something they ever showed?  On the first question, I don't know.  On the second, since the HB had very specific rules about nakedness, I would guess not.  But the man knew, his family knew, his community would know because he would have gone through the ceremony as an infant, and his wife would know.  That's all that mattered, really.

But prophets and others emphasized that the covenant sign was not only physical but should have a spiritual component.  One's body could be circumcised but it did no good if one's heart (in HB thinking, the inner person of will, mind, emotions, and affections) were not also cut, open as it were, to the law, to God's direction, and to obedience.  If your foreskin was cut but you disobeyed the moral law of God--through idolatry, greed and indifference toward neighbors or the poor, etc.--you were not living up to the covenant and therefore not really circumcised.

This is especially clear in Paul's New Testament writings, such as Col 2:11.  In him you were also circumcised, in the putting off of the sinful nature, not with a circumcision done by the hands of men but with the circumcision done by Christ.  Here Paul is writing to Gentiles, who probably thought the whole act of circumcision so important to the Jews was kind of barbaric.  He also wrote to the Romans in 2:2,  A man is not a Jew if he is only one outwardly, nor is circumcision merely outward and physical.

The circumcision of the HB that pictured the cutting of the covenant is spiritual in the New Testament.  Christ's flesh was cut for us; he is the mediator of a new covenant.  Our hearts are circumcised and our outward life should flow from this open heart, which is no longer stony and  hard to God in faithlessness and disobedience but open and pliant to the things of God.  We live under a covenant as well.  We can choose to live under the covenant (which is totally up to God and not to us; we were "asleep" in a sense just like Abraham was) and enjoy the blessings of it, or we can choose to live like the covenant isn't in force, and suffer as did the Jews in the HB.  I am of the opinion that a person who continually chooses to live as if the covenant is not under force isn't under the covenant in the first place.

When I was in the Presbyterian church, when the babies were sprinkled they said that was the sign of the new covenant as circumcision was of the HB period.  I have a lot of respect for Presbyterians and prefer their way of doing things, but there are a few disagreements I have that are just too hard to get past.  This idea that baptism is like circumcision is one of them, and that the Jews are no longer under a covenant is another.  When did God start breaking covenants?  However, I could accept that the new covenant has supplanted the former, since this one is better:  it is spiritual (inward), it is everlasting, it is apolitical, it is for everyone.  (see Hebrews).

This is one of the oddest blog posts I have done, and in some ways far more esoteric than I usually get into.

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