Good Questions about Circumcision and about False teaching in the bible?

Draft: Feb 24/2005

A seeker came through, expressed kindness in encouraging me, and then asked what was on his mind...

Even though my friend here only calls it 'two questions', it's really more than just 2 by MY (smile)...or at least, that's the way I read it... So, let's unpack these and see what we can find out:

  1. The first one seems to be something like "how can a morally-high God use a sexual part of the body for a religious rite?"

  2. Then: "Why not use some OTHER physical method, instead?" (implying that a non-sexual method would be more appropriate?)

  3. Next: "Why does the first covenant even NEED such a physical sign?"

  4. Next: "Why isn't the law/covenant with Moses enough to serve as such a sign?"

  5. The second set of questions begins with "Why would God include false teaching in the Bible?"

  6. And an implied one: "The Epistle of Peter teaches false doctrine, specifically that circumcision is required for salvation"

I think these are good questions, and I am glad our friend sent these in--

One: "How can a morally-high God use a sexual part of the body for a religious rite?"

As I look at this wording of the question, I realize that there's an assumption being made: that it is somehow morally improper to use a sexual part of the body for a religious rite. In fact, that assumption is what makes the first one of the two questions even an issue. If there's really nothing 'wrong' with using a sexual part of the body, then obviously there's nothing problematic about this practice. (We could still ask the other questions, of course, of 'why' etc., but this first question would disappear).

So, why would it be wrong for God to use a sexual organ for some once-in-a-lifetime rite at birth? I am not sure I could defend this assumption--God created the sexual organ to begin with, so it not something 'dirty' or 'evil' in itself, so that couldn't be a reason to complain about its use. In fact, it's such an important organ, one might could argue that such a symbolic rite would be taken much more seriously than if it were just a tattoo, or special clothing, or a hairstyle.

And, it wouldn't make sense for it to be 'evil' to use it, due to immodesty or public nudity, because circumcision was done in the home (not in the temple), in private (not in a public ceremony), by the father (not a priest), on the eighth day (not at adolescence). So, it cannot be a 'nakedness' or 'immodesty' thing.

And it's not 'guilty' because of its connection to sex, since sex isn't bad at all in the bible. So, that's not a reason to accept the assumption.

Likewise, it cannot be evil because it involves surgery on the genitals, because it's not really 'negative' or 'debilitating' surgery (cf. the modern and ancient practice of it--for reasons of hygiene). God was obviously against truly 'negative' genital mutilation (cf. His ritual disapproval of castration and genital deformities in Deut 23.1; Lev 21.20; Lev 22.24; and His omission of any female genital surgery requirement), so He was sensitive to the issue. It's just that circumcision didn't seem to be considered an 'impairment' or negative procedure.

In fact, even the sexual aspect is completely absent in the rite, since it takes place LONG BEFORE puberty or marriage. Israel's practice even removed what 'fertility rite' connotations might have been associated with it at that time:

"Young men [in other cultures] were usually circumcised at puberty, evidently in preparation for marriage and entrance into full tribal responsibilities. The Hebrews were the only ancient practitioners of circumcision to observe the rite in infancy, thus freeing it from association with fertility rituals." [BEB, sv "circumcision"]

And, I am not even sure that the penis was solely, primarily, or even consistently thought of sexually in Ancient Israel (it is obviously used for other things, physiologically). We have two cases where close associates or children are told to swear with a ritual gesture of touching someone's genital area. In Genesis 24:2–9 Abraham has his servant Eliezer put his hand under the Patriarch’s thigh to swear “by the Lord, the God of heaven and earth” that the servant will not arrange a marriage for Abraham’s son Isaac with a Canaanite woman. Similarly, in Genesis 47:29–31 the dying Patriarch Jacob has his son Joseph swear to him that he will bury Jacob not in Egypt, but alongside Jacob’s own parents in the Cave of Machpelah; and the oath-taking ritual again calls for putting a hand under the Patriarch’s thigh. These are very solemn oaths, and the 'thigh' here isn't seen 'sexually' in the least. At most, it is seen 'procreationally', but this wouldn't make this act 'dirty' in that context--because it just wasn't seen that way, unlike it might be today.

Of course, God was very much against sexual activity in public worship, apparent from His condemnation of sacred prostitution in the surrounding nations (compare the fiasco at Baal Peor, Num 25), and of illicit sexual activity in priestly abuse (e.g. the sons of Eli in I Samuel 2.21ff). This would argue that God did NOT see circumcision as 'sexual' at all.

So, it doesn't even look very 'sexual' as practiced by the Israelites...and so I don't think we have to accept the assumption that a moral God would be precluded from using this for such a once-in-a-lifetime, at-birth, highly-private, family ceremony.

But the other questions may help us understand the significance of this--the 'why' might be instructive, so let's continue...

Two: "Why not use some OTHER physical method, instead?" (implying that a non-sexual method would be more appropriate?)

Well, first let's notice that we just came to the conclusion that there really wasn't anything inappropriate about 'that' physical method. And let's look now at WHY that particular physical method might have been 'culturally appropriate' (if it was).

Now, we can ask the question of HOW THIS FITS in the ancient world/situation of the time--for other clues...

There are two time periods to look at here: (1) When Abraham was told to leave UR/Babylon; and (2) When Israel left Egypt.

(1) Circumcision was originally given to Abraham as a sign of the Abrahamic covenant, that God had created a special group called 'Descendants of Abraham'. To be a member of this class, one had to be circumcised and aligned with the values, commitments, and contracts of Abraham (and his successors). This fits, of course, with standard understandings of circumcision as an 'induction ceremony', but in Abraham's case it had special significance: break from the past, trust in God.

You see, Abraham had moved FROM Ur/Babylon, where the people did NOT practice circumcision, and moved TO Palestine/Syria where the natives DID practice it ("In biblical times, West Semitic peoples, comprising Israelites, Ammonites, Moabites, and Edomites, were circumcised, but not the East Semitic peoples of Mesopotamia, such as the Akkadians, Assyrians, and Babylonians." [HI:LBI:43,44]). Accordingly, when God instructed Abraham to circumcise all his descendants, this was an implicit--but deep--break with his homeland, his people, and his past. And this would have been obvious to any of those of his household who were familiar with that fact.

There is also a good chance that Abraham knew that the Semitic peoples of Canaan circumcised their families, and Abraham's act would have aligned himself with Canaan (his land-grant gift from God), instead of with Babylonia (his earthly 'fall-back').

So, in Abraham's case, circumcision would have been a reminder of his abject dependence on God, to protect him as a 'pilgrim and sojourner', and of his commitment to raise his descendants in the covenant of God.

(2) In the Exodus, we have a slightly different contrast. Although the data is not entirely unambiguous, we DO know that circumcision was generally required of Egyptian priests, as we have noted:

"Circumcision seems to have been a requirement of ritual purity for men who were going to serve in temples. This requirement may not have been observed at all periods. Some New Kingdom rulers, who had many ritual duties, were uncircumcised." [OT:CANE:I.378]
"Circumcision, whatever its original significance may have been, was connected with purity. It seems that circumcision was obligatory for priests. It was a distinctive mark of priesthood and formed part of the rites of induction in the latest periods, but whether it did for earlier times in uncertain." [OT:CANE:2, 1733]

With this backdrop--the holiest of priests are supposed to be circumcised for purity reasons--consider the call of God to Israel to be "a kingdom of priests" for Him. Every Israelite was to live in purity and holiness--"at least as good as" the Egyptian priests (which they would have been familiar with). Egyptians and Egyptian priests would have 'looked down on' any 'uncircumcised' Israelites (especially if they were claiming to be priests of the triumphant Yahweh!), and Israel would have been aware of the stigma herself. [One might compare Joshua 5, where the uncircumcised Israelites born in the Wilderness Wanderings were circumcised--this act removed the 'reproach of Egypt'. I understand that to refer to the reproach the Egyptians would have had for the Israelites who were not circumcised (up to that point), due to the practicalities of nomadic, wilderness travels.]

Hence, in THAT situation, circumcision for Israel was almost necessary for reasons of 'respectability' before the dominant/powerful Egypt.

So, I can easily see how a physical rite like this would have been useful, and even why it might have been necessary--in the case of the Egyptians. This, of course, addresses the 'why THIS specific physical act', since any OTHER physical act would NOT have eliminated the 'reproach of Egypt'. So, the "Why THIS one?" might be answered by (a) it was the 'standard' membership-entry rite for West Semitic peoples; and (b) it was the 'standard' purity-entrance rite for Egyptian priests (the 'measurement standard' of holiness of the time).

Three: "Why does the first covenant even NEED such a physical sign?"

Well, strictly speaking, it doesn't actually have to be NEEDED to be justified in its existence, but only HELPFUL. If a given ritual "adds value" and helps people, and does so without negative effects, then that is reason enough for its existence and usage.

In our case, that seems to be the case. Circumcision had no 'downsides'--other than the ubiquitous one of 'trusting in rituals for a relationship to God'. Of course, Israel DID have this problem--later trusting/boasting in their circumcision, rather than trusting/boasting in the grace of their God (but that's a theme of the Hebrew prophets and New Testament).

But there's nothing wrong with physical signs, otherwise. The Nazarite's long hair, the High Priest's garments, the Tabernacle's embroidery, the carrying of branches at the feast of Tabernacles, the markings on the doorposts, the rainbow in the covenant with Noah, etc. These are contributory and helpful--even inspiring-- but not absolutely necessary. They reinforce and educate and remind and provoke to thought and theology...

Four: "Why isn't the law/covenant with Moses enough to serve as such a sign?"

Well, the first thing to note is that circumcision was a sign of the Abrahamic Covenant, and NOT the Mosaic one. It barely shows up in the Mosaic covenant, and is only referred to in the Hebrew prophets twice. The Covenant of Moses would be 'too late' for Abraham, obviously.

Also, I am not sure what you mean by 'law/covenant'. If you are referring to the physical aspects of the Law (e.g. tabernacle, sacrifices, festivals, priestly garments, etc.), then these could be adequate to remind people OF THE LAW. But since they were focused on the LAW, they weren't designed to focus on the ABRAHAMIC covenant (i.e., community is defined by faith in the Lord). If, on the other hand, you are referring to the simple legal 'contract' (and not to any physical manifestation of that covenant, e.g. Tablets of stone, inscriptions on Ebal/Gerazim, copies made by Joshua in the tabernacle), this intangible contract could NOT function as a reminder, since IT WAS WHAT the Israelites were having to be reminded ABOUT!


So, I might could summarize the discussion on circumcision this way:

So, I don't think there's a real problem here, when looked at this closely.

Five: "Why would God include false teaching in the Bible?"

I think we are both in agreement with this one, since you note that it is okay to document someone's change of mind. And this historical narrative type of use is helpful to us: (1) God can use it to warn us about specific things to beware; and (2) God can use it to encourage us that we CAN change, and to challenge us TO change. So, I think we would both agree here, friend.

And I would agree with you that including as a canonical book of the bible a book that was clearly heretical WOULD BE inappropriate (or at least, very questionable and something to explain). That would be a very different case than ours here, though, because, unlike in the historical or narrative cases (in which God's disapproval could be seen from the way the false teaching was written about--either explicitly rejected or implicitly 'shamed'), the reader/believer would NOT BE ABLE TO TELL that such a book were 'unauthorized' and heretical. So, we agree on that as well.

Six:(Implied) "The Epistle of Peter teaches false doctrine, specifically that circumcision is required for salvation?"

This confuses me--I must not be understanding your meaning here, friend. The Epistle of Peter (a canonical book) doesn't even mention circumcision, much less 'endorse it as a means to salvation'...? It is filled with OT/Tanaach imagery and quotes and allusions, but none of these refer to circumcision. In fact, I Peter is a great book for the substitutionary death of Jesus, as the only means of atonement! It is a beautiful book, filled with grace and love--but nothing about circumcision.

Similarly, Second Peter--although much shorter and focused on different themes--makes no mention of circumcision either.

So, I have obviously misunderstood your point, because I cannot see how Peter's 'momentary waffling' is endorsed by God in a canonical book. Perhaps you can clarify this for me, friend, and I'll take a fresh look at it.

I hope this helps--and thanks again for your kind words and willingness to ask questions, Glenn Miller Feb/2005

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