Circumcision and the Bible

In May (although it became hot topic on the internet a couple of weeks ago) a Jewish man, Eric Clopper, held a presentation at Harvard titled Sex and Circumcision: An American Love Story. In his presentation he decries circumcision as a barbaric and evil blood sacrifice, and wants to abolish this Jewish covenant. Clopper describes how the foreskin is an integral part in generating pleasure in the sexual act, and cutting it off replaces pleasure with rage. I recommend watching the two hour presentation. It did inspire me to write this.

In recent years I’ve grown interested in Christianity, but circumcision is one of the details that makes is very difficult to accept the possibility that the biblical God is the true and righteous one. Although the New Testament seems to reject the notion of circumcision, whereas the Old affirms it. Does it mean God updated his Terms of Service with the coming of Jesus Christ and rendered circumcision obsolete, or is circumcision a heretical practice that creeped into the Old Testament? However, if the former is true, it would contradict the biblical claim that God is unchanging, such as James 1:17: “Every good thing given and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shifting shadow”, or Malachi 3:6 “For I the Lord do not change; therefore you, O children of Jacob, are not consumed”. Of course you could argue that God doesn’t change, but his rules do, but that still makes God sound fickle. If the latter is true, it detracts from the reliability of the Bible.

 

Circumcision

What is circumcision? As has been practiced by Jewish rabbis for centuries, it entails cutting off the foreskin of a baby on their 8th day, sometimes with sharpened claws, and then the rabbi sucks the blood from the penis with his mouth. Sounds like an evil pedophillic blood sacrifice to me. This is called the metzitzah b’peh. Nowadays this practice is not always used, but I still don’t find modern or “medical” forms of circumcision much better. Circumcision is likely to instill some sort of trauma in the baby. In fact Eric Clopper points out in his presentation that certain rabbis commit circumcision for this very purpose, to associate sex with pain.

As far as I know, the Bible does not describe the exact circumcision procedure, such as the metzitzah b’peh, so I suppose it’s possible circumcision worked differently in the time of Abraham. Genesis 17: 9-14 states:

“And God said unto Abraham, Thou shalt keep my covenant therefore, thou, and thy seed after thee in their generations.
This is my covenant, which ye shall keep, between me and you and thy seed after thee; Every man child among you shall be circumcised.
And ye shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskin; and it shall be a token of the covenant betwixt me and you.
And he that is eight days old shall be circumcised among you, every man child in your generations, he that is born in the house, or bought with money of any stranger, which is not of thy seed.
He that is born in thy house, and he that is bought with thy money, must needs be circumcised: and my covenant shall be in your flesh for an everlasting covenant.
And the uncircumcised man child whose flesh of his foreskin is not circumcised, that soul shall be cut off from his people; he hath broken my covenant.”

It appears that cutting the foreskin is still clearly mentioned in Genesis, even if they did do it in some more humane manner. Another interesting detail is that slaves bought with money by Jews should be circumcised. This not only suggests that God condoned slavery, but that in modern days the goyim, such as in America, who are circumcised are slaves of the Jews.

Why would God require the faithful to cut of the foreskin of their children and slaves as his covenant? One explanation that I’ve heard is that it represents dedication to spirit instead of the corrupted flesh. If circumcision hinders one’s ability to enjoy sex, and sex is the foremost method of engaging in pleasures of the flesh, cutting off the foreskin would signify dedication to spirit instead of flesh. I can understand as an abstract concept, but I cannot accept in practice. Moreover it sounds like a member of organized crime cutting off a finger to show loyalty to the Don. Also as Michael Glass wrote in his article Answers from the Bible to Questions about Circumcision that the foreskin wasn’t a mistake of nature as “The Bible says that God pronounced creation ‘very good’ (Genesis 1:31) and that humans were made in the image of God (Genesis 1:27). The Apostle Paul also said that God made every part of the body as he wanted it. (1 Corinthians 12:18).”

 

Circumcision in the Bible

Let’s have a look at some passages from the New Testament on circumcision. Certain passages are vehemently anti-circumcision such as Galatians 5: 1-3:

“Stand fast therefore in the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free, and be not entangled again with the yoke of bondage.

Behold, I Paul say unto you, that if ye be circumcised, Christ shall profit you nothing.

For I testify again to every man that is circumcised, that he is a debtor to do the whole law.”

Paul calls circumcision a “yoke of bondage”, and apparently if you are unable to “profit” from Christ if you are circumcised. Galatians 5: 5-6 sort of contradicts it though:

“For we through the Spirit wait for the hope of righteousness by faith. For in Jesus Christ neither circumcision availeth any thing, nor uncircumcision; but faith which worketh by love.”

According to it circumcision seems irrelevant, whereas faith in Jesus and love are necessary. First Paul had described circumcision as harmful, but then he goes to say it’s irrelevant. While I agree with his motives, it does not sound like he preaching the word of God, but spouting his own political views.

Philippians 3: 2-3 (also featuring Paul, or Timotheus) states:

“Beware of dogs, beware of evil workers, beware of the concision [mutilation or cutting]. For we are the circumcision, which worship God in the spirit, and rejoice in Christ Jesus, and have no confidence in the flesh.

It describes circumcision as act of “evil workers” and encourages Christians to worship God in the spirit. For the Christian circumcision seems to be more of a symbolical act, cutting oneself off from earthly concerns, rather than mutilating one’s genetalia literally. In fact, Romans 2: 25-29 (also from Paul) mentions the circumcision of the heart:

“For circumcision verily profiteth, if thou keep the law: but if thou be a breaker of the law, thy circumcision is made uncircumcision.

Therefore if the uncircumcision keep the righteousness of the law, shall not his uncircumcision be counted for circumcision?

And shall not uncircumcision which is by nature, if it fulfil the law, judge thee, who by the letter and circumcision dost transgress the law? For he is not a Jew, which is one outwardly; neither is that circumcision, which is outward in the flesh:

But he is a Jew, which is one inwardly; and circumcision is that of the heart, in the spirit, and not in the letter; whose praise is not of men, but of God.”

This seems to be basically the letter of the law vs spirit of the law argument. If you are circumcized, you have to adhere to the letter of the law, but if you are not, you have to follow the spirit of the law. However, this does suggest that originally God cared only about the letter of the law, he wanted total obedience from his followers, but he softened up later and loosened his demands with Jesus.

What I see with Paul, is a liberal political pundit who is rebelling against the old, strict traditions of circumcision, and not as much a holy prophet spreading the word of God. However, the same could be said about the promoters of circumcision in the Old Testament, not them being liberal rebels, but political pundits. Let’s take a look at what Jesus has to say about circumcision in John 7: 22-24:

“Moses therefore gave unto you circumcision; (not because it is of Moses, but of the fathers;) and ye on the sabbath day circumcise a man. If a man on the sabbath day receive circumcision, that the law of Moses should not be broken; are ye angry at me, because I have made a man every whit whole on the sabbath day? Judge not according to the appearance, but judge righteous judgment.”

Michael Glass writes on this passage the following: “the Greek expression for making a man completely well could also be translated as making him completely whole.” It could even be interpreted to say that Jesus cure and uncircumcized the man, i.e. grew back his foreskin. Whatever the case, it appears Jesus was not overly concerned about circumcision, or the Sabbath for that matter.

Also in John 7:22 as can be seen above, Jesus said “Moses therefore gave unto you circumcision; (not because it is of Moses, but of the fathers)”. It would suggest that Jesus claims Moses did not teach circumcision, as is often believed, but it’s an older tradition. As Michael Glass writes:

“the Children of Israel abandoned circumcision during Moses’ leadership (Joshua 5: 4-7). Exodus 4: 24-26 tells us that Moses had not circumcised his own son.

This suggests several scribal traditions. In the first, Moses did not practise circumcision, and the custom was abandoned under his leadership (Joshua 5: 4-7).”

Joshua was Moses’ assistant who took over after Moses died. When he was in charge, he started circumcizing children again. So there is some anti-circumcision sentiment even in the Old Testament, and not merely from a random dude, but from Moses himself.

While Paul’s anti-circumcision rhetoric seems personally or politically motivated, it also does seem to follow Jesus’ approach as well, where a person’s health is more important than ancient religious customs. However Jesus did state in Matthew 5: 17-19 the following:

““Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.”

Shouldn’t that contradict Jesus and his followers’ assertions against circumcision? It is part of the law, after all? Perhaps he is referring the Ten Commandments only, or perhaps the law employed by people, including passages in the Old Testament had been corrupted doctrines conjured up by men? Michael Glass makes similar suggestions:

“Jesus himself criticized the scribes and their traditions. (e.g., Matthew 15: 1-9, also Isaiah 29 :13). Jeremiah’s assessment of the Law must also be pondered.

How can you say, “We are wise,
and the law of the LORD is with us,”
when in fact, the false pen of the scribes
has made it into a lie?
(Jeremiah 8: 8, New RSV)”

 

Conclusion

I am still asking Christians, or anyone else, how do reconcile the disconnect between the contradictory positions on circumcision in the Old and New Testaments? Genesis 17 claims God told Abraham to circumcize his offspring, but in the New Testament Paul especially is vehemently against it. Did the omniscient and unchanging God change his mind on the content of his decrees, even his covenant, with men? Are there errors in the Old Testament where the word of God has been replaced with the word of men? Or was Paul merely a heretic speaking selfishly against circumcision?

Personally I would not have a problem had God changed his mind, although it would sort of suggest he is not all-knowing. Let’s take a hypothetical description of God. He is the Creator of all life and the world, and compared to human beings he might as well be described as all-powerful, yet even he has his limitations. He wants humans to have free will, but also to direct them to live their lives properly. First he makes a certain kind of policy or a decree in hopes of directing humanity in a certain way, but over the course of years he notices it’s not working. Then like a king, he makes a new policy which he hopes will be more succesful. I have no problem with such a concept of God, but it would probably go against Christian dogma as it implies God is flawed in some manner.

Another possible interpretation of this circumcision hassle is that, as is according to Christian belief, the Bible describes historical events from Eden up to the time of Christ from various different authors. While the events underneath the words of men have been true, but many of the smaller or even bigger details are up for revision. This would explain how when the Book of Genesis was written, circumcision was seen as a decree from God, but in the time of Jesus it was seen as a yoke. Both are merely views held by men. This view also makes sense to me, but it goes against the dogmatic view that the Bible is the infallible word of God.

I should note that my purpose is not to attack Christianity or the Bible, but to questionsthem. After all, if Christians wish to convert me, or others with similar views, they should have an answer to these questions. Christians who believe in Jesus and all that, should have asked themselves these questions as well. Why did God demand circumcision as the holy covenant with his followers back in the old days, but now you just need faith in Jesus? If your answer is: ‘it doesn’t matter. You just have to believe in Jesus.’ Then what’s the point in having the Bible in the first place? You know the book that describes what Jesus did and said. Ignore what the book says, just believe. Believe in what?

 

Links:

Sex & Circumcision: An American Love Story by Eric Clopper: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FCuy163srRc

Answers from the Bible to Questions about Circumcision: http://www.cirp.org/pages/cultural/glass2/

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