Sunday, 25 April 2010

God and the Politics of Circumcision

Ever wonder what God was thinking with the circumcision-thing? It doesn't quite match up with our God-as-prim-Victorian-grandfather concept, and I get the sense most Christians are happy to stuff the whole embarrassing issue deep into the dusty nether-regions of a cabinet marked "Old Testament Jewish Stuff"- which is full of things we don't use and don't really like but are too scared to throw out completely. (Kind of like that ugly green sweater your grandmother gave you for your birthday. You know you're never going to wear it, but you have to keep it in the back of the closet just in case she asks about it when she comes to visit.) "Oh yes, Grandfather-God, we do have your teaching on circumcision, it's right here somewhere...but it's all about the circumcision of the heart now, right? You changed your mind in the New Testament, remember?"

But secretly, don't you ever wonder why in the world God came up with something as weird as circumcision in the first place?

In Abraham's time, as throughout the ages, there were many gods worshipped. The difficulty a god always faced was in maintaining his followers' loyalty. Worshippers would stick to their guns only as long as they were either getting what they wanted or too scared of the consequences to go shopping for a new god. A good way to get people on board for the long haul was to require an enormous investment. So things like child-sacrifice were a common way to get people in so deep that it would be hard for them to walk away. Once you'd killed your youngest daughter and offered her to your god, you weren't as likely to say you were wrong and switch religions. Psychology calls this "investment theory". The Bible calls it an "abomination", a word that basically means "repugnant" or "disgusting".

For more or less obvious reasons, it was important for people to make a clear choice about which "god" they were going to follow. In the case of YHWH/Jehovah/the Living God, this was particularly important. He had told Abraham that through Abraham's descendants, he was going to bless the whole world. His concern was always that people should know who he was. If he was going to reveal himself, his followers were going to have to make a clear choice - otherwise, who would know what came from God and what came from any one of the variety of other deities worshipped throughout the ancient world? There clearly needed to be something that first, set his followers apart and made them distinguishable, and something that encouraged a loyalty that went deeper than a child's connection to the source of his supply of lollipops.

The ancient world wasn't squeamish about sex. It was an important part of life, and for most cultures, everything hinged on the ability to procreate. If you wanted to make someone really happy, you didn't tell them that they were going to win the lottery; you told them that their descendants were going to be many and powerful. The numerous wives weren't just harem-girls selected to keep their husband happy; they were primarily chosen to be mothers of children - insurance against the harsh realities of life in a time when disease, war, or famine could wipe out an entire people-group.

The root of our English words "testament" and "testify" is "testis" - a word that is interestingly close to "testes". Indeed, folks in patriarchal times didn't swear by laying their hands on their hearts, but by laying their hands on their fathers' testes - so say many historians. Abraham asks Eleazer to do this as proof that he will bring a wife for Isaac from Abraham's own people. (Genesis 24:2-4) They were recognizing the source of life swearing by their family's bloodline - the most precious thing a person or family had. A common and fearsome curse in Bible times was the cutting off of a bloodline. The person without descendants was a poor man indeed.

So circumcision was a rather ingenious linking of an Israelite family's commitment to God with the most precious thing they had: the ability to procreate and maintain their bloodline. It acted as a daily reminder of what their loyalty was, and it included the idea that a commitment to God was not something to be tossed out on a whim, but was to continue even beyond a person's lifetime and passed on to descendants. It set a people and their bloodline apart from others. It also meant that Jewish men were identifiable, and couldn't intermarry with other people-groups without their wives knowing that they and their families had been set apart to God. There would be no mistaking which God was working in and for and through the Jews.

Did God change his mind in the New Testament, then? "For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love." (Galatians 5:6)

"In Christ Jesus" are the key words here. Remember the plagues of Egypt, which started off general and then got specific, eventually requiring people to make individual choices rather than it just being enough that they were part of the right community or people-group? God is always moving from the communal, the visible, to the personal. In Jesus, people have at last become fully free because they are offered a choice that is made with the mature intellect. We may be socially pressured, even coerced, into some action - but the will is above coercion. Let's be very clear on this: it is an act of the will rather than any religious action or societal connection that makes someone a Christian.

Circumcision is neither here nor there for the Christian, just as bloodline is irrelevant. The "circumcision of the heart" takes place when a person exercises her will and chooses to separate herself to God, worshipping only him. This kind of circumcision is visible only in its results: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness.

So God hasn't changed his mind at all. He has only brought us from the concrete to the concept that underlies it; from the action to the intent; from the communal to the individual. The onlooking world could see that the Jew's hope and chief joy was linked to belonging to God, but the message is taken from the picture to the word in Christianity: our hope and chief joy IS God. We belong to him, body and soul and spirit - not because he has power over us, but because he loves us to his own hurt, and we have chosen him.

The God of the Bible is not prim or proper. He doesn't lift his robe and tiptoe around the messy awkwardness of human cultures. He allows himself to be revealed piece-meal to our imperfect understanding. Dear, wise God!

1 comment:

joeyanne said...

I just have to say: I LOVE this!!! Thanks for writing it.