Sunday, June 20, 2010

Genesis 17:1-14's Centrality of Circumcision in Judaism (and at least in its essence, in Christianity and a well-ordered world)

Although chapter 12’s faithful response to God’s call and promises (from out of Babylon) and chapter 22’s faithful response to God’s command (the binding of Isaac) are key, Chapter 17’s covenant of circumcision is central—both literally and figuratively.

Here are the details of the literal claim: Kass notes the “chiastic” structure of Abraham’s 11 trials—four sets of “bookends” which bring attention to circumcision at the center. Trials 1&11 are chs. 12/22’s adventures complying with commands to go somewhere the Lord will designate once he starts on the trip (to Canaan/Moriah). Trials 2&9 are trouble in Egypt/Gerar with Pharaoh/Abimelech (chs. 12/20); while trials 3&10 are trouble with potential heirs, Lot/Ishmael (chs. 13/21). Trials 4&8 are Lot and Sodom in danger (chs. 14/19). Trials 5&7 are about aliens, justice and hospitality—Sarah’s harsh treatment of Hagar vs. Abraham’s hospitality toward the visitors (chs. 16/18). And then, it’s trial 6 on circumcision here.

So, chapter 17 is the trial in the middle—the sixth out of 11—and it is key to understanding what God wants from Abraham in both general terms (faithful obedience) and in specific terms (being passionately involved in paternity and transmission of an authentic faith). As such, I’m looking forward to teaching on this tonight. In a word, I cannot imagine a more appropriate text for Father’s Day.

God “appears” to start the events of chapter 17. It’s been 13 years since Ch. 16's troublesome episode with Hagar. It’s also been about 13 years since the birth of Ishmael—who they considered the son of God’s promise. (Soon, they will learn that the child of promise is to come through Sarah—Isaac!)

In broad terms, there is a reiterated need for faith (Gen 17:4,9). But there is now a far-greater emphasis on the works that should emanate from faith. Prior to this, Abram has received promises and commands to go—but nothing (directly) on how to live.

In particular, Kass points to the importance of fatherhood—and conveying that to Abram: “Fatherhood is more than siring…Now that Abram has a son [approaching maturity], the crucial task of perpetuation begins in earnest, and Abram must be shown what is required…Proper paternity requires, first of all, a proper orientation toward the divine—the theme of Abram’s central adventure and trial. As Ishmael approaches young manhood (age 13), God, looking to the future, appears to Abram.”

Why now? God is probably responding to Abram’s (unstated) reaction to Ishmael turning 13—looking to some initiation of Ishmael into manhood, likely thru some local/cultural rite of passage. If so, God is looking to specify the style/substance of this rite and to transform/redeem its meaning.

In Gen 17:1, God exhorts Abram to "walk before” Him and to "be blameless" (Ps 101:2,7). The former can be construed as "walk with me" (Gen 5:22, 6:8-9)—as Abram had for 24 years (Eph 4:1). But literally, the phrase means “to My face”. Kass paraphrases this as “in my presence; in my sight; under my protection”. The latter is tamin which also implies wholehearted and undivided—or Kass defines it, “wholly oriented with the Lord and wholly committed to His way”.

The combination is noteworthy. Both stem from an intimate relationship with God and a belief that in doing so, we is doing what is in our best interests. These also address larger issues earlier in Genesis: the “not goodness” of humans (in 1:26-30); the appropriate limits on human freedom; an answer to the (internal and external) conflict and division sown in Gen 3; and deals with human pride/disposition and purpose/direction (Gen 4-11). But beyond this great(er) general call to Abram, nothing is specified (yet).

Gen 17:2-8 lays out the covenant, with a brief intro in 17:2 and 17:3a’s Abram falling facedown in silence. His response is a simple but profound expression of awe/reverence, humility, and gratitude. Again, Kass: “Yet he does not flee in fear and dread; Abram holds his place if not his standing. He acknowledges that is it hard to do what he has been asked to do, but at the same time, he affirms his wish to do it.”

Interestingly, this is the first time Abram has responded like this. Why? It may point to the (growing) depth of their relationship. At the least, it indicates that he is “struck by the moment”—perhaps especially after such a long wait since he last heard from God, or perhaps with a growing sense that the covenant would not be fulfilled in the way he had been expecting.

In 17:4 for God's "as for me..." takes us back to God’s side of things—after introducing the implied conditions for Abram. In 17:5, Abram's name is changed, implying God's dominion (Rev 2:17; imagine someone changing your name as an adult!) and signaling a new beginning. Interestingly, two of the three patriarchs receive name changes from God—and the name of the third, Isaac, was given directly by God. Abram’s name meant “exalted father”—and is changed to Abraham, "father of a multitude". The focus of his name is now on his identity as the father of a (Jewish) nation—on offspring vs. ancestry, future vs. past.

Of course, all of this is with only one child in hand—and ironically, Ishmael rather than the child of promise, Isaac. As such, Abraham likely interprets 17:5b's "have made you..." as past tense thru Ishmael—rather than as the done deal it is for Isaac in the near-future (as well as other kids in Gen 25:2, and eventually us [Gal 3:16-18’s “seed”]).

Two other little things: there are 18 2nd-person pronouns in this passage (vs. 10 1st-person), using the narrative to prefigure the multiplication of “you’s”. And God has literally enlarged Abraham’s name by adding the letter H (the letter most associated with God’s primary name, Yahweh)!

Gen 17:7-8's “everlasting” is applied to the covenant and the land/possession. Such promises certainly mean more to a guy with kids. But this seems to be more conditional on man's obedience (17:9-14; Dt 28:62-63's prophecy; Jer 31:31-34). As such, Gen 17:14's cut off (so to speak) if disobedient (again, conditional; see: Ex 4:24,26!) says, in essence, cut it off or be cut off; be cut on or get cut off.

Gen 17:2 had said "between me and you". In Gen 17:9-14, we turn to the specifics of Abram's part of the deal: circumcision—and implicitly but importantly, remembering and communicating thru the generations. In a sense, God isn’t asking much—but at least for this first generation, in another sense, he’s asking a lot!

Kass contrasts this with God’s covenant with Noah: “Unlike the rainbow, the sign of God’s earlier covenant with Noah and all life after the Flood—which addressed only the preservation of life rather than its moral or spiritual character and which accordingly demanded nothing from man in return…”

Gen 17:12-13a defines "every" as all born or bought and going forward, doing this at eight days old. Spiritually, this would insure that a Sabbath had passed. Physically, we don’t have Vitamin K until Day 8; babies are now given clotting factors to do this. An adult would have no memory of his own, but would be instrumental in doing the same to/for his own son. (Thus, this means more to a father; more later). Ishmael is brought into the covenant, but given the age detail, Burton Visotzky notes that “the command seems designed for one who is yet to arrive on the scene.”

Finally, Gen 17:23,26's immediacy points to Abraham’s faithful obedience in something that was difficult for him and his household.

OK, so why circumcision?!

Some simple reasons: It required shedding of blood; it promoted good health (at least in that time); and as a common rite, it would promote nation-making for Israel.

One larger reason: it will serve as a sign of obedience and signify that one belongs to God's people. (This is akin to putting on the team uniform with baptism in NT times.) Alec Motyer: “he was literally, a ‘marked man’, the man to whom the Lord had made his covenanted promises and who carried the sign and proof of it on his own body.” And it was a daily reminder. As Cahill wryly notes: “It is impossible for any man to forget his penis.” But even in OT times, it was meant to be more “internal” than external—as a symbol of "circumcision of the heart". It is oft-overlooked that such an application is in the OT (Dt 10:16, 30:6's prophecy, Jer 4:3-4a), not just the NT (e.g., Rom 2:25-29a, 4:11-12).

Now for the big finale. The pagan used the same rite at the time of puberty—as here, incidentally and ironically, for only Ishmael and his peers. It may have symbolized human sacrifice. It was certainly a male rite of passage into society which pointed to the youth’s new sexual potency.

But Kass notes that for Israel, it had “a new and nearly opposite meaning: An initiation rite of passage of young males into adult masculinity is transformed into a paternal duty regarding the male newborn. Israel’s covenant with God begins by transforming the meaning of male sexuality and manliness altogether…It celebrates not sexual potency but procreation and (especially) perpetuation.”

And more broadly, this point to an elevated role for parents, esp. fathers. Again, Kass: “Though it is the child who bears the mark, the obligation falls rather on the parents; it is a perfect symbol of the relation between the generations, for the deeds of the parents are always inscribed…into the lives of their children. The obligation of circumcision calls fathers to the paternal task (from the beginning)…”

Thus, it is a divine command/covenant, rather than a social convention. It circumcises their own pride and underlines that children are a gift from God. (For Abraham, it’s ironic that just after he’s told to cut off part of his penis, he’s told in Gen 17:15-18 that he’ll father the child of promise thru Sarah!) It reminded them that bearing a child was easier than the more important task of raising a child well (starting with circumcision). It reminded them, more broadly, that “the sins/deeds of the fathers” are often “visited upon their sons”. It ratified their own circumcision, underlines generational impact and importance of transmission of their faith. It was both individual and communal—and both temporal and historical (pointing all the way back to Abraham—who was called and who sought to walk before God wholeheartedly).

But why males only (giving and receiving this)? It certainly alludes to male headship (properly defined). Nothing is required of females—although the promised blessings are extended to all (Gal 3:28). And women are still included here, at least in their acquiescence—submitting to God and husband. As Kass notes, this too is an important lesson: It is “Not the maternal ties of blood, but the divine bond of covenant [that] gives the child his deepest identity.”

The bottom line is that extra inducement was—and generally is—needed for men. Kass: “Freed by nature from the consequences of their sexuality, probably less fitted and less interested by nature than women for the work of nurture and rearing, men need to be acculturated to the work of transmission. Virility and potency are, from the Bible’s point of view, much less important than decency, righteousness, and holiness. The father is recalled to this teaching and, accordingly, symbolically remakes his son’s masculinity.”

May this challenge all fathers this day—and always—to fight for glorious marriages and to be passionately involved with their children. The most common option—so often seen in Genesis and ever since—is silence and passivity.


At June 21, 2010 at 10:43 AM , Blogger William Lang said...

it promoted good health (at least in that time)

It's not clear if this is true, from what I've read. Would you have any sources for this?

At June 21, 2010 at 12:34 PM , Blogger PianoMom said...

Here's some info from a quick google search.

In my opinion, benefits of the procedure (eg. decreased risk of cancer) clearly outweigh risks. Circumcision promotes good health now (as then), although "good hygiene" can evidently prevent disease to a certain degree as well.

At June 21, 2010 at 12:43 PM , Blogger Eric Schansberg said...

Thanks PM! From what I've understood, it's a slam dunk that it was a net-positive then-- and probably a net-positive, generally, today too.

At June 21, 2010 at 6:32 PM , Blogger William Lang said...

What I've read is that it decreases the risk of penile cancer by a factor of 3 or more. But that's a fairly rare illness, and the health risks of the circumcision itself (in pre-modern times) must have been greater (but still low). Circumcision lowers the risk of HIV infection and other sexually transmitted diseases (but not all STDs). But sex with an infected person is still high risk (including for HIV). And it's important to bear in mind that the only effective means of avoiding STDs—then and now—is abstinence outside of marriage and faithfulness in marriage.

It may be that the reason for circumcision is not medical but is instead cultural—it effectively separated the Israelites from their neighbors, and therefore strengthened Israel's identity as a chosen people. Here, it is necessary to recall that for Christians, this practice is no longer needed: as Paul says in Galatians, all are equal in Christ, including Greek and Jew as well as slave and free, and men and women.

My own belief is that circumcision is fairly innocuous, but I am uncomfortable with it being done to infants or in any other context where consent is not possible.

At June 21, 2010 at 9:17 PM , Blogger Hugh7 said...

William Lang is on the right track, but understates the case against circumcision.

Penile cancer is very rare, rarer than breast cancer in men (but we don't consider cutting off baby boys' breasts, even though they'll never need them), rarer in non-circumcising Denmark than the US. The HIV and STD claims are still debatable and not nearly strong enough to make the case for it - especially where those diseases are not rampant among heterosexuals.

Paul was very much against religious circumcision for Christians, going as far as to say "if you become circumcised, Christ will profit you nothing" (Gal 5:2)

90 boys died from tribal circumcision in one province of South Africa alone last year, and 22 more in the last few weeks, and there is Talmudic discussion of how many brothers must die before a boy is excused circumcision. We don't actually have any good figures for the death rate from surgical circumcision (doctors don't exactly rush forward to claim responsibility) and lesser complications are also underreported.

His final point about consent is also an excellent one. This is not "a decision parents have to make for their children" and most Christian parents in the world never consider it. In the rest of the English-speaking world, they tried it, found it did no good, and have virtually given it up.

At June 21, 2010 at 10:07 PM , Blogger Eric Schansberg said...

Back to the primary point of the post: circumcision was religious between Abraham/Israel and God. And, at least this was new to me, it was cultural in getting the father involved (much more heavily) in the raising of children.

It is certainly not necessary for Christians-- either religiously or in this cultural sense. Whether it is practical is, apparently, debatable.

As for the consent of a child, I smiled when you said it left you uncomfortable. Just think about all the things we do for/to kids that are without their consent-- whether the one-year old who cannot speak or the 11-year old who speaks all too well/poorly.

At June 21, 2010 at 11:05 PM , Blogger PianoMom said...

Although some make the decision based on religious paradigm, I can honestly say that our choice was purely out of concern for our sons' health. If I can decrease my boys' chance of getting cancer (of any type, no matter how rare) by doing a noninvasive, practically harmless intervention, I am going to opt for it. I was more concerned about the vaccinations they received as babies than cutting a little skin.

Also, I wasn't sure if I would be able to do "proper hygiene" on the area in question, or whether my boys would do it for themselves when they were older, which would put them "at risk".

In any case, Eric, some new/interesting angles on the meaning of OT physical circumcision. I can't say it's something I've ever really understood or thought much about.

"The father is recalled to this teaching and, accordingly, symbolically remakes his son’s masculinity" -- good quote.
Dads are so important!


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