Redeeming Circumcision

I’ve been wondering lately how weird it is that Yahweh commanded Abraham and his male descendants to mutilate their genitals. Richard Beck writes about the transition of circumcision of the penis to the ears:

What I find of interest here is how circumcision is a deliberate act of setting something apart, an act of consecration. Which is interesting given the anatomical relationship between ears and heart. A relationship that I think the prophets were getting at.

The ears function as gate-keepers. If the ears are “closed” then nothing gets to the heart. Thus the shift to the ears, as I see it, is a temporal shift of focus. That is, there is something in the immediate and initial reaction to the Word of God that is picked out by pointing to the ears. A reference to the ears is pointing out something about your reaction right here and right now. Like when you are talking to someone and you say, “You are not listening to me.” To be sure, this refusal to listen is a matter of the heart, but the reference to the ears changes the emphasis. This is a a shift from “their hearts are far from me”–which points to a chronic condition of waning affections, a falling out of love–to the more acute and immediate assessment of “I’m talking to you but you’re not listening to me.” Resistance in the moment is being pointed out. Someone is talking and you’re sticking your fingers in your ears.

via Experimental Theology: Circumcised Ears.

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  • It’s a very “Christian” thing to do to regard certain prophet passages as a negation of cultic ritual. However, circumcision as a significant cultic rite does not “transition” in these poetic passages, rather the prophets use a tangible metaphor as a tool of their rhetoric.

    Also, it is very nice to view circumcision as a way of “concecrating” a people, but a real significant part of the ritual was to appease the god who desired the life of the child but who would be satisfied with the foreskin (a theme repeated throughout the Hebrew Bible!).

    • Ric Shewell

      I don’t know if Beck is necessarily saying the “transition” negates the ritual. But I think he’s inline with Paul and the idea that the physical circumcision is void without the spiritual circumcision.

    • Nathan


      this was really interesting to me. I think of that strange story of Moses and his wife. I’ve never understood it.

      Do you have some recommended source material that explores this idea, or at least sketches it?

  • Craig

    History is littered with the ritualistic slicing and chopping of male genitalia. It just so happened that the more parts you took off the less likely it was for the ritual to persist.

  • Patrick

    So if the prophets shift this to the ears, then we could certainly say that Jesus shifts it again to the eyes. That life in Christ is not just about hearing, but also SEEING God, SEEING the other, and SEEING God present IN the other. Jesus was constantly opening people’s eyes (literally); healing blindness. He opened the eyes of the two disciples in the Emmaus story. He opened Paul’s eyes and gave him new sight. So could we say that whereas the prophets cry was, “Shema (hear)!” Jesus’ cry was to SEE God living and present among us, then and now?

  • Mich

    “Listen with the ears of your heart.”
    –St. Benedict

  • Lee P.

    I am glad you posted about this. Let’s just be frank about this. The fact that the creator of the Universe supposedly made a deal with his people to cut off the skin-ends from their wieners is just as bizarre and odd as anything in any other wacky cult.

    If this ritual were not in the Old Testament at all, but was in some other religion that compete with adherents worldwide with Christianity, wouldn’t Christians rightfully point out the absurdity of God ordered willy-mutilation?

    This is my struggle as a new Christian. Christianity combines massive beauty, truth, community and love with some of the (seemingly) silliest, most bizarre horseshit imaginable.

  • Vickie

    I agree with you, Lee.
    And should anyone be trying to redeem circumcision when females are so brutalized by FGM? I understand that male circumcision is so “normal” now that medical studies say it can help prevent the spread of HIV, but I also know a doctor who said that after working as an OBGYN in a major hospital, she will never again perform a circumcision. She was extremely disturbed by the anguish of the babies and wondered how that traumatic experience during infancy affected men subconsciously throughout their lives.

    • Ayin

      Vickie, you may be interested to know that a certain Dr. Kellogg popularized circumcision for infants and recommended no anesthetic. He was a zealous crusader against masturbation and wanted little boys to associate genital contact with pain and distress to make them less likely to masturbate as when they got older.

      You don’t even want to know what he recommended for female children.

  • No matter how ancient, no matter how beautiful the ceremony around it, no matter how much people have suffered for it, no matter how much it is perceived as binding people to their ancestors, no matter how divinely commanded – what is happening at the centre of this is that a baby is held down and part of his or her genitals are cut off, and they stay cut off for the rest of that person’s life, whether he or she likes it or not. More and more are saying they don’t like it. Sooner or later we, the human species, will rise above the wish to cut parts off babies’ genitals, and it might as well be sooner. Why not now?

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