Why Circumcision Is a Perfect Picture of the Christian Faith

Why Circumcision Is a Perfect Picture of the Christian Faith July 27, 2015

For all the awkwardness evangelical Christianity displays around the subject of sex, Yahweh sure was obsessed with both the appearance and function of the male genitalia.  One biblical story explains that out of the blue Yahweh came to kill Moses one night, ostensibly because he was so infuriated that Moses’s son (who was only half Hebrew) still had an intact foreskin. The story says:

At a lodging place on the way, the Lord met Moses and was about to kill him. But Zipporah took a flint knife, cut off her son’s foreskin and touched Moses’ feet with it [eww]. “Surely you are a bridegroom of blood to me,” she said. So the Lord let him alone. (visceral reaction mine)

Yahweh could have chosen anything to identify his people as his own, and of all the possibilities, he chose circumcision to be their identity marker. From a literary standpoint, this makes the character of God in the Old Testament at least a little bit creepy, if not grotesque. But then again, they say the higher the initial cost of entrance into a community, the greater will be the retention of its members (ahem).

Christians are fond of saying that we are intelligently designed. I wonder if they feel the same way about the male foreskin?  Is that a part of our intelligent design?  Did God create Adam with a foreskin only to turn around and decide it was gross?

Fundamentalists are fond of debating whether or not Adam had a belly button. I think a much better question is: Did Adam have a foreskin? If he did (hypothetically speaking), what ramifications would that have for circumcision as a symbol of becoming pleasing to God?

If you believe Adam was a real historical person, and if you believe that he had the same genetic make-up as the rest of his descendants, then you cannot turn around and say this extraneous anatomical feature was a consequence of “The Fall.” And yet the elimination of that feature became a central metaphor for Christian spirituality the moment Paul decided to appropriate it for the rest of the non-Jewish followers of Jesus.

Circumcision Is a Perfect Metaphor for the Christian Life

For what it’s worth, I didn’t make this call, the apostle Paul did.  From a sheer marketing standpoint, this strikes me as a bad move. But then again I think Paul was stuck with a dilemma: How do you take a religion rooted in primitive barbarism, where everything hinges on the shedding of blood, and make it palatable to a larger, more sophisticated audience?  More to the point, how do you take a religious tradition which begins with cutting penises and sell that to a non-Jewish population?

Solution:  You allegorize the practice and tell people that throughout the long history of the Jewish people God was really trying to tell us that we each have a “sin nature” or a “flesh” that we need to have “cut off” by the High Priest of Heaven, presumably with the “sword of the Spirit.” True circumcision, Paul elucidates, is of the heart:

A person is not a Jew who is one only outwardly, nor is circumcision merely outward and physical. No, a person is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the written code. Such a person’s praise is not from other people, but from God.

Making the central symbol for his religion a metaphorical procedure rather than a medical one, Paul helped innovate the Christian message into something that people of all ethnicities could buy into. In so doing, he almost singlehandedly saved Christianity from historical obscurity. Fast forward to today, and you have preachers still throwing around this image like it’s an inspirational talking point:

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Think about what this is saying for a second.  The implication here is that we are born not as we should be, and we need someone else to come along and change us into what we are supposed to be. But hold on a second.  Who made us like this?  If we are “fearfully and wonderfully made” by someone other than our biological parents, why are we being blamed for what we are?

Solution: It’s not God’s fault that you’re so messed up, it’s Adam’s fault, or else it’s somehow your own (depending on which kind of church you attend). Just as the male member needs to have divine surgery performed on it before it is pleasing to God, so must human nature be fundamentally altered before it becomes something God can be proud of.

Again this leads me to ask, hypothetically speaking:  Did Adam have a foreskin?  If so, was that a good thing or a bad thing? When Yahweh saw all that he had made and he declared it “good,” was Adam sporting a turtleneck or more of a crew neck, so to speak?

A Fundamentally Anti-Human Message

I’ve written about this many times before (see my “Anti-humanism: How Evangelicalism Taught Me the Art of Self-Loathing“). I see at the heart of the Christian message a fundamental flaw which sees human beings as essentially broken (see also “We Are Not Broken“), needing to be fixed. But if anything is fundamentally broken, it’s the narrative that requires seeing human beings in the worst possible light, dependent upon a derivative goodness wherein someone else always has to swoop in and save us from ourselves, wretched things that we are. Any message which says that we deserve to be thrown onto a burning trash pile just for being ourselves is a bad message, and it’s not good news.

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To me, this is why circumcision is a perfect metaphor for the Christian message. It takes an invasive and violent image, one which requires the shedding of blood, and it tells you that something which is completely natural to you must be cut off in order for you to become pleasing to God. “Come just as you are,” they say at the start.  But listen just a little longer and you’ll learn that behind the initial invitation is another invitation to sacrifice who you are on the altar of a God who does not approve of you as you are. That’s dishonest marketing, but I suppose I repeat myself.

I’m not buying it anymore. I’ve been there and done that. At this point I already bear the scars, metaphorically speaking.  The sales pitch doesn’t work on people like me, and I’ll be damned if I don’t call out this sleight of hand for what it is. It’s a trap.

[Image source: The Gospel Coalition]

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