Saturday Meditations, Biblical Ethics, Pt. II – Circumcision

I was originally going to knock all these case studies out once per day over the last week, but because of the events in Las Vegas, I decided I and everyone else needed some breathing room from, well, everything else.  National tragedies are not the appropriate times for broadcasting one’s theological thoughts on completely unrelated topics.

The second case study I want to look at is circumcision for Gentile converts.  While there is a lot of data on circumcision in both Scripture and midrash, there is very little about Gentile conversion.  Almost all of it comes from midrash examining the Old Testament stories of Gentile conversions.

There are, however, a couple of places where the matter is addressed directly in Scripture.  First, the institution of circumcision found in Genesis 17:

God said to Abraham, “As for you, you shall keep my covenant, you and your offspring after you throughout their generations. This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and your offspring after you: Every male among you shall be circumcised. You shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and you. Throughout your generations every male among you shall be circumcised when he is eight days old, including the slave born in your house and the one bought with your money from any foreigner who is not of your offspring. Both the slave born in your house and the one bought with your money must be circumcised. So shall my covenant be in your flesh an everlasting covenant. Any uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin shall be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant.”

Genesis 17:9-14 (NRSV, emphasis mine)

Here, we see that the sign of circumcision is given to Abraham and his descendants, but also people who are not Abraham’s descendants who are slaves, even foreigners.  Anyone who will not be circumcised will be removed from the covenant people.

The actual law for dealing with Gentile converts, however, comes from Exodus 12, the institution of the Passover, in which a “mixed crowd” leaves Egypt with Israel (12:38):

The Lord said to Moses and Aaron: This is the ordinance for the passover: no foreigner shall eat of it, but any slave who has been purchased may eat of it after he has been circumcised; no bound or hired servant may eat of it. It shall be eaten in one house; you shall not take any of the animal outside the house, and you shall not break any of its bones. The whole congregation of Israel shall celebrate it. If an alien who resides with you wants to celebrate the passover to the Lord, all his males shall be circumcised; then he may draw near to celebrate it; he shall be regarded as a native of the land. But no uncircumcised person shall eat of it; there shall be one law for the native and for the alien who resides among you.

Exodus 12:43-49 (NRSV, emphasis mine)

Here, foreigners who want to participate in Israel’s religion become circumcised, and then they are treated as native Israelites.  We know this law was written some time after the events the Exodus describes because it refers to them being “regarded as a native of the land,” which obviously means the settled Promised Land, not the Egypt of Exodus 12.

Nevertheless, the instructions from God are very clear.  As long as a foreigner is uncircumcised, they are treated as a foreigner.  To be considered as an Israelite in Israel’s religion, they had to be circumcised, and then they were considered a native Jew.  And if the Israelites purchased slaves (slavery will be a later Case Study), they were expected to be circumcised.

The sign of circumcision marked you as a faithful Israelite, even if you were a Gentile.  Outside of that sign were the outsiders and pagans, even if you were an ethnic Jew.  If you were a descendant of Abraham and were not circumcised, you would be cut off from your people.

Jesus does not address the issue other than to experience circumcision (Luke 2:21).  Some urge us that, if Jesus does not address an issue directly, we should assume he has the traditional Jewish view of the issue and, if we go that route, we would conclude that Jesus believed that circumcision was the necessary sign of the covenant, both for Jews and for faithful Gentiles who wanted to convert.

There are no Scriptures prior to the experience of the apostles later in the first century that tell us that circumcision is meant to be something temporary or only apply to Jewish people.  There are no Scriptures that tell us that circumcision becomes a matter of indifference.  In this respect, circumcision is an even stricter case than the Sabbath, because Jesus had a fair amount of things to say that mitigated strict observance of Sabbath laws.  Here, on this topic, we have none of his words.  We have no reason, from the Old Testament Scriptures or the Gospels, to believe that circumcision for both Jews and Gentiles is no longer a required act to belong to the covenant people.

Then we get to Acts and various epistles in the New Testament, and here’s where the ethics begin to take a turn.  Once again, to take the position that Gentile converts do not need to be circumcised is entirely against the Bible up to this point.  It is not a debatable issue, and both the texts and historical, orthodox practice are quite clear on the subject.

However, in Acts 15, we find that the advocates for the biblical position in verse 1 run afoul of Paul and Barnabas.  Paul and Barnabas have actually been evangelizing among the Gentiles, and they argue with the Scripture-quoters.  And on what grounds?  Other Scriptures?  Exegetical grounds?  No, as we’ll see in a moment, they argue solely from their witness of the historical circumstances of the people of God at the time.

Well, Paul, Barnabas, and various other key types head up to Jerusalem to discuss this issue, and there was much debate, according to verse 6.

Whoa, wait a second.

“Much debate?”

What is there to debate about?  There are a very small number of passages that deal with this issue and they clearly come down on a certain side of the issue.  It is interesting and informative that the Bible itself records that the church had much debate on an issue that was so clear and settled from a Scriptural point of view.  While someone at the Council might have said, “Look, the Bible clearly spells out what Gentile converts are supposed to do.  We are never told it’s ok to do anything else, or that we shouldn’t do this anymore.  It’s settled.  We’re done, here,” that’s not what those holy and inspired apostles actually did.  They debated and weighed the arguments and tried to figure out what to do with this new wrinkle in church history.

And keep in mind, Gentile converts are not new.  There were Gentile converts when the laws were written.  Gentile conversion had been around for a few thousand years and the Bible’s position on it never changed.  So, what did change?  What made an otherwise settled issue suddenly up for “much debate?”  Well, let’s hear from the apostles.

After there had been much debate, Peter stood up and said to them, “My brothers, you know that in the early days God made a choice among you, that I should be the one through whom the Gentiles would hear the message of the good news and become believers. And God, who knows the human heart, testified to them by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as he did to us; and in cleansing their hearts by faith he has made no distinction between them and us. Now therefore why are you putting God to the test by placing on the neck of the disciples a yoke that neither our ancestors nor we have been able to bear? On the contrary, we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.”

Acts 15:7-11 (NRSV, emphasis mine)

Peter has zero Scriptural or exegetical evidence in his argument.  And of course he doesn’t; what verses speak to this subject are very clear.  There is no way Peter can take those verses and somehow make circumcision for Gentiles a matter of indifference.

Peter’s argument, instead, is experiential.  He’s been ministering to the Gentiles, they believe, and they receive the Holy Spirit just like the Jews did without having to be circumcised, first.  Obviously, then, circumcision is unnecessary.  And not only unnecessary – if the Council decides to require it, they aren’t just being conservative on a matter of indifference – they are “putting God to the test.”  They are sinning, according to Peter.

Well, from an exegetical perspective, this is pretty unimpressive.  Peter is just arguing from his experience.  “I ministered to Gentiles.  God gave them the same Spirit we have.  They did have to have faith before He did, but they didn’t have to be circumcised before He did.  So, once they had faith as we did, there’s obviously no distinction between us, so circumcision is just giving God the finger in this case.”

Maybe the great theologian Paul will lay down some awesome exegetical work to help us see the Law differently.  Hit us with it, Paul!

The whole assembly kept silence, and listened to Barnabas and Paul as they told of all the signs and wonders that God had done through them among the Gentiles.

Acts 15:12 (NRSV)

Um… what?  Hey, can you call Romans Paul over here?  Maybe some cool fusion of argumentation from the Old Testament being fulfilled in Jesus with the truths plain in natural revelation?  Maybe something that helps us understand the Law in a different way?

No, what Paul has to offer you on this issue at this point is just the observation that, like Peter, he and Barnabas had been ministering to the Gentiles and saw the same, amazing things.

Paul and Peter know what the Bible says on this issue.  They believe the Bible.  They love the Bible.  They aren’t sin-loving liberals trying to weasel out of an inconvenient practice.  They know what the Law says to do, but they also know what they’ve experienced among the Gentiles, who through faith have been cleansed in their hearts and received the Spirit with no further steps.  They did not need circumcision, nor are they encouraged to receive circumcision after conversion as a step of faithful obedience.  In fact, they are discouraged from it (by Peter, at least).

James, then, makes the final decision, and for the first time, we see some Old Testament.  But James does not use the Old Testament to back up reasoning on circumcision; he uses the Old Testament to explain that Gentiles are being incorporated into the people of God, and this fits with Old Testament expectations.  So, what are the steps of faithful obedience James wants to hold them to?

Therefore I have reached the decision that we should not trouble those Gentiles who are turning to God, but we should write to them to abstain only from things polluted by idols and from fornication and from whatever has been strangled and from blood. For in every city, for generations past, Moses has had those who proclaim him, for he has been read aloud every sabbath in the synagogues.

Acts 15:19-20 (NRSV)

This is basically a summary of the Noahide Laws and, interestingly, includes dietary restrictions.  What’s more, James feels these are reasonable expectations because these Gentile converts should be familiar with the Law of Moses from the synagogues even in foreign lands.

Nothing about this fits a nice theological category, does it?  The distinction between “ceremonial” and “moral” laws doesn’t bail us out, because there are dietary laws still enforced in the decision.  The transition from an old covenant that no longer applies to a new covenant that is in force doesn’t help us out much, either, because James still enjoins some old covenant laws and nobody the whole time ever argued their position from a strictly theological perspective – certainly not an exegetical one.

But, in one swipe, the biblical laws about circumcision for Gentiles are overturned, and word spreads fast.  Instances of Gentile circumcision drop into virtual nonexistence after the first century.

I hate to keep harping on this, but remember that there is NO biblical justification for the Jerusalem Council’s decision on circumcision.  Nothing from the Old Testament.  Nothing from the words of Jesus.  No prophetic visions about, I don’t know, a tablecloth full of uncircumcised Gentiles coming out of heaven for Peter to see.  Nothing.  Simply the experiences of the people ministering among the Gentiles that, even though they do not conform to biblical law, receive the Holy Spirit and have their hearts cleansed by God, and this, in the minds of the Council, obviates the need to have them comply with the Law in this respect, but still comply with the Law in other respects.

It is interesting that, in the moral reasoning of the church, today, all the dietary laws have been done away with, fulfilled by Jesus.  Obviously, we don’t think the decision of the apostles in Acts 15 is relevant to us, which raises another issue on moral reasoning in the church.  We theologized our way right out of an apostolic commandment.  I’m not saying we were wrong to do so; I just want to bring to your attention that James and the Council he represents makes a decision that Paul and Peter also agree with that some of the dietary restrictions should be observed by new covenant Gentiles, and today, we are totally ok with ignoring that.  I eagerly await the next evangelical declaration on eating animals that have been strangled or are served with blood (watch those rare steaks, guys).

As we observe the evolution in the Bible about Gentiles becoming circumcised, we see some radical statements from Paul.  Take for instance 1 Corinthians 7:17-20:

However that may be, let each of you lead the life that the Lord has assigned, to which God called you. This is my rule in all the churches. Was anyone at the time of his call already circumcised? Let him not seek to remove the marks of circumcision. Was anyone at the time of his call uncircumcised? Let him not seek circumcision. Circumcision is nothing, and uncircumcision is nothing; but obeying the commandments of God is everything. Let each of you remain in the condition in which you were called.

1 Corinthians 7:17-20 (NRSV)

If you were circumcised when you were converted, keep it.  If you were uncircumcised when you were converted, don’t get circumcised.  Circumcision means nothing, but obeying the commandments of God is everything.

But circumcision is a commandment of God!  Quite clearly!  And even if you want to give some wiggle room to Gentiles, surely circumcising Jewish converts is a command from God!

Paul seems to think that getting circumcised or not has nothing to do with obeying God’s commands.

My point here is this: however we might explain Paul, here, one thing is clear.  The Bible up to that point explicitly has God commanding circumcision for Jews and Gentile converts.  In this letter, Paul explicitly says that circumcision is nothing, commands the uncircumcised to remain uncircumcised, and encourages them to obey God.

Whatever else we might make of this, I hope we can agree that, even within the confines of the Bible itself, moral reasoning on what the church is supposed to do at any given point in history does not and cannot limit itself to words that were written at a given point in the church’s history.

Just as clearly, this does not give license for people to do whatever they want, and the Scriptures are useful as we figure this out.  “Useful” is Paul’s word, not mine (2 Tim. 3:16) and is commensurate with one of my favorite images of the Law from the Psalms: “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.” (Psalm 119:105)  The word is not the path; the word assists me in seeing the path.  The way is the man Jesus Christ.  But I digress.

We hear more from Paul on this subject.  The issue of Gentiles being included in the people of God while many Jews reject Jesus as Messiah occupies a great amount of his letters and is pretty much the entire topic list for Galatians and Romans.  It would take a long time to survey Paul on this, so I’ll draw our attention to one particularly inflammatory moment:

Listen! I, Paul, am telling you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no benefit to you.

Galatians 5:2 (NRSV)

This is not the most inflammatory thing Paul says in Galatians.  That honor probably goes to 5:12.  But this is a rhetorically high point in Paul’s argument.  Much like at the Jerusalem Council, Paul reminds them that they received the Spirit through faith, not by observing the Law, so why do they want to start observing the Law, now?  In this chapter, Paul also gives the statement that circumcision and uncircumcision mean nothing.

In 5:2, he explicitly tells them that, if they receive circumcision, Christ will be of no benefit to them.

This is a fairly serious statement.  If a Galatian Gentile decides to be circumcised, they place themselves under the Law which will be bondage and sin to them and ultimately condemn them.  Israel had to go through that, why should Gentiles have to go through that?

But look at how far we are from God’s covenant with Abraham or God’s instructions to those foreigners who wanted to join with Israel!  We’ve gone from, “This absolutely must be done, and anyone who won’t do it will be cut off from My people,” to, “If you do this, Christ will have no value to you.”

As we look outside the scope of the Bible, what is interesting is that circumcision has, quite without the direct help of Scripture, become a matter of indifference for Gentiles.  I am circumcised (I’m sure you were all dying to know that) because of some thoughts about circumcision and health that were going around when my parents were making such decisions.  Is Christ of no value to me?  Am I now obligated to faithfully keep the Law of Moses, which will condemn me when I fail?  We kept the “circumcision is nothing, and uncircumcision is nothing” part, but we left Paul’s actual reasoning in the dust.

“Well, hold on,” you might say.  “Paul uses that rhetoric and reasoning because of the specific situation in the Galatian church.  They are looking at circumcision as necessary to be faithful to Christ, and that’s why Paul says what he says.  He’s not laying down some universal truth that, if someone removes your foreskin when you’re a baby, you’re now obligated and condemned by the Law of Moses.”

I would totally agree, but now look at what you’re doing.  You are understanding the biblical writings on an ethical issue in terms of the specific historical situation in which they were written, and that determines both validity and application.

Hold that thought.  More case studies to come.