Thursday, May 25, 2006

Wherefore Peritomen?

Sorry for the (intentional) obfuscation in the title. But I warn you: the following discussion is probably for guys only, as it's something to which only men can relate: circumcision (peritomen being the Koine Greek word for it). Specifically, the act of circumcision as required by Mosaic law of all Hebrew males. More to the point: Why, specifically, circumcision? What about that particular act made it special to God?

My thinking of this was recently spurred on by an all-male group study of Romans. We started getting a bit... antsy in the pantsy... if you will, when Paul began talking about "the circumcised" (the Jews) and "the uncircumcised" (the Gentiles). While I've thought of it before, we all were trying to consider the reason why God would demand first of Abraham and then of all his descendants that their male children all be circumcised -- why not a tattoo, or a garment of some sort, or maybe some other symbolic gesture of some sort. Why incise the foreskin of the penis? It just boggles the mind that God would be so interested in our hoo-hoo-dillies.

First, though, let us consider: what was circumcision intended for? Very clearly, Genesis 17:11 says that it was to be "a sign of the covenant between [God] and [Abraham]". Did the circumcision make Abraham righteous? Of course not. Paul himself makes this very clear in Romans 3, and even in Genesis 15:6, Abraham was declared righteous before God, before circumcision entered into the picture. It was a symbol, a symbol of the covenant -- a mark upon a People whom God declared to be special. So, when I read in Romans "the circumcised", I read "the people who God deemed special". It served as a reminder to the male Hebrews: you are special, you are marked by God. Behave accordingly.

Ok, so now we have a reason as to why there was at least an act or sign to separate them. But why that specific act? Here's my thoughts: what if it had been a tattoo, or a piece of clothing, or something else? First, those are all obvious, outward signs. Many cultures, or groups within cultures, have adopted certain affectations like this, to set themselves apart. And I suspect such obvious, outward symbols have universally been met with jealousy, scorn, and derision -- at least in the long term. People don't like to be reminded that you consider them inferior in some way. Even a tattoo is likely to be seen by others. Moreover, all of those symbols can be falsified in some way -- someone can wear a uniform, or someone can paint a tattoo on themselves, and at least superficially pass for a member of the selected class, since it is an outward sign. But what if you, as the person dictating this requirement, wanted your followers to not boast about the sign? Then you'd have them put the sign somewhere that nobody would ever see it.

Now, on a man, where is one place that a mark may be made that no-one would ever see? That's right, north of the kneecaps, south of the navel. Think on this: when it comes to male nudity, that is the only area that seems nearly universally to be deemed taboo. Slaves (ancient) would work in the field stripped to the waist, but they'd wear at least a loincloth. Ever seen Sumo wrestling? The only thing that the traditional obi covers is -- you guessed it -- that region. Even the buttocks are typically bared for all the world to see. There doesn't seem to be any restrictions on what a male may wear (or not wear) on his legs, arms, chest, head, etc., but the bits and pieces must be covered at (almost) all times!

Sure, there are exceptions to this: the ancient Greeks would hold atheletic competitions in the nude, after all, and some native tribes even in the modern world seem to walk around completely exposed. Of course, exeptions do not disprove a rule -- atheletics in ancient Greece were all about exhibiting the exquisite form of the athelete, after all; and while some aborigines do not cover themselves, so many more do, without having been told to -- it's hard-wired into our genes, or our souls, at least (you may argue here that this is an evolutionary trait -- we are protecting that which allows us to reproduce -- and frankly, I'm perfectly ok with that explanation).

So God gave a symbol of His convenant to Abraham, but made it such that that symbol is placed in a spot where it would be hidden to all except the bearer of the mark, and his most intimate of associates. This meshes well with the Judeo-Christian principle of humility, I'd think. It's like God is saying: "You get to be special. You get to be better than everyone else, because I have chosen you to be my People. In fact, I want you to mark yourselves to set yourselves apart. But you're not going to want to show that mark to anyone else, are you?" God, I think, is never arbitrary, desipte what some critics would have us believe. But having infinite and boundless wisdom and acting on it might look like that to us poor mortals.

Afterthoughts: Of course, this only addresses the specific covenant between Abraham and God, to bless him and his descendants. It does not address salvation, or the necessity (or lack thereof) of Christians to be circumcised. I think Paul addresses that vastly more eloquently than I ever could, so go read the first four chapters of Romans, or a couple chapters in Galatians. I think Galatians chapter 5, in particular, nails it.



Anonymous Marty said...

Great post, Ben. Robert Alter does a lot of expository writing on Jewish topics, often in Commentary Magazine, to which I subscribe. I always enjoy his articles when they appear. He's done pieces on various aspects of Jewish law, dietary restrictions, customs, etc, all very illuminating. He has written a book on Genesis, which I have not read, but which from Googling it seems to have some discussion of circumcision.

Note that circumcision pre-dates the practice of it by the Hebrews. See

You should also check out this interesting discussion of circumcision and sexual violence:

2:05 PM  
Blogger Benjamin said...


Interesting links. I've actually seen a number of sites dedicated to "stamping out circumcision" -- and this one seems to be one of them. Not that I detect it here, but a number of them are also, either subtly or more directly, anti-semitic as well, since most people will automatically correlate circumcision with Judaism.

However, I do not care for the exegesis in that second link. Frankly, the guy seems obsessed with seeing sex wherever he can, particularly in his discussion of David and Jonathan, and the discussion of Ishmael toward the bottom. I'm willing to except that yes, perhaps certain words can have sexual undertones, in certain situations, but do they? He fails to provide any evidence that they do.

And regardless of any links between circumcision, sex, and violence, I am operating under the assumption that the Bible, both Old Testament and New, is inerrant, at least in any depiction of God's will (which I believe to be true). If it is God's will for Abraham's descendants to be circumcised, then God must have had a reason -- hence my post. And if God then felt it necessary to rescind this requirement for those "grafted in" to His people through the writings of Paul, then so be it as well.

Still, I shall have to check out Robert Alter.

3:03 PM  
Anonymous Marty said...

The two links were what I call "different takes". I really didn't read the first one outside of seeing that it was one of several sites that provided a sort of referenced history of circumcision that showed the practice pre-dating the Hebrew's practice of it. Of course, God could have instructed the Hebrews to take this practice, which maybe they themselves or some of their neighbors had practiced off and on in pre-Abrahamic days, and make it their own for all time as a sign of the covenant. The practice seems to have sunsequently died off in all near Eastern cultures except that of the Hebrews. The guy in the second link certainly did have a bug up his butt about sexual violence.

Alter is more "straight up" (excuse the pun) in his exegesis, not as driven by an agenda to drag something unusual out of the Bible.

3:32 PM  

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