The Politics of Abraham’s Foreskin

I have a new post up on Political Theology Today:

The raw physicality of the covenant sign may come as a shock to those with delicate sensibilities. Perhaps it is for this reason that this week’s lection elides the part of the passage that speaks of it. Yet the fact that this foundational text pays so much attention to the foreskin of Abraham and to the womb of Sarah is a matter worthy of reflection. In opening the womb of Sarah and claiming Abraham’s flesh and sexual agency with the rite of circumcision, the bodies of Abraham, Sarah, and their descendants came to bear and to perpetuate covenant meaning.

As Paul Kahn has observed, the story of Abraham in Genesis punctures a liberal myth of the separation of private and public, of sex and politics.[1] God’s claiming of the flesh and sexual agency of Abraham and Sarah ensures that the intergenerational project of the family can be one that sustains covenant purpose and identity and yields the promise that Abraham and Sarah will become a great nation. Sexual relations—on account of their procreative potential—are a vocation in service of a higher public purpose, turned towards the task of (re)producing covenantal and societal meaning. It is out of the love and calling of the family that politics grows: the promise of the nation cannot be detached from the claiming of the foreskin and the opening of the womb. Those who refused the covenant claim upon their sexual organ were excluded from the covenant project (v.14).

Read the whole thing here.

About Alastair Roberts

Alastair Roberts (PhD, Durham University) writes in the areas of biblical theology and ethics, but frequently trespasses beyond these bounds. He participates in the weekly Mere Fidelity podcast, blogs at Alastair’s Adversaria, and tweets at @zugzwanged.
This entry was posted in Bible, Genesis, Guest Post, OT, Politics, Sex and Sexuality, Society. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to The Politics of Abraham’s Foreskin

  1. quinnjones2 says:

    Hi Alastair,
    I have just re-read your post on PTT and I think its interesting and compelling. I am neither a theologian nor a politician, and I would not have read anything on PTT had it not been for your links to your posts on that site. I am interested as a Christian, mother, grandmother, friend, neighbour, citizen…some things which are regarded by some as private matters actually affect and concern us all.
    I do have a couple of questions about your post and I will come to them later.
    First I have to say that, though I had given thought to circumcision before reading your post, I had never thought of its significance in the context of Abraham’s covenant relationship with God, and I am thankful for these words:
    ‘God’s claiming of the flesh and secular agency of Abraham and Sarah ensures that the inter-generational project of the family can be one that sustains covenant purpose and identity and yields the promise that Abraham and Sarah will become a great nation.’
    ‘Pornography’s vision is one of freedom from the responsibility of sex as the generation of meaning. It is a willful assertion, albeit an impotent one, of our sexual autonomy.’
    So now here are my questions about circumcision:
    Given that God created Abraham with a foreskin, why did he then command Abraham and his descendants to have their foreskins removed? Could the covenant not have been divine without this surgery? [ I am mindful that God is God – and who am I to ask this question?!]
    Why do Christians no longer regard circumcision as part of their covenantal relationship with God? On a different subject – I am not suffering from insomnia, having slept for at least six hours:-)

    • Good questions!

      There are various reasons I can suggest for God asking Abraham to remove a created foreskin. First, in creating us God gives us our bodies. Circumcision is in part an acknowledgment of this gift through returning a part of our flesh to God, recognizing and declaring in the process that all belongs to him. Had Abraham not been created with a foreskin, he could never have returned this token. Second, the flesh is symbolically associated with sin and blood must be shed to atone for it. Circumcision as a rite involves blood in part for this reason.

      We no longer practice circumcision for various reasons. First, the promised seed has come in Christ, so we no longer need practice the sign of the promise of this seed. Second, the sinful flesh was decisively cut off at the cross—the ‘circumcision of Christ’—and no longer needs to be symbolically cut off in the foreskin. Third, the covenant has in Christ been extended to those who are not physically descendants of Abraham, so circumcision is no longer a sign of membership. Fourth, our bodies are symbolically rendered to God in baptism. Baptism involves water rather than blood because blood has already been provided at the cross and now we need only wash.

  2. quinnjones2 says:

    Thank you! That’s clear and I ‘get it’, I think.
    I had a couple of ‘aha’ moments as I read your second paragraph:
    – the ‘circumcision of Christ’ – I remembered St. Paul writing about ‘circumcision of the heart’
    – ‘the covenant has in Christ been extended to those who are not physically descendants of Abraham…’ so continuation of the rite of circumcision for descendants of Abraham could have been divisive
    Another thought has occurred to me now – I wonder if the circumcision rite might also have been a test of faith, obedience and endurance for Abraham, though by no means as severe a test as being asked to sacrifice Isaac.

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