The Rite of Circumcision: A Response to Dru Johnson

A piece of mine has just been published over on the Theopolis Institute’s website, in which I respond to an article by Dru Johnson. Johnson’s article argues for a close relationship between moral and ritual knowledge and I explore the particular case of circumcision in this regard.

In The Savage in Judaism, Howard Eilberg-Schwartz speaks of circumcision as a ‘fruitful cut’. He observes the way that fruit trees are spoken of as being ‘uncircumcised’ and having ‘foreskin’ (Leviticus 19:23-25). He suggests that this association implied that the tree needed to be pruned of its ‘foreskin’ for a few years before its fruit could legitimately be enjoyed. This not only made it permissible to eat from the tree, but also served its fertility. And this association illumines the meaning of circumcision too. Circumcision is a sort of pruning of the generative organ of the body, so that it might bear legitimate fruit in a well-cultivated manner. Through the ‘pruning’ of Israel’s foreskins, they cease to be a wild tree and are domesticated by God to bear fruit for him. In removing part of the body, they cease to be an untamed people and their bodies are rendered ‘whole’.

There is a sexual import of circumcision to observe here. Circumcision conscripts the sexual conduct of Abraham and his household. They must now act as a well-cultivated tree and no longer a wild one. They must not repeat the error of seeking to produce the promise through the virility of the flesh, nor must they imitate the rapacious sexuality of the Sodomites.

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, Ethics, Galatians, Genesis, Guest Post, NT, OT, Romans, Sex and Sexuality, The Sacraments, Theological. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to The Rite of Circumcision: A Response to Dru Johnson

  1. Stephen Crawford+ says:

    I think the article makes an interesting point, but maybe it’s a bit overstated. Circumcision is a formative practice; it’s doesn’t entirely depend on the right form of life having been adopted, but to a large extent inaugurates just such a life. Certainly the parents that are involved in carrying it out on their sons will learn in just the ways Dr. Johnson suggests. But they’re also teaching, giving the boy a sign that he’ll live with and be reminded by several times a day, forming his own imagination and self-understanding, hopefully in a way that gives rise to particular kinds of actions and habits–patience, gentleness, etc.

    The only part missing from this response, though, is exactly the kind of analysis that Johnson urges. It doesn’t just happen on accident that baby boys are circumcised. There’s a fair bit that goes into it. Tools, locations, the relationship of parents to their Rabbi, a cultivated respect for the traditions of Israel and the commandments of Scripture. There’s more on the frontend than Alastair acknowledges. Circumcision will be formative. But it is also itself sustained as a practice by this nation already being a particular kind of people. Hence, Johnson didn’t particularly identify ethical preparation with individual moral initiative, but with the shape of the larger community.

    I thought that baptism comparison was really helpful–and I’m more able to speak about it, since I’m a Christian priest. Baptism should be formative. Often it’s done to children before they have any idea what’s happening, and hopefully it sets in motion a particular kind of life. However, the helpful part about looking at baptism is that it fits the bill for what Alastair wants to point out, but it also invites the kind of considerations Johnson wants to urge. Infant Baptism is widely practiced in America, but often it’s not practiced very well. Often there are cultural motivations, and the inbuilt significance of the ritual goes right over people’s head. It seems to me that it can often be helpful to attend to the preparation for baptism more carefully, and that doing so can allow the ritual to be formative in the way that it’s intended to be. In our congregation, that involves working with the families and godparents–more instruction and prayer work, etc.–but also coordinating the baptism with either Easter or the Feast of Jesus’s Baptism, urging the congregation to fast on behalf of the child during Lent or Advent, having a focused time of prayer in Sunday worship for the child leading up to the baptism, all of which involves the whole community in the work of making a new Christian.

    Maybe a way to bring together Alastair’s insights with Johnson’s is to expand a bit on how it is the rituals are formative. They ought to be formative for the persons involved–the wedding for the married couple, the baptism for the new Christian, the circumcision for the Jewish boy–but they are also formative for the people as a whole. Much of that formation happens because the integrity of the rite, in a sense, demands good preparation. So the ritual influences the life of the community, perhaps you could say, as a final cause. In that sense, “center of gravity” might be a more helpful phrase than Johnson allows. There are ritual moments that are particularly heavy, and they exert a force on the rest of the community’s life and pull that life into its orbit. But then they also become the firm ground on which the community stands, and acts, and lives its life. So the influence of the ritual moves in more directions than one, which is what it seems Alastair notes.

  2. Timothy Graham says:

    Isn’t it the case that it depends on which rite one is considering whether one leans towards Johnson’s analysis of sacrifice/offering (which seems to make a lot of sense of the prophets) or your response which analyses the rites of initiation? If one looks at initiation one is bound to consider God’s initiative more emphatically, if one looks at Eucharistic ritual one is going to look at the state of the people offering the gifts (as well of course at the One in and with Whom they are offering).

  3. wpeterg says:

    May I draw your attention to the monograph by Dr Karl Deenick, a volume in the New Studies in Biblical Theology (ed. Don Carson) series? It’s entitled, “Righteous by Promise: a biblical theology of circumcision.” ISBN: 9781783596010. Also available in Logos, and various e-book formats.

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