Renewing Circumcision

When the Aaronic priests were ordained, the blood of the ram of “filling” was placed on the lobe of the right ear, the right thumb, and the right big toe (Lev. 8:22-24). Similarly, the cleansing rite for a leper included smearing the right ear lobe, thumb, and big toe with blood from the `asham (“guilt” or “reparation” offering) and then with oil (Lev. 14:25-28). These ritual uses of blood are frequently explained as consecrating the “extremities” of the priests and former lepers. Such explanations, however, fail to explain what needs to be explained, the specifics of the rite; why, if the point is to consecrate the “extremities,” should the blood (or blood and oil) be placed on the ear lobe rather than on the top of the head? Rather than seeking explanations in terms of abstract generalizations like “extremities,” it is best to explain these rites by comparison of details within the ceremonial system.

In particular, these rites may be understood in terms of two other institutions of the law. First, there is the ear-boring of the Hebrew who chooses to become a permanent slave (Ex. 21:5-6; see James Jordan’s discussion in his The Law of the Covenant). As the bloody boring of his ear sealed a man as a permanent slave, whose ears are cut open to hear his master’s voice, so the symbolic “boring” of the priests’ ear, thumb, and toe makes him a permanent household servant who is to listen to the voice of His Master, work and worship with hands consecrated to His Master’s service, and walk in his Master’s ways. The leper, who during the time of his uncleanness was separated from the Lord’s house, is restored to his place among the priestly people with a rite containing the same symbolism.

Circumcision forms the other important background to these rites. The permanent slave’s ear was “circumcised” by the ear-boring, and a priest or healed leper had his right ear lobe, thumb, and toe symbolically “circumcised.” The link with circumcision is strengthened by the fact that in both the rites of ordination and cleansing of lepers, the eighth day plays a prominent role. In the case of the leper, the “circumcision” of his ear, thumb, and toe actually took place on the climactic eighth day of the rite (Lev. 14:23). While the priests received their “circumcision” on the first day of the rite, their ordination was not complete until the eighth day, when Aaron and his sons first began to minister at the altar (Lev. 9:1).

The links between the cleansing of lepers and cleansing from corpse defilement may also be noted. The “waters of purification” prepared for the latter cleansing rite were mixed with the ashes of a red heifer, which had been burned with cedar wood, hyssop, and scarlet material (Num. 19:6), all of which figured into the ritual for cleansing lepers as well (Lev. 14:4). At a very general level, the similarities between the two rites have an obvious logic: both the leper and the corpse-defiled person are being restored to access to the tabernacle, from which their uncleanness had exiled them. The similarities also point to the fact that leprosy was considered a kind of living death, a fact further underlined by the leper’s adoption of mourning customs (unbound hair, torn clothing) during the period of his uncleanness (Lev. 13:45; see Lev. 10:6). In the case of the cleansing from corpse defilement too, the eighth day plays an important, if implicit, role. The corpse-defiled person was sprinkled with the water of purification on the third and seventh day of his uncleanness, and then washed his clothes and bathed on the seventh day (Num. 19:19). As a result, he became clean at the beginning of the eighth day (that is, the evening of the seventh).

Certain forms of uncleanness caused by issues from the genitals (“flesh”, Lev. 15:2) also explicitly or implicitly involved an eighth-day rite. A man who had a discharge over a period of time waited seven days after the discharge ceased, and then offered a purification offering and ascension offering on the eighth day (Lev. 15:13-14). The same was true for a woman with an issue of blood outside her monthly menstruation (15:28-29). During her regular period, a woman was unclean for seven days, and any man who laid with a woman during menstruation was unclean for seven days (15:19, 24); thus in each case, the period of cleanness began on the eighth day.

We should, of course, fit the eight-day pattern with the seven-day sequence of creation; the eighth day is the beginning of a new week, and thus throughout the Bible symbolizes the beginning of a new creation. I want to go in a somewhat different direction, however. As I have said, the consistent eighth-day cleansing links these various rites to circumcision, which was performed on the eighth day after birth (Gen. 17:12; Lev. 12:3). With leprosy, corpse-defilement, or defilement by issue, the link is quite direct: uncleanness temporarily removed the defiled man or woman from the privileges of access to which circumcision gave title, and thus the cleansing was a renewal of circumcision. In the case of priests, the link is somewhat more complex. The use of blood and the eight-day structure connect ordination to circumcision, but ordination did not merely restore the priests to the privileges granted in circumcision but conferred greater privileges and nearer access. Ordination was a heightened specification of circumcision; within the community of those who wore the mark of the covenant with Abraham, there was an sub-community of those who wore the mark of the covenant with Levi.

Yet, the parallels between ordination and circumcision suggest that what was granted in ordination did not differ in kind from that conferred by circumcision. In both cases, the rites conferred a degree of holiness (Ex. 19:6; 29:1); both rites involved nearness to Yahweh and His house (Dt. 4:7; Num. 3:10); both rites granted food rights, circumcision giving permission to eat the Passover (Ex. 12:43-44) and ordination giving the priests permission to eat various portions of sacrificial grain and flesh (Lev. 6:16, 26; 7:6; Num. 18:8-20); those who submitted to the two rites received not only special privileges before Yahweh, but also were given special responsibilities and came under special sanctions (once circumcised, for example, Israelites were required to celebrate Passover, Num. 9:13; on the priests, see Lev. 21-22). Ordination was a specification of circumcision, and circumcision was a kind of ordination.

It is worth noting that the various rites of “circumcision renewal” were all quite elaborate, often lasting several days and involving numerous ritual actions in various sequences. By contrast, circumcision was, from all the biblical evidence, a simple rite. Nowhere does the Old Testament detail how circumcision was to be performed, as it does for the various rites discussed above. Circumcision could be performed by parents (Ex. 4:24-26), away from any holy place, with little ceremony. Anyone with a sharp piece of flint could apparently perform circumcisions (Josh. 5:2-9). Baptism, similarly, was performed in the New Testament with little ceremony, without special water, catechumenate, or sponsors. It is perhaps not going too far so suggest that the circumcision renewal rites elaborate the meaning of the original circumcision. And, in turn, since circumcision points to baptism, these elaborated rites inform and fill out our theology of baptism. In the New Testament, all of these various “baptisms” are collapsed into the “one baptism,” our circumcision, our ordination to priesthood, our cleansing from death and leprosy.

Recognizing the connection of these various rites with circumcision helps to deal with an objection that may arise from applying the Old Testament ceremonial washings to baptism. To say that baptism is “ordination to New Covenant priesthood,” for example, seems to militate against infant baptism: Surely infants cannot be priests! There are several responses to this objection. Looking at the rite of cleansing for a leper, we see that the healed leper undergoes something like priestly ordination. But this rite cannot be the healed leper’s first induction into his “lay priesthood”; that would suggest that former lepers, by virtue of having had leprosy, were given greater privileges than other lay Israelites. No, the person cleansed from skin disease is restored by the quasi-ordination rite to a status that he had before he contracted the uncleanness. When did he receive his initial induction into this status? The only reasonable answer is: When he was circumcised. Circumcision, in short, conferred a share in the common Israelite priesthood (Ex. 19:6), and circumcision was applied to infants. Therefore, the fact that Christian baptism inducts the baptized into the spiritual priesthood does not conflict with infant baptism.

To put it another way, because all the Old Testament cleansing rites are fulfilled in Christian baptism, this single rite now brings together the meaning of all the Old Testament ceremonies, conferring greater privileges and imposing stricter obligations than any of the Old Covenant rites, including the Aaronic ordination. Christians “have an altar, from which those who serve the tabernacle have no right to eat” (Heb. 13:10). The reference here is to the sin or purification offering, the flesh of which was burned outside the camp whenever the blood was taken into the tabernacle (Heb. 13:11-13; Lev. 4:1-21). Jesus is the final purification offering, and in the Eucharist we eat and drink of Him. When did we gain this right to eat from the purification offering? All who are members of the Body of Christ may eat, and we are made members by being baptized by the Spirit into the Body (1 Cor. 12:13). Not even priests may eat the flesh of the most holy sin offerings but those baptized into New Covenant priesthood can. Baptism does not merely give a right to eat from the Passover peace offering, as circumcision did, but gives a right to eat the flesh of Jesus, the true Purification Offering who suffered outside the gate. Baptism does not give access only to the outer court of God’s house, but because we are baptized into the priest who has ascended to the true, heavenly tabernacle, we may go boldly into the Most Holy Place. Thus, because baptism fulfills various rites of the Old Testament, there is no conflict between baptism into priesthood and baptism as the fulfillment of circumcision.

Peter Leithart is President of Theopolis Institute