The Rite of Circumcision: A Response to Dru Johnson

Dr Dru Johnson has written a wonderful and perceptive essay on the connection between ethics and ritual knowing. Although I find myself in fundamental agreement with his perspective, I thought that it might be helpful to investigate his approach from the vantage point of the particular case of circumcision, seeing how effectively his approach can account for the ritual of circumcision and perhaps to identify a few areas where it might need further elaboration in order adequately to accommodate it.

Circumcision is not only a ritual that has great prominence in Scripture, it also receives extensive theological attention. On the face of it, much of this theological attention strengthens Dr Johnson’s thesis concerning the connection between moral practice and ritual knowing. However, closer examination may also reveal a few respects in which some tweaks to his account might be required fully to account for the scriptural teaching concerning it.

Circumcision is first introduced in the narrative context of Genesis 17. God appears to Abram, declares his determination to establish his covenant with him, gives him a new name—Abraham—and gives him the sign of the covenant: circumcision of all the males of Abraham’s house in their foreskins. The gift of circumcision is attached to a promise that his wife—whose name is changed to Sarah—will bear a son to him in her old age.

The narrative context of circumcision is worth registering. In the text of Genesis, the account of the giving of circumcision appears after Abram fathered Ishmael by Hagar. Thirteen years pass between those two events, yet all the events of Genesis 17:1 to 21:7 occur within the span of under a couple of years, a period that culminates in the birth of Isaac. Shortly after the promise of the birth of Isaac, God destroys Sodom with fire and brimstone.

The severity of the sanction upon the uncircumcised male—the male whose flesh has not been cut off—might be considered in relation to the imminent judgment upon the city of Sodom. In Genesis 9:11, judgment is associated with the cutting off of flesh. The circumcised person removes some of their flesh in order that they not be cut off completely. Elsewhere in the Pentateuch, there is a particular urgency or necessity to the practice of circumcision associated with the Lord’s imminent advent in judgment. While the practice is seemingly abandoned for periods of time, such as during the sojourn wilderness, when God is about to come in judgment circumcision is essential. In Exodus 4:22-26, Moses’s son has to be given an emergency circumcision before they enter the condemned realm of Egypt. In Exodus 12, the practice of the Passover is associated with the necessity of circumcision in the face of the threat of being cut off in judgment. In Joshua 5, Israel has to be circumcised before the conquest of the land can begin.

Such connections may be more understandable when we consider the way that the euphemistic identification of the penis as the ‘flesh’ (basar—Exodus 28:42; Leviticus 15:2-3; Ezekiel 16:26; 23:20) identifies it as a site where the symbolic associations of flesh more generally are especially condensed; the penis represents not only its generative source, but also something of the state of flesh more generally. Among other things, the flesh stands for all of the pride and the pretensions of phallic power, in its sexual and other expressions. This must be dealt with in order to prepare male descendants of Abraham for faithful covenant service.

It is natural for us to draw some connection between circumcision and the bearing of Isaac. The fact that circumcision is performed upon the male generative organ—especially Abraham’s own—suggests that it has some bearing upon sexual behaviour and procreative relations. In Galatians 4:23, the Apostle Paul speaks of Abraham’s fathering Ishmael according to the flesh, but of Isaac as the son of promise. Circumcision is a symbolic removal of flesh and also a sign of promise. It conscripts Abraham’s generative organ for fruitful service. While Abraham may have been physically virile apart from circumcision, his body was ‘dead’ in its insufficiency to father the promised seed (Romans 4:19).

In The Savage in Judaism, Howard Eilberg-Schwartz speaks of circumcision as a ‘fruitful cut’.[1]He observes the way that fruit trees are spoken of as being ‘uncircumcised’ and having ‘foreskin’ (Leviticus 19:23-25).[2]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.

In cutting off their foreskins, Israel is also cut off from the other nations and even from their ancestor, Terah, and his wider family. Abraham had already left his father’s house, but through circumcision God clearly marks him and his household out from the members of his father’s house. It has the practical effect of constituting them as a distinct people and many of the references to circumcision in Scripture focus upon the sociological effect it has in sharply distinguishing Israel from all uncircumcised peoples. In circumcision, part of the flesh of Israel is cut off, but Israel is also cut off from the general flesh of humanity.

As the foreskin of the penis is a particularly condensed expression of the meaning of the entire male body, the removal of the foreskin is a dedication of the entire flesh. Circumcision is to be performed on the eighth day, the first day that the male child ceases to be impure on account of the birth event and, not coincidentally, the first day after birth that an animal can be sacrificed (Exodus 22:28-29; Leviticus 22:27). This sacrificial meaning of circumcision is perhaps intensified in the case of the priests and confirmed in the case of persons with skin diseases, who have blood placed on their right ears, the thumbs of their right hands, and the large toe on their right feet (Leviticus 8:23-24; 14:14).[3]

Elsewhere in the Old Testament, a kind of metaphorical circumcision is spoken of in reference to various bodily organs. In Jeremiah 4:4, the Lord exhorts the men of Judah and Jerusalem to circumcise themselves to him, removing the foreskins of their hearts (cf. Leviticus 26:41; Deuteronomy 10:16). The surrounding nations may be uncircumcised in their flesh, but the house of Israel is uncircumcised in its heart (Jeremiah 9:26). In Deuteronomy 30:6, Moses prophesies that God will one day circumcise the hearts of his people. Ezekiel speaks of persons who are uncircumcised in heart and uncircumcised in flesh (Ezekiel 44:7-9); there is an appropriate correspondence between the physical and the spiritual state. The language of circumcision is also used in connection with the ear (Jeremiah 6:10; Acts 7:51) and the lips (Exodus 6:12). The circumcised organ is the organ that is functioning appropriately and with reference to God. Uncircumcised lips are lips that struggle to speak (cf. Exodus 4:10), much as the uncircumcised ears are dull of spiritual hearing (Jeremiah 6:10), and the uncircumcised heart resistant to understanding (Jeremiah 9:26). Circumcision to the Lord is a dedication of the entirety of the body and its various members to his service, through the symbolic removal of flesh at the bodily site where its meaning and potency is most concentrated.

The spiritual intent of circumcision is prominently discussed in the Pauline corpus. The Apostle Paul radically relativizes the practice of circumcision: if circumcision does not issue in faithful behaviour, it is no better than uncircumcision. Circumcision without the practice of the Law is equivalent to uncircumcision (Romans 2:25-27). The circumcision of the heart is the decisive identifier of the true Jew; physical circumcision is a sign and seal of the righteousness of faith (Romans 4:11) and in the absence of that faith it is ultimately worthless. Furthermore, in Christ the purpose of circumcision is achieved. Christ not only brings about the promised new covenant circumcision of the heart (Romans 2:29; cf. Deuteronomy 30:6), but also effects the decisive reckoning with the fleshly condition of humanity. In Christ’s cross the body of the flesh—both in its individual and corporate character—is cut off entirely, enabling Paul to refer to the crucifixion as Christ’s ‘circumcision’ (Colossians 2:11).

Following Christ’s decisive overcoming of the fleshly condition, circumcision no longer functions in the same way: ‘flesh’, both in reference to the individual and our social bodies, is no longer the defining reality it once was. Paul makes this point in three striking statements:

For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision avails anything, but faith working through love.—Galatians 5:6 [NKJV]

For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision avails anything, but a new creation.—Galatians 6:15 [NKJV]

Circumcision is nothing and uncircumcision is nothing, but keeping the commandments of God is what matters.—1 Corinthians 7:19 [NKJV]

In the fulness of time, circumcision’s end is realized in the complete removal of the flesh in Christ’s cross and the dedication of the entire person to God in the power of the Spirit. The flesh that was once pruned is now divested.

None of this negates the value of (physical) circumcision in its time. The physical rite of circumcision was a symbolic performance that not only had the dedication of the entire person and people as its symbolic referent, but was also an effectual means towards that spiritual end. A wedding does not merely ‘symbolize’ the commitment of a marriage but establishes through the public exchange of vows and symbols of matrimony positive conditions in which that commitment can more readily be realized. The fact that many in marriages are unfaithful and many formally unmarried men and women may be in lifelong faithful unions does not reduce marriage to ‘just a piece of paper’. Likewise with circumcision. Through Israel’s obedient responsive practice of the rite by which God first separated them to himself, the meaning of circumcision was rendered constitutive of Israel’s identity and necessary to their enjoyment of God’s presence in their midst. The bodily rite manifested the claim of God upon the entire self and conscripted the self into an order which continually elicited the self’s response to that claim. The practice of the rite was not incidental to the spiritual and ethical practice but conduced to it.

In concluding, I would like to make some brief comments upon Dr Johnson’s thesis in the light of this discussion. I believe that the scriptural teaching concerning circumcision powerfully bears out his claims regarding the existence of a strong connection between ethical and ritual practice. However, more fully integrating it might necessitate significant tweaks or additions in two key areas.

The first of these areas concerns the concept of ‘ethical preparation’, which Dr Johnson foregrounds throughout his argument. While such preparation is indeed prominently enjoined in relation to many rituals and is clearly not absent in the case of circumcision, the ethical and spiritual import of circumcision is predominantly represented as responsive to and confirmatory of the meaning of the rite, rather than preparatory for it. The rite of circumcision is performed on male children at the earliest possible time, long before they would be capable of independent ethical preparation for its performance.

Circumcision is not a voluntary self-dedication of individual Israelites to God, but is performed upon them on account of God’s prior claim. As such it directly challenges the supposed autonomy of the self and its meanings at its root. Ethical practice proceeds from the ritualized conscription of the self that preceded the subjective awareness, volition, or agency of the circumcised person. The force of such a rite is chiefly proleptic, anticipating the person’s faithful living out of the meaning of what has been performed upon them. While he is clearly correct in closely connecting ritual and ethical practice, I would be interested to know how strongly committed Dr Johnson is to the implied order of their relation.

The second of these areas follows from the first and relates to the character of circumcision as a rite that symbolically reconstitutes the self. In much sacrificial practice, the party who makes a sacrifice symbolically offers themselves and their agency with the sacrifice. However, circumcision, while having sacrificial overtones, is one in which the agency of the circumcised party is minimal or even non-existent, typically being performed upon the body of the circumcised party at the age of eight days. It is also one of a class of rituals (ordination, baptism, adoption, and marriage being other examples) that remake and redefine persons. The primary site of meaning of such rites is not an external action, which may or may not be falsified by someone’s ethical conduct, but is the body—the person—itself. In such cases the wicked person may dishonour the ritual, but they also constitute themselves as a falsehood, not merely being liars but becoming lies.

The constitutive force of such rites is such that they have a peculiar power to excite both transformed behaviour and self-knowledge. The Apostle Paul’s thankfulness that he had not baptized many of the Corinthians seems to be on this account (1 Corinthians 1:12-17); as baptism involves the ritual conferral of a new identity, misapprehensions of baptism’s import can distort Christian self-understanding and practice far more profoundly than misapprehension of other rituals could. There is also a specific logic to the way that such rites transform behaviour and knowledge, as we are called to become whom we have been declared or constituted to be: new behaviour proceeds from the new self-knowledge offered by the rite. It seems to me that any account of the connection between ritual practice and a system of ethics should give prominence to such rites, as their role is arguably foundational for everything else.

Alastair Roberts (PhD, Durham) is adjunct Senior Fellow at Theopolis and is one of the participants in the Mere Fidelity podcast.  He is also the contributing editor of the Politics of Scripture series on the Political Theology Today blog. He blogs at Alastair’s Adversaria and tweets using @zugzwanged


[1]Howard Eilberg-Schwartz,The Savage in Judaism: An Anthropology of Israelite Religion and Ancient Judaism, (Indianapolis, IN: Indiana University Press, 1990), 141-176.

[2]Savage in Judaism, 123, 149-154

[3]In the case of the person with a skin disease, this is done on the eighth day.