By Merja Merras
Today, in the State of Israel, there is much discussion about the circumcision of boys on the eighth day. Messianic Jews, in particular, ponder the question: Has the time to reject this old tradition finally arrived?
The rule of circumcision was given by God to Abraham and his descendants (Gen 17:9-14) and thereafter understood as the principal sign of belonging to the Jewish congregation. But is it so? If we take a closer look, old beliefs can be reconsidered in a new light.
When we look at the Old Testament as a totality, the central issue is obedience or disobedience of the law and not circumcision. The promise given to Abraham (“I will bless you…”) was extended to his descendants, not because they were circumcised, but only because Abraham kept the commandments faithfully. In Deuteronomy, circumcision of the heart (10:16-22; 30:4-6), which means obedience to the law, was already considered more important than fleshly circumcision. In the book of Joshua, one can clearly see that it was obedience to God's law, not circumcision, that was demanded, both of Israelites and the other nations. In both Jeremiah and Ezekiel, fleshly circumcision played no role whatsoever in the new covenant, which was binding upon those returning from exile.
In the last section of Scripture, the Writings, there is no mention at all of circumcision. This part of Scripture was written to invite the nations to adopt the torah, and with it true wisdom, since Greek wisdom was not able to encompass all wisdom. On this point, it would have been possible to ordain circumcision as a tangible sign of someone’s endorsement of the law, but such was not the case. Those who accepted the challenge of the Bible’s spiritual message gathered in congregations where Scripture was read to them and, in conformity with Genesis 17, circumcised their male children at the age of eight days. Yet, this custom in and of itself was not a distinctive mark (Jer 9:23-26), since it was part of the Hamite and Semite cultures.
The Apostle Paul, who was a Jew, also understood circumcision in this way, writing in his Letter to the Romans (2:25-29): “He is a Jew who is one inwardly, and real circumcision is a matter of the heart, spiritual and not literal.”
Why, then, is circumcision practiced among Jews to this day? This “dormant” habit of circumcision comes to life and even “steals the show” in the Maccabean literature, which deals with the revolt by Palestinian followers of Scripture against the Seleucids, the heirs of Alexander of Macedon. The king, Antiochus Epiphanes, had disgraced the Jewish Sanctuary, making the priest Mattathias furious. Mattathias asked Jews to join him in revolt: “And Mattathias and his friends forcibly circumcised all the uncircumcised boys that they found within the borders of Israel.” (1 Macc 2:45-46) The Maccabees and their followers were using circumcision as a “national flag”, a “standard”, around which they could easily rally followers to their own agenda.
The western part of Syria, the province Yehud, was declared independent by the Maccabees, and remained as such for some time. King Herod set out to build a massive temple in Jerusalem and needed income from outside his tiny state. All “followers of the Law” were invited to support the project. The inhabitants of Yehud were the yehudim. In those times, Judaism developed more around political than religious issues. The religious aspect of circumcision was only a medium of control to secure support for the interests and aims of the “followers of the dictates of scripture” in Yehud.
Today, this mechanism finds its counterpart in the way that the leaders of the State of Israel seek to “impose” their views on Jews around the world in order to secure support for their political agenda.
God’s law and Jesus’ Gospel are meant for all nations, not just the yehudim. This point is already made in the first pages of the Old Testament. Although written and addressed to Israel, other nations are continuously mentioned and encouraged to follow the law. In contrast, the letters of the Apostle Paul are both written and expressly addressed to all the nations, not just to the Jews. Since this teaching had to sound the same as the law of the Old Testament, it refers to the law continuously. The teaching of the “new teacher,” Paul, had to reflect the entire teaching of the Old Testament, thus, the Old and the New Testament form a totality. But by reading the Old Testament, Jews can already understand the message of circumcision, found throughout: nothing is of significance but obedience to the law. One God, one law and one message for all nations.
Ref. Paul Nadim Tarazi, The Rise of Scripture. OCABS 2017. 319-332.