Monday, February 3, 2014

A Reader’s Question — Circumcision…

A while back, I asked my readers to submit their Biggest Scriptural Challenge to Naturism so that I could offer my own take on the issue, honestly and biblically.

One reader from the Fig Leaf Forum submitted this question… not so much a “scriptural challenge” but a request for my view on the matter of circumcision. This past week, another reader posted a comment asking about the same issue. So here’s my response.

I’m No Expert…

I’m quick to admit that I am not any sort of scholarly expert on matters of ancient Hebrew culture or ritual practices. Nor am I a true student of biblical Hebrew or Greek. My only claim is that I make an effort to be thorough, faithful, and honest in my analysis about what the Bible really says and means, making full use of the resources available to me (and any of us!).

Having said that I’m happy to give my thoughts on the requirement of circumcision in Hebrew culture and its implications regarding the exposure of nakedness in the public sphere.

This is ALL Speculative!

The first thing I will say here is that what I’m about to talk about is all speculative. As such, it will do nothing to influence someone holding the nudity-taboo mindset to change his or her mind about what the Bible teaches concerning nudity.

Its practical value is for those of us who have already concluded that God is not offended by human nudity, and that the Scriptures never regulate against socially nude activities. I think that we can find in these speculations some additional affirmation of our beliefs about what the Bible does and does not say.

That said, let’s take a look at the question that was raised. Here’s the question:

What about Circumcision?

When the Israelites prepared to exit Egypt, their instructions were to be ready for when Pharaoh became sufficiently exasperated to order them away, that they could be on the move.
Israelites, hirelings, and aliens could go, but, they had to meet the qualification:  circumcision.
Was circumcision a visible qualification?

The requirement of circumcision for the ancient nation of Israel is well documented. It was to be the mark of the Abrahamic Covenant for Abraham and all of his seed (Genesis 17:9-14) It became such a notable distinction between “God’s Chosen People” and all other people that Jews referred to themselves as “the circumcised” and all Gentiles were called the “UN-circumcised” (Judges 15:18, Ephesians 2:11) 

It is hard for us to imagine the scope of national pride and identity that was wrapped up in a surgical procedure performed on all male members of the nation, yet it was very real at the time.

Add to that the fact that God’s word spoke of the fact that the temple was “profaned” when the Israelites permitted men who were uncircumcised to enter it (Ezek. 44:7).

By the time Jesus was walking the earth, the sect of the Pharisees had become very fastidious about keeping God’s word “to the letter.” Some years later, one of the accusations they brought against the Apostle Paul was that he had brought a “Greek” into the temple and thus “defiled” it (Acts 21:28-29)

So… How did they know?

If the Jewish National identity was wrapped up in being one of the “circumcised’'”—that is, one of “God’s Chosen People”—and no one who was uncircumcised could come into the temple, just how did they know who was and who wasn’t circumcised when they came to the temple?

It’s almost inconceivable for us to imagine today, but it really is possible that temple officials performed a “lift-your-robe” check on everyone coming to the temple… particularly if the worshippers were from “out of town.” Is there any scriptural data to suggest such a thing? None… except the clear evidence that they were such sticklers about ritual details at the temple. Knowing what we know about the Pharisees, it’s hard to imagine that there was any requirement of the Law that they just “trusted” people for… particularly when it had to do with the temple… and those unclean… “Gentiles.”

Funny thing today, though… I know lots of guys, but I don’t know which ones are circumcised and which are not. Do you? You and I have no reason to need to know, so we don’t care that we don’t know. But that would not of been true for the Jews in Bible times.

Bonus: Joseph and His Brothers.

Speaking of circumcision, here’s a rendering of Joseph’s story that you haven’t heard before…

You remember the plot, right? Joseph’s brothers are jealous of him so they sell him into slavery in Egypt. God blesses him there and raises him up to be the second-in-command in all of Egypt. Fast-forward to a few years of famine and those same brothers show up in Egypt asking for food… from Joseph!

There’s a lot more to the story, but eventually, Joseph sends all the Egyptians out of the room so that he can tell his brothers that he’s really their long-forgotten brother. At first, they’re so stunned they simply don’t believe him… so the narrative continues like this:

Then Joseph said to his brothers, “Please come closer to me.” And they came closer. And he said, “I am your brother Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt (Gen. 45:4).

This part of the story always struck me as odd… Joseph was weeping so loudly that he was heard all over the palace! His surely brothers had no difficulty in hearing him… so why did he want them to “come closer”? He’d already told them that he was their brother… how could he be even more convincing if they were standing closer to him? Well, I can think of a way…

Given the significance of the Abrahamic covenant—to which they all were heirs—I believe it is most likely that he called them close to him so that he could actually show them that he was circumcised, just as they were! It would have been incontrovertible proof to his brothers that he really was who he claimed to be. Think about it…

  • Only the real Joseph would know that circumcision was their grandfather’s special “family” sign (Gen. 17:11-12).
  • The Egyptians likely were not circumcised… so Joseph’s circumcision would show that he was not a native Egyptian (this point might be debatable… I don’t know the Egyptian practices regarding circumcision during that time period).
  • Only by “coming near” could they see that he really was circumcised.
  • And one more thing—since he was their brother—they would have seen him naked many times in years past… it’s likely they would have literally recognized Little Brother’s genitals.

I’ve never heard anyone else suggest this interpretation before, but it sure seems to me that it fits the narrative better. Your thoughts?

And Then There’s the Mikveh…

I don’t want to go into details, but it’s well documented that the mikveh (ritual Baptism) was—and still is—performed nude. Since the pools where this ritual was performed were near the temple and quite public (such as the Pool of Bethesda and the Pool of Siloam), exposure of the unclothed body would not have been an uncommon occurrence as part of religious ritual for the Jews. Certainly, during a man’s mikveh, you’d be able to confirm that he was also circumcised.


Like I said… interesting and instructive discussion, but nothing historically concrete. Ultimately—for me a least—it’s just speculative, but it does underscore the fact that cultural differences between Bible times and the 21st century are pretty significant. Perhaps there are others who have more information than I. If so, I’d love to hear it!

— Matthew Neal


Steve M. said...

I just finished reading the Pentateuch in my evening devotions, and I got a distinct sense that God gave and intended circumcision to be a highly-visible sign of a man's inclusion in the covenant community. As if to reinforce the visibility of a man's circumcision, God gave a long list of ceremonial washings that a man had to go through to be ceremonially-clean for worship. These washings included after every time a couple had sex, or if a man had a wet-dream, which might have been several times a week.

We seem to forget that the Israelite's tents in the wilderness didn't have indoor plumbing, so all personal care had to be done at the communal facilities. I seriously doubt that an uncircumcised man in the camp could have gone undetected for very long.

Joseph, being a Hebrew and circumcised, would have stood out like a sore thumb among the uncircumcised Egyptians. 400 years later, Pharaoh's daughter still took her bath in the river, despite being a royal.

Circumcision WAS a big deal both to God and to the children of Israel. Baptism is now our sign and seal of the covenant of grace, but as a lasting sign, it is gone as soon as the water evaporates or the person dries off. God hasn't given us a permanent and ALWAYS-VISIBLE sign to replace circumcision. It served during the time God intended it to.

FatherOf4 said...

I found at least 2 references which indicate circumcision has changed significantly since the time of Christ.

Other than the historical content, I vouch for neither of these sites in terms of promoting Christ and him crucified.