Said the Lord to Abraham: “And ye shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskin; and it shall be a token of the covenant betwixt me and you.” (Gen. 17:11) The smug modern man may look upon this rite as nothing more than a cultic mutilation from a barbaric past. Look again, O modern man.
In the Theogony of Hesiod, once Zeus has defeated the rival Titans and established his preeminence among the gods, he engages in a spree of intercourse and begetting. That is the sign of his power and divinity. And yet at the same time it folds Zeus back into the brute animality of the world.
The same considerations apply to all fertility religions. The women whom Ezekiel saw in the Temple itself, “weeping for Tammuz,” (Ez. 8:14) were worshipping an Adonis-god of vegetation, who “died” every winter and was brought to life again in the spring. Such rites were often accompanied by ritual prostitution, both male and female: witness the “houses of the sodomites” that the good King Josiah destroyed, houses associated with the groves dedicated to Baal, the Canaanite Tammuz. (2 K. 23:7)
In Egypt, according to a myth related by Plutarch, the fertility of the Nile is guaranteed by the god Osiris, or rather by a piece of him. When the wicked Seti dismembered Osiris and cast the members into the Nile, his sister-wife Isis gathered up all the parts to put them back together again. All but one, that is: his membrum virile had gotten gobbled up by a pike.
You may laugh – but the laugh had better be uneasy. If our “entertainment” is any indication, we worship at the altar of Osiris, Baal, Tammuz, Adonis, and Priapus. It is an ever-present source of temptation, to collapse heaven into earth, and then to see in earth only a seething and teeming mire of copulation.
The Christian sees sexuality as pro-creative, cooperating in God’s creation, bringing immortal souls into being. That is implied by the revelation that we are made in the image and likeness of God.
The commitment of our sexual being to the God of righteousness, a God who spoke the world into existence, is thus the reverse of anthropomorphism. But to worship Priapus is first to turn the Holy One into a likeness of us, and then, by the inevitable further reduction, a mere part of us.
Circumcision, then, is a sign of dedication to God and of contradiction to the world, the flesh, and the devil. It is associated with no fertility rite. It is performed, typically, upon newborns, not upon pubescent boys. It is therefore not associated with the Biblically proscribed “times and seasons” observed by Israel’s fertility-worshipping neighbors.
Circumcision of Christ by Friedrich Herlin, 1466
In Genesis, it marks a departure from the sexual misery of sinful man, a misery to which the sons of Jacob themselves are far from immune. It signifies this: all that I am, and all that will come forth from me, belongs to God.
Performing it on the eighth day is also of great significance. Circumcision is thus associated with God’s creation itself, which was not a begetting, but a free and independent act of love. Only thus can God be seen as transcendent and fully present in every smallest particle of matter: Zeus is neither.
The eighth day marks the new week, after the Sabbath rest. It thus signals a new beginning, a re-creation of man, now marked in his very flesh as the bearer of a covenant with the all-provident God.
Therefore circumcision of the heart, insisted upon by the prophets, is already implied in the ancient rite. So the Lord says through Jeremiah: “Circumcise yourselves to the Lord, and take away the foreskins of your heart, ye men of Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem.” (Jer. 4:4)
It is not just that a sacrifice of a bull or an ox, without the true obedience that springs from love, is empty. Worse, it takes God Himself for granted. It presumes upon His mercy. It is a reversion to brokerage, as if man could manipulate the divine by his own performances. It substitutes the desire to dominate for love.
But the true lover puts himself at the complete disposal of the beloved. What is signified by the circumcision, by a type and a shadow, is revealed fully by Jesus. Consider the two recorded moments of His shedding blood before the scourging, the crowning with thorns, and the crucifixion.
The first is His own circumcision, on the eighth day, when He is given the name Jesus: The Lord saves. That is to say: it is the Lord who saves us, as it is the Lord who made us; we did not make ourselves, and we cannot save ourselves.
The second is when He sweats blood in the Garden of Gethsemane, and said, “Father, if thou be willing, remove this cup from me: nevertheless not my will, but thine, be done.” (Lk. 22:42) Mary and Joseph dedicated the baby wholly to God; and Jesus affirms this total dedication. “Thy will be done”: that is the essence of His prayer, His ministry, and His love.
Thus we see why baptism is the full reality which circumcision suggests. We are baptized, ritually drowned, in the living waters of Jesus’ love, which is a love unto death. Says Saint Paul:
And ye are complete in him, which is the head of all principality and power: In whom also ye are circumcised with the circumcision made without hands, in putting off the body of the sins of the flesh by the circumcision of Christ: Buried with him in baptism, wherein also ye are risen with him through the faith of the operation of God, who hath raised him from the dead. (Col. 2:10-12)
All this, with Christ’s rising from the dead on the eighth day, the unique day that consummates all of time in eternity, is comprehended in the seedling of the covenant with Abraham.