Saturday, April 21, 2012

Circumcision and Yaweh's Changing Morality

Imagine, if you will, that you've created this universe. That you've watched it expand and boil, then cool, collide and mature. That you've seen stars form and grow and die, then cast their contents to the cosmos, scattering the building blocks of molecules required for life. Imagine you look at just one of the hundreds of billions of galaxies that you have made, and from it select one of the hundreds of billions of stars,  and give your focus to one of its planets.

From there, give your attention to first life. Watch it stutter and start, nearly obliterate itself in the oxygen catastrophe, watch it grow larger and expand in variety only to gaze on dispassionately while it is mostly annihilated some sixty five million years ago. Then see how life recovers, and watch how the mammals begin their ascendancy to fill a void left by the death of dinosaurs. Now wait millions of years, until you see the first apes straighten to two legs and stagger blinking into the light, afraid, alone, dying mostly of their teeth or in childbirth.

Watch the rise of the Neanderthals, with their hopes, rituals and protoreligious burials unanswered, then watch as they decline, dwindle and die. We mere mortals know that Homo florensiencsis discovered fire and likely made hunting tools but you will be able to see with clarity how closely these long dead cousins mirrored our intelligence. Enjoy the discoveries, waiting, watching, until some two hundred thousand years ago the first anatomical humans rise to enjoy a life of fear and early death. Wait further still, until some five thousand years ago you decide to reveal yourself to a man called Abram, and reveal to him the concern that has been most keenly pressing for this immense chasm of time:

"This is my covenant, which ye shall keep, between me and you and thy seed after thee; Every man child among you shall be circumcised. 
And ye shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskin; and it shall be a token of the covenant betwixt me and you. 
And he that is eight days old shall be circumcised among you, every man child in your generations, he that is born in the house, or bought with money of any stranger, which is not of thy seed. 
He that is born in thy house, and he that is bought with thy money, must needs be circumcised: and my covenant shall be in your flesh for an everlasting covenant."

It seems the Westboro Baptist Church are not arbiters of divine intention. It is not 'fags' God hates, but foreskins, specifically Abram's, his sons', his descendants and his slaves.

But what has incurred His righteous anger?

It is not often that I foray into Old Testament territory, but when I do I recognise that we have the advantage of being able to call on learned Jewish thought. Here I bow to Rabbi Maimonides (pictured), likely the most well known and prolific Jewish philosopher of the Middle Ages. As both a scholar of the Torah and a respected physician he is ideally placed to elucidate. He described circumcision as
"...the wish to bring about a decrease in sexual intercourse and a weakening of the organ in question, so that this activity be diminished and the organ be in as quiet a state as possible...None of the activities necessary for the preservation of the individual is harmed thereby, nor is procreation rendered impossible, but violent concupiscence and lust that goes beyond what is needed are diminished. The fact that circumcision weakens the faculty of sexual excitement and sometimes perhaps diminishes the pleasure is indubitable."
The free will so magnanimously offered at a price of suffering and death is reduced, diluted and restricted in God's first covenant with his chosen people. How many mothers and fathers cried tears for lost sons by enforcing this practice in a bronze-age culture? What deaths resulted from hacking at flesh with sharpened rocks in an age before what we would now consider rudimentary hygiene and medical care? The oft trumpeted and frankly dubious health benefits cannot be cited without explaining why Christians did not also deserve such bounty.

Yaweh in Genesis promulgates  that failure to mutilate the genitalia of one's slaves and helpless infants is a crime so abhorrent as to require banishment. Later Paul in Galatians 5 rules that those wishing to continue the practice have failed so egregiously that they should instead castrate themselves. Is this the absolute source of unchanging morality that serves as foundation to the moral argument?


the chip monk said...

Howdy Geoff! I am not an Old Testament scholar and I am unable to comment on your sources without a lot of research, so forgive me in advance for that. I will however offer you my own ignorant understanding.

If I am following you correctly, you are asking if a God who requests the mutilation of the genitalia of a culture's infants can realistically be considered the immutable unchanging moral authority?

Firstly let's examine a few assumptions from your post. The first is a common one - your representation of God as the Aristotelian ideal of Unmoved Mover: the one who kicks things into motion and stands back to observe, only interjecting occasionally or more like a cameraman - adjusting the direction and focus from time to time, and shouting at the actors when they move out of range. :)

This is not the Christian view of the activity of God in the universe. The Christian view is in fact that it is the Trinitarian God's sustaining power that allows any matter or being in the cosmos to have its active existence. By this I mean that it is the 'why' of, say, the multiplication of cells, as opposed to the how.

Secondly, you might be neglecting to take into account the culture of bargain and covenant of the time. Flesh was, and remains in Judeo-Christianity, an integral part of symbolism and contract. Rabbi Maimonides might well be correct in his assumptions, but I have encountered nothing in the Torah that supports his position. Circumcision was to be the physical imprint of the promise of the covenant, like a tattoo or brand. You might consider this barbaric: fine. But it is not to be confused with Gnosticism, which is the rejection of the body for the sake of the soul. On the contrary, in Judeo-Christianity the body is crucial. Our whole existence is worked out through these bodies - we have no other way of doing things. The scriptures are full of evidence of God's love for the body - apparently, say the Psalmists, it has all been lovingly knit together in the womb...every hair on our heads has been counted. Not only this, but you represent God as angry in the Genesis 17 text, but he's not. You would be quite alone in this interpretation. (If you want wrath, I can direct you elsewhere to FAR more troubling texts!) Using the body therefore as a signpost for the covenant of God is not as incongruous as it might first appear. Furthermore for Jews, circumcision marks them as a direct descendant of Abraham and roots their very flesh and blood in the promises of their God.

Thirdly, you have not dealt with why Paul (a circumcised Jew) objects to the circumcision of the followers of Christ. I understand that you have limited space and scope in a blog-post, but if you are going to draw conclusions from Paul's instructions to the Galatians you might as well understand his motivations for such comments, not to mention the context, which was tearing the early church apart. If you do understand it but have failed to mention it, then you are merely proof-texting, a classic weapon in the arsenal of (ironically) right wing Christians. :)

Fourthly, and this is the crucial problem with this piece: you are drawing a picture of the Judeo-Christian God as one who sets arbitrary rules that can be changed at a moment's deitical whim. If you wish to make that argument, you're just going to have to go deeper than this!

We haven't even gotten to the bit about the content of that that's interesting.

Ronald said...

Ooh, fun subject, Geoff!

I’m not terribly learned in rabbinic Judaism’s interpretation of why, specifically, circumcision. Seeing Rambam’s quote (cited by you) made me curious to see earlier (Genesis Rabbah) Jewish interpretations. Some of the interpretations were quite similar to Rambam’s understanding. Others stuck a little more closely to the narrative in Genesis – which is where I gather my own understanding.

The narrative running up to the covenant of circumcision in Gen. 17 is that God had promised Abraham the land of Canaan, that it would be populated by his ‘seed’ (offspring), and that the entire world would be blessed by this ‘seed’ – ultimately Abraham’s descendants would be an incredible nation that the rest of the world would either be blessed or cursed based on how they treated this special nation.

The only problem is that Abraham is childless, because “You [God] have given me no children.” Abraham worries that this incredible inheritance God promised him will pass to his servant, Eliezer, since Eliezer is his rightful heir (since Abe has no sons). God tells Abe that the great seed through which the world will be blessed will come from Abe’s own body.

Later (aka, Gen. 16), Abe still hasn’t been able to get his 76 year old wife Sarah pregnant. Apparently God wasn’t being honest with Abe, because Abe was now 86 and still no dice. Abe and Sarah devise a plan to help God along. They decide to get Sarah’s youthful Egyptian handmaiden pregnant – a surrogate mother, if you will. Ishmael is born. Abe thinks he’s now got his descendent that will bless the world.

Later still (Gen. 17), Abe’s 99. God shows back up, finally, and lets Abe once again know about this blessing business. Two important additions: circumcision, and, oh yeah, Sarah’s still going to bear a child and HE will be the one through whom all the blessings descend.

Abe scoffs, assures God Ishmael’s up for the task, and that getting an 89 year old woman pregnant by a 99 year old man is a bit impossible. God insists that He’s really good at doing what He does. Abe and his whole household is circumcised. A year later, the miracle son is born from Sarah.

What are the foremost themes of this story? Promise and procreation. Abe lacked faith in God’s promise to give him a son, so Abe got creative. Abe did nothing a normal man at that time wouldn’t have done. God shows up, says, ‘Nice try. You tried it your way, but we’re gonna do it my way. You’re too old. Sarah’s too old. But am I unable to make life spring forth from dry ground?’

The issue: God promised something, Abe tried fix it the way a man would (sexy-time!). God prefers to harder way: decrepit man + decrepit woman + circumcision = miracle! Abraham tried to solve the problem with his penis, God chose to make a sign there to indicate that that is not how God works.

Nor would that be how God works throughout the rest of the biblical narrative. Israel was continually pointed out as chosen not because it’s the greatest. Isaac’s younger son, Jacob, the one he loved less, ended up with the blessing. Jacob’s oldest son didn’t receive the firstborn blessing either – it was split between the son (Judah) of the unloved wife, and one of his youngest sons he thought had died (Joseph). To say nothing that issues of barren women plagued all the matriarchs and later important female figures in Israel’s history. The long and short of it (…) is that it shouldn’t look like anything except miraculous.

Ronald said...

The issue with Galatians is actually much, much simpler, and one I can speak on with a bit more knowledge.

Primarily, the issue wasn’t just ‘circumcision’ as an act. Circumcision was, essentially, the formal and final act of conversion to Judaism. Many scholars in the last 40 or so years have been doing phenomenal work in this area of the NT. The simple act of circumcision wasn’t so much the issue for Gentile believers. The issue was forcing Gentile believers to convert to Judaism (i.e., ‘become circumcised’) so that they could ‘be saved’. The belief of Judaism at that time was that ‘all Israel will be saved,’ and therefore one simply needed to become a Jew to partake in the riches. The Apostles slightly differed from this view. If the Messiah was to be a light to the Gentiles, and in the Messianic Age both Gentiles and Jews were partaking in the celebration (various prophecies in the Tanakh), how would that work if all the Gentiles were converted into Jews? In the Apostolic view, Gentiles could remain Gentiles and yet partake in the celebration.
The Apostles charged that the Gentiles should start learning how to worship God, obeying certain commandments of Torah (taking on more and more as they grow in their walk), participating in the festivals, etc – but as Gentiles. But, the Apostles maintained that a Jewish believer was to continue on in their Torah observance and everything else. That is to say, Jewish believers would most certainly continue circumcising their children. Depending how interested anyone is, I can recommend a number of articles on this subject.

rodneycwilson said...

Really impressed with the initial blog post and the two respondents who followed. All crisp, clear, well written and well reasoned. Pleasure to read and think about.

Question for you, Geoff. Circumcision is practiced among many groups around the world and was practiced by some (ancient Egyptians, for example) long before Abraham was alleged to have lived. Why is circumcision such a widespread practice? Why did so many divergent civilizations stumble on the rite/ritual of circumcision? What is the naturalistic (non-supernatural) explanation for this culture meme (if you will)?

This discussion reminded me of a book (I have *not* read!) written by a professor I had for Old Testament:

Geoff said...

I tend to not generate many comments. I assuage my ego by thinking that I always make such convincing cases that no more needs be said. In reality it's because the blog's fairly new, and perhaps on an unpopular subject.

The downside is that I published that post without actually thinking that three rather smart folk would come up with nuanced and interesting questions. With that in mind I'll do my best on five hours' sleep and roughly the same number of coffees.

Chip Monk first. You ask if I am "asking if a God who requests the mutilation of the genitalia of a culture's infants can realistically be considered the immutable unchanging moral authority?"

Well, that's certainly part of it. In addition to that I'd add in the change from failing to circumcise being cause for banishment in the OT, to circumcising incurring Paul's wrath and recommendations of castration in the new.

Basically, I don't think you can justify infant genital mutilation on any earthly moral grounds. You could justify it as a divine commandment, but then we see that this commandment is not immutable. On a point I didn't really develop I'm often challenged to provide a materialistic source of objective moralities by people who haven't quite knocked out a good explanation as to how Theism justifies objective morality.

I'm wondering if I sacrificed clarity for rhetorical flourish. I understand the distinction you make between absenteeism and permeation, shall we say, but I think my point about failing to prevent the oxygen catastrophe and extinction of (most) dinosaurs and Neanderthals stands.

Should I have taken into account the culture of the time? Depends on how we view it. I can understand on a materialistic point of view why the practice started, and it's hard to judge harshly people at this remove of time, but it feels hard for me to afford the same forgiveness to a deity. I'm afraid I do consider it barbaric, and I know you oppose female genital mutilation for much the same reasons.

On me portraying God as angry in Genesis 17, you've got me. I started the paragraph with a dig at the Westboro Baptist Church ("It is not 'fags' God hates, but foreskins") which continued and carried more weight than it should. Let's say Yaweh wanted the infants and slaves of the Jewish people to have their foreskins hacked off at risk of death, and mandated banishment for those who failed to comply. Perhaps not angry at foreskins as such, but it was certainly a rather important consideration.

Another fair point on me not explaining why Paul was anti circumcision. (And, incidentally, anti foreskin restoration.) Regrettably space was a factor - I'm trying to reign in some of these rambling posts.

In summary though, I'm trying to show a rule that no-one could really consider moral that is capable of being changed. It's something I don't think I could make it mesh with a theistic view of objective morality.

Thanks for commenting!

Geoff said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Geoff said...

Ronnie, fantastic background as always. You must require extrordinary large hats ;-) Good summary of Galatians which Chip Monk rightly admonished me for skipping.

I feel I'm writing a rather short response to a lot of information, but I don't disagree that your first post is internally consistent, and I agree with your second. We seem to lack conflict. I suppose there are worse states to be in :)

Let me know if there's anything you'd like me to address.

Geoff said...

Hi Rodney, thanks for visiting! Glad you liked the post and the smarter folk that followed me.

Good question, and I'll give an amateurish answer - rituals of this sort are fairly commonplace - lower lip plates, removal of teeth, scarification, tattooing, piercings, earlobe stretching, trepanning, to an extent, Okipa teenagers hanging from roofs via spikes through their pecs, then having their little fingers removed - the list goes on.

Rituals like these serve to reinforce submission and loyalty to the group, both by shared experience and by weeding out those who won't comply.

I vaguely recall reading something good on the subject years ago, I'll see if I can dig it out. To my mind it's fairly clear how a ritual like this could move to infants and slaves.

Been up since 5:30 - time for sleep! Thanks for the comments all!

Ronald said...

“I tend to not generate many comments. I assuage my ego by thinking that I always make such convincing cases that no more needs be said.”

Lol. Geoff, you are a genuinely funny writer and I don’t mean that sarcastically in the least.

“[God] in Genesis promulgates that failure to mutilate the genitalia of one's slaves and helpless infants is a crime so abhorrent as to require banishment. Later Paul in Galatians 5 rules that those wishing to continue the practice have failed so egregiously that they should instead castrate themselves. Is this the absolute source of unchanging morality that serves as foundation to the moral argument?”

There is one point that I was hoping to make, primarily in response to what you said quoted above. It’s entirely possible that I’ve misunderstood you, or failed to adequately communicate my point. But what I read you saying is, essentially, that in the Old Testament God commanded His people to be circumcised, and that in the New Testament (with Paul) that commandment is now longer valid. If that is the case, then the Bible could hardly be the ‘absolute source of unchanging morality’. What I was attempting to point out is that the New Testament is consistent with the OT in its teaching that Israelites were still to be circumcised, in accordance with the Torah - but that Gentiles were forbidden to become circumcised (at least as an act of formal conversion to Judaism – the hope being to attain salvation).

My point, simply, is that this is not a point of inconsistency in the Bible. Though to be fair, Galatians has historically been a misinterpreted epistle in a number of harmful ways, and most pastors still utilize these flawed interpretations of Galatians.

Geoff said...

Let me mull that over and come back to you when there's more caffeine in by blood stream. Glad I gave you a laugh :)