–Genesis 18:1 (JPS Tanakh)
The Lord took note of Sarah as He had promised, and the Lord did for Sarah as He had spoken. Sarah conceived and bore a son to Abraham in his old age, at the set time of which God had spoken. Abraham gave his newborn son, whom Sarah had borne him, the name of Isaac. And when his son Isaac was eight days old, Abraham circumcised him, as God had commanded him.
–Genesis 21:1-4 (JPS Tanakh)
In this week’s Torah portion, Avraham is recovering from Bris Mila. Later, Isaac is born and has a Bris Mila. So, I thought to share a few insights on … Bris Mila!
The vast majority of people in the Church don’t imagine that baby boys born into Christian families must receive a ritual circumcision, called a Bris or Brit Milah, on the eighth day of life. It’s one of those things that we think of as uniquely “Jewish.”
But if we who are in the body of Christ are called the spiritual Sons of Abraham (Romans 9:8), and if we are “one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all,” (Ephesians 4:4-6), then why are we too not obligated to be circumcised?
Then after an interval of fourteen years I went up again to Jerusalem with Barnabas, taking Titus along also. It was because of a revelation that I went up; and I submitted to them the gospel which I preach among the Gentiles, but I did so in private to those who were of reputation, for fear that I might be running, or had run, in vain. But not even Titus, who was with me, though he was a Greek, was compelled to be circumcised. But it was because of the false brethren secretly brought in, who had sneaked in to spy out our liberty which we have in Christ Jesus, in order to bring us into bondage.
–Galatians 2:1-4 (NASB)
Paul came also to Derbe and to Lystra. And a disciple was there, named Timothy, the son of a Jewish woman who was a believer, but his father was a Greek, and he was well spoken of by the brethren who were in Lystra and Iconium. Paul wanted this man to go with him; and he took him and circumcised him because of the Jews who were in those parts, for they all knew that his father was a Greek.
–Acts 16:1-3 (NASB)
A great deal has been made about why Paul did not have Titus circumcised but he did so for Timothy. The only obvious difference between them in scripture is that Timothy’s mother was Jewish but both parents of Titus were Greek (presumably, since Luke refers to Titus as “a Greek” in Acts 16).
Today, it is common in the various streams of Judaism to consider anyone Jewish who was born of a Jewish mother, regardless of whether or not the father was Jewish. In the days of Paul, this may not have necessarily been the case, but if Timothy wasn’t Jewish, we are at a loss as to why Paul made such a distinction between he and Titus.
But getting back to what I was saying before, should any distinction be made between Jews and Gentiles in the body of Christ. Aren’t we all one in Messiah with ethnic differences swept away by the hand of God as a scorching sirocco sweeps over the desert sands?
But wait a second.
The Almighty commanded Abraham, “… My covenant you shall keep — you and your descendants after you for all generations. This is my covenant which you shall keep between Me and you and your descendants after you — circumcise all males. And you shall circumcise the flesh of the foreskin and it shall be the sign of the covenant between Me and you. And at eight days old every male shall be circumcised throughout all of your generations … My covenant shall be in your flesh for an everlasting covenant” (Genesis 17:9-13).
This is the “ethnic” part of God’s covenant with Abraham and his physical descendants through Isaac, Jacob, the Children of Israel, and beyond. I previously said that in this portion of the covenant ratified by God with Abraham…
God promises to make Abraham a father of many nations and of many descendants and the land of Canaan as well as other parts of Middle East will go to his descendants. God declares that circumcision is to be the sign of the covenant for Abraham and all his male descendants and that this will be an eternal covenant.
But the blessings of the earlier portion of the Abrahamic covenant God makes with Abram are significant because that portion can be applied outside the ethnic, genetic, biological stream of Abraham and his offspring.
And I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse. And in you all the families of the earth will be blessed.”
–Genesis 12:3 (NASB)
We have to access Paul’s midrash on Abraham to make better sense of this.
Now the promises were spoken to Abraham and to his seed. He does not say, “And to seeds,” as referring to many, but rather to one, “And to your seed,” that is, Christ. What I am saying is this: the Law, which came four hundred and thirty years later, does not invalidate a covenant previously ratified by God, so as to nullify the promise.
–Galatians 3:16-17 (NASB)
The “seed” is Messiah, Christ. He is the blessing, and this promise and blessing was established before the covenant was ratified and God required circumcision of Abraham and his offspring through Isaac, and through Jacob, and through all of Jacob’s offspring, and so on across the ethnic linkage that ultimately becomes the Jewish people.
In his letter to the churches in Galatia, Paul is strongly discouraging the Gentile disciples from being circumcised because, by that point in history, circumcision was the “shorthand” expression for ritual conversion to Judaism. If the Gentiles, through the blessings of Abraham’s seed (singular) and faith in Messiah, were already justified before God, and received the one Spirit, just as the Jews received that same Spirit, then for the purposes of justification, nothing else is required of the Gentile disciples.
Therefore I, the prisoner of the Lord, implore you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling with which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, showing tolerance for one another in love, being diligent to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as also you were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all who is over all and through all and in all.
–Ephesians 4:1-6 (NASB)
One body, one Spirit, one justification, one salvation, a unity of Spirit still doesn’t have to mean a uniformity of identity.
There’s a saying that goes, “everyone’s unique but no one is special,” but I don’t know if I can buy into that. I’m all for equal access to job opportunities and equal pay for equal work, but God did some really unique things. He chose the ethnic Jewish people, that is, those who were physically descended from Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, and Jacob’s sons, and the children of Jacob’s sons, who were all of the people led by Moses to Mount Horeb in the Sinai to receive the covenant and ultimately all of the promises, including the Land of Israel.
We can discuss the “mixed multitude” who eventually assimilated into the tribes after several generations and disappeared from the face of history, a process that cannot be anachronistically applied to modern times or even the time of James, Peter, and Paul. We can discuss ritual conversion to Judaism which existed in the time of James, Peter, and Paul and which exists today. I agree that you can’t “convert” to a tribal affiliation (which is why the ancient “gerim” in Torah were not converts). Judaism has long allowed for a few, select outsiders to join them, not because of ancestry, but by choice. But then, one choses to go “all the way,” so to speak, not retaining Gentile identity while living as a Jew. If we accept that God granted the Jewish community the authority to establish legally binding customs since antiquity, then we can accept Jewish converts.
But according to Paul and ultimately the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15), circumcision (conversion) is not required of the Gentile disciples of Messiah. We are one in Spirit and “co-inhabit” the body of Messiah. The body of Messiah is like the human body, which has different organs and structures, all of which are required for a healthy living person, and just like the body of Messiah, actually requires different parts.
All of this was set into motion thousands of years ago with Abraham and it is a blessing that the whole world isn’t required to convert to Judaism in order to be reconciled to God. No stream of Judaism I’m aware of requires conversion and circumcision in order to be right with God. The Bible and God have always presupposed a world made up of Jews and Gentiles who are reconciled before our Creator. Messianic Judaism is the living example of a Judaism that recognizes the spiritual equality of Jews and Gentiles in Messiah without compelling circumcision and full Torah observance upon the Gentiles in the body (not that we can’t take on board more of the mitzvot voluntarily).
I know this won’t satisfy the Hebrew Roots Gentiles who believe in uniformity in the Messianic body, nor the traditional Christians who also require uniformity. But those alternatives either rob the uniqueness God gave to the Jewish people through circumcision, the Torah, and Israel by having Gentiles say “it belongs to us too,” or strips that uniqueness away, defying God’s will by Christians telling Jewish people they must cease their ethnic and religious uniqueness and performance of the mitzvot if they wish to worship Moshiach, requiring that Jewish believers live like the Gentiles in the Church.
Why has this mitzvah survived in strength while so many other mitzvot have fallen to the wayside by otherwise minimally observant Jews? Perhaps the answer is found in the 2,000 year old words of Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel, “Every mitzvah that they (the Jewish people) accepted upon themselves with joy … they still perform with joy.” (Talmud, Shabbos 130a). Deep in our collective psyche we know that the Jewish people is eternal, that we have a mission to be a “Light Unto the Nations” and to perfect the world, that the Almighty loves us and watches over us — and that it is our great joy and privilege to be a part of that Covenant!
However you choose to view this in terms of being Gentile members of the body of Christ, the creation of “the Church” didn’t eliminate the promises God made to Israel. Paul said (Galatians 3:17) that “the law, introduced 430 years later, does not set aside the covenant previously established by God and thus do away with the promise.” So too the work of Messiah did not annul the covenants previously established by God, but rather, Messiah was and is the crystallization of prophesy, the perfect expression of all of the covenants, the doorway allowing both people who are uniquely Jewish and those of us who are uniquely Gentile, to enter into relationship with God, co-inhabitants in a body that does require the heart, liver, lungs, spleen, stomach and many other organs, as opposed to being a single body, with a single organ, and a single identity, and a single function. A human being with only a stomach and no other parts couldn’t possibly live, so demanding absolute uniformity and canceling diversity within the body of Messiah kills the body.
Rabbi Packouz says the Jewish people are eternal. Circumcision is one of the signs of that eternal and unique existence before God. Opposing this is opposing God’s will. We can only be one in Messiah and possess the One Spirit of God by living in accordance with that One Spirit and that One God.
Therefore Jesus answered and was saying to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, the Son can do nothing of Himself, unless it is something He sees the Father doing; for whatever the Father does, these things the Son also does in like manner.
–John 5:19 (NASB)
I’ve often heard that we should imitate our Master, but I don’t think in this case it means so much what we eat or what we wear, but rather, how we treat those who God has uniquely blessed. If we bless the Jewish people, we too are blessed by Israel and by Messiah. Of course, there is the converse.