#118. Must one be circumcised to celebrate and eat the Passover OR not? (Ex 12:43-49 vs Deut 16:1-8; Gal 3-4)


Continuing with our discussion of the differences between the Priestly writer’s Passover account in Exodus 12 and that of Deuteronomy 16 (#117), we note that while nothing is said in Deuteronomy about circumcision, in the Priestly literature it is forbidden for an uncircumcised male to eat and partake of the Passover.

And Yahweh said to Moses and Aaron: “This is the law of the Passover:

  • Any foreigner shall not eat it.
  • Every slave purchased with money, you shall circumcise him; then he shall eat it.
  • A visitor and an employee shall not eat it.
  • It shall be eaten in one house; you shall not take any of the meat outside.
  • You shall not break a bone from it.
  • All the congregation of Israel shall do the Passover.
  • If an alien resides among you and you will make a Passover to Yahweh, every male must be circumcised; then he may come forward to partake of it, and he will be like a citizen of the land.
  • But everyone who is uncircumcised shall not eat it!” (Ex 12:43-48)

Had the bullet-point format been invented then, I’m sure Moses would have used it! What Yahweh commands and prohibits is clearly laid out and visible for all to see.

If we had to summarize our author’s views, we’d be inclined to conclude that all the extended family and people of the land, Israelites and aliens, can partake of the Passover but must be circumcised in order to do so. Slaves are the family’s property, and the alien (gar) is a person who resides in the promised land, a sacred land for the Priestly writer, and one who usually practices the religion. Foreigners (merchants, travelers, etc.), visitors, and employees may not partake of the Passover. In P, circumcision not only serves as the sign of the covenant between Yahweh and the congregation of Israel (#28), but it also serves as the requirement to partake of Yahweh’s Passover, and by extension be included among the congregation.

My readers might be surprised to learn that in the whole of the book of Deuteronomy with its many laws and commandments, circumcision is NEVER mentioned, nor acknowledged as part of the Mosaic covenantal stipulations! Circumcision was just not a concern for the Deuteronomic authors, and it certainly was not conceived of as a covenantal obligation. And this is surprising since the book of Deuteronomy on the whole is a covenant text!

Thus contrary to the Deuteronomic literature, in P not following “the eternal covenant” of circumcision was grounds enough to be “cut off” from the people and the promised land (Gen 17, #28). In D, not following the Ten Commandments and the stipulations of Deuteronomy 12-26—wherein there is no mention of circumcision—constituted the grounds for losing the promised land (#30). This is just one core difference between D and P, and it represents broad theological and religious differences between these two priestly guilds. This and many of the forthcoming contradictions between the Deuteronomic and Priestly texts are the result of radical differences in the way religion and the cult were conceptualized by each of these texts’ priestly guilds, the Levites and the Aaronids.

Many of the contradictions between the Old Testament and the New Testament will be treated when we get to the New Testament. I might make a note here, however. Given the Priestly writer’s strict adherence to circumcision as the covenantal sign by which one belongs to Yahweh as his people, is heir to the promise of the land, and can partake in Yahweh’s festivals such as the Passover—all “eternal laws” expressed through Yahweh’s mouth!—we might rightly be able to grasp the seriousness of the charges laid against Paul by the Jerusalem church in allowing uncircumcised males into the covenant, into the Passover feasts, and into the inheritance of the land (Galatians).

Obviously neither Paul nor his Jewish brethren knew who wrote these texts and for whom. As far as they were concerned it was Yahweh who was speaking, and to them. Then how can Paul so blatantly disregard this ordinance of circumcision, Yahweh’s eternal law? Indeed, how can anyone claiming to be part of Yahweh’s people so blatantly disregard his “eternal laws”?

First, we might rightly remark that the 6th century BC Priestly writer would have railed vehemently from his grave against Paul’s utter disregard and misinterpretation of his text. This is what I mean when I advocate for reading and understanding these texts each on their own terms and as products of their own historical and literary worlds. The 6th century BC Priestly writer felt so strong about circumcision being the covenant sign par excellence that identified Yahweh’s people, Yahweh’s relationship to his people, and the people’s relationship to the promised land, that he placed it as an “eternal covenant” on the lips of his god! These beliefs were carved from the specific historical crisis that the Priestly writer was attempting to resolve. On the other hand, Paul lived in radically different historical era. His text was also shaped by its historical circumstances and sought to address the needs and concerns of its audience, as well as promulgate the beliefs of its author.

In other words, the Priestly text was written to reaffirm and safeguard ethnic identity and Yahweh’s “eternal” covenant to a Jewish people currently sitting in exile in Babylon wondering if their god would keep his covenantal promise to return them to their land (see #28, #30). Paul’s letter to the Galatians was written to deconstruct ethnic and religious boundaries and identities in a strife-ridden pluralistic geopolitical world ruled by a single empire. It should hardly come as a surprise that the beliefs and concerns of these two texts are utterly contradictory (see #31). To argue otherwise is to place one’s own modern beliefs and religious presuppositions before these individual texts, their unique authors and audiences, and the distinct historical crisis each one responded to and attempted to resolve. But this is exactly what was, and still is, done. Why? Because the concerns of these texts’ readers have become more important than those of the authors! And this starts with Paul himself!

Paul’s complete disregard for the Priestly writer’s beliefs, the “eternal covenant of circumcision” as the Priestly writer put it, is blasphemous we might say toward this specific text, the author who wrote it, and most importantly this author’s conception of Yahweh! It is no coincidence that the historical record has shown that Paul’s form of “Christianity” was rejected by the Jews, and rightly so since it also rejected the Torah of Moses! Rather it was adopted by the non-Jewish Greek world and even arrogantly defended by imposing a whole new re-interpretive framework onto these texts which sought to interpret them away or bring them in line with their own beliefs. Readers’ concerns trump those of the authors.

Any Palestinian Jew of the 1st century, Jesus included (!), would have been appalled by Paul’s blatant disregard for the “Torah of Moses which Yahweh had commanded to Israel” (Neh 8:1). It is Paul’s eschatology that allows him to do away with these Torah stipulations. Since Paul thought that the end of the world was upon him, not only are we already dead, Paul reasons, but so too we are dead to everything in this world: sin, Torah, worldly possessions and pursuits, etc. (Romans).

But Christianity doesn’t end here. Modern Christians, just as barbarically and blatantly as Paul did, now disregard all these New Testament commandments and ordinances, and likewise engage in a wholesale re-interpretive process that either interprets these New Testament beliefs away or brings them into line with the reader’s own beliefs, values, and worldview.

The phenomenon that I’m talking about, and which seriously needs to be discussed honestly and openly, is how re-interpretive traditions work. The above is merely one small example among literally hundreds of others now encased in this so-called “Book.” For instance, a text, for specific historical reasons, has its cultural deity pronounce eternal laws to be followed. That text becomes authoritative. Later, new historical circumstances arise, new beliefs, new worldviews, etc. A text is also written to address the needs and concerns of this historical era, but in authorizing itself it claims to be the “true” interpretation of the previous existing text! This is a mere rhetorical topos used to legitimate and authorize the new interpretation, which then becomes more authoritative than the actual text it purports to re-present! We, all of us—atheists, Christians, Jews, agnostics, etc.—need to have a serious and honest conversation about this textual phenomenon—that is, about the Bible. This never happens, however, because of the subjective and personal factors unavoidably brought into any conversation about these matters. However, this can be addressed honestly and objectively be examining the Bible itself, which is a collection of texts that actually do just that: reinterpret earlier texts and purport to be the authoritative voice of those earlier traditions. When we see this happening hundreds of times, and see how these texts are shaped by the historical concerns and beliefs of each writer, one starts to objectively see and understand this textual phenomenon.

It is however only from this point that real, honest, and sincere conversation about these sensitive and immensely personal matters can occur. The first step is to put ours—the reader’s—concerns and beliefs on the back burner, and attempt to honestly engage with those of the authors of these 70+ texts written over a 1,000 year period, 2,000-3,000 years ago. This is a daunting task to say the least! Then once that is done, we can bring back into the conversation the subjective, i.e., the reader’s concerns and beliefs, and his/her perceived relationship to these texts. But the conversation must start with the texts, their authors, and the historical and literary hows and whys of their creation. This means that we must ultimately start at a point before these texts were labeled as a “Book” by its readers who lived centuries after these texts were written, and who labeled this collection of texts “the Book” and accorded it divine status due to reasons and concerns brought about in their own historical world. For more read: What is the Bible?

I apologize for getting a bit personal and preachy on this post, but I fear that real education, knowledge, and the progress of the human species in both intellectual and spiritual terms is going to be a difficult, nay (near) impossible, task. There are so many factors working against this, especially since we live in a world that defines progress on financial, economic, and worldly terms—and that from a culture which hypocritically, it must be said, proclaims themselves to be the people of Yahweh, whose texts nevertheless utterly rail against understanding progress, life, and purpose in these very terms time and time again. But hey, that’s where interpretive traditions come in, and come in damn forcefully and authoritatively. These 2,000-3,000 year old texts, through an elaborate process of reader-oriented reinterpretation, now support, legitimate, and justify our 20th century beliefs, worldview, values, worldly pursuits, possessions, and sense of self-purpose and self-pride.

Isn’t it time we stopped this horseshit and started being honest to ourselves and these 2,000-3,000 year old texts? Are we even mature enough as a species to do this?

One thought on “#118. Must one be circumcised to celebrate and eat the Passover OR not? (Ex 12:43-49 vs Deut 16:1-8; Gal 3-4)

  1. The subject of circumcision, among others, makes it pretty clear that the Hebrew religion is “for men only.” Women have nothing to qualify them for entering into or participating in the religious life of the community. Even today, men wear the yarmulke, but not women. It goes back to the idea that “As long as God is male, Male is God!”

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