What does Genesis 17
Sermon on Genesis 17.1-14.23-25 + Deuteronomy.10.10-22 + Jeremiah 4.4
Pastor Ulrike Heimann (ev)
on the occasion of the judgment of the Cologne regional court on the circumcision of a boy
Topic: "In the criticism: Circumcision - sign of the covenant" (Gen.17.1-14.23-25; Dtn.10.10-22; Jer.4,4)
a judgment of the Cologne regional court at the end of last month not only caused a stir but also sparked a discussion that will probably occupy us for years to come; and that is also necessary. I mean judging the ritual circumcision of a boy as bodily harm and child abuse. The reactions to this judgment were violent. The representatives of the Jewish and Muslim communities saw religious freedom under threat. Jews in particular are concerned about whether there can be Jewish life in Germany - 67 years after the Holocaust. And on the other hand, child protection activists see themselves strengthened, who place the right to physical integrity higher than any religious rite. Interesting: a letter to the editor also called for the baptism of children to be prohibited, which would be "waterboarding" and also abuse. In any case, it is clear that very different interests collide here, which have to be weighed against one another. And it is also clear that the judge, who certainly pronounced this sentence according to the letter of the law, had no idea what it would trigger with it. He probably also has no idea what circumcision means for Jews (and Muslims), what role it plays in these religions. And still - I think it's good that we have such an impetus to think about it and get into conversation with one another - across religions.
I want to use this morning's sermon to remind you of the biblical background of circumcision. Without this knowledge, one cannot seriously develop an opinion on the question of “circumcision - yes or no”. The original text for this is Gen. 17, 1-14.23-25.
“When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the Eternal appeared to him and said to him, I am the mighty God; walk before me and be whole!
And I give my covenant between me and you and I want to increase you beyond measure.
Abram fell on his face. And God went on talking to him, saying:
I, see, my covenant is with you, that you will become the father of a multitude of peoples.
Therefore your name shall no longer be Abram, but your name shall be Abraham; for I make you the father of many nations.
And I will establish my covenant between me and you and your descendants from generation to generation, so that it may be an everlasting covenant, so that I may be God your seed and your seed.
And I will give you and your generation after you the land in which you are a stranger, the whole land of Canaan, for everlasting possession, and I will be their God.
And God said to Abraham, Keep my covenant, you and your descendants from generation to generation.
But this is my covenant, which you are to keep between me and you and your generation after you: Everything that is male among you shall be circumcised;
you shall circumcise your foreskin. That should be the sign of the covenant between you and me.
At eight days, everything male among you should be circumcised - your descendants and also everything servants born in the house or bought from strangers who are not of your gender.
And so my covenant with your flesh will become an everlasting covenant.
But if a male is not circumcised on his foreskin, he will be cut off from his people because he has broken my covenant
So Abraham took his son Ishmael and all the servants who were born in the house, and all who were bought, and everything male in his house, and circumcised their foreskin on that very day, as God had told him.
And Abraham was ninety-nine years old when he circumcised his foreskin.
But Ishmael, his son, was thirteen years old when his foreskin was circumcised. "
The rite of male circumcision, dear community, is certainly not a Jewish invention. Rather, it is a very old custom that was practiced by a great many peoples or tribes. It probably originated at the time when people began to settle down. When they were no longer on the move as gatherers and hunters who lived from what nature “gave them”, but rather populated and worked the land as cattle and arable farmers. For them everything depended on fertility: they lived on what they could gain from the earth and its animals. Circumcision was originally a fertility rite, a "sacrifice" made by the man - probably adult and capable of procreation - so that the clan could multiply. Our text also speaks of reproduction and fertility. But not only. Rather, something new is added in Judaism: circumcision becomes the founding sign of a covenant between God and man. And indeed God establishes this covenant, he is the doer. That is why the little boy should be circumcised and not the grown man - as a sign that God is acting on him, not that man does something of his own accord. The eighth day also has a symbolic meaning: it is the first day of the second week. In the first week God called the world into being, now he calls people close to him: “Walk before me and be whole!” Live your life in relation to me, the living God.
For the Jew, the covenant with his God is synonymous with creation. “Walk before me and be whole” corresponds to the mandate to cultivate and preserve the earth.
The promise of God's blessing is linked to an invitation to the people of the covenant to behave in such a way that their behavior corresponds to God and his will.
This is underlined in the passage from Deuteronomy chapter 10: 10-22:
Moses relates: The Eternal said to me, Rise up, go and go before the people, that they may come in and take the land that I will give them, as I swore to their fathers.
Now, Israel, what more does the Eternal, your God, ask of you, except that you fear your God, that you walk in all his ways and love him and serve your God with all your heart and with all your soul, that you obey the commandments of You keep the eternal and his rights, which I command you today, so that it may be well for you?
Behold, the heavens and all the heavens, the heavens and the earth and all that is in them, that is the Eternal, your God.
And yet he only accepted your fathers that he loved them, and chose their offspring, namely you, from among all peoples, just as it is today.
So circumcise your hearts now and do not be stubborn from now on.
For the Eternal, your God, is the God of all gods and the Lord over all lords, the great God, the mighty and the terrible, who does not look at the person and takes no gift and creates justice for orphans and widows and loves strangers to give them food and clothing.
Therefore you should also love strangers; for you were also strangers in the land of Egypt.
You shall fear the Eternal, your God, you shall serve him, you shall cling to him.
He is your glory and your God. "
“So circumcise your hearts now” - the sign of circumcision has reached a new, deeper dimension here. The covenant with God should be a matter of the heart and not a formal matter. The life of the individual, his behavior towards the weak, shows whether he is in league with God, not his body. The prophet Jeremiah saw it similarly, who, in the face of all the social upheavals in Israel, urged his countrymen: “Thus says the Eternal: Circumcise yourselves for the Eternal and remove the foreskin of your heart, you men of Judah and you people of Jerusalem, that not because of your wickedness will my anger come out like fire and burn, so that no one can put it out. ”(Jer. 4: 4)
The Jew and Apostle Paul then followed up on this in the dispute with the Jewish Christian community in Jerusalem regarding the question of whether not everyone who wanted to belong to the community of Jesus had to be circumcised beforehand. In the letter to the Corinthians he writes: “To be circumcised is nothing, and to be uncircumcised is nothing, but to keep God's commandments.” (1 Cor. 7:19) And in the letter to the Romans it says: “For he is not a Jew who is outwardly also does not include circumcision, which is done outwardly on the flesh; but he is a Jew from whom it is hidden inside, and that is the circumcision of the heart, which takes place in the spirit and not in the letter. "(Romans 2: 28f)
A development in understanding can be clearly seen here: circumcision as a spiritual act, as a spiritual experience. For us Christians it can be understood that way without any problems. The spirit is always worth more than the letter, more than the flesh than the body.
It's just different for a Jew. And to do that, one has to understand the importance of circumcision in Jewish history. Whether it was really practiced without restrictions as long as Israel was resident in Canaan until the conquest of Jerusalem by the Babylonians cannot be clearly established. It may have been a custom that had lost its seriousness - perhaps as infant baptism is for many today. But in Babylonian exile, far from home, with no possibility of gathering in the temple for worship and making sacrifices, it became too the Signs of Jewish existence in general. A Jew was whoever was circumcised. It kept the community together - and the others outside. Nothing changed when Israel returned from exile and rebuilt the temple. It then experienced a dramatic increase in importance in the 2nd century BC, when Palestine was ruled by the successors of Alexander the Great. The Seleucid king Antiochus IV not only forbade Jewish worship and had pagan sacrifices made in the Jerusalem temple; he forbade circumcision even on the death penalty. For him she was a total mutilation. This triggered the bitter resistance of the Jewish population, which led to the so-called Maccabees uprising. Many parents paid with their lives for having their sons circumcised despite the prohibition. To this day, all Jews remember these martyrs. The same thing happened to the Jews in Portugal and Spain after the Reconquista in the 15th century, when the Jews had to choose between baptism or death. Many tried to live their Judaism in secret; but woe to those found to be circumcised. They all ended up at the stake of the Inquisition. So the actually “only” external sign became too the Loyalty mark of the Jewish faith. Last but not least, “thanks” to the Christian Church.
We Christians in particular must not forget all this when we now talk about how to evaluate circumcision and how to deal with it. To see it simply as child abuse and assault is not our business. It would be fatal if Jewish or Muslim parents sought out circumcisers and exposed their children to a high health risk simply because they could no longer find a doctor or clinic to carry out this operation; these are threatened with criminal consequences. And it would be terrible if our constitutional order from the point of view of the right to physical integrity would ultimately “complete” the goal of National Socialist racial madness, the eradication of Judaism from our society.
But because the Torah itself already includes the step to develop external circumcision into circumcision of the heart, i.e. into an internal process, we should invite Jews and Muslims to rethink their rituals. This also encourages those among them who have long been critical of real circumcision and only have their sons circumcised because they are afraid of being excluded from the community otherwise. The same thing happened to many Christian parents 40 or 50 years ago who actually did not want their children to be baptized because for them baptism required the children's own commitment to the Christian faith, but then did it so that the children would not have any disadvantages . It should be clear to us that our practice of infant baptism has to be questioned again and again, even if it is certainly not a kind of "waterboarding" and therefore does not represent bodily harm or child abuse.
In any case, I very much hope that our society will be able to give Jews and Muslims among us space for their faith and, with them, to ensure that humanity and philanthropy continue to develop.
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