Genesis 17.1-2, 9-10Whatever circumcision symbolized at the start, at the very least it was a physically distinctive mark that set the tribes of Israel apart from the surrounding and neighboring tribes. Circumcision meant that these people were set apart for YHWH--distinctive, holy, consecrated.
When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the Lord appeared to him and said, “I am God Almighty; walk before me faithfully and be blameless. Then I will make my covenant between me and you and will greatly increase your numbers.”
Then God said to Abraham, “As for you, you must keep my covenant, you and your descendants after you for the generations to come. This is my covenant with you and your descendants after you, the covenant you are to keep: Every male among you shall be circumcised..."
But it wasn't too long before the notion of circumcision began to drift to another body part. In the giving of the Law to Israel after the Exodus we see circumcision shift from the genitalia to the heart. To be sure, genital circumcision was still practiced, but the idea of being "set apart" and "consecrated" began to shift from a physical mark to behavioral distinctiveness.
Deuteronomy 10.16; 30.6Circumcision becomes less about ethnic identification than an issue of obedience and love of YHWH.
Circumcise your hearts, therefore, and do not be stiff-necked any longer.
The Lord your God will circumcise your hearts and the hearts of your descendants, so that you may love him with all your heart and with all your soul, and live.
In the NT, Paul echos this behavioral shift, arguing that "true circumcision" is a matter of obedience to the Law and not simply the physical mark. Circumcision is a matter of the heart.
Romans 2:25-29In this we see a spiritualizing of the concept of circumcision. Circumcision is less a matter of the flesh than it is obedience to God.
Circumcision has value if you observe the law, but if you break the law, you have become as though you had not been circumcised. So then, if those who are not circumcised keep the law’s requirements, will they not be regarded as though they were circumcised? The one who is not circumcised physically and yet obeys the law will condemn you who, even though you have the written code and circumcision, are a lawbreaker.
A person is not a Jew who is one only outwardly, nor is circumcision merely outward and physical. No, a person is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the written code. Such a person’s praise is not from other people, but from God.
And beyond the genitalia and the heart we see circumcision also applied to a third body part.
In the Old Testament prophets there is a growing concern with ears: the ability to hear the Word of God, the ability to be open and receptive to God. In the prophets there is a lot of discussion about ears that are "closed," "deaf," or "stopped up" to the Word of God.
Ezekiel 12.2This culminates in using uncirumcision to designate ears closed to the Word of God:
“Son of man, you are living among a rebellious people. They have eyes to see but do not see and ears to hear but do not hear, for they are a rebellious people."
"Hear this, you foolish and senseless people, who have eyes but do not see, who have ears but do not hear..."
Jeremiah 6.10In the gospels, particularly in his parables, Jesus also draws attention to the ears: "He who has ears to hear let him hear."
To whom shall I speak and give warning,
that they may hear?
Behold, their ears are uncircumcised,
they cannot listen;
behold, the word of the Lord is to them an object of scorn;
they take no pleasure in it.
In the NT it is Stephen, in his sermon before the Sanhedrin, who makes the explicit connection between spiritual deafness and uncircumcision:
Acts 7.51What I find of interest here is how circumcision is a deliberate act of setting something apart, an act of consecration. Which is interesting given the anatomical relationship between ears and heart. A relationship that I think the prophets were getting at.
“You stiff-necked people! Your hearts and ears are still uncircumcised. You are just like your ancestors: You always resist the Holy Spirit!"
The ears function as gate-keepers. If the ears are "closed" then nothing gets to the heart. Thus the shift to the ears, as I see it, is a temporal shift of focus. That is, there is something in the immediate and initial reaction to the Word of God that is picked out by pointing to the ears. A reference to the ears is pointing out something about your reaction right here and right now. Like when you are talking to someone and you say, "You are not listening to me." To be sure, this refusal to listen is a matter of the heart, but the reference to the ears changes the emphasis. This is a a shift from "their hearts are far from me"--which points to a chronic condition of waning affections, a falling out of love--to the more acute and immediate assessment of "I'm talking to you but you're not listening to me." Resistance in the moment is being pointed out. Someone is talking and you're sticking your fingers in your ears. In fact, that very image is used by the prophets:
Zechariah 7:11I find the connection between circumcision and ears interesting. Circumcision is a deliberate act of "setting apart." So what might it mean to "circumcise your ears"? To have holy, consecrated ears? Ears to cultivated to "hear" God in the babel of the world?
But they refused to pay attention; stubbornly they turned their backs and covered their ears.