Circumcised Ears

As best I can tell, there is no scholarly consensus as to why the ancient Israelites selected the practice circumcision to be the sign of their covenant with YHWH. Regardless, they did. In the biblical narrative, the convent of circumcision is introduced in Genesis 17 with Abraham:
Genesis 17.1-2, 9-10
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..."
Whatever 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.

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; 30.6
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.
Circumcision becomes less about ethnic identification than an issue of obedience and love of YHWH.

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 2:25-29
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.
In this we see a spiritualizing of the concept of circumcision. Circumcision is less a matter of the flesh than it is obedience to God.

And beyond the genitalia and the heart we see circumcision also applied to a third body part.

The ears.

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 12.2
“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."

Jeremiah 5.21
"Hear this, you foolish and senseless people, who have eyes but do not see, who have ears but do not hear..."
This culminates in using uncirumcision to designate ears closed to the Word of God:
Jeremiah 6.10
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 gospels, particularly in his parables, Jesus also draws attention to the ears: "He who has ears to hear let him hear."

In the NT it is Stephen, in his sermon before the Sanhedrin, who makes the explicit connection between spiritual deafness and uncircumcision:
Acts 7.51
“You stiff-necked people! Your hearts and ears are still uncircumcised. You are just like your ancestors: You always resist the Holy Spirit!"
What 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.

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 7:11
But they refused to pay attention; stubbornly they turned their backs and covered their ears.
I 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?

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10 thoughts on “Circumcised Ears”

  1. Unlike the English word which comes from a Latin origin related to the act of cutting the word for circumcision (milah or mo-wl) has no relation to the verb to cut in either Hebrew or Aramaic.  Later in Exodus when Zipporah is performing the exact same action, cutting off the foreskin the word used instead is Tik-rot.  Clearly there was an additional meaning to circumcision as a ritual act separate from the physical, something that continues to this day were children who have the physical circumcision performed by a doctor in the hospital will still have a bris milah as a ritual welcome to the community.  I suspect learning more about why they chose that particular word and what other associations it had before it became associated with ritual practice would shed some interesting light on what the intentions of the compilers of the scriptures had when using it.  Unfortuently the only semetic language etymology guide I can find
    doesn't have an entry for it (otherwise a great site btw\data\semham\semet )

    Does anyone else know more about this?

  2. Is it possible that having adult males circumcised instead of babies that the pain and healing period that would take place would be constant reminder that the flesh was a condition of the heart and the ears that needed to be cut away. Pain is a great teacher if it is remembered. If not I don't see how children could make the connection between circumcision of the genitalia and other parts of the body. (soul)

  3. I wonder... Is infant ear-cutting covered by insurance? American parents will want to know. If this catches on, we'll be reading how the loss of ear lobes leads to reduced incidence of STDs and HIV. 

  4. Making it a taboo to compare male with female sexual
    mutilation is the biggest scandal of the controversy. In both
    instances the most sensitive and most erogenous zone of the
    human body is amputated and severely damaged. In both
    instances, what counts primarily is the cutting of human
    sexuality. The imposition of control by the patriarchy.

    What is lacking in all the talk about circumcision is
    discussion of its
    archeological dimension - that it is the left over of human
    What kind of god is it that asks a people to sacrifice? Or a people who create such a god for themselves?

      Also, unfortunately it is / has been circumcision that has
    MADE for no end of anti-semitic sentiments. Freud found that
    it was the chief reason for unconscious anti-Semitism. And the
    myths surrounding it are at the core of the “blood libel.”
    Thus, it's time to eliminate the Brit Milah because if that is
    the chief reason for being anti-Semitic or anti-Abrahamic
    [Islam too practices the rite] then why hang on to this
    left-over of human sacrifice? that traumatizesthe child,
    cutting off 5,000 nerves, that is the equivalent of female
    circumcision in the sense that it eliminates everything but
    the clitoris,and only serves the UltraOrthodox to maintain
    their power? After all, reform Judaism sought to eliminate the
    rite in the 19th century, and Jewish identity depends on being
    born by a Jewish mother, or converting. Here  a link to an
    archive of the entire German and then some debate, note
    especially Michael Wolffsohn's two pieces  . Circumcision has
    been controversial also within Jewry forever.



  5. did Jesus really expect the people to hear? if God had hardened their hearts and stopped up their ears so that they might hear and then He would have to hear them. it's like they really didn't have a chance.

  6. I've been thinking about this in a more nuanced context of human seeing. While indeed our eyes are the gateway for photons to enter our nervous system and create light, passing photons on the way out through these gateways are ideas. It's these ideas that make for what we see:  more so than photons- way more.

    We see with our ideas. So what does it mean to "have eyes that aren't seeing?" Whatever it means, it pertains to the ideas we choose to see reality with doesn't it?

    More, while neuroscience places seeing in the circuit made between eyes and brain, Jesus placed it in a circuit made between eyes and heart; in other words, in this more nuanced description of how human life actually sees, this question arises: "how do ideas relate to hearts?"

    So now I'm wondering about what it means to be "hard-hearted"; it seems to speak to ways of living that rely on dogmatism- no? 

  7. I thoroughly enjoy all the texts about ears and circumcision!

    Another passage where we can see the ears linked to obedience is in the beginning of Exodus 21.  Specifically in verses 5 and 6, where if the slave loves his master, a ceremony is preformed in the door way, and the slaves ear is bored, promising obedience and servitude forever.
    And to make things really fun, what about the night of Jesus' betrayal when one of them cuts the ear off of the servant(or slave)? And why in Luke does Jesus heal him, but in Matthew he doesn't?

  8. You have missed the key piece of anatomy to catch ths shift from corporeal to spiritual - moses had un circumcised lips (exodus). To release a tongue tie one cuts a frenulum. To circumcise a penis one cuts a frenulum.
    But that corporeal connection must have got lost leaving Deuteronomy Ezekiel etc. assuming the reference to lips was which point it's open to be shifted to heart and ears.

  9. I would caution you to avoid saying, "Circumcision becomes less about ethnic identification than an
    issue of obedience and love of YHWH." From a Jewish perspective, Ramban
    later interprets these verses as a sign of complete repentance in the heart,
    not that literal circumcision is replaced or somehow negated. This "drift" you pick up on is not a drift away, but a poetic theme the prophetic voices use as a tool of emphasis. 


    I think what you’re saying is
    that for Christians following the Pauline school, an emphasis on spiritual
    circumcision occurs. However, this does not mean Peter was on-board, or that
    circumcision somehow lost its value to the Judean people. 

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