Circumcision of the Heart

Deuteronomy 10.16, 16.18-20, 30.6
Romans 7.15-19

All of Scripture may be regarded as a treatise on the hardness of the human heart. From its first mention in Gen 6.5 until the dawn of the New Covenant, the Bible describes the heart as wicked, stony, hard, uncircumcised, etc. Hence, the covenant with Israel at Sinai was written on tablets of stone as a metaphor. God's desire was to have His Torah written upon each Israelite's heart, but when Israel refused (Ex 20.18-21), He substituted stone tablets.

The bringing of a stony heart into submission to God is described as a circumcision. The choice of terms is apt; circumcision is intimate, bloody and painful. As such it is not something that comes naturally either to the body or to the heart. This idea of heart circumcision is first mentioned in Deuteronomy, where it comes up twice. The first mention is in Dt 10.16,

"Circumcise therefore the foreskin of your heart, and be no longer stubborn."(ESV)

The second is in Dt 30.6,

"And the Lord your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your offspring, so that you will love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live."(ESV)

Notice that the first circumcision is to be self administered whereas the second will be done by God. In context, the second circumcision does not occur until the return of all Israel from exile during the greater exodus. Since the greater exodus is still in the future, this means that the operative instruction we have from God on the subject is to bring our hearts into submission ourselves. There is nothing in Scripture that changes this instructiion or makes it void. God still expects us to circumcise our own hearts.

The Torah provides abundant instruction on how to live and prosper in this world in spite of having a stony heart, but does it tell us how to perform the circumcision?

The answer, of course, is yes. Beyond the obvious advice to follow Gods rules, the first step can be found in Dt 16:

"You shall appoint judges and officers in all your towns that the Lord your God is giving you, according to your tribes, and they shall judge the people with righteous judgment. You shall not pervert justice. You shall not show partiality, and you shall not accept a bribe, for a bribe blinds the eyes of the wise and subverts the cause of the righteous. Justice, and only justice, you shall follow, that you may live and inherit the land that the Lord your God is giving you." (Dt 16.18-20 ESV)

On the surface, this is a straightforward commandment to Israel that she establish a system of civil justice within the Land. At a deeper level, however, we can put ourselves in the position of Israel so that national advice to her becomes personal advice to us. If we take this passage as metaphor for the moment, to what does the inheritance correspond? Jews would say that the inheritance is a place in the world to come - and that certainly is true, but to the Christian it smacks of works salvation (Jews don't believe in works salvation any more than Christians do. The Christian way of saying the same thing would be the rewards or crowns that Paul mentions in 1 Cor 3.14 or 2 Tim 4.8). So, although there is an eternal inheritance, at a more immediate level in line with the metaphor, we can regard the inheritance as being a good and blessed life. Note that this is not a life that is free of hard work and conflict, but rather one that has God's favor. The Israelites had to conquer and drive out the inhabitants of the land and they then had to work the land, build and trade just as other nations had to do. The difference was that God was responsible for the results, not Israel (see Dt 8.17).

So in light of our metaphor we might restate Dt 16.18-20 as follows:

You shall appoint judges and officers over all areas of your life, and you shall judge yourself with righteous judgment. You shall not pervert justice. You shall not show partiality, and you shall not accept a bribe, for a bribe blinds the eyes of the wise and subverts the cause of the righteous. Justice, and only justice, you shall follow, that you may live a life that has God's favor.

In other words, in order to inherit the blessings described above, you must set righteous judges over yourself. Before we discuss who those judges might be and how one goes about recruiting them, lets look at the three pitfalls listed in the passage that might befall a judge.

"You shall not pervert justice" means that you shall not change the standards that you use to decide a case. In a criminal trial, there are two possible lines of defense. The first is that the defendant did not do the act - not guilty because you have the wrong person. The second is that, while the defendant did do the act, that deed is not a crime - not guilty of theft because the "stolen property" was actually bought and paid for. Continuing with the theft example, perversion of justice might be; "It's not really stealing because there is so much stuff there that nobody will miss what I took," or "The company is not paying me what I'm worth, so I deserve this and it's not really stealing." In both cases, you are not denying that you took the stuff, but you are trying to change that taking into something that is not theft. This is a perversion because if you succeed in changing the definition of theft, then you are not guilty because there really was nothing stolen.

"You shall not show partiality." Partiality occurs when you excuse a crime because of who the criminal is. This can either be because of fear or favor. If your boss has lied about something, there is a temptation not to confront the lie in fear of what he could do to you if he got upset. If your friend were involved in adultery, there is the temptation to let it pass because you do not want to hurt or confront him.

In the case where you are the one being judged, the temptation to show partiality is very strong. You can think of a dozen reasons why this particular criminal should not be judged - or at least not harshly.

"You shall not accept a bribe, for a bribe blinds the eyes of the wise and subverts the cause of the righteous." What a bribe does is gives the judge a stake in the outcome of the case. Because the outcome effects him, the judge looses his wisdom and cannot see all of the evidence in its proper perspective. In the case where you are judging your own actions, you automatically have a stake in the outcome. If that weren't hard enough, the world, which wants you to fail, will offer you bribes to judge your behavior in a way that leads you into temptation and sin.

A moment's thought should make it clear that each of the problems that causes a judge to rule wrongly has its origin in emotion and self image which are the province of the heart. The emotional nature of the heart which enriches your live and makes it worth living also means that your heart is a very poor judge when you are the defendant. Yet because of its self interest and passion, your heart will not gracefully give up its judgeship over your life. It insists on second guessing every decision and having its own way. This behavior of the uncircumcised or stony heart is exactly what Paul talks about in Romans:

"For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good. So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing."(Ro 7:15-19 ESV)

Paul knows in his head the proper course of action in every circumstance - after all, he did write a great deal of the New Testament giving Torah advice about all sorts of situations - yet he finds himself unable always to do the right thing. Paul also knew that giving his flesh free rein ultimately leads to sin and death.

Since appointing your heart to be the judge over your life will lead to ruin, the only other candidate for judge is your head. The head is the proper choice for a number of reasons. First, it responds to reason and can be corrected from scripture when it makes a mistake. Also, it is the part of you to which you have conscious access - the heart changes very slowly and does not respond at all to logic and reason.1 But setting the head as judge is easier said than done. The heart is very persuasive when it sees that the head's judgment is going against what it wants (or fears). The result is that most people wind up with Paul's dilemma, they know what's right but they don't consistently do it. In other words, they try to live with two judges. Life with two judges is unstable because sometimes the one wins the argument and sometimes the other.

So we're back to the question of how to circumcise the heart. Or how do we make the head the chief justice and the heart a subordinate. (This is important because we don't want the heart to be shut down; we want to have it provide emotional support to the righteous judgments of the head.)

In talking about this problem, Rabbi Noson Weisz discusses the roles of the heart and the head in two different contexts. The first is marriage; the second is career. We have experienced an extremely high rate of divorce over the past half century. It has become common for couples to spend years together, breed children, purchase property - then for some reason become dissatisfied with either their situation or their partner and jump ship on the whole thing. Compare marriage with the other lifetime commitment, a career. Again it is common to work at a job over many years and then become dissatisfied or bored or burned out. While some do change their careers in mid life, most do not. What is the difference? Why are careers more stable than marriages when it really should be the other way around?

In the case of marriage, when one takes his eyes off his spouse, there are lots of other options. It's not hard at all to find cruising singles who are ready to supply the spark that seems to have gone out of the marriage. In the case where there are children, there is a whole array of outside options for their maintenance. Society has kept pace with our changing morality and has set up all sorts of support structures for single parents. So it's easy for the father to reason, "They'll be fine without me." Or if it is the mother who wants out, she might think, "With child support, subsidised day care and a new job, thinks will work out." Add to this the fact that the social stigma that used to attach to divorce is pretty much gone, and it becomes easy to follow the heart and quit the marriage.

Contrast that with one being bored with his career. Finding a replacement job is rather more difficult. Since prospective employers don't typically go into another firm and seduce employees, there is no alternative situation to tempt. Realistically bailing out on a job will mean a period of unemployment with no guarantee that the next job will have equivalent pay and benefits. Changing careers is even more uncertain than just changing jobs within the same field. A new career typically involves a learning curve and entry at a much lower level of responsibility and pay.

In the case both of marriage and a career, the heart wants a change. In the case of marriage, the head is unable to provide strong enough arguments to overrule the heart and keep things stable. When it comes to the career, the head is in a much stronger position. It is able to convince the heart that even if we don't starve, the new golf clubs and the kitchen renovation and the new car are going to have to wait. When things are explained to the heart in a way that it can understand, the heart grumbles a bit and goes along.

In the career change example what happens next is interesting. Once the decision is made not to change, the heart often gets on board and starts looking for ways to make things work. It might take satisfaction in developing new and interesting ways to accomplish familiar tasks. It might throw itself into organizing morale and welfare activities within the company. In other words, the heart can find ways to make the best of a situation that it cannot change. Said another way, the heart has been circumcised with respect to this issue and no longer works against what the head knows to be best.

The essence of the difference between these two examples is that in the case of a career change, the heart regards a job as necessary for life itself and so is very careful with it. Marriage, on the other hand, is an issue of romance; very intense but not a life or death issue. So when the romance cools, going out and finding another romance is always an option.

The key to heart self-circumcision then does not lie in falling in love with God. Rather it lies in convincing the heart that following God's Torah is a matter of life and death. Once that point is impressed upon the heart, it will get on board and generate the emotions necessary to complete the relationship. Moses himself makes this very point.

"Take to heart all the words by which I am warning you today, that you may command them to your children, that they may be careful to do all the words of this law. For it is no empty word for you, but your very life, and by this word you shall live long in the land that you are going over the Jordan to possess." (Dt 32:46-47 ESV)

1See Architecture of the Soul