When a Seleucid king outlawed circumcision

Coin of Seleucus I, likely depicting a posthumous portrait of Alexander the Great. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Coin of Seleucus I, likely depicting a posthumous portrait of Alexander the Great. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

This week’s portentous events in Iceland — the Parliamentary bill which, if passed, would ban male circumcision and lead to up to six years’ imprisonment for those carrying it out — could not help but remind me of one of the darker periods in the history of Israel, when a Seleucid king, in his hatred of Judaism, outlawed the ancient custom.

There are many dissimilarities between the events of that period and the events this week in Iceland, and it would be unfair to press the comparison too far. But it is worth recalling those events, particularly since we are — as I believe — in danger of the European history of eighty years ago repeating itself.

A row was sparked this week over the religious freedom of Jews and Muslims, following the proposal of the bill by Icelandic MP Silja Dögg Gunnarsdóttir of the centre-right Progressive party.

The motivation behind the bill does not seem to me to be specifically anti-Semitic. It seems to me to be a combination of secularism and religious ignorance.

“One of the important functions of democratically-elected government is to defend the interests of minorities from the will of the majority.”

Speaking about the bill, Gunnarsdóttir gave some very poor reasons for its proposal: “If we have laws banning circumcision for girls, then we should do so for boys,” she said.

She also claimed that the bill had wide public support.[1]

Both of these are extremely poor justifications. As I have discussed here, one of the important functions of democratically-elected government is to defend the interests of minorities from the will of the majority.[2]

There are thought only to be around 250 Jews in Iceland.[3] But this bill, if passed, would be likely to drive them out of the country. Circumcision is a non-negotiable aspect of Jewish identity[4] and has been practised by Jews for millennia; it is commanded in the pages of the Torah, the first five books of the Bible.

“This proposed legislation seems to be part of a trend of hostile secularism currently sweeping through Western Europe, a secularism which seeks to subjugate religion to ostensibly worthy principles such as ‘public order,’ multiculturalism, equality, and human rights.”

I have written here about how this proposed legislation seems to be part of a trend of hostile secularism currently sweeping through Western Europe, a secularism which seeks to subjugate religion to ostensibly worthy principles such as ‘public order,’ multiculturalism, equality, and human rights.

In this view the above principles are deemed to trump the right of freedom of religion or freedom of belief.

The hostility of this secularism is characterized by its shutting down of any debate or discussion with which it happens to disagree. Witness, for example, the unsavoury intimidation of supporters of traditional marriage in the recent Australian referendum; or indeed David Lammy MP’s recent implied equation, in the UK Parliament, of traditional marriage with slavery.

History repeating

When I first heard about Gunnarsdóttir’s bill on Monday, I couldn’t help but be reminded of events in Israel in the second century B.C.

The Jewish inter-testamental book known as 1 Maccabees tells how in the year 169 B.C. and the years following, one of the Seleucid kings who was then ruling over Israel, King Antiochus IV Epiphanes, motivated by a fervent desire to stamp out the Jewish faith completely, forbade the Jews living in Israel from observing the Law of Moses, and ordered them not to circumcise their children:—

Then the king wrote to his whole kingdom that all should be one people, and that all should give up their particular customs. All the Gentiles accepted the command of the king. Many even from Israel gladly adopted his religion; they sacrificed to idols and profaned the sabbath. And the king sent letters by messengers to Jerusalem and the towns of Judah; he directed them to follow customs strange to the land, to forbid burnt offerings and sacrifices and drink offerings in the sanctuary, to profane sabbaths and festivals, to defile the sanctuary and the priests, to build altars and sacred precincts and shrines for idols, to sacrifice swine and other unclean animals, and to leave their sons uncircumcised. They were to make themselves abominable by everything unclean and profane, so that they would forget the law and change all the ordinances. He added, “And whoever does not obey the command of the king shall die.”
1 Maccabees 1:41-50

Nor was the king slack in carrying through his threats:—

“According to the decree, they put to death the women who had their children circumcised, and their families and those who circumcised them; and they hung the infants from their mothers’ necks.”

1 Maccabees 1:60-61

Now on the fifteenth day of Chislev, in the one hundred forty-fifth year, they erected a desolating sacrilege on the altar of burnt offering. They also built altars in the surrounding towns of Judah, and offered incense at the doors of the houses and in the streets. The books of the law that they found they tore to pieces and burned with fire. Anyone found possessing the book of the covenant, or anyone who adhered to the law, was condemned to death by decree of the king. They kept using violence against Israel, against those who were found month after month in the towns. On the twenty-fifth day of the month they offered sacrifice on the altar that was on top of the altar of burnt offering. According to the decree, they put to death the women who had their children circumcised, and their families and those who circumcised them; and they hung the infants from their mothers’ necks.
But many in Israel stood firm and were resolved in their hearts not to eat unclean food. They chose to die rather than to be defiled by food or to profane the holy covenant; and they did die. Very great wrath came upon Israel.
1 Maccabees 1:54-64

King Antiochus’ policy of trying to stamp out all the distinctives of the Jewish faith was bound to lead to friction, and eventually one family in the town of Modein, Mattathias and his five sons, rebelled and took to the hills with a guerrilla force.[5]

The rest of the book of 1 Maccabees is the exciting history of how Mattathias and his sons — most famously Judas Maccabeus,[6] from whom the book gets its name — led a successful campaign against King Antiochus and eventually liberated Israel from his rule.

1 Maccabees is a reliable historical account dating from close to the events it describes. It is not regarded as Holy Scripture within Judaism or within Protestant Christianity, although it is regarded as part of the Old Testament Scriptures in the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox branches of Christianity.[7]

What can Antiochus’ persecution teach us today?

“No-one is suggesting for a moment that any Icelandic Members of Parliament are about to adopt the sort of rabid hostility towards Judaism that Antiochus Epiphanes did. Nevertheless, it amounts to an attack on a non-negotiable element of Jewish identity.”

No-one is suggesting for a moment that any Icelandic Members of Parliament are about to adopt the sort of rabid hostility towards Judaism that Antiochus Epiphanes did. He was clearly motivated by a fervent wish to stamp out everything distinctive about the Jewish religion. The motivation behind this bill seems to me more to be a combination of secularism and ignorance.

Nevertheless, it amounts to an attack on a non-negotiable element of Jewish identity — and six years’ imprisonment is a harsh penalty to face for practising one’s religion.

As one Twitter user told me, “It is a religious discrimination, and we [Jews] appear [to be] the collateral damage to this policy.”

If it shows us nothing else, the history of the Maccabean revolt demonstrates that Jewish circumcision has been practised — and has been a fundamental aspect of Jewish identity — for millennia, and is a cherished sign of the Jews’ covenant relationship with God.

Secularism — often hostile and intolerant of minorities — is today marching apace through Western Europe, gradually eroding the religious freedoms which have been enjoyed here since 1945. We must not allow those freedoms to be curtailed by some Member of Parliament’s misguided ideas of ‘equality.’

 

 

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The Scripture quotations contained herein are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of Churches of Christ in the U.S.A. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

 


[1] https://www.theguardian.com/society/2018/feb/18/iceland-ban-male-circumcision-first-european-country

[2] See, e.g., https://edsitement.neh.gov/blog/2015/10/13/alexis-de-tocquevilles-warning-tyranny-majority for a discussion of ‘the tyranny of the majority’ in democratic society.

[3] https://www.theguardian.com/society/2018/feb/18/iceland-ban-male-circumcision-first-european-country

[4] Ibid.

[5] 1 Maccabees 2:1-28 (https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=1+Maccabees+2%3A1-28&version=NRSVA)

[6] 1 Maccabees 2:4

[7] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Biblical_canon#Jewish_canons; https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Biblical_canon#Table

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