Old Testament Baptisms of Ceremonial Purification - Connecting Baptism and Circumcision

When all the Israelites were baptized, God let them go 40 years without circumcision. Similarly, when an Israelite woman’s son was circumcised, God reduced her purification (baptism) time by 40 days . . .

". . . for the Law, and those daily sprinklings of the Hebrews which were a little later to be made plain in the perfect and marvelous Baptism, are near to grace." 1
— St. Gregory of Nyssa, On the Baptism of Christ

Hebrews 9 discusses Old Testament worship in the earthly tabernacle. And as a part of this discussion, Hebrews 9:10 mentions “various washings” that were an important part of the Old Testament system.

Interestingly enough, the Greek word for “washings” here is “baptismos”, which simply means “baptisms”. In fact, Young’s Literal Translation of the Bible reflects this fact in English:

". . . only in victuals, and drinks, and different baptisms, and fleshly ordinances -- till the time of reformation imposed upon [them]." 2

Thus, we have yet another New Testament passage discussing baptism, which points us back to the Old Testament. The author of Hebrews says that the Old Testament cleansing/purification ceremonies were called “baptisms”.

A close reading of John 3:22-26 likewise reveals the correspondence of baptisms and Jewish purification rituals.

For this focus on baptism, I will give attention to one particular Old Testament purification ceremony:

Then the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak to the children of Israel, saying: ‘If a woman has conceived, and borne a male child, then she shall be unclean seven days; as in the days of her customary impurity she shall be unclean. And on the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised. She shall then continue in the blood of her purification thirty-three days. She shall not touch any hallowed thing, nor come into the sanctuary until the days of her purification are fulfilled. But if she bears a female child, then she shall be unclean two weeks, as in her customary impurity, and she shall continue in the blood of her purification sixty-six days. When the days of her purification are fulfilled, whether for a son or a daughter, she shall bring to the priest a lamb of the first year as a burnt offering, and a young pigeon or a turtledove as a sin offering, to the door of the tabernacle of meeting. Then he shall offer it before the LORD, and make atonement for her. And she shall be clean from the flow of her blood. This is the law for her who has borne a male or a female. And if she is not able to bring a lamb, then she may bring two turtledoves or two young pigeons — one as a burnt offering and the other as a sin offering. So the priest shall make atonement for her, and she will be clean.’” 3

Note that the time of purification (i.e. baptism) is doubled when a woman gives birth to a girl, compared to when she gives birth to a boy. With a boy, the primary time of purification is 7 days, and then there are 33 additional days of cleansing. But with a girl, the primary time of purification is 14 days, and then there are 66 additional days of cleansing. Why the difference?

Some people have suggested that God was biased against women, considering little girls to be twice as unclean as little boys. But this suggestion fits neither the character of our God, nor the collective evidence of the Scriptures. As author Tim Gallant has aptly noted:

This cannot be the case; the [length of] cleansing rites for men with discharges and those for women are strongly parallel (see Lev. 15.13-14, 28-30; the most significant difference is the additional requirement for the man to wash his clothes and bathe).

Rather, there is another explanation for the difference, which fits the evidence much better. Gallant continues:

It is better to suppose that the difference in the period of uncleanness is connected to the other difference mentioned in Leviticus 12: namely, that the male is circumcised. It is precisely after seven days, when the infant male is circumcised on the eighth day, that the mother's primary uncleanness comes to an end; in the case of the female, the mother's primary uncleanness continues for another seven days.4

Thus, a woman had to participate in a purification (baptism) ritual for a total of 80 days when she gave birth to a little girl. But when she gave birth to a little boy, he was circumcised, and because of this circumcision, the mom only had to participate in the purification (baptism) for a total of 40 days.

There is a parallel to be seen here:

  • When two million Israelites were baptized, God allowed them to go 40 years without circumcision.5
  • Similarly, when an Israelite woman’s son was circumcised, God allowed her to reduce her purification (baptism) time by 40 days.

Thus, contrary to the claims of some Protestant credobaptist authors, we can hardly say that Colossians 2:11-12 is the only direct Biblical link made between baptism and circumcision. It is likely that Israelites in the early Church already recognized a connection between circumcision and baptism, long before St. Paul ever wrote the book of Colossians.

Numerous books have been written by paedobaptist authors, pointing out the connections between Old Testament circumcision and New Testament baptism. Frequently, authors rely on these connections to demonstrate the case for infant baptism. Unfortunately, this particular Old Testament baptism — found in Leviticus 12 — is rarely included in the discussion.

It seems significant to note that — even in ancient Israel — circumcision and baptism were seen as interchangeable to some extent. Whenever Israelites would meditate on their historic sojourn in the wilderness, and also every time they gave birth to another Israelite child, they would have had opportunities to think about both baptism and circumcision in this context.

And if first-century Israelites already understood the connection between circumcision and baptism, then the early Church’s practice of infant baptism becomes easier to understand.

1  St. Gregory of Nyssa. On the Baptism of Christ. http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/2910.htm (accessed November 5, 2015).

2  Hebrews 9:10, Young’s Literal Translation

3  Leviticus 12

4  Gallant, Tim. Why Infant Baptism?. http://www.biblicalstudiescenter.org/ecclesiology/infantbaptism.htm (accessed November 6, 2015).

5  According to St. Paul, the Israelites received baptism in the Red Sea crossing (1 Corinthians 10:2). After this event, the Israelites wandered in the wilderness for 40 years, prior to entering the Promised Land. During this time, the Israelites did not circumcise their children (Joshua 5:5).

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