Today’s text of Scripture was a little… painful. Paul wasn’t cutting any corners when he wrote: “I wish those who unsettle you would emasculate themselves!” (Gal 5:12; all Scripture in ESV). Brutal!
Paul plays with his words here, as the Judaizers were trying to convince the Galatians to circumcise themselves as a sign of adherence to the Old Covenant. In true Pauline fashion, he doesn’t hold back and tells them exactly how he feels.
But there’s a chance something more may be going on here. Paul may be alluding to a text from the Law: Deuteronomy 23:1 – “No one whose testicles are crushed or whose male organ is cut off shall enter the assembly of the LORD.” Paul uses the same Greek word as the LXX (the LXX is the Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament).
What does Moses mean, that someone with damaged privates “shall not enter the assembly of the LORD”? Clearly Moses isn’t talking about entering Heaven. But in the following verses, Moses also excludes those “born of a forbidden union” (23:2) and Ammonites and Moabites (23:3).
Most likely, “assembly” does not refer to the Israelites as a whole. God is not saying that anyone with damaged body parts cannot become a believing Israelite. God is also not saying that no Ammonite or Moabite can ever become an Israelite (if that were the case, then neither Ruth nor King David would be considered a legitimate Israelite! cf. Ruth 1:4, 16-17; 4:18-22).
Instead, it’s better to take “assembly” to refer to the formal services and gatherings of the Tabernacle or Temple. Additionally, it’s good to keep in mind that oftentimes genital mutilation was associated with pagan cults and priests. So the context in Deut 23 may specifically refer to pagans who have emasculated or mutilated themselves in worship of other deities.
By using the word “emasculate” (again, the same Greek word used in the translation of Deut 23:1), Paul may be making a slight allusion to this verse as if to say, “Judaizers—you’re in the same category as those forbidden to come to the Temple and worship under the Old Covenant!” Whether this was Paul’s intent or not is impossible to say. He certainly was reacting against the Judaizers pushing circumcisions upon the Galatians. If he meant the allusion, it may be another (strong and visceral) way of saying the Judaizers weren’t welcome in the Galatian churches.