Warning: the next two paragraphs of this article describe graphic violence. If you do not wish to read these paragraphs you may skip them to get to a biblical description of equally graphic violence.
Flaying is the act of removal of the skin of a person for the purpose of torture or execution. A particularly adept torturer could keep a body alive for long periods of time as he removed most of the skin in one piece. Tradition says that the apostle Bartholomew was flayed before he was executed by crucifixion. The prominent scholar of the Torah, Rabbi Akiva, was flayed by the Romans, either for teaching Torah in public or for his part in the Bar Kochba rebellion.
Scalping is a partial flaying. It was practiced throughout time and in many places, although it probably gained its greatest notoriety in the practices of some Native American tribes. It was practiced by the English and French during America’s French and Indian wars. One Frenchman, known only by his initials, described the practice. After immobilizing his victim, the scalper, “quickly seizes his knife, and makes an incision around the hair from the upper part of the forehead to the back of the neck. Then he puts his foot on the shoulder of the victim, whom he has turned over face down, and pulls the hair off with both hands, from back to front . . . This hasty operation is no sooner finished than the savage fastens the scalp to his belt and goes on his way." (J. C. B., Travels in New France)
“And they that are Christ’s have crucified the flesh with the affections and lusts.” (Gal 5:24) Crucifixion was one of the cruelest forms of execution. A person might take days to die, particularly if his hands were tied rather than nailed to the cross. Pilate marveled that Jesus was dead in just a few hours (Mk 15:43). And yet this is what we are to do to our fleshly nature. Imagine scalping yourself as described above. Picture yourself flaying your body. Not a pretty picture, is it? And yet Paul tells us to do something just as difficult and painful.
If we crucify the desires and lusts of the flesh it will not be easy. It will not be pleasant. God does not ask us to violate the nature he created us with. Nevertheless, he does ask us to control our flesh. He does not ask us to become celibate, but he does ask us to crucify that nature that gives free reign to our desires. He does not ask us to be paupers, but he does ask us to make our living honestly.
It is the unbridled expression of our desires that we are to crucify. We know that it is those unlimited desires that are wrong, not the same desires kept within God’s original plan. “Whence come wars and fightings among you? Come they not hence, even of your lusts that war in your members?” (Jas 4:1-2) James says lust—uncontrolled passion—is at war with our normal desires. It is these lusts that we must crucify. It is these desires that we must remove.
Suppose that you heard about a man who spent his days cutting people. While they are asleep he comes and slices away chunks of flesh, possibly even scalping them. Normally we would expect such a person to be arrested and punished. But if the same person has a medical degree and is removing cancerous skin we consider them to be a blessing. When we crucify the flesh we are removing the tumors of lust. It may be painful, but it sure is healthful.