Biblical Circumcision: What Does It Mean To Be A Child Of Abraham?
The practice of circumcision is a fairly common phenomenon today, both among civilized and primitive cultures. Due to the Jewish heritage in the West, most people see the rite issuing from the covenant ceremony recorded in Genesis where God commanded Abraham to circumcise himself and his household. Nevertheless, it should be noted historically that by the time of the patriarchs, circumcision was also known in Egypt and perhaps even in Mesopotamia. When we study the rite, we find that God took a symbol known already in that day and gave it a distinct and elevated meaning. Circumcision was sanctified as the covenant bond, the brit (pronounced bris by American Jewish people in reference to the circumcision ceremony performed on Jewish males on the eighth day) between God and His people.
Circumcision and Popular Theories
Over the years, peculiar and often bizarre suggestions for the meaning of circumcision have arisen. Some say it was performed to promote fertility or to reduce sterility; others say it was done for hygienic reasons or as a sacrifice to the gods. Anthropologists in particular have frequently conjectured about it and have suggested the following reasons for its practice: It is a severing of part of one’s self to preserve the whole in afterlife; it is done for decoration, like tattooing or painting the body; it is a tribal distinction; it encourages masculinity; it is a sign of sexual maturity and a prerequisite for marriage (that is, in cultures which practice it as a puberty rite).
While some of these popular theories may appear plausible, they do not help us to understand the biblical rite as we know it. For the most part, they are offshoots of the studies of anthropology and comparative religion, which draw largely from modern-day tribal cultures and neglect the writings of Scripture and of history.
Circumcision in Ancient Egypt
You may wonder, If we are discussing the meaning of biblical circumcision, why don’t we begin with the Bible? This is a valid point, but other forms of history can enhance our understanding of the biblical setting. They also reveal the uniqueness of God’s ways of dealing with men. Ancient Egyptian history can help to illumine this frequently misunderstood practice, and although it in no way precedes the Bible in importance, it does lay an interesting background for this discussion. Early Egyptian circumcision is known from art forms such as frescoes, etched reliefs and statues which depict either the operation itself or naked circumcised individuals. In later eras, texts and papyri tell of the practice. Although questioned by some, even mummified Egyptian nobility have preserved evidence of circumcision.
Studies of Egyptian circumcision produce four conclusions: (1) It was performed upon subjects of various ages, from the early years to puberty – not at birth; (2) it took place in the temples; (3) it was performed in accordance with rites, probably by civil proclamation; and (4) the individual was inspected previous to the action to insure his suitability (i.e., being free from blemishes). These conclusions yield some of the distinguishing characteristics of ancient circumcision.
Circumcision was primarily performed upon the upper echelon of Egyptian society; it was most significant among the priestly classes. The religious nature of the rite explains why the operation took place in the temple as an initiation of purification. The servant of the god had to be sound – worthy to stand before the god as a priest.
Thus, circumcision in its broadest sense was alliance with the deity. Those who were purified through this rite of passing were set apart to the god and consequently fell under the deific protection and blessing of their benefactors.
Circumcision in the Old Testament
The introduction of circumcision to the Abrahamic community is recorded in Genesis 17. The rite symbolizes the covenant and becomes the very flagstaff of the newly formed union. It was to symbolize the character and destiny of the patriarch’s offspring. But what is so unique about circumcision that makes it an appropriate symbol for such a special people?
Circumcision and Elitism
Abrahamic circumcision was a sign of elite status. From the study of the Egyptian rite, it is clear it was performed upon the upper classes and characterized a high place of honor and nobility. A close affiliation with their god brought with it a distinguished position. Broadly speaking, covenants were permeated with status. When a great sovereign king showed mercy to a vassal prince by formulating a union, the status of the covenanted partner was lifted by sheer association with the covenant originator, the powerful overlord. When God marked off an entire people to Himself, He made a statement as to the religious and social prestige of the nation. Circumcision was the sign of that special position. God set apart Israel as His own possession, and thereby made a powerful statement about the royal destiny of His people. Abraham’s great progeny was to be characterized by “nations and kings” (Gen. 17:4-6,16). The emblem chosen to represent this special nation was circumcision, the culturally appropriate symbol of elitism.
Circumcision and Priesthood
Circumcision also symbolized priesly appointment. Similar to the Egyptian application of the rite, Hebrew circumcision was an initiation into lifelong service before God. It was emblematic of those who were responsible to perform religious duties and engage in the responsibilities of the priesthood. Frequently the biblical writers allude to circumcision as being a prerequisite for appearing before the Lord. For example, only those who had consecrated themselves through circumcision could celebrate the Lord’s Passover.
And when a stranger shall sojourn with thee, and will keep the passover to the LORD, let all his males be circumcised, and then let him come near and keep it; and he shall be as one that is born in the land; for no uncircumcised person shall eat thereof (Ex. 12:48).
This requirement extended to all uncircumcised individuals, be they foreigners, slaves or hired workers (Ex. 12:43-44). Later, when the permanent sanctuary was built in Jerusalem, an accompanying mandate forbade any uncircumcised person to enter its doors (Ezek. 44:9). Circumcision in that instance was the precondition for any political or religious privilege enjoyed by the people of God.
The priestly overtones found within the rite are closely aligned with purity. The removal of foreskin represented the removal of man’s sinful character and imperfection. Individuals could not stand before God without being pure (Dt. 30:6; Jer. 4:4). Those circumcised in the flesh were obligated to cut away the unnecessary restrictive sins and impurities of their hearts. Circumcision was not simply a matter of a physical mark, but of a spiritual and ethical sanctity. Jeremiah, for example, in one instance of utter frustration over the immoral character of Israel, stated that Israel was no better than the pagan nations of Egypt, Edom, Moab and Ammon who also practiced circumcision (Jer. 9:25-26).
Behold, the days come, saith the LORD, that I will punish all them who are circumcised in the flesh: Egypt, and Judah, and Edom, and the children of Ammon, and Moab, and all that are in the utmost corners, that dwell in the wilderness; for all these nations are uncircumcised, and all the house of Israel is uncircumcised in the heart (author’s translation from Hebrew). Circumcision for these was simply an outward badge and mark of religious standing. They considered it indicative of favor with God because of what it symbolized. Since it was not accompanied by a committed heart, however, it was worthless. Paul repeats this idea in the New Testament, claiming that outward circumcision does not necessarily imply inward spiritual change and devotion (Gal. 5:2; Phil. 3:2).
Circumcision and Oaths
Circumcision is also a sign of an oath, a commitment to remain faithful under threat of punishment. Covenants in the ancient Near East were not “made” they were “cut.” Covenant ceremonies usually included the dividing of animals, perhaps as a symbolic representation of the fate of those who failed to keep the requirements of the covenant. Circumcision was thus a promise as well as a declaration and threat upon those who broke the covenant. They would be “cut off” from the Lord’s people.
Circumcision and Generation
The fact that circumcision is performed on an organ of generation speaks vividly of one aspect of its meaning. For example, in the covenant proceedings of Genesis 17, the principal concern is for the offspring of Abraham. It is entirely appropriate that “God’s covenant upon man’s flesh” (i.e., circumcision) be on the male reproductive organ, the place from which life emanates. The sign of the circumcised flesh symbolized God’s desire to bless abundantly the Abrahamic line. It was the assurance that He would provide great numbers of offspring and not “cut them off” (v. 14). Circumcision represented a race of people who continually yielded their hopes of prosperity to God. Circumcision was not, as some claim, man’s attempt to further heighten his own fertility. Rather, it was a sign of recognition that abundance depended upon God alone. Every family, through the act of circumcision, put their future hopes of abundance and blessing in the hands of God.
Circumcision and the Heart
Old Testament writers often use circumcision figuratively to illustrate covenantal loyalty. “Circumcision of the heart” is a phrase used in Deuteronomy and Jeremiah, for example, to indicate genuine devotion to the Lord (Dt. 10:16; 30:6; Jer. 4:4; cp, Lev. 26:41). Moses commands the Israelites in Deuteronomy 10:16 to circumcise their hearts – that is, renew inwardly their faith in God. The circumcised heart signified the moral condition of the truly consecrated Hebrew. His innermost thoughts and motives were to be pure to assure sincerity of action and worship.
The Apostle Paul frequently employs this picture in his letters. Paul argues in Romans 2:28 and 29 that the true, faithful Jew was not the individual who was circumcised only in his flesh. True and total Jewishness, although viewed by man as a product of human birth and religious upbringing, actually was a spiritual condition of the heart. Paul writes in Philippians 3:3, “For we [believers] are the circumcision, who worship God in the spirit, and rejoice in Christ Jesus, and have no confidence in the flesh.”
Mere circumcision is not the determining factor for a Jewish person to be pleasing to God, nor does it automatically assure one’s spiritual destiny (1 Cor. 7:19; Col. 3:11). The faithful people of the Lord were those who sought God’s acceptance through spiritual devotion to Christ. Justification and forgiveness of sins were obtained by inward faith, not by religious rite (Rom. 3:30). Even the patriarch Abraham, the initial recipient of the covenant, was not brought into a proper relationship with God through the covenant practice (i.e., circumcision). He received the approval of God through his faith, and later received circumcision as a seal of his righteousness (righteousness which God had already imputed to him, Rom. 4:11).
Circumcision and the New Testament
Although some of the references to circumcision in the New Testament already have been mentioned, one of the most prominent remains. Whether or not to circumcise Gentile proselytes constituted a major issue during the earliest years of the Church. Did, in fact, the Church need to adhere to the ceremonial law (particularly circumcision) in order to be part of the messianic community? Paul concluded that circumcision implied a debt to the whole law (Gal. 5:3) – a law from which the believer had been set free.
Paul also associated circumcision with the new birth. In that circumcision was symbolic of purity, he writes that the sins of the flesh were put off when Christ circumcised our sinful nature (Col. 2:11). There is a circumcision done by the hands of men, and one done by the hand of God. It is only in Christ that one attains true purity and proper standing before God.
The modern-day practice of circumcision does not reflect much of the fullness of its original meaning. Even in Jewish circles today, circumcision chiefly symbolizes ethnic affinity rather than the covenant blessings of God. It is sobering to realize that a great many people bear in their bodies the very sign of privileged status and priestly purity, while yet needing to hearken to Christ who longs to cut away their sinful and stony hearts.
Paul’s words may well conclude this whole discussion, when, in Colossians, he uses circumcision to illustrate the concept of salvation. The uncircumcised man is one who retains his own fleshly pride and refuses to become associated with the people of God. On the other hand, those who align themselves with Christ have their sinful nature cut away and are no longer under the condemnation of the law.
And you, being dead in your sins and the uncircumcision of your flesh, hath he made alive together with him, having forgiven you all trespasses, Blotting out the handwriting of ordinances that was against us, which was contrary to us, and took it out of the way, nailing it to his cross (Col. 2:13-14).
Daniel Sheard is a graduate of Taylor University and Regent College. He spent one year at the Institute of Holy Land Studies in Jerusalem studying Hebrew and was involved in historical geographical work. He is also a graduate of Dallas Theological Seminary.