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I once saw a documentary in which a young man interviewed rabbis, doctors, and advocates on the topic of circumcision through history and within our present age. One of the rabbis in this documentary said something that I have remembered for years. He stated that circumcision was a horrific and barbaric act, that no parent should ever naturally think to do to their child. “Then why do we do it?” asked the interviewer. “Because the Almighty commanded it.”
Perhaps one of the reasons this has stuck with me for so many years is because when I watched that documentary I didn’t understand why God would command such a barbaric act. I often imagined extra narrative in Genesis 17, where Abraham said something to the effect of “I’m sorry, you want me to do what?” Yet, this is no longer what I believe would have been Abraham’s response. In fact, I think Abraham understood God’s reasoning and was ready and willing to perform this ritual.
On the surface, this looks like such an arbitrary and senseless act. Why would God make the cutting away of flesh from the male organ of procreation a sign of the Abrahamic covenant? Since this has been a custom within Judaism for thousands of years, I thought it would be interesting to see what modern Judaism thinks the significance of circumcision is. An article by the staff of Kveller tracks different understandings of circumcision throughout history. They note that Philo understood it to be for health reasons, while Maimonides sees it as God’s way of weakening the male sexual organ so that sexual desire is lessened. They note that Maimonides (and others) also suggested that it was to make Jews distinct from the nations. The article also points out that a growing trend in Judaism is not to attempt to understand circumcision’s significance but to simply submit to God, which is perhaps its ultimate reason.[note]Kveller Staff, “Why Circumcise?”: https://www.kveller.com/article/why-circumcise/ Last checked on 1/29/2019.[/note] After some more searching on the internet, I still could not find any good reason (according to Judaism) that God commanded circumcision.
Likewise, Christian commentators seem to have some trouble with circumcision as well. Michael Heiser, for instance, is on track in his article published in Bible Study Magazine, and later released online. He points out that Isaac’s miraculous birth is the key to understanding circumcision,[note]Michael Heiser, “Why Circumcision?” http://www.biblestudymagazine.com/bible-study-magazine-blog/2017/1/12/why-circumcision. Last Checked on 1/29/2019[/note]but then goes on to state:
In the New Testament, membership in God’s family is “circumcision neutral” (Gal 5:6). It is faith in Christ, not a Jewish identity signified by circumcision, that makes someone part of the Church.[note]Ibid.[/note]
Heiser connects circumcision to Jewish identity, something that I believe is a gross misstep. Certainly, it can be argued that circumcision was an identity marker for Judaism within the first century, but this was not the case from a biblical perspective. Yet, I believe it is this line of thinking that brought the Church to teach that baptism replaced circumcision. For instance, in his commentary on Genesis, John Calvin writes:
And that, by the coming of Christ, external circumcision ceased, is plain from the words of Paul; who not only teaches that we are circumcised by the death of Christ spiritually, and not through the carnal sign: but who expressly substitutes baptism for circumcision; (Col 2:11) and truly baptism could not succeed circumcision, without taking it away.[note]John Calvin, Commentary on the Book of Genesis, (Calvin Translation Society, 1847) 1. 456[/note]
Heiser was on the right track with his reasoning of Isaac, but didn’t go far enough. Beyond this, Abraham was not a Jew, He was a gentile who came into covenant relationship with the living God. To then think that the sign of the Abrahamic covenant was given by God to be a sign of Jewish identity falls flat.
Abraham and Circumcision
The story of Abraham is one of the cornerstones of the overall biblical narrative. In Gen 17:10-14, God informs Abraham that he is to circumcise himself and his descendants, along with the male servants born in his household or purchased. This is sandwiched between the story of Abraham and Hagar and the birth of Isaac. The placement of this story is significant, and something we will see below.
In Gen 12, God tells Abraham to leave his land because:
I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. (Gen 12.2 ESV)
It is with this promise that we begin Abraham’s story. It is also this promise that the narrative will continue to return. In Gen. 15, Abraham seems frustrated that this promise has not yet come to pass. He asks God to let his current heirs be the ones to carry on his line and be the instrument of the covenant, but God refuses and assures him the covenant will come through his own offspring. We are then informed that Abraham “believed God, and He counted it to him as righteousness.” (Gen 15:6) This is an important phrase, and something we will come back to.
Even though we are told that Abraham believed God, it almost seems like our narrative tells a different story, because in Gen. 16 Abraham and Sarah decide that things are still not moving along fast enough, so they take matters into their own hands. Abraham will take Hagar, Sarah’s servant, and have offspring through her. The plan is put into action, and eventually brings quite a bit of strife for everyone involved, but Abraham finally has a son. And now the promise can be fulfilled that God made with him all the way back in chapter 12. Unfortunately for Abraham, God will have none of it. God has His plans set, He will take care of His own promises, and Abraham’s attempt to force God’s hand will not work.
Gen. 17 begins with God establishing His covenant with Abraham. Abraham will be the father of many nations, and to highlight this God changes Abraham’s name to reflect this truth. This alone should be enough to establish that circumcision was not a sign for the Jews, but rather was to establish a covenant that would include people from every family or nation. The nations of the earth would be blessed, not Israel alone. To suggest that circumcision was an identity marker for Israel and/or the Jewish people is to miss the primary focus of the covenant altogether.
Now the command of circumcision comes. God will give Abraham offspring through miraculous ways. Sarah will bear the child that will carry on these covenant promises. It will not be done through man’s own actions. Abraham cannot force God’s will. It is only through a miracle of God that this child will come. Therefore, the sign of this covenant is for Abraham to cut away flesh from his reproductive organ to signify that he is not the one to bring this child into the world, but it is God! Abraham is unable to do this on his own. It is not through the standard means of sexual contact that this baby will be conceived. Sarah is too old for that. It is only through the mighty hand of God that this promise will take place. The promise resting on man’s ability and action is taken out of the equation.
Abraham still doesn’t understand the concept. In 17:17-18 Abraham makes a final plea. Sarah is beyond the years of childbirth, so Abraham wants God to accept Ishmael. Now comes a key verse for our study:
God said, “No, but Sarah your wife shall bear you a son, and you shall call his name Isaac. I will establish my covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his offspring after him. (Gen 17.19 ESV)
God also promises that He will bless Ishmael and that he will be the father of 12 princes. This seems contrary to what God has said. Abraham wanted the promise of many nations to come from Ishmael, God says no, but then states that Ishmael will have 12 sons (10 more than Isaac as it turns out). Something seems wrong here. But Abraham accepts this and the next notice we have is that Abraham circumcises himself, Ishmael and all the males in his household. So what are we missing? I think the answer is in verse 19.
Above I used the ESV translation when looking at Gen. 17:19. But there is a very significant piece of information that is left out of this translation. Let’s compare the ESV to some other translations with a focus on the phrase, “an everlasting covenant for his offspring after him,” and particularly the word “offspring.”
ESV, HCSB, JPS, CEV, NRSV,
NASB, CEB, CJB, NAB, NIV, NJB, REB, RSV, TEV
Unfortunately, all of these translations soften the thrust of what this text implies. There are three translations I found that correctly translate the Hebrew word זֶרַע(zera‘) which means “seed”, they are the World English Version (WEV) the Tree of Life Version (TLV) and the King James Version (KJV, although the NKJV decided to change it to “descendants”). So why is this word so important for our understanding of circumcision?
The word זֶרַע (zera‘) is used in the story of the fall of man when God tells the serpent that He will deal with sin through the woman’s זֶרַע (seed):
And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed; He shall bruise you on the head, And you shall bruise him on the heel.” (Gen 3:15 NASB)
This is the first direct prophecy that we have of the living God stepping off the throne to come and live among the creatures from the dirt, in order to redeem them from their own sin. God will become man through the seed of the woman. Paul understands this, telling us that the “seed” promised to Abraham in Gen 22:18 (“and in your seed, all the nations of the earth shall be blessed) is, in fact, the Messiah.
Now the promises were made to Abraham and to his seed. It does not say, “And to seeds,”[note]The Greek word here is σπέρμασιν (spermati), from where we get the English word, “sperm”[/note] referring to many, but referring to one, “And to your seed,” who is Messiah. This is what I mean: the Torah, which came 430 years afterward, does not annul a covenant previously ratified by God, so as to make the promise void. For if the inheritance comes by the Torah, it no longer comes by promise; but God gave it to Abraham by a promise. (Gal 3:16–18)
The promise given to Abraham is the promise of the Messiah. Now we can turn back to Gen. 15:6, and see what it is Abraham believed. Paul uses Abraham as the model for how we are saved (Rom. 4:1-5). If we are saved by faith in Messiah, and Abraham is the model of this, then Abraham had faith in a coming Messiah. Abraham had to understand that the seed that was coming to deal with sin was actually coming through his line. Jesus tells us this specifically when He states, “Your father Abraham rejoiced that he would see my day. He saw it and was glad.” (John 8:56)
Abraham wasn’t only worried about a multitude of nations coming from his loins. Ishmael had more sons than Isaac yet this was not what God promises Abraham. He promises that the everlasting covenant will be with Isaac, and what is that covenant? “In your seed, all the nations of the earth will be blessed,” Paul calls this the Gospel!
And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, “In you shall all the nations be blessed.” (Gal 3:8 ESV)
The Gospel message is that God would send the seed to deal with sin; that through Abraham would come the Messiah to bear the penalty for sin and would therefore be the God of all nations so that:
at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Messiah is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Phil 2:10–11)
It may seem as though we are far from our topic of circumcision, but nothing could be further from the truth. At its core, circumcision is a sign that Isaac would come in a miraculous way; that it would not be through the common means of procreation, but that it would be from God. But Isaac is not the only thing circumcision points to. Isaiah tells us that the Messianic figure that had been prophesied would also come through miraculous means.
Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel [meaning God with us]. (Is 7:14)
The seed that would crush the head of the serpent would come through the seed of Abraham, would fulfill the Gospel message that “in your seed, all the nations of the earth will be blessed,” and would come through a miraculous birth. A virgin, a woman that had never been with a man, would conceive and give birth to the living God. The male organ of procreation would be taken out of the equation so that the Almighty could walk among His people and save them from their sins.
Yes, circumcision is a sign that Isaac would come through miraculous means, but it is also a sign that the goal of the Abrahamic covenant, the coming of the Messiah, would be through the same type of miracle. The cutting away of the foreskin is a declaration that a virgin would give birth. It is the proclamation that the living God would come in the flesh, and it is the decree that God would deal with the sins of His elect. The male organ of procreation was not needed. God would be the Father!
It is interesting that non-believing Jews throughout history have worn a mark on their body that proclaims Jesus’ coming. Ironically, believers have taken the sign of their Messiah out of their theology, and off their bodies. When we circumcise our sons, we declare the Abrahamic promise, that through the virgin birth the Messiah would (or has) come to deal with the sins of His people. The implications of this are vast but this understanding of the sign of circumcision now makes a profound statement. Those without this sign are not able to partake in the Passover meal (Ex 12:48). The Passover itself is a prophecy of every believer coming to the Messiah through the blood of our Passover lamb (1Cor 5:7). It is only those who wear the mark of the Abrahamic covenant, the covenant that proclaims the Messianic promise; who are able to partake in the meal that would represent His death. When Jesus gave his life on the cross, the Abrahamic covenant was fulfilled, and the nations were blessed with salvation.
When my son was circumcised I felt an overwhelming joy. Not in the act itself, as I think any father would have a difficult time seeing their newborn son in pain, but rather, in the fact that my son wears the mark of my Messiah that has come to earth to die for me. I was honored to partake in the covenant promise that was given thousands of years ago, that prophesied the Almighty God lowering Himself to come in the form of a servant, and bear the penalty for my iniquity. It is my belief that circumcision is the sign of the divine Messiah in our flesh.
Photo by Seif Eddin Khayat