THE MEANING OF CIRCUMCISION—GENESIS 17
One of my goals in Footnotes is to highlight anything that brings home to us the radical nature of Christianity, particularly on the level of the corporate community of faith. Recently I was studying Genesis 17 again, the chapter that introduces circumcision as an identity marker of the people of God, and much to my surprise I realized that its symbolism was both radical and revolutionary.
I can remember asking, with some embarrassment, one of my professors at Bible college about circumcision. It simply seemed odd to me that the removal of the foreskin of the penis should be the badge of belonging to the tasks force we call Israel, with its unique world mandate. Would it not have been better if they had (for instance) a meaningful symbol tattooed on the right arm that would be visible to all and last a lifetime? My professor did not seem to have a problem with the penis, but I did, and it is only recently that I have come to see that circumcision is in fact a brilliant symbol that in the culture of the ancient Near East captured beautifully the mission and meaning of Israel.
And as Paul says that baptism is the new covenant equivalent of circumcision, it becomes a priority that we understand its meaning. And to do so, as we will see, is to radicalize baptism by infusing it with the OT meaning of circumcision.
The easiest way to approach things is just to run through the various levels of meaning in circumcision one by one. Some are obvious, but others embedded in a culture foreign to us. But all are life changing and are a legacy that we need to recover.
1. Circumcision was to be set aside as an individual for the Lord himself
In ancient literature one reads about circumcising a field or an orchard. The word “circumcise” means “cutting off” so that the produce of the field or the orchard can be set aside for God. And the same was true for people in Israel. To be circumcised meant that you were set aside for the Lord. The word can be translated “to cut off” and is similar in its thought to the word Nazarite, which means “one who is separated.” The Nazarite was one who was cut off from seeking their own ambitions, they were “separated”, they were set aside for the purposes of God.
2. Circumcision meant that ones commitment was lifelong
Circumcision was an in—eradicable mark in your body that reflected a lifelong bond. In this sense it was like a tattoo, declaring your allegiance to the people and purposes of God that could never be erased.
In many cultures you were circumcised at puberty and the belief lying behind the practice was probably that it increased the virility of the males. But in Israel babies were circumcised at eight days old as a sign that even children participated in the blessings of the covenant and could contribute towards its fulfillment… which is why, of course, Jesus said the kingdom belonged to them.
3. Circumcision was an initiation into the community of faith
When a Jew thought about his circumcision, primarily it reminded him not about his personal faith (although this was important) but that he belonged to a people. It was a mark in his body that told him that he was embedded in a community of faith, a covenant people, set apart by God for a unique mission in the earth. This mark was his badge of belonging.
Sadly, we do not carry this over into NT baptism, even though the NT makes it clear that baptism is equally an initiation into the community of faith who have inherited the mandate to heal the wound of the world that was given to Israel.
When we think of baptism we think of personal repentance, personal faith, personal commitment, and the rich legacy that it is our badge of belonging, that means we are now embedded in a community of faith, a covenant people, set apart by God for a unique mission in the earth has been largely lost.
But without this dimension of initiation we privatize Christianity and cease to be a people. However, if we understand circumcision we recapture the dynamism of belonging to a pioneering people and spearheading God’s purposes to the ends of the earth.
4. The mark on your body was a sacred reminder of your mission
As I have just said, the covenant was all about God raising up a task force, a witness nation, to carry forward the sacred seed, to birth the Messiah, and to bring in the kingdom. The promise to Abraham, the one who would spearhead this initiative, was that through him all the nations of the earth would be blessed. And as I have said, the sign of belonging to this unique people was circumcision.
But the big question is “why is the sign the removal of the foreskin of the penis? Part of the answer is that to look at the male organ in the ancient world was not primarily to think of sexual gratification but of procreation. It was the organ essential for the survival and continuation of a people. We all live in nations that are well established, but for most of human history the goal of most people groups has been simply been to survive. Famine, drought, disease, and war threatened the very existence of every people group.
So to look at the male organ was not primarily to think of sexual gratification but of offspring. Pleasure was important but secondary. The number one goal was to procreate and survive.
And in Israel the circumcised male organ would remind them not only of this, but also that their seed was dedicated to God, and that through the promised seed the Messiah would come, and that through the Messiah all the people groups of the earth would not simply survive, but flourish and be blessed. Salvation, justice, reconciliation, peace, and shalom would be the fulfillment of the covenant. And the sign of this covenant was circumcision.
5. Physical circumcision was always meant to reflect a “circumcision of the heart”
In the OT physical circumcision was only meant to be a sign that in one’s heart you were “set aside” for God. As you grew to adulthood, the physical circumcision you had experienced as an eight day old baby matured into a spiritual circumcision as you were taught the Torah and became conscious that your life was “cut off” so it could be set aside for the Lord. The outward without the inward was without value, and when Israel was backsliding they were repeatedly told to circumcise their hearts or face the judgement of the Lord. (Lev 26:41; Deut 10:16; 30:6; Jer 4:4).
The same perspective is also found in the NT where Paul, in defining what a real Jew is, makes the radical statement that “real circumcision is a matter of the heart, spiritual and not literal” (Rom 2:29). Nothing could be clearer than this. The physical was only ever meant to reflect a deeper inward commitment.
And of course, the same is true of baptism. It is not the physical washing of water that is important, but the spiritual realities that it represents.
6. It was a cutting off of the flesh
The literal cutting off of the flesh that took place in the act of circumcision looked forward to the day when the cutting off of “the flesh” would be possible by the work of the indwelling Spirit, and this was why God was raising Israel up, and why this was such a powerful badge of their identity.
Paul speaks of the human condition since the fall of “being dead in your sins and the uncircumcision of your flesh…” (Col 2:13) The flesh on the micro level means selfishness, sexual deviancy, anger, pride, disease, and death. The flesh on the macro level means war, famine, injustice, poverty, genocide, death camps, gulags, and racism.
But the wonder of what would be achieved through Israel is that the flesh, both on the micro and the macro level, would one day be dealt with through the seed of the woman, the promised Messiah. And therefore after the death and resurrection of Jesus Paul can joyfully announce that “you are circumcised with the circumcision made without hands, in putting off the body of the sins of the flesh by the circumcision of Christ.” (Col 2:11)
So when God gave Abraham this badge of identity back in Genesis 17, nothing could have captured the hope of mankind so vividly as the symbolism of circumcision.
7. It was a means of ensuring the participation of men in the mission of the covenant people
To secure the participation of the men in the ancient Near East was to secure the participation of the whole family and tribal structure, and with its focus on the men, this is what circumcision did. Women were included in the sense that they were the recipients of the seed that came through the circumcised male; they would nurture it and bring it to birth. But without the full participation of the males in their role as warriors, Israel could not have survived in its hostile environment, sandwiched as it was between the superpowers of the day.
However, once the new covenant is inaugurated, and baptism replaced circumcision, women became full participants alongside men. However, we should also keep in mind that if circumcision is really a thing of the heart, then women were not, in the deepest sense excluded, as before God they could equally set themselves aside for the Lord’s purposes—as indeed most of them did.
8. It was a foreshadowing of the new creation
The Eastern Orthodox theologian, J. Danielou, remarks that “The number eight was, for ancient Christianity, the symbol of the Resurrection, for it was on the day after the Sabbath, and so the eighth day, that Christ rose form the tomb. Furthermore, the seven days of the week are the image of the time of this world, and the eighth day of life everlasting [and the new creation].”
( The Bible and the Liturgy)
The mission of Israel will be climaxed by the death and resurrection of the Messiah on the eighth day. Now I might be over-reaching at this point, but if the mission of Israel will be climaxed by the death and resurrection of the Messiah on the eighth day, and the badge of belonging to this task force is circumcision, then being circumcised on the eighth day after you were born seems to be of great symbolic significance. From the beginning it is declaring your participation in the victory that will bring in the new creation and take Eden to the ends of the earth.
Jesus rested in the tomb on the seventh day after the completion of his work of redemption on the sixth day, just as his father rested on the seventh day after the completion of his work of creation on the sixth day.
And on the basis of his finished work we now live in the eighth day. Not fully and finally, we live in the “now but not yet,” but God’s tomorrow has, in truth, already invaded man’s today. And as believers we are an eighth day community. We already participate in the new creation, indeed Paul says that to be in Christ is to already be a new creation (2 Cor 5:17). And what God has already done for me, a tiny piece of the creation, he will one day do for the whole cosmos.
And this is what God was setting out to do with Abraham and Israel. And the badge of belonging was circumcision. And this “cutting off” so they could be set aside for the task, was done on the eighth day, as when their task was completed it would usher in the eight day and “the glory of the Lord would cover the earth as the waters cover the sea.”
So as those who have been circumcised, or in NT language, baptized, we are part of a community with an extraordinary mandate from God. And looking back helps us to see how radical the agenda was from the beginning—and how far we have come (in the good sense) from Abraham. And it should give us courage, and a trajectory for our generation that is both compelling and biblically faithful.
EXTRA MATERIAL—The Level Of Intimacy God Desires
First, it has often assumed that the primary purpose of human sexuality is procreation. The Old Testament sees children as blessings from God. God obviously is pleased when we reproduce ourselves. His first instruction to he first couple was to be fruitful, to multiply, and to fill the earth (Ge . 1:28). The psalmist tells us:
Sons are a heritage from the LORD,
children a reward from him….
Blessed s the man
whose quiver is full of them. (127:3, 5)
The ancient world tended to see marriage as a means to secure an heir, and it valued a woman by her success in producing an heir. However, it is highly significant that the Song of Songs with its canticles of love never r mentions children anywhere. Children do not seem at all necessary to justify the validity and sanctity of nuptial love; they are not to e the purpose of love but its marvelous by-product.
Second, the question for most of us—and a perpetually perplexing one for scholars—relates to the location of the mark of the covenant (circumcision). This mark, which indicated that a man was in covenant relation with Yahweh, was placed on the most private part of the body. The female carried no such mark, but the fact that the sign was at the point where bride and groom meet may have something to say theologically. Human sexuality’s biblical origin does not seem to lie in biology. Instead, the source is found in the eternal pedagogical purposes of God, who made all of us either male or female.
Human sexuality is a far more sacred thing for God’s followers and a far more significant thing in God’s eyes than most of us have dreamed. Perhaps this is why Yahweh takes our sexual conduct so seriously. This leads us once more to the especially intriguing word holy (qadesh in the Old Testament). Holy is particularly and uniquely Yahweh’s word. His claim on the word seems to have implications for his claim on human sexuality as well. God’s purpose for coming to us in Jesus is to restore true sanctity to those holy things that humanity has corrupted, sexuality among them.
Let’s Start with Jesus by Dennis F. Kinlaw (Asbury professor)