What’s the Deal with All That Circumcision in the Bible?

circumcision

Circumcision is mentioned nearly 100 times in the Bible. It is a central focus for Old Testament and New Testament theology (Rom 4:9–12; Gal 2:1–12; 5:1–10).

If we’re honest, that just sounds absurd.

Circumcision was the sign of God’s covenant with Abraham (Gen 17:9–14), but it was also widely practiced in the ancient Near East (the method, though, wasn’t always the same). Jeremiah 9:25–26 notes that Israel’s neighbors were circumcised. Archaeologists have also found that it was practiced in Syria and Phoenicia. Textual remains indicate that circumcision in Egypt goes back to at least 2200 bc, centuries before the Israelites were enslaved. Israelite men may have even submitted to Egyptian circumcision while in Egypt, since Joshua commanded the men crossing into the promised land to be re-circumcised in order to “roll away the reproach of Egypt” (Josh 5:2, 9). The evidence suggests that circumcision did not distinguish Israelite men from their foreign neighbors.

Why was circumcision so important?

When God told Abraham to be circumcised, he was past the age of bearing children and his wife, Sarah, was incapable of having children (Gen 18:11). Nevertheless, it would be through Sarah’s womb (Gen 17:21; 18:14) that God would fulfill his promise of innumerable offspring to Abraham (Gen 12:1–3). God’s covenant with Abraham could only be realized by miraculous intervention.

The miraculous nature of Isaac’s birth is the key to understanding circumcision as the sign of the covenant. After God made His promise to Abraham, every male member of Abraham’s household was required to be circumcised (Gen 17:15–27). Every male—and every woman, since the males were all incapacitated for a time—knew that circumcision was connected to God’s promise. It probably didn’t make any sense, though, until Sarah became pregnant.

Everyone in Abraham’s household witnessed the miracle of Isaac’s birth. From that point on, every male understood why they had been circumcised: Their entire race—their very existence—began with a miraculous act of God. Every woman was reminded of this when she had sexual relations with her Israelite husband and when her sons were circumcised. Circumcision was a visible, continuous reminder that Israel owed its existence to Yahweh, who created them out of nothing.

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. Paul even connects baptism to circumcision (Col 2:10–12). Like circumcision, baptism is a response driven by faith. Both signs are for men and women.

why is the bible hard to understandDr. Michael S. Heiser is a scholar-in-residence for Faithlife, the makers of Logos Bible Software. He is the author of The Unseen Realm: Recovering the Supernatural Worldview of the Bible and has taught many Mobile Ed courses, including Problems in Biblical Interpretation: Difficult Passages I.

This article is excerpted from Dr. Heiser’s book I Dare You Not to Bore Me with the Bible.

Get free Bible software from Logos!

See for yourself how Logos will help you discover, understand, and share more of the biblical insights you crave. Compare translations, take notes and highlight, consult devotionals and commentaries, look up Greek and Hebrew words, and much more—all with the help of intuitive, interactive tools.

Get started now—there’s no credit card required.

 

Comments

  1. What do you mean by “Both signs are for men and women.”?

  2. Jeremy Majek says:

    In Michael S. Heiser’s What’s the Deal with All That Circumcision in the Bible?, posted on March 28. I would like to know what is his stand on circumcision. a question should we still practice it or not. Did the NT negates the OT?

    • Hi! I would hate to speak for Dr. Heiser, but I thought I’d share just one of my thoughts with you! Your question was actually a very prominent one in the early church, mostly because of the gentile (non-Jewish) converts to Christianity. It was controversial whether these gentiles had to, in essence, “become Jews” before they were able to become Christians. That is, some were teaching that gentiles had to be circumcised as an initiation into Christianity through Judaism. Paul, when asked this question by many of the churches he started, seemed to have a rather straightforward answer. Read Colossians 3:9-11. Paul basically says that the ritual of circumcison was of little importance when it comes to salvation which is found in the atonement of the death of Christ alone. So basically, it really didn’t matter one way or another if men were circumcised or not, as salvation comes from faith in Jesus. It was definitely not a necessary thing though, at least according to Paul.
      That is what I know on the matter, but Paul talks about it often! I know he talks about it in Acts and Romans as well. Obviously this was a hot topic!

      Phil 3:3: “For we are the true circumcision, who worship God in spirit, and glory in Christ Jesus, and put no confidence in the flesh.”