Circumcision in the Bible—What It Is and Why It’s Important

This excerpt on circumcision in the Bible is adapted from Dr. Heiser’s book I Dare You Not to Bore Me with the Bible (see all Dr. Heiser’s books).

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Circumcision is a topic 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).

It was the sign of God’s covenant with Abraham (Gen 17:9–14), but circumcision 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.

Learn more about circumcision in the Bible in Righteous by Promise.

Circumcision in the Bible

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.

Learn more about circumcision in the Bible in Kingdom through Covenant.

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.

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This excerpt on circumcision in the Bible is adapted from Dr. Heiser’s book I Dare You Not to Bore Me with the Bible.

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Written by
Michael S. Heiser

Michael S. Heiser is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania (M.A., Ancient History) and the University of Wisconsin- Madison (M.A., Ph.D., Hebrew Bible and Semitic Studies). He has a dozen years of classroom teaching experience on the college level and another ten in distance education. He is a former scholar-in-residence at Logos Bible Software.

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Written by Michael S. Heiser