Circumcision In the first biblical mention of circumcision, God made a covenant with Abraham and his descendants. God said to Abram, I am God Almighty; walk before me and be blameless.” God then explained his part of the covenant — he would be the God of Abraham’s descendants and give them the land of Canaan (Genesis 17:1-8); God then further explained Abraham’s part of the covenant (verses 10-14). This is..the covenant you are to keep.” Every male was to be circumcised, and this physical rite was to be the sign of the covenant” with God, and it was an everlasting covenant.” Every male in Abraham’s household was to be circumcised immediately, and from then on every new baby boy was to be circumcised on the eighth day. Whether they were Hebrews or whether they were purchased as slaves, the men had to be circumcised. If they were not, they would be cut off; they had broken the covenant.
Abraham did what God told him to do (verses 23-27; 21:4). The practice of circumcision became the defining characteristic of the Abraham-Isaac-Jacob clan. Many years later, the sons of Jacob used this custom to get revenge on Shechem (Genesis 34:14-29). As they said, they could cohabitate and intermarry only with people who were circumcised (verse 16). The custom was probably continued when the Israelites lived in Goshen. But Moses, reared in the court of Pharaoh and later a refugee in Sinai, did not circumcise his own son.
Zipporah had to do it (Exodus 4:24-25). Under the leadership of Moses, the entire nation of Israel did not circumcise their male infants in the wilderness. Joshua had to reinstitute it (Joshua 5:2-8). It is not clear why these lapses under Moses occurred, but it is clear that the omission had to be corrected before the plan of God proceeded. God could call Moses even when he was a covenant-breaker, but his son had to be circumcised before Moses could do his job.
Nor would God allow the Israelites to live in the promised land unless they were faithful to the covenant God had made with Abraham. Since circumcision was already a requirement for the Israelites, it is natural that it was included within the old covenant laws (Leviticus 12:2-3). Also, people had to be circumcised to participate in the Passover (Exodus 12:44, 48). Even Gentiles had to be circumcised if they wanted to worship God by means of this festival. However, circumcision was not merely a physical and external practice. It symbolized something internal.
God described idolatry and disobedience as a result of an uncircumcised heart (Leviticus 26:41); he described repentance as a circumcision of the heart (Deuteronomy 10:16; 30:6). Of course, this spiritual meaning did not eliminate the need for the physical practice; the Israelites were to obey both the letter of the law and its symbolic meaning. The Israelites apparently faithfully continued the practice of circumcision. Even in the lawless period of the judges, the Israelites were distinguished from others by the fact that they were circumcised (Judges 14:3; 15:18; 1 Samuel 14:6; 17:26, 36; 31:4; 2 Samuel 1:20; 1 Chronicles 10:4). When Samson and David called the Philistines uncircumcised,” it was not a mere medical description — it was an ethnic, earthy insult.
It was probably impolite then, just as it is impolite today, to make references someone’s sexual organ. This use of the term illustrates how definitive the practice of circumcision was for Israelite self-identity, and the depth of emotion involved in this ethnic tradition. The prophets used the term uncircumcised” as a synonym for Gentiles (Isaiah 52:1). When Ezekiel predicted death for the ruler of Tyre and the Pharaoh of Egypt, he said they would die the death of the uncircumcised and be buried among the uncircumcised (Ezekiel 28:10; 31:18). This conveyed not only a Gentile death, but a death in opposition to God; the connotation was that these rulers were ungodly.
This was developed further in Ezekiel’s lament for Pharaoh in Ezekiel 32. In verses 19-32, Pharaoh was said to have his fate with other uncircumcised soldiers who are now buried. Throughout, the implication is that they were all enemies of God. Ezekiel criticized those who permitted uncircumcised people into the temple (Ezekiel 44:7). The prophets elaborated on the spirit of circumcision, too.
Jeremiah exhorted his people, who presumably were already physically circumcised, to circumcise their hearts (Jeremiah 4:4). It was a metaphor for repentance. Indeed, God said he would punish both Israelites and gentiles who are circumcised in the flesh only and not in the heart (Jeremiah 9:25-26). Physical circumcision was not enough; spiritual circumcision was also necessary. Isaiah emphasized the importance of circumcision in one of his prophecies of God’s glorious rule.
He predicted a time when only circumcised people would be allowed to enter the new city of Zion (Isaiah 52:1-2). In Isaiah’s culture and time, that meant people who were physically circumcised. Isaiah may have also meant those who were circumcised in heart as well. This was part of his prophecy of redemption (verse 3) — when good tidings of salvation are preached and God rules (verse 7) when the Lord returns to Zion (verse 8) and reveals salvation throughout the world (verse 10). Ezekiel also prophesied that only people who were circumcised in both the flesh and the heart could worship properly (Ezekiel 44:9). John the Baptist and Jesus were circumcised (Luke 1:59; 2:21).
Jesus’ only comment about circumcision was favorable: It was part of the law of Moses,” and the Jews were willing to circumcise children on the Sabbath. Since it was a religious rite, it could be done on the Sabbath, just as priests could desecrate” the Sabbath to perform sacrifices (Matthew 12:5). Stephen mentioned the covenant of circumcision that God had given Abraham (Acts 7:8), but he criticized the Sanhedrin for having uncircumcised hearts and ears (verse 51). They were physically circumcised, but not obedient to what God had told them through Jesus. Physical circumcision should have been followed by a circumcision of the heart, through receiving Christ as Lord and Savior.
The biggest controversy about circumcision came when the gospel began going to Gentiles. Circumcised believers (i.e., Jews) were astonished when the Holy Spirit was given to Cornelius (Acts 10:45). Circumcised believers criticized Peter for going to the house of an uncircumcised person and even eating with gentiles (Acts 11:2-3). The problem surfaced again when more and more Gentiles began responding to the gospel by believing in the Lord Jesus (verses 20-21). Later, some Jewish believers came to Antioch and taught that the Gentiles had to be circumcised or else they could not be saved (Acts 15:1). They also said that the Gentiles should obey the entire law of Moses (verse 5). Circumcision has value if you observe the law,” Paul writes (Romans 2:25), but he does not explain what that value is.
After all, if a person observes the law he is counted as circumcised (i.e., in Abraham’s covenant) whether or not he is actually circumcised (verse 26). A Gentile who obeys is better than a Jew who disobeys (verse 27); mere circumcision cannot guarantee salvation. If a person is Jewish only externally, in physical circumcision, but not in the heart, such a person is not one of God’s people, since real circumcision is not merely” physical (verse 28 …