Not to be circumcised was to reject
membership within God’s people.
In the 1984 NIV Bible, the verb circumcise occurs 60 times, the noun circumcision 21 times, the adjective uncircumcised 38 times, and the noun uncircumcision four times. Why is the Bible interested in circumcision, and what is the significance of circumcision as a religious practice? How can we explain the Bible’s interest in the strange custom of the cutting away the foreskin of the penis?
The Bible’s concern with circumcision goes back to the covenant of circumcision that God made with Abraham in Gen 17. This covenant required that Abraham and each of his male descendants should be circumcised (see Gen 17:10–14). Circumcision was the sign of God’s covenant with Abraham (Gen 17:11), according to which he would greatly increase the number of Abraham’s descendants (see Gen 17:2, 4–6).
But what is the link between circumcision and the promised population increase of Abraham’s descendants? Even though recent scientific studies have identified a number of health benefits associated with circumcision, circumcision was not given by God to Abraham for reasons of hygiene, but for three main reasons.
The first main reason…
…is that circumcision functioned as a sign that individual (male) members of the family of Abraham were in covenant with God in accordance with God’s command to Abraham in Gen 17:10 that the covenant of circumcision was to be kept by “every male” within Abraham’s family by “every male” being circumcised, and also in accordance with the teaching in Gen 17:14 that “any uncircumcised male … shall be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant.” Circumcision was a sign of being in covenant with God and belonging to God’s people. Not to be circumcised was to reject membership within God’s people. So when it came to circumcision, it was either be cut or be cut off.
Circumcision also functioned as a sign…
…distinguishing the Israelites from some of the surrounding nations who did not practise circumcision. Although circumcision was also practised among the Egyptians, Edomites, Ammonites, and Moabites (see Jer 9:25–26), uncircumcision was considered within Israel to be a mark of being a foreigner (Ezek 44:7, 9; see also Eph 2:11). The Philistines, for example, were commonly characterized in a derogative way as being “uncircumcised” (1 Sam 17:26, 36; 2 Sam 1:20). From the instructions concerning the eating of the Passover in Exod 12:43–49, it can be seen that circumcision functioned to nationalize foreigners. Once a foreigner had been circumcised, he was considered to be “as a native of the land” (Exod 12:48), as part of “the congregation of Israel” (Exod 12:47).
The third main reason for circumcision its spiritual significance.
The spiritual significance of circumcision has three aspects:
physical circumcision and uncircumcision symbolize the state of a person’s heart with respect to God;
physical circumcision symbolizes purity and dedication to the service of God;
and physical circumcision symbolizes humility and dependence on God.
Concerning the first aspect, a parallelism exists in the Scriptures between circumcision in the flesh and the circumcision of the heart.
Circumcision in the flesh was meant to be a symbol of circumcision of the heart. In Israel, therefore, both forms of circumcision were required (compare Paul’s argument in Rom 2:28–29). Physical circumcision counted for nothing without spiritual circumcision (see Jer 9:25–26; see also Rom 2:25). In Deut 10:16 Moses calls upon Israel to circumcise the foreskins of their hearts. In the middle of the prophecy of Deut 30:1–14, Moses speaks of the new covenant restoration of Israel in terms of Yahweh circumcising the hearts of the people of Israel, so that they would “love Yahweh [their] God with all [their] heart and with all [their] soul” (Deut 30:6). The Mosaic call for spiritual circumcision was later echoed by Jeremiah in Jer 4:4: “Circumcise yourselves to Yahweh; remove the foreskins of your hearts.” Physical circumcision was meant to symbolize a heart that was clean and dedicated to the service of God, a heart from which uncleanness had been removed.
The second aspect to the spiritual significance of circumcision is that physical circumcision symbolizes the removal of spiritual uncleanness.
This aspect underlies the aspect described above. The fact that being uncircumcised is paralleled with being unclean in Isa 52:1, and that allowing uncircumcised foreigners into the temple was equivalent to “profaning [God’s] temple” in Ezek 44:7, suggests that uncircumcision was viewed in the Old Testament as being symbolic of uncleanness. This symbolism was most likely derived from the view that the foreskin is an unclean part of the body. This is confirmed in Col 2:11 where Paul links the Christian’s spiritual circumcision in Christ with “the putting off of the body of the flesh.” This equates to putting off “the old self with its practices” (Col 3:9). The removal of the foreskin, therefore, symbolizes the removal of uncleanness, which allows the individual in question to be dedicated to the proper service of God. The idea that circumcision also symbolizes the proper service of God is backed up in Phil 3:3, where Paul speaks of Christians as those who are the true circumcision, who serve God through his Spirit as a result.
The third aspect to the spiritual significance of circumcision that is found in Scripture is that physical circumcision is also symbolic of humility and dependence upon God.
This aspect derives from the historical context in which the covenant of circumcision emerged. When we consider the point in time when God commanded Abraham to get circumcised, it is significant that the establishment of the covenant of circumcision (Gen 17:1–14) occurred just after the incident of Abraham sleeping with Sarah’s slave, Hagar (Gen 16). God had promised that Abraham and Sarah would have a son, but they had been in the promised land for ten years (compare Gen 12:4; 16:16), and no children had been born to them, so Sarah came up with the idea of Abraham sleeping with her maid, Hagar (Gen 16:2). Hagar functioned as a surrogate so that Sarah could have a child. Ishmael was born as a result of this union of Abraham and Hagar (Gen 16:15). But this child was not the promised seed (Gen 21:12; see also Gen 17:18–21). God’s plan was that the promised child would come through the union of Abraham and his wife, Sarah (Gen 17:16).
By arranging for Hagar to be a surrogate, Sarah and Abraham had sought to “help” fulfill God’s plan for Abraham to sire offspring. But in doing this, Abraham and Sarah had overstepped the mark. In order, therefore, to teach Abraham a lesson, when Ishmael was thirteen (on the point of becoming an adult), God told Abraham that he and the male members of his household had to be circumcised (see Gen 17:10, 12–13, 25). The fact that the institution of the covenant of circumcision is recorded in Genesis straight after the incident of Abraham sleeping with Hagar suggests, therefore, that God was teaching Abraham a lesson.
In effect God was saying that the fulfillment of his plan was not dependent on the initiative and action of ordinary human beings. Abraham and Sarah had basically decided that Abraham could use his sexual organ to obtain the promised blessing. But to remind them and their descendants of the fact that the fulfillment of God’s plan is not ultimately up to human schemes—salvation is not by human effort but by the gift of God—God commanded that the sexual organ of each of the males in Abraham’s household be circumcised. In effect, Abraham and his male descendants would carry around in their bodies the mark of this lesson in spiritual humility.
It is true that Abraham would have to use his sexual organ later on to help fulfill God’s promise by impregnating Sarah. Consistent with this, God did not command for Abraham’s sexual organ to be completely chopped off. Physically circumcision is only a snip (albeit a painful one), but symbolically it represents the removal of the male sexual organ in toto. Circumcision is a sign that speaks, therefore, of the need for humility in relation to God and of total dependence on God for his ownfulfillment of his plan of blessing and salvation.
The fact that circumcision parallels not stiffening one’s neck in Deut 10:16 (wherestiffening one’s neck is a Hebrew idiom for being obstinate and disobedient), and that an uncircumcised heart needs to be subdued or humbled according to Lev 26:41 (see also Acts 7:51 where being “stiff-necked” is paralleled with being “uncircumcised in heart and ears,” and being resistant to the Spirit), supports the idea stated above that physical circumcision symbolizes spiritual humility.
It is also significant that the Apostle Paul views true circumcision as involving boasting in Christ rather than placing confidence in the flesh (Phil 3:3). Sarah asking Abraham to sleep with Hagar was a case of Sarah and Abraham putting confidence in the flesh (i.e., in human effort) rather than trusting in God to provide. The fact that Abraham received circumcision as a sign and seal of the righteousness that he had before God as a result of his faith (Rom 4:11) also links circumcision to faith, which itself implies both humility and obedience.
Overall, therefore, the significance of physical circumcision under the Abrahamic and Mosaic covenants was that it symbolized membership within the covenant with God, and the ideal spiritual state associated with this: an attitude of humility and trust in relation to God, which involves the removal of all forms of spiritual impurity, and total dedication to the service of God.
Steven Coxhead has served as a visiting lecturer in Hebrew and the Old Testament at the Sydney Missionary and Bible College since 2002. He also teaches Johannine Theology and the Old Testament at the Wesley Institute in Sydney. In addition he has worked as a part-time lecturer at the Presbyterian Theological Centre in Sydney from 2002–2010, teaching the Old Testament, Romans, John’s Gospel, Biblical Hebrew, and New Testament Greek. He has had experience teaching Old Testament, New Testament, and Systematic Theology in South-East Asia.