Circumcision as The Sign of a Covenant
God chose circumcision as the sign of a covenant that focuses on descendants. God has promised to make Abraham and his descendants into a great nation and to use them to redeem the Gentile nations. Circumcision was God’s signature of the flesh; it would identify Abraham and his decedents as God’s own people and remind them to live in faithfulness to the covenant.
We call this the Abrahamic Covenant. Although circumcision was applied to adult males when they joined the covenant community, it was usually performed on infants, who received God’s promises and membership in the covenant community through their parents.
Faith was required in order to receive God’s blessings, however, as can be seen in the differentiation between Ishmael and Isaac, Esau and Jacob, and Joseph and his brothers. Non-Israelites could also obligate themselves to Israel’s covenant; circumcision marked their inclusion into the worshipping community.
Circumcision would help Israel recognize and remember that they must lay aside natural impurity. God’s people had to be loyal to the covenant, to the family, and to their own marriages. Intermarriage with uncircumcised people who were not of the covenant was a violation of the covenant. Any man who refused to be circumcised (physically cut in this symbolic way) would be cut off from the covenant people because of his disobedience to God’s command.
Genesis 17:10-14 “This is My covenant, which you shall keep, between Me and you and your descendants after you: every male among you shall be circumcised. And you shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskin, and it shall be the sign of the covenant between Me and you.
And every male among you who is eight days old shall be circumcised throughout your generations, a servant who is born in the house or who is bought with money from any foreigner, who is not of your descendants. A servant who is born in your house or who is bought with your money shall surely be circumcised; thus shall My covenant be in your flesh for an everlasting covenant. But an uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin, that person shall be cut off from his people; he has broken My covenant.”
These verses introduce circumcision as God’s appointed sign of the covenant. Circumcision is not a Hebrew invention. It was used in Egypt from very early periods as an act of ritual purity (apparently a requirement for men who would work in an Egyptian temple). Some tomb scenes from as early as the Old Kingdom depict the practice. Circumcision, which involves cutting off the foreskin of the penis, creates a mark that would not normally be visible to others. The nature of the sign suggests that it was intended to focus attention on the importance of the Abraham’s offspring, the royal line through which blessing would come.
In the following verses, though they are repetitive in referencing circumcision, underline the fact that Abraham conscientiously fulfilled God’s instructions to him.
Genesis 17:23-27 “And Abraham took Ishmael his son, and all that were born in his house, and all that were bought with his money, every male among the men of Abraham’s house; and circumcised the flesh of their foreskin in the selfsame day, as God had said unto him. And Abraham was ninety years old and nine, when he was circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin. And Ishmael his son was thirteen years old, when he was circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin. In the selfsame day was Abraham circumcised, and Ishmael his son. And all the men of his house, born in the house, and bought with money of the stranger, were circumcised with him”.
Genesis 21:4 “And Abraham circumcised his son Isaac being eight days old, as God had commanded him”. In the fulfillment of God’s promise, Sarah bears Abraham a son, who is named Issac. In due course Issac is confirmed as Abraham’s heir, when God instructs Abraham to send Hagar and Ismael away. Issac is circumcised by Abraham in fulfillment of God’s instructions.
As a precondition for marriage between Dinah and Shechem, her brothers request that the men of Shechem become circumcised. While Jacob’s sons are right to insist that circumcision is necessary in order for both groups to become one people, their intentions, as revealed in subsequent events, is otherwise as seen in Genesis 34:24 “And unto Hamor and unto Shechem his son hearkened all that went out of the gate of his city; and every male was circumcised, all that went out of the gate of his city”.
The events in verse of Exodus 4: 25 “Then Zipporah took a sharp stone, and cut off the foreskin of her son, and cast it at his feet, and said, Surely a bloody husband art thou to me”, are significant not only for what they tell but also for what they show. Moses is held responsible for the provisions of the covenant with Abraham that require him to circumcised his sons. Failure to be circumcised may lead to being cut off. Moses’ failure to circumcise his son could have led to his death, had it not been for his wife’s action.
In Exodus 12:44 “But every man’s slave purchased with money, after you have circumcised him, then he may eat of it”, we see the statues related to the Passover were necessary in light of the mixed multitude of people that went out of Egypt with Israel. Participation in the feasts that would be formative for Israel’s life in the land required that a person be identified as part of the Lord’s people by letting all his males be circumcised. In the New Testament church, there is a parallel in that baptism (sign of membership in God’s people) would ordinarily precede participating in the Lord’s Supper.
Similarly here, circumcision is required prior to eating the Passover as seen in Exodus 12: 48 “And when a stranger shall sojourn with thee, and will keep the Passover to the LORD, let all his males be circumcised, and then let him come near and keep it; and he shall be as one that is born in the land: for no uncircumcised person shall eat thereof.
The mention of offspring recalls Genesis 17, where God instituted circumcision as his covenant sign for Abraham and his decedents. Deuteronomy 10:16 “Circumcise therefore the foreskin of your heart, and be no longer stubborn” explicitly recognizes Israel’s need to change its heart. Here, circumcision symbolizes removing the stubbornness that prevents the heart from properly loving God.
And Moses spake before the LORD, saying, Behold, the children of Israel have not hearkened unto me; how then shall Pharaoh hear me, who am of uncircumcised lips?
And the LORD thy God will circumcise thine heart, and the heart of thy seed, to love the LORD thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, that thou mayest live.
This is the reason why Joshua circumcised them: all the people who came out of Egypt who were males, all the men of war, died in the wilderness along the way after they came out of Egypt. For all the people who came out were circumcised, but all the people who were born in the wilderness along the way as they came out of Egypt had not been circumcised.
For the sons of Israel walked forty years in the wilderness, until all the nation, that is, the men of war who came out of Egypt, perished because they did not listen to the voice of the Lord, to whom the Lord had sworn that He would not let them see the land which the Lord had sworn to their fathers to give us, a land flowing with milk and honey.
Their children whom He raised up in their place, Joshua circumcised; for they were uncircumcised, because they had not circumcised them along the way. Now when they had finished circumcising all the nation, they remained in their places in the camp until they were healed.
At that time the Lord told Joshua, “Make flint knives and circumcise this second generation of Israelites.” So Joshua made flint knives and circumcised the entire male population of Israel at Gibeath-haaraloth. Joshua had to circumcised them because all the men who were old enough to fight in battle when they left Egypt had died in the wilderness.
Those who left Egypt had all been circumcised, but none of those born after the Exodus, during the years in the wilderness, had been circumcised. The Israelites had traveled in the wilderness for forty years until all the men who were old enough to fight in battle when they left Egypt had died.
For they had disobeyed the Lord, and the Lord vowed he would not let them enter the land he had sworn to give us – a land flowing with milk and honey. So Joshua circumcised their sons – those who had grown up to take their father’s places – for they had not been circumcised on the way to the Promised Land. After all the males had been circumcised, they rested in the camp until they were healed. Then the Lord said to Joshua, “Today I have rolled away the shame of your slavery in Egypt.” So that place has been called Gilgal to this day.