Circumcision in the Old Testament
Circumcision is introduced in Genesis 17 as “a sign of the covenant” between the LORD and Abraham. It’s significance is not particularly explained, except to say that it implies the perpetuity of the covenant – for all of Abraham’s male descendants are to be circumcised on the eighth day on pain of being considered covenant breakers. It is noteworthy that the sign is also to be applied to all Abraham’s slaves, whether born in his household or purchased. It is also noteworthy that by the end of the chapter, despite the fact that the LORD has said that his covenant will be with Isaac and not with Ishmael, Ishmael has been circumcised. So the sign is applied to all those closely associated with Abraham, whether they are of the covenant line or not. This is significant.
There are further references to circumcision through the Pentateuch. The inhabitants of Shechem are circumcised in Genesis 34, although it did them very little good and given the circumstances nothing of doctrinal import can be derived from the story. Moses’ son is circumcised in a curious incident when the LORD threatens to kill him in Exodus 4, presumably because Moses is in breach of the Abrahamic covenant. Circumcision is preserved in the Mosaic dispensation and its performance is codified in Leviticus 12, although again the significance is not explained. I suggest that it is not until Deuteronomy that the meaning of circumcision becomes clearer.
What, then, does circumcision symbolise? Two key passages are Deuteronomy 10:16 and 30:6. In 10:16, Moses urges the people to circumcise their hearts, and stop being stubborn. In context, he is urging them to love the LORD and obey him in response to his electing love of Israel. To circumcise their hearts implies setting their hearts wholly on the LORD. In 30:6, the symbolism is the same but the agency is ascribed to the LORD – he will circumcise your hearts. It is certainly not coincidental that this is described as occurring after the people have gone into exile for their disobedience and covenant breaking. For this symbolism to have worked, the Israelites must have understood circumcision of the flesh to imply that their bodies belonged to God. So circumcision of the flesh signified belonging to God; but circumcision of the heart was necessary in order to actually love God.
The circumcised people of Israel show this necessity clearly through their history from Moses to the exile. It does not take much reading between the lines to realise that most Israelites throughout this period were probably not even monotheists, let alone committed followers of the LORD. We are not therefore surprised to find the LORD speaking through Jeremiah – “I will punish all those who are circumcised merely in the flesh… all the house of Israel is uncircumcised in heart” (9:25-26). We should perhaps be more surprised than we are to hear the same prophet delivering a gracious promise of a future “new covenant”, a covenant “not like the covenant I made with their fathers” (31:32). This covenant is described as the writing of the law on their hearts (31:33), and it is said to differ from the old covenant because “they shall all know (the LORD)” (31:34). These differences are without a doubt significant, and I will suggest that they are important to our discussion of circumcision.
To summarise, my reading of the Old Testament gives me a picture of circumcision as a rite to be administered to all males attached in any way to the descendants of Abraham, including through economic slavery; a rite symbolising belonging to the LORD; a rite insufficient in and of itself to bring about a relationship to God; and a rite that is used in Deuteronomy and the prophets as a promise pointing forward to the new covenant of circumcision in the heart and not the flesh.
Circumcision in the New Testament
Circumcision is an issue in the New Testament in two ways. Firstly, there is the controversy over Gentile Christians – must they be circumcised? It is not difficult to piece together the case made by the group that has come to be known as “the circumcision party” (and other less complementary names given them by Paul). On the grounds that the covenant with Abraham is promised for perpetuity, and that conversion to Christianity is also joining Israel, it is argued that Gentile believers must receive the covenant sign of circumcision. Interestingly, it is very clear that these teachers have assimilated the covenant of circumcision to the Mosaic covenant, and intend by the circumcision of the Gentiles that they take up the whole burden of the law.
Paul’s controversy with the circumcision party is heated, and his arguments against them are many. I am intrigued, though, by some of the things that he does not question. Firstly, he does not question the circumcision party’s assumption that to be circumcised it to take on the obligation of the Mosaic law: “I testify again to every man who accepts circumcision that he is obligated to keep the whole law” (Gal 5:3). In fact, in spite of the fact that circumcision is clearly given to Abraham, Paul is at pains to drive a wedge between the Abrahamic covenant and the Mosaic. This is clear in Galatians 3, where Paul stresses the distance in time between the giving of the promise and the giving of the law (Gal 3:17), and in Romans 4. In Galatians, circumcision is very clearly aligned with the legal, Mosaic covenant and not with the Abrahamic covenant of promise/faith, hence Paul’s strong appeal to the Galatian Christians not accept it. In Romans, the argument is more nuanced, referencing as it does the circumcision of Abraham. For our purposes at current it is sufficient to note that Paul’s use of Abraham’s circumcision in Romans 4 is designed to show the priority of the covenant of promise/faith over the covenant of circumcision, something that he still connects to the law (Romans 3:27-31, 4:13-14 [in context these verses link the previous thoughts about circumcision with a more general denunciation of law as a means of justification]). In summary: circumcision in Paul’s thought, as in his opponents’, is linked to the law of Moses, and implies an obligation to keep the whole law. As such, it is opposed to the “law of faith” and “covenant of promise”.
Secondly, Paul does not argue with the circumcision party over whether Gentile Christians really have to become part of Israel. In fact, he is clear that they do (see Romans 11:17ff). However, he radically redefines Israel to make circumcision irrelevant to membership of that people. “If you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring…” (Gal 3:29). Abraham is the father of the circumcised who walk by faith, and the uncircumcised who share in the same faith (Rom 4:11-12). Indeed, if it were not so “faith is null and the promise is void” (4:14). In fact, Paul draws on the “remnant” theme of the prophets to argue that it was ever thus: Israel has always been defined not by circumcision but by faith. “For not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel, and not all are children of Abraham because they are his offspring, but ‘through Isaac shall your offspring be named’” (Rom 9:6-7 – remember that Ishmael was also circumcised but was not the recipient of the covenant as Isaac was). So Paul is clear: membership of Israel was always defined by faith, and not by circumcision. Therefore, engrafting into Israel is dependent on faith alone.
It is worth noting that Paul does also share the circumcision party’s assumption that the covenant with Abraham is an enduring one – but he disconnects circumcision from that covenant. The covenant that endures is based on God’s promise met by faith; the legal covenant (to which he always attaches the sign of circumcision) is temporary. Paul would doubtless agree with the author to the Hebrews that the covenant of circumcision is now obsolete and ready to vanish away (Heb 8:13).
This discussion would not be complete without observing that, despite his blistering rhetoric in Galatians, Paul sometimes expresses (and demonstrates) indifference towards the issue of circumcision. In 1 Corinthians 7, he claims that “neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but keeping the commandments of God” (1 Cor 7:19). Colossians 3:11 states clearly that the circumcised and uncircumcised are now one, with no distinction between them. In Acts 16:3, Paul himself – having just won the right of Gentile Christians not to be circumcised – circumcises Timothy, apparently in order to ease their ministry to Jews, Timothy being only half Jewish. It appears that for Paul, circumcision as a cultural practice is a matter of indifference, and he will even go so far as to pragmatically circumcise Timothy to aid the spread of the gospel. It is only when circumcision is being put forward as a necessity for salvation or sanctification that he perceives a denial of the gospel of grace.
So much for the circumcision controversy. Circumcision also plays a role in the New Testament in a quite different way, connected to the promise of “heart-circumcision” in Deuteronomy. The New Testament presses this image: “For no-one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical. But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not the letter” (Rom 2:28-29). The echoes of Deuteronomy 30:6 are clear, and so is the implication. Paul is claiming that the promise of Deuteronomy has been fulfilled in the Christian church. The outpouring of the Spirit at Pentecost means that circumcision of the heart is now a reality for Christian believers. This is surely connected to the promise of the new covenant: the law is not now a “letter”, but is written on the heart. So, irrespective of physical circumcision, Christians – that is, true Israelites, whether Jewish or Gentile – are circumcised in their hearts.
Colossians 2:11-12 is important in this connection. Paul describes the Christians as those who have been “circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, having been buried with him in baptism, in which you also were raised with him through faith…”. It is clear that circumcision of the heart is again in view here, and the image is given more form by the addition of the phrase “putting off the body of the flesh”. The image recalls the removal of the foreskin, but goes very much further: the whole body of flesh (that is, sinful human nature, as usually in Paul) is removed. This is done “by the circumcision of Christ”, which either points to the agent behind this circumcision (i.e. “the circumcision performed by Christ”) or to the cross as the point when Christ gave up his flesh for the salvation of Christians. Either way, it is clear that the Christians to whom Paul writes have been circumcised in their hearts, and that this is achieved at the cross and applied as they identify with the death of Christ in faith through baptism. We will return to this passage in the discussion of baptism later.
Philippians 3:3 adds to our understanding of circumcision in the New Testament, by asserting very clearly that it is followers of Jesus, those who have the Spirit, who are the “real circumcision”. This statement is made as part of the “circumcision controversy”, against those who want Gentile Christians to be circumcised, but it is noteworthy that Paul does not argue that circumcision is unnecessary for any other reason than that the Christians are already circumcised. Clearly, then, he opposes the Old Testament rite of circumcision of the flesh to the New Testament blessing of circumcision of the heart. Where the latter is, the former is unnecessary, and dangerous if taken as essential for salvation.
Since the Bible does not anywhere unfold a systematic “doctrine of circumcision”, we are left to draw what conclusions we can from the evidence we have examined. I wish to set out a number of theses which I think explain the Biblical evidence, and provide a backdrop for the debate over the recipients of baptism.
- Circumcision in the Old Testament is a forward-looking rite. No-one of a reformed persuasion is likely to debate this. However, I believe that its significance is more than is usually allowed. The people of Israel in the Old Testament were not a regenerate people, by and large. Therefore circumcision was not a rite indicating something that had happened to them, but a rite pointing forward to something that the LORD would do in them – namely, the circumcision of their hearts. Circumcision should have pointed the Israelite towards the promise of God’s saving activity amongst them; from our vantage point, we can see that it should have pointed them to the cross of Christ and to Pentecost.
- Circumcision in the Old Testament is connected to, but separable from, the covenant of promise/faith. We have seen that Paul consistently separates God’s promise to Abraham, received by faith, from circumcision, which he regards as something added later. This does not make circumcision unimportant. Rather, coupled to point (1) it constitutes Abraham’s descendants as a forward looking people, thus reinforcing the promise.
- Circumcision is a legal rite. Paul testifies that anyone who accepts circumcision as a means of justification or sanctification is thereby obliged to keep the whole law of Moses. This in no way contradicts (1) and (2), but rather points to the fact that the Israelites, in their state of “heart uncircumcision” were entrusted to the law as a guardian until the promise came (see Galatians 3:19-29).
- Circumcision is an obsolete rite. This can be observed on several levels. Firstly, that to which it pointed forward has come, namely the incarnation and the outpouring of the Spirit. Secondly, the law, to which it was annexed from Sinai onwards, has passed away. Thirdly, the racial marker is no longer necessary because there is no longer Jew or Gentile in the church, but all Christians are descendants of Abraham by faith.
- The New Testament counterpart of circumcision is “heart circumcision”. It is this to which the rite of circumcision always looked forward. This heart circumcision takes place when the outpoured Spirit writes the law on the heart of a believer; this in turn occurs when a person turns to put their trust in the death and resurrection of Christ.
- To jump the gun somewhat, whereas in the Old Testament most Israelites were circumcised in flesh but not in heart, in the New Testament all “Israel” – that is, the whole church – is circumcised in heart. This is implied in Jeremiah’s contrast between the old and new covenants, and by Paul’s manner of addressing his churches. However, this belongs properly to part three of this project, and will be discussed more fully there.