What does the Bible teach about circumcision? Why was it given? And why was it practiced without protest throughout the Hebrew Bible (or “Old Testament”), but then 400 years after its close, why do we find in the New Testament, Paul, a Pharisee and a believer in Jesus, arguing against it for Gentiles (non-Jews)? Is the circumcision the problem, or was there more to it than that?
CIRCUMCISION – A PART OF THE MILLENNIUM?
Some may argue that these are past issues that are not relevant any longer. If so, then why in Ezekiel’s prophecy concerning the soon-to-come Millennium, when Jesus will be ruling and reigning on earth, does God inform the Levitical priests,
Thus says the LORD God; No stranger [Gentile; non-Jew], UNCIRCUMCISED IN HEART, NOR UNCIRCUMCISED IN FLESH, shall enter into My sanctuary, of any stranger that is among the children of Israel. (Ezekiel 44:9; Emphasis Mine)
God here clearly says that non-Jewish males – who are not circumcised in heart and in flesh – will not be allowed to enter the Millennial Temple. So obviously, circumcision is a topic that’s highly relevant since we are just around the corner from the return of Jesus and His Millennial reign.
WHY ARE WE NOT DISCUSSING THIS?
Therefore, since circumcision is in our past, present, and will be in our future, shouldn’t we be discussing it? Far too many ministers, Bible teachers, and evangelists only look at what the New Testament teaches about it, and then leaves it at that; therefore, ending up with a distorted view since they’ve only examined the last 40% of the Bible, instead of what all of the Bible has to say about it.
MY INTENDED APPROACH
To really understand the issue that Paul is facing, we first have to see what the Old Testament has to say about it, and then see what happened in those 400 years between the Old and the New Testaments to properly understand the issue at his time. But this is what most Christians do not do, but this is what I am going to do in this mini-series on “Circumcision: What Does the Bible Teach About It?”
A COMMON CHRISTIAN MISCONCEPTION
There’s a common Christian misconception that I would like to address: “that the Old Testament is only about Jews.” This is not true at all. In fact, both testaments are full of Jews and Gentiles (non-Jews), not just the New Testament. And this is important, because there’s a huge misconception that getting circumcised in some way makes “a Gentile” into “a Jew.” And this can be easily disproved simply by studying the book of Genesis. And this is an important piece of the puzzle to understand Paul’s argument in the New Testament.
First of all, before discussing this issue, we need to define some terms. What is a “Gentile”? What is a “Jew”? How are they defined? The word “Gentile” comes from the Hebrew word goy, which literally means “nation;” therefore, a Gentile (Heb. goy) is one from the nations (Heb. goyim). And in the book of Genesis, from Adam to Isaac, every human being was a Gentile. Next, what about the word “Jew”? According to Rabbi Hayim Halevy Donin’s book, To Be A Jew: A Guide to Jewish Observance in Contemporary Life (1974):
The terms Hebrew, Israelite, and Jew have historically been used synonymously and interchangeably. The Bible refers to Abraham as Ibri (Hebrew), probably because he migrated from the other side (east) of the Euphrates River and Ibri means “from the other side.” (7)
Although Abraham and Isaac were “Hebrews,” they were not “Israel.” Why? Because Israel did not exist yet. So obviously, if there were no “Israel” yet, there weren’t any “children of Israel” either. Well, then, when did Israel begin? When God renamed Jacob into “Israel.” And finally, according to Rabbi Donin,
Jew is derived from Judah, the son of Israel, the most prominent of the Twelve Tribes. This became the prevalent name for the entire people when the Judeans from the Kingdom of Judea survived the downfall of the Northern Kingdom of Israel in 722 B.C.E. when Ten Tribes were led into captivity. (7)
These Ten Tribes were not only “led into captivity,” but they were also scattered among the nations throughout the Assyrian and later empires, and they’ve become known as “The Lost Ten Tribes.” But it wasn’t until the Babylonian captivity in 586 B.C.E., that the term “Judean” was shortened down to “Jew,” and we find it in use.
DO WE NEED TO BE CIRCUMCISED TO HAVE A RELATIONSHIP WITH GOD?
Let’s start with the first big question, “Do we need to be circumcised to have a relationship with God?” Now, it should be pointed out, that God has never required circumcision of females, ONLY of males. So this is not an issue that directly deals with girls or women, but only of boys or men. But if we look in the first twelve chapters of the book of Genesis, every male from Adam to Abram were Gentiles (non-Jews), and in this group, there’s three I want to highlight: Enoch, Noah, and Abram, all three of them descendants of Seth, Adam and Eve’s third son.
According to the Bible, Enoch and his great-grandson, Noah, both “walked with God” (Genesis 5:22; 6:9). And not only did they “walk with God,” but they also both spoke prophetically of the future. Enoch’s prophesy is recorded in the New Testament book of Jude:
And Enoch also, the seventh from Adam, prophesied of these, saying, Behold, the Lord comes with ten thousands of His saints, to execute judgment upon all, and to convince all that are ungodly among them of all their ungodly deeds which they have ungodly committed, and of all their hard speeches which ungodly sinners have spoken against Him. (Jude 14-15).
Noah’s prophesy is in the book of Genesis. After the flood, Noah planted a vineyard and made some wine, and he had gotten drunk. I personally think he may have been suffering from PTSD, but then something happens when his son, Ham, goes into the tent, sees him passed out and naked, and his other two sons get a blanket, and back into the tent and cover their father up. Noah wakes up, realizes what had happened, and then gives the following prophesy:
Cursed be Canaan; a servant of servants shall he be unto his brothers. And he said, Blessed be the LORD God of Shem; and Canaan shall be his servant. God shall enlarge Japheth, and he shall dwell in the tents of Shem; and Canaan shall be his servant. (Genesis 9:25-27)
Now it’s extremely critical that we note that Noah did not curse Ham, but one of Ham’s grandsons, Canaan. For years, there were those who tried to use the cursing of Ham to justify the slavery of African-Americans, but this is a blatant misuse of Scripture. Noah cursed Canaan, the father of the Canaanites, NOT Ham or his other sons: Cush, Mitzraim, and Phut (Genesis 10:6).
And finally, Enoch was taken into heaven without dying (we would say he was “raptured” today), much like the prophet Elijah centuries later, and Noah was preserved through a global catastrophe, the flooding of the whole planet, with only He, his wife, and his three sons and their wives (8 people) saved, along with the animals on board the ark. They could not have prophesied or experienced being “taken into heaven” or being saved through the flood, if they had not been in a relationship with God.
Abram was the tenth generation from Noah, through his son, Shem. And like Enoch and Noah, when God called Abram to leave his old life, city, and family to follow Him to a land that He would show him, i.e., “to walk with Him,” Abram does so, and changes not only his own life, but ultimately, he has impacted the world by his “walk with God.” But it should be noted that Enoch, Noah, and Abram all walked with God, and yet they did so without the need of being circumcised.
ABOUT CHAPTER 17
The practice of circumcision does not begin in Scripture UNTIL Genesis 17. This chapter is two chapters after God had already entered into covenant with Abram. In fact, in Genesis 15, it specifically says, “On that day, God entered into covenant with Abram” (Genesis 15: 18). And in the Hebrew text, b’yom ha-hu (“On that day”) comes before the verb for emphasis. God is emphasizing the fact that it was ON THAT DAY when He entered into covenant with Abram.
So is chapter 17, another stage in the covenant process, but if so, why does God emphasize the fact that it was in chapter 15 when He entered into covenant with him, or is chapter 17, another covenant, following chapter 15, that builds upon and extends the chapter 15 covenant? God’s covenants are eternal, and they cannot be simply “replaced” or “annulled;” consequently, the Genesis 17 covenant cannot have “replaced” the one in Genesis 15, nor is it “an addition,” but it’s another covenant that builds upon and extends the previous one; both continuing on together.
THE COVENANT OF CIRCUMCISION
In Chapter 17, we read the following,
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 everlasting covenant. (Genesis 17:10-13)
Now let’s take a sincere look at what God says here. God tells Abraham that he is to circumcise every male, whether he’s a physical descendant or a Gentile servant, it doesn’t matter, both are to be circumcised. And every male child, whether he’s a physical descendant or a Gentile child, if he is part of Abraham’s “camp” or Community, he is to be circumcised at eight days old. And this is NOT a temporary covenant or commandment, but it is eternal.
Now if this covenant is eternal, can God turn around centuries later and say, “You know, I’ve changed My mind, I’m not going to do that anymore”? No, He can’t, because the moment He does, then He lies, because He specifically said that this covenant is to be an “everlasting covenant.” And the moment God lies, He is no longer “holy” and, therefore, no longer “God.” Consequently, He cannot overturn it, not even with the crucifixion of Christ.
DOES CIRCUMCISION MAKE ONE “JEWISH”?
In saying this, does circumcision make one “Hebrew,” “a member of Israel,” or “Jewish”? Let’s consider the following:
Abram circumcised himself, Ishmael (who was thirteen at the time), and all the men in his camp. Now if being circumcised makes one Jewish, then Ishmael should be considered “Jewish,” but he’s not. Even to this day, Arab boys get circumcised at the age of thirteen, because that’s how old Ishmael was when he was circumcised. But because they’re still being circumcised, are these boys “Jews”? No, they are not.
When Isaac is born, he is circumcised at eight days old in obedience to God’s command (Genesis 21:4). And the covenant is passed on to him, not because he’s circumcised, but because God chose him to be the one to receive the covenant. After Sara dies, Abraham has six more sons with Keturah: Zimran, Jokshan, Medan, Midian, Ishbak, and Shuah (Genesis 25:1-2). These are likewise “sons of Abraham,” and there’s no reason to believe that Abraham did not circumcise these boys as well.
So if all eight sons of Abraham were circumcised, but only Isaac is considered to be one of Israel’s patriarchs (or “Jewish”), then what made him “Jewish” could not have been the fact of his circumcision, since all eight of Abraham’s sons were circumcised; instead, it had to be the fact that God had chosen to make His covenant with Isaac, and with Isaac alone. Paul makes this same point in the book of Romans. I’m not sure why he doesn’t include Keturah’s sons in his argument, but he doesn’t.
neither are they all children because they are all descendants, but: “Through Isaac your descendants will be named.” That is, it is not the children of the flesh who are children of God, but the children of promise are regarded as descendants. (Romans 9:7-8)
In addition to his eight sons, Abraham also circumcised a number of Gentile servants who had come out of Ur with him and whom he had accumulated along the way (Genesis 17:12-13, 23-27) . This group of freshly-circumcised men were also part of Abraham’s “household,” “camp,” or “community,” but are they ever called “Hebrew”? No, they’re not. So again, circumcision, in of itself, does not make one a “Jew.”
Therefore, just from Abraham’s life, we can infer that God calls us to public repentance FIRST (Genesis 12:1-3), and then He enters into covenant relationship with us NEXT (Genesis 15), and THEN the circumcision flows out from that relationship (Genesis 17); therefore, circumcision does not come before the relationship, nor does it in itself guarantee one a covenant relationship with God. This, as we can see, is the biblical pattern seen in Abraham’s life.
ISAAC AND REBEKAH
Isaac and Rebekah have two sons, Esau and Jacob. Like Abraham, Isaac is circumcised and has the covenant, and so he, like Abraham, circumcises his two sons. Although this is not explicitly stated, there’s no reason to believe that he didn’t circumcise them. But even though Isaac did circumcise them, Esau, his eldest son, is considered to be “Gentile,” not “Jewish.” Why? Because God chose Jacob, and not Esau, to be the one who would inherit the covenant; therefore, again demonstrating that circumcision in itself does not guarantee a covenant relationship with God.
THE RAPE OF DINAH, JACOB’S DAUGHTER
Although the Bible does not explicitly say that Jacob circumcised his twelve sons, it can be inferred from the account of Dinah’s, his daughter’s, rape by Shechem, the son of Hamor (Genesis 34) that he did. After the rape is discovered, Hamor and his son, Shechem, meet with Jacob/Israel and his twelve sons. Shechem desires Dinah’s hand in marriage. However, Jacob/Israel tells them that they cannot intermarry with any one who does not believe in and worship the same God they do, and they need to be circumcised before they can be ONE PEOPLE (Genesis 34:14-24). On the third day after all the men of the city are circumcised (Genesis 34:20-24), Jacob’s sons, led by Simeon and Levi, use this time of recovery to go into the city to kill all the men, to pillage the city, and to retrieve their sister back (Genesis 34:25-31).
From this account, we can see that there were two requirements here for a Gentile (or non-Jewish) man to become one with the people of Israel:
- They must believe in and worship the same God; and
- They must be circumcised.
However, being one with the people of Israel was not a requirement for one to be a worshiper of God. Since everyone from Adam, Shem and his lineage down to Abram, as well as the High Priest, Melchizedek, that Abram honored with tithes (Genesis 14:17-24), were worshipers of God and, yet, all were Gentiles who had not been circumcised. So does the book of Genesis prove that you must be circumcised to be a believer and worshiper of God? No, circumcision is only required if one wishes to become one with the family and people of Israel.
JOSEPH, MANASSEH AND EPHRAIM
The book of Genesis ends with the life and death of Joseph, the firstborn son of Jacob/ Israel and Rachel. Due to things his brothers do to show disrespect and dishonor to their father, Israel passes on the leadership to Joseph, represented by giving him “a coat of many colors.” His brothers now hate him for this, and instead of killing him, the sell him into slavery. He is ultimately taken to Egypt where he’s abused, falsely accused, and sentenced to an Egyptian prison. But as a result of his gift to accurately interpret dreams, Joseph ends up being made the governor of all Egypt, second highest position to the Pharaoh himself.
Also, his name is changed to Zaphenath-paneah (a Gentile name), and he’s given an Egyptian woman, Asenath, the daughter of Potiphera priest of On, to be his wife (Genesis 41:45). But right before the arrival of a seven-year drought, Joseph and Asenath, his Gentile wife, have two sons: Manasseh and Ephraim (Genesis 41:50-51). But it’s then during the drought in the Middle East, his brothers come down to buy from the stored up food supplies, but they don’t recognize Joseph with his new Gentile name, his new Gentile appearance and speaking Egyptian, a Gentile language. But ultimately, after some times of testing to see if they changed, he reveals himself to them, and the family is reunited.
GENESIS IN SUMMARY
In the book of Genesis, we see God’s creative hand in calling out one man, Abram, from all the other Gentiles in the world, and from his eight sons, God chooses one son, Isaac, and from his two sons, God chooses one son, Jacob, and then recreates and transforms him into a new entity in the earth that would ultimately become a nation, called “Israel.” But until there was an “Israel,” there could not be an “Israelite.” And, of course, the sons of Israel would ultimately become “the twelve tribes of Israel.” Therefore, to call the book of Genesis a purely “Jewish” book would be a clearly flippant misrepresentation of the facts.
However, what we do learn about circumcision is that it was part of the Genesis 17 covenant with Abraham and his seed,
- Every male, who is to be part of Abraham’s “camp” or “family” is to be circumcised, whether he’s a physical descendant or a Gentile servant, it doesn’t matter, both are to be circumcised;
- An uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin shall be “cut off” from his people; and
- This is an everlasting or eternal covenant.
And from Jacob’s interaction with Shechem, we learn two things that are required to be ONE with the people and family of Israel:
- They must believe in and worship the same God; and
- They must be circumcised.
In Part 2 of this series, we will continue to examine what the Bible has to say about circumcision in the rest of the Pentateuch (first five books of the Bible).