Published: 13 December 2021

Why Did God Command Circumcision?

circumcision
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Why did God command the circumcision of a ninety-nine year old man? God changed Abram’s name to Abraham in Genesis 17 and along with the new name came a new covenant. Why another covenant? Wasn’t one already made in Gen 15? 

It appears that Abraham participated in two covenants. (1) The unilateral covenant in Gen 15 where only God obligated Himself with no requirements from Abraham (other than faith). (2) The covenant of circumcision in Gen 17. At first these don’t appear to be two covenants, but one. However, Acts 7:8 calls the Gen 17 covenant the “covenant of circumcision” after referring to the Gen 15 covenant separately in the preceding verses. Therefore, it seems that these were two covenants

God has added the rite of circumcision to the existing covenantal relationship He established in Gen 15. Why did God add circumcision as a sign of the covenant (Gen 17:11)? In what way was circumcision a sign? What did this rite mean to people in that part of the world during that time in history?

Circumcision was common in the ancient Near East

We might easily assume that circumcision originated in this covenant between God and Abraham. As it turns out, the ancients practiced circumcision long before Abraham was born.

“Circumcision is well known in the ancient Near East from as early as the fourth millennium, the details of its practice and its significance vary from culture to culture. Anthropological studies have suggested that the rite always has to do with at least one of four basic themes: fertility, virility, maturity, and genealogy. Study of Egyptian mummies demonstrate that the surgical technique in Egypt differed from that used by the Israelites. Egyptians were not circumcised as children, but in either prenuptial or puberty rites. The common denominator, however, is that circumcision appears to have been a rite of passage, giving a new identity to the one circumcised and incorporating him into a particular group.”[1]Walton, John H., ed. Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary. Grand Rapids, Mich: Zondervan, 2009. Vol 1, 89. (emphasis added)

Circumcision was a new identity

If Abraham’s Ur was northeast of Haran, as some contend, then he shares a geographical connection to the oldest known rites of circumcision.

“Evidence of circumcision from three statues of warriors in North Syria dated around 2800 B.C. provides the earliest evidence of circumcision in the ANE to date. These statues represent the full amputation of the prepuce similar to the operation, which the Hebrews would adopt about a millennium later.”[2]Meade, John D. “The Meaning of Circumcision in Israel: A Proposal for a Transfer of Rite from Egypt to Israel.” The Southern Baptist Journal of Theology 20, no. 1 (2016): 37.

Abraham would have been familiar with the rite God commanded. True to the rite, it cannot be a mere coincidence that God changed Abraham’s name in Genesis 17:5. Since circumcision confers a new identity, it is fitting that God also changed his name.

Abraham lived in three different regions where the cultures practiced circumcision (North Syria, Canaan, and Egypt), so how might the practice of these areas have shaped Abraham’s thinking about circumcision? We know little about the meaning of the rite in North Syria and Canaan, but we have a few clues from Egypt.

Circumcision in Egypt

Scholars have concluded that the rite of circumcision made its way from North Syria to Canaan and on into Egypt.[3]Ibid. It was in Egypt that the rite took on a meaning which probably influenced Abraham’s perception of circumcision along with future generations of his offspring.

It is difficult to determine the exact age at which circumcision took place for Egyptian males, but it is clear that it did not happen at birth. The available evidence points to an age range of six to fourteen years old. In addition, most commoners in Egypt did not receive circumcision; it was mainly reserved for Egyptian priests and royalty.[4]Ibid., 41.

Scholarly consensus has not been reached regarding cicumcision’s implications in ancient Egypt. However, there are some intriguing clues.

“In the final analysis, the conclusion that accounted for the most evidence and was able to explain the circumcision of Rā and the circumcision of the royal court of the Pharaoh was that Egyptian circumcision functioned as a specific, voluntary, and initiatory rite to identify and affiliate the subject with the deity and to signify devotion to the same deity.”[5]Ibid., 45.

The false Egyptian god Ra was circumcised. To show their allegiance to their god, the Pharaoh, priests, and the royal court were also circumcised. Circumcision served as an identity marker which permanently associated them with their god, Ra. 

What did circumcision mean to Abraham?

Historians and scholars tell us that the Egyptian rite, although ancient, was still taking place in Abraham’s time.[6]Ibid., 42. He surely knew about the meaning behind Egyptian circumcision having spent time in Egypt. After Abraham had been in the region for twenty-four years, God appeared to him commanding circumcision. What do you suppose the meaning of circumcision would have meant to Abraham?

God adapts known culture to His purposes. For example, much of the law given at Mount Sinai resembled the rules of behavior of the surrounding cultures. God’s laws concerning marriage, slavery, sexual behavior, punishment for crimes, etc. were remarkably similar to the law codes that were common to the cultures of the ancient Near East. 

You see, God didn’t introduce His people to totally alien concepts that they had no categories for. In the Bible, we always see God taking people where they were and molding them into the people He wanted them to become. Of course, there were important differences in the law God gave. Nevertheless, He revealed a law that both Israel and the surrounding nations could relate to. In fact, God expected the surrounding nations to notice the superiority of His law over theirs (Deut 4:5-8). This would only be possible if the laws were similar enough that they could be compared. 

God used what was familiar

Likewise, the evidence suggests that God adapted the Egyptian rite of circumcision to His purposes. Abraham almost certainly knew that in Egypt only those who devoted their lives to their god underwent the rite of circumcision. Like the law at Mount Sinai, God made adaptations as Meade observes:

“However, one must consider the possibility that God modifies already existing structures and makes them productive in his own revelation to his people. For example, the difference of age could be interpreted as God revealing to every Israelite family through circumcision that the male child is already consecrated to God, and does not need to wait till adolescence for initiation through circumcision into the family of the priesthood, the kingdom of priests. On the eighth day, his initiation is complete. Furthermore, the difference of subjects of the rite would communicate to every Israelite male and his family that he is a priest to God and affiliated with the priesthood consecrated to Yahweh, whereas in Egypt, only certain males would have this type of relationship with the deity.”[7]Ibid., 46.

What then, did this circumcision mean to Abraham? It served to signify his devotion to God and to also serve as a reminder of his devotion. It signaled to him that he was a priest of his God and this mark permanently affiliated him with Yahweh. God made this explicit later on at Mount Sinai: 

and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ These are the words that you shall speak to the people of Israel.” (Ex. 19:6 ESV)

Circumcised hearts

While outward circumcision was a sign of the covenant with God (Gen 17:11), God’s desire was that an inward circumcision would take place. 

But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter. His praise is not from man but from God. (Rom. 2:29 ESV)

In this passage in Romans, Paul is referring to:

Circumcise therefore the foreskin of your heart, and be no longer stubborn. (Deut. 10:16 ESV)

And the LORD your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your offspring, so that you will love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live. (Deut. 30:6 ESV)

Conclusion

Understanding circumcision as Abraham did helps to reveal the true meaning of a “circumcised heart.” A circumcised heart is one that is fully devoted to God. It is a heart belonging to a person who has dedicated their entire life to God. It is not a superficial dedication which only offers lip service. In Rom 2:29, Paul is teaching us what God desired all along. The true covenant people of God have circumcised their hearts – they are 100 percent sold out to God. 

As such, Peter reminds us that God’s followers today are still “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1 Pet. 2:9 ESV).

References

References
1 Walton, John H., ed. Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary. Grand Rapids, Mich: Zondervan, 2009. Vol 1, 89.
2 Meade, John D. “The Meaning of Circumcision in Israel: A Proposal for a Transfer of Rite from Egypt to Israel.” The Southern Baptist Journal of Theology 20, no. 1 (2016): 37.
3 Ibid.
4 Ibid., 41.
5 Ibid., 45.
6 Ibid., 42.
7 Ibid., 46.