Module 2 | The covenant sign in the Old Testament: circumcision

In the “everlasting covenant” to Abraham, the Lord promised that he and his descendants would receive the Lord’s blessings because they had faith that the Lord would provide, from generation to generation.

(Genesis 15:1-6) “After these things the word of the LORD came to Abram in a vision: ‘Fear not, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.’ But Abram said, ‘O Lord GOD, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?’ And Abram said, ‘Behold, you have given me no offspring, and a member of my household will be my heir.’ And behold, the word of the LORD came to him: ‘This man shall not be your heir; your very own son shall be your heir.’ And he brought him outside and said, ‘Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them.’ Then he said to him, ‘So shall your offspring be.’ And he believed the LORD, and he counted it to him as righteousness.”

(Genesis 17:7) “And I will establish my covenant between me and you and your offspring after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you.”

In these chapters of Genesis, we see a basic element of the covenant that no one would receive the covenant blessings on the basis of personal merit or because some ritual is carried out. Because of His grace alone and before anyone somehow could “qualify” for it, God promised to be the God of Abraham and his progeny. In this way, even this early in redemptive history, the covenant of faith truly would be undergirded by the concept of grace alone through faith alone (cf. Ephesians 2:8-10). Moreover, this selfsame promise of the covenant is even called “the gospel” (Galatians 3:8). Also, the author of Hebrews identifies that the promise to Abraham was confirmed with an oath, so that New Testament believers can derive comfort from its immutability (Hebrews 6:13-18).

For a reason that will become salient later in our discussion, it’s important here to point out that every single time Scripture refers to God’s covenant with Abraham, without exception, it is presented as a single covenant:

(Exodus 2:24) “… God remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob.”

(Leviticus 26:42) “Then I will remember my covenant with Jacob, and I will remember my covenant with Isaac and my covenant with Abraham, and I will remember the land.”

(II Kings 13:23) “But the LORD was gracious to them and had compassion on them, and he turned toward them, because of his covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and would not destroy them, nor has he cast them from his presence until now.”

(I Chronicles 16:15-16) “Remember his covenant forever,
the word that he commanded, for a thousand generations,
the covenant that he made with Abraham,
his sworn promise to Isaac …”

(Psalm 105:8-9) “He remembers his covenant forever,
the word that he commanded, for a thousand generations,
the covenant that he made with Abraham,
his sworn promise to Isaac …”

We observe the following points about the covenant sign during the former administration of God’s covenant of faith.

1. The narrative of Genesis chapter 17 recounts the circumcision of Abraham, as well as his relatives and servants in his household. In carrying out circumcision, Abraham was devoting all that he had to the Lord. In the same chapter, Abraham’s descendants are commanded to circumcise their sons on the eighth day of life as part of a covenant with God.

(Genesis 17:9-14) “And God said to Abraham, ‘As for you, you shall keep my covenant, you and your offspring after you throughout their generations. This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and your offspring after you: Every male among you shall be circumcised. You shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and you. He who is eight days old among you shall be circumcised. Every male throughout your generations, whether born in your house or bought with your money from any foreigner who is not of your offspring, both he who is born in your house and he who is bought with your money, shall surely be circumcised. So shall my covenant be in your flesh an everlasting covenant. Any uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin shall be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant.'”

This sign was provided after the covenant already had been made, in order to mark those who would receive the promise and to signify God’s pledge to provide for those who would have faith in His ability to provide. This faith is the condition Abraham and his descendants needed to know the blessings of the covenant in a true, experiential way. Although Abraham believed God before he was circumcised (Genesis 15:6, 17:23-24, Romans 4:11-12), many Old Covenant believers experienced new hearts after circumcision. This began with Isaac, who was circumcised at eight days old according to the Lord’s instruction, yet Isaac did not receive faith and have heart conversion until he was older (Genesis 21:4, 26:1-4). Furthermore, Jeremiah calls on those physically circumcised also to be spiritually circumcised, which infers that it was possible to have received the Old Covenant sign of circumcision and not experience spiritual regeneration until later (Jeremiah 4:3-4).

2. This circumcision represented the removal of spiritual uncleanness, and was an external reminder to Abraham and his progeny of the promises of forgiveness and regeneration — in other words, remission of sins and the spiritual change God would effect in the hearts of His people. Moses knew that for a man to simply have the external sign of the covenant did not automatically mean he had the spiritual condition which that sign signified. To receive the blessings of the covenant, the Israelites were not to simply be circumcised in their bodies, but also to be circumcised in their hearts, which is a separation of one’s love and commitment away from worldly things unto godly things. This is the circumcision that Apostle Paul later would call (Colossians 2:11) “a circumcision made without hands.”

(Exodus 20:5) “… I the LORD your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me …”

(Leviticus 26:40-42) “But if they confess their iniquity and the iniquity of their fathers in their treachery that they committed against me, and also in walking contrary to me, so that I walked contrary to them and brought them into the land of their enemies — if then their uncircumcised heart is humbled and they make amends for their iniquity, then I will remember my covenant with Jacob, and I will remember my covenant with Isaac and my covenant with Abraham, and I will remember the land.”

(Deuteronomy 10:16) “Circumcise therefore the foreskin of your heart, and be no longer stubborn.”

(Deuteronomy 30:6) “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.”

(Psalm 103:17) “But the steadfast love of the LORD is from everlasting to everlasting on those who fear him,
and his righteousness to children’s children …”

(Jeremiah 4:3-4) “For thus says the LORD to the men of Judah and Jerusalem:
‘Break up your fallow ground,
and sow not among thorns.
Circumcise yourselves to the LORD;
remove the foreskin of your hearts,
O men of Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem;
lest my wrath go forth like fire,
and burn with none to quench it,
because of the evil of your deeds.'”

(Jeremiah 9:26) “Egypt, Judah, Edom, the sons of Ammon, Moab, and all who dwell in the desert who cut the corners of their hair, for all these nations are uncircumcised, and all the house of Israel are uncircumcised in heart.”

(Romans 4:1-12) “What then shall we say was gained by Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh? For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the Scripture say? ‘Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.’ Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness, just as David also speaks of the blessing of the one to whom God counts righteousness apart from works:
‘Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven,
and whose sins are covered;
blessed is the man against whom the Lord will not count his sin.’
Is this blessing then only for the circumcised, or also for the uncircumcised? For we say that faith was counted to Abraham as righteousness. How then was it counted to him? Was it before or after he had been circumcised? It was not after, but before he was circumcised. He received the sign of circumcision as a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised. The purpose was to make him the father of all who believe without being circumcised, so that righteousness would be counted to them as well, and to make him the father of the circumcised who are not merely circumcised but who also walk in the footsteps of the faith that our father Abraham had before he was circumcised.”

(Colossians 2:13-14) “And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross.”

3. Along with these covenant promises, circumcision symbolized purity, set aside its recipients for a holy purpose, and obliged its recipients to walk in newness of life. Members under a believing head of household were called to the same standard.

(Genesis 17:9) “And God said to Abraham, ‘As for you, you shall keep my covenant, you and your offspring after you throughout their generations.'”

(Genesis 18:19) “For I have chosen him, that he may command his children and his household after him to keep the way of the LORD by doing righteousness and justice, so that the LORD may bring to Abraham what he has promised him.”

(Exodus 6:12, 30) “But Moses said to the LORD, ‘Behold, the people of Israel have not listened to me. How then shall Pharaoh listen to me, for I am of uncircumcised lips?’ … But Moses said to the LORD, ‘Behold, I am of uncircumcised lips. How will Pharaoh listen to me?'”

(Deuteronomy 10:12-16) “And now, Israel, what does the LORD your God require of you, but to fear the LORD your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to keep the commandments and statutes of the LORD, which I am commanding you today for your good? Behold, to the LORD your God belong heaven and the heaven of heavens, the earth with all that is in it. Yet the LORD set his heart in love on your fathers and chose their offspring after them, you above all peoples, as you are this day. Circumcise therefore the foreskin of your heart, and be no longer stubborn.”

(Isaiah 52:1) “Awake, awake,
put on your strength, O Zion;
put on your beautiful garments,
O Jerusalem, the holy city;
for there shall no more come into you
the uncircumcised and the unclean.”

4. Circumcision initiated membership into the covenant community. The precept of circumcision also was reiterated to Moses, as the mark God appointed to sanctify His people — that is, to separate His people from the world and make them holy. The sign marked a person as being united to God, and also with others in family and community relationships.

(Genesis 17:14) “Any uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin shall be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant.”

(Genesis 21:4) “And Abraham circumcised his son Isaac when he was eight days old, as God had commanded him.”

(Leviticus 12:3) “And on the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised.”

(Joshua 5:2-5, 7-9) “At that time the LORD said to Joshua, ‘Make flint knives and circumcise the sons of Israel a second time.’ So Joshua made flint knives and circumcised the sons of Israel at Gibeath-haaraloth. And this is the reason why Joshua circumcised them: all the males of the people who came out of Egypt, all the men of war, had died in the wilderness on the way after they had come out of Egypt. Though all the people who came out had been circumcised, yet all the people who were born on the way in the wilderness after they had come out of Egypt had not been circumcised. … So it was their children, whom he raised up in their place, that Joshua circumcised. For they were uncircumcised, because they had not been circumcised on the way. When the circumcising of the whole nation was finished, they remained in their places in the camp until they were healed. And the LORD said to Joshua, ‘Today I have rolled away the reproach of Egypt from you.’ And so the name of that place is called Gilgal to this day.”

(Joshua 24:15) “And if it is evil in your eyes to serve the LORD, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your fathers served in the region beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you dwell. But as for me and my house, we will serve the LORD.”

(Judges 14:3, 15:18) “But his father and mother said to him, ‘Is there not a woman among the daughters of your relatives, or among all our people, that you must go to take a wife from the uncircumcised Philistines?’ But Samson said to his father, ‘Get her for me, for she is right in my eyes.’ … And he was very thirsty, and he called upon the LORD and said, ‘You have granted this great salvation by the hand of your servant, and shall I now die of thirst and fall into the hands of the uncircumcised?'”

(Ezekiel 31:18) “Whom are you thus like in glory and in greatness among the trees of Eden? You shall be brought down with the trees of Eden to the world below. You shall lie among the uncircumcised, with those who are slain by the sword.
‘This is Pharaoh and all his multitude, declares the Lord GOD.'”

5. God instructed circumcision to be given to entire households once the head of the household identified with the covenant community. Females were subordinate to their fathers or husbands, thus they were represented with the covenant sign through the standard of federal headship, “partners and associates in circumcision,” to borrow Calvin’s phrase.

(Genesis 17:10) “This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and your offspring after you: Every male among you shall be circumcised.”

6. As important as circumcision was, mere outward reception of the covenant sign was of no ultimate benefit. Consequently, people may receive the covenant sign without actually being converted, and conversely, it is possible to be saved without the covenant sign.

(Jeremiah 9:25-27) “Behold, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when I will punish all those who are circumcised merely in the flesh — Egypt, Judah, Edom, the sons of Ammon, Moab, and all who dwell in the desert who cut the corners of their hair, for all these nations are uncircumcised, and all the house of Israel are uncircumcised in heart.”

(Romans 2:25-29) “For circumcision indeed is of value if you obey the law, but if you break the law, your circumcision becomes uncircumcision. So, if a man who is uncircumcised keeps the precepts of the law, will not his uncircumcision be regarded as circumcision? Then he who is physically uncircumcised but keeps the law will condemn you who have the written code and circumcision but break the law. 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 by the letter. His praise is not from man but from God.”

(Romans 4:9-16) “Is this blessing then only for the circumcised, or also for the uncircumcised? We say that faith was counted to Abraham as righteousness. How then was it counted to him? Was it before or after he had been circumcised? It was not after, but before he was circumcised. He received the sign of circumcision as a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised. The purpose was to make him the father of all who believe without being circumcised, so that righteousness would be counted to them as well, and to make him the father of the circumcised who are not merely circumcised but who also walk in the footsteps of the faith that our father Abraham had before he was circumcised.
For the promise to Abraham and his offspring that he would be heir of the world did not come through the law but through the righteousness of faith. For if it is the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null and the promise is void. For the law brings wrath, but where there is no law there is no transgression.
That is why it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his offspring — not only to the adherent of the law but also to the one who shares the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all …”

(Galatians 5:2-6) “Look: I, Paul, say to you that if you accept circumcision, Christ will be of no advantage to you. I testify again to every man who accepts circumcision that he is obligated to keep the whole law. You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace. For through the Spirit, by faith, we ourselves eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love.”

7. It was a great sin to contemn or neglect giving the covenant sign to an infant who was eligible based on the faith of the parent or parents who were part of the covenant. Early in the Exodus narrative, God instructed Moses to sojourn in Egypt and perform miracles demonstrating the Lord’s power. The next event that Scripture recounts is that the Lord abruptly changed His disposition to Moses and threatened to kill him in righteous anger. The only logical reason for this was that Moses failed to administer the covenant sign to his son, then he carried the staff of the Lord while in this disobedience, and his wife had to step in and accomplish the task, which saved Moses’ life. This situation demonstrates the gravity of a head of household’s failure to carry out the requirement of the covenant sign.

(Exodus 4:20-26) “So Moses took his wife and his sons and had them ride on a donkey, and went back to the land of Egypt. And Moses took the staff of God in his hand.
And the LORD said to Moses, ‘When you go back to Egypt, see that you do before Pharaoh all the miracles that I have put in your power. But I will harden his heart, so that he will not let the people go. Then you shall say to Pharaoh, ‘Thus says the Lord, Israel is my firstborn son, and I say to you, ‘Let my son go that he may serve me.’ If you refuse to let him go, behold, I will kill your firstborn son.”
At a lodging place on the way the LORD met him and sought to put him to death. Then Zipporah took a flint and cut off her son’s foreskin and touched Moses’ feet with it and said, ‘Surely you are a bridegroom of blood to me!’ So he let him alone. It was then that she said, ‘A bridegroom of blood,’ because of the circumcision.”

8. Circumcision was given to non-elect persons who were legitimate members of the covenant community and later the Jewish commonwealth. All foreigners were required to be assimilated by having their males circumcised before they could enjoy the benefits of Jewish citizenship.

(Genesis 17:25) “And Ishmael his [Abraham’s] son was thirteen years old when he was circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin.”

(Genesis 25:29-34) “Once when Jacob was cooking stew, Esau came in from the field, and he was exhausted. And Esau said to Jacob, ‘Let me eat some of that red stew, for I am exhausted!’ (Therefore his name was called Edom.) Jacob said, ‘Sell me your birthright now.’ Esau said, ‘I am about to die; of what use is a birthright to me?’ Jacob said, ‘Swear to me now.’ So he swore to him and sold his birthright to Jacob. Then Jacob gave Esau bread and lentil stew, and he ate and drank and rose and went his way. Thus Esau despised his birthright.”

(Genesis 34:18-24) “So Hamor and his son Shechem came to the gate of their city and spoke to the men of their city, saying, ‘These men are at peace with us; let them dwell in the land and trade in it, for behold, the land is large enough for them. Let us take their daughters as wives, and let us give them our daughters. Only on this condition will the men agree to dwell with us to become one people — when every male among us is circumcised as they are circumcised. Will not their livestock, their property and all their beasts be ours? Only let us agree with them, and they will dwell with us.’ And all who went out of the gate of his city listened to Hamor and his son Shechem, and every male was circumcised, all who went out of the gate of his city.”

(Exodus 12:48) “If a stranger shall sojourn with you and would keep the Passover to the LORD, let all his males be circumcised. Then he may come near and keep it; he shall be as a native of the land. But no uncircumcised person shall eat of it.”

(Romans 9:6-8, 13) “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.’ This means that it is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of the promise are counted as offspring. … As it is written, ‘Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.'”

9. Circumcision was to be administered only once, as it was permanent. There is no specific Scripture to substantiate this point until the New Testament (cf. I Corinthians 7:18-19), but the anatomical fact of this is obvious so no commandment is necessary.

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Covenant theology, sacramentology, systematic theology