An Everlasting Covenant in Your Flesh: A Biblical Study in Circumcision

Seminary paper, circa ~ 1998


The thread of circumcision and its meaning is sewn tightly into the fabric of both the Old and New Testaments. The reader of Scripture never gets to look at the spool directly and get a statement of "bare significance," but by tracing its institution, development and usage, it is possible to establish a coherent picture of how it functions in the biblical revelation. In this paper, we aim to unfold the circumcision theme through the history of revelation in order to appreciate its significance and function in that redemptive history.1

Circumcision in the Old Testament

Scholars are not agreed upon the origin of circumcision. Some suggest it traces precisely to the Hebrews (Farley 1975:867), while others deny such a claim, suggesting it was widespread in the ancient Near East (Kidner 1967:130; Hyatt 1962:629). Conclusive demonstration of usage outside Israel does not antedate the time of Abraham. It seems, in any case, that where it did come into use elsewhere, it differed from Israelite usage in both practice and significance. Circumcision outside Israel was apparently administered upon marriage, or during the period of puberty, or at least childhood, while the Hebrews circumcised at eight days of age.

Genesis 17

The earliest and most foundational passage dealing with circumcision is Genesis 17. It is here that God institutes the rite in the context of covenant-making with Abraham. An adequate exegesis for this lengthy and important passage would clearly run us the full length of our paper. Therefore, we must be satisfied with an outline of the passage, attempting to draw salient points from the constituent parts as well as the whole.


17:1-2: Introduction. Here we find the general setting of what follows. Yahweh reminds Abram who He Himself is (El Shaddai, Almighty God) and commands him to walk before Him and be blameless. He then states His own divine intention: He will make (lit. give, natan) His covenant between Himself and Abram, and we will multiply Abram exceedingly. Note that Abram at this point is 99 years old, and has already walked with God for several decades. However, Wenham (1994:15, 20) points out that the clause providing God's intention (with a waw-cohortative) follows upon the imperative. This grammatical construction indicates a purpose clause (cf. Gen. 19:5; 23:4; 27:4): Abram is to walk before God and be blameless so that God may 'give' or 'set' His covenant between them. The apparently 'unconditional' covenant introduces a dynamic of responsibility that is much clearer here than in previous encounters between Yahweh and Abram.

17:3-8: Promises. In view of the fact that God is the Almighty One (1), He is able to make wonderful promises. So He elaborates on the promise of fruitfulness already offered in verse 2: He will make (again, natan) Abram a father of many nations; indeed, he must now be called Abraham. He will be exceedingly fruitful; whole nations and kings will derive from him. Such is promised to Abraham personally. But in connection with that is that this covenant is to be established, not only with him, but also his descendants (zera', seed) after him in their generations, "for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and your descendants after you" (7). Moreover, God will provide those descendants with the land of Canaan, in which Abraham has sojourned as a stranger, and He will be their God (8).

17:9-14: Stipulation/sign. God has said what He will do. Now He addresses Abraham's responsibilities: "As for you. . . ." Abraham (and his descendants) must "keep" (shmr) this covenant which God is establishing. There is not a long list of stipulations. Rather, there is the simple requirement that all males must be circumcised in the flesh (bsr) of their foreskin (perhaps in part providing the level of discourse for the flesh/Spirit antithesis of later revelation). Indeed, this "is" the covenant (10); or, more precisely, it is the "sign of the covenant" (11), so that God's covenant will be "in your flesh" (13). The stipulation, however, is comprehensive: even household servants are to receive this sign (12-13); whoever does not must be "cut off from his people," for uncircumcision equals covenant-breaking (14). Covenant-breaking, of course, is set over against the keeping of the covenant.

17:15-22: Clarification of the promise. In some ways, this section creates the most difficulties. The covenant will be established with Isaac (yet unborn), not with Ishmael (19). This means that Sarai, like Abram, will receive a name change to denote her new status (cf. 5). Given the directness of this revelation, we are led to puzzle over why Ishmael (not to mention Abraham's household servants) must still receive the covenant sign. Calvin suggests that Ishmael could have remained joined to Isaac as "an inferior member," but he "apostatized from the covenant" and thus lost his place (1979:462). While there may be some truth contained in such observations, it is not wholly satisfactory.2 Abraham had even more sons later, but after giving them gifts he sent them away from Isaac, to whom he gave the whole inheritance (Gen. 25:1-6). We have no reason to posit some particular apostasy in them. Thus the mystery remains.

17:23-27: Response. Abraham immediately obeys the directive of God, "that very same day" (23), being circumcised himself as well as circumcising Ishmael and all the male servants of his household.


Institutional significance. The institutional significance of the rite of circumcision is made clear enough in this chapter: it is meant to designate the males of the covenant people (despite the anomaly of Ishmael). The extensiveness of the covenant will be defined by the limits of circumcision (taking into account that males implicitly represent female members of their households - note the covenantal blessing of Sarah in the context of Abraham's covenantal blessing in Gen. 17). This rite is so closely associated with the covenant that God initially calls it the covenant.

Symbolic significance. God nowhere in this passage explicitly explains the symbolic significance of circumcision. Precisely how the rite relates to the promises just articulated is not clarified. Do they somehow symbolize the promises? Or do they symbolize the proper response to those promises? We are not told. It may be that God considered the symbolism self-evident to Abraham.

Ross (1996:333) suggests that the promise of seed in the immediate context would draw attention to a sexual connotation. This general allusion is likely. Ross adds: "The covenanters would be reminded (1) that human nature alone was unable to generate the promised seed if God was not willing to grant such fruitfulness, and (2) that impurity must be laid aside, especially in marriage. The sign formed a constant reminder for the people to preserve the purity of marriage in order to produce a godly seed (see Mal. 2:10-17)." These more specific claims have less direct support. Certainly, Abraham had already learned by experience that he was dependent upon the Lord for fruitfulness, so the institution of this rite in the context of a promise of such fruitfulness may indicate that Ross is in the right track with his first suggestion. In that line, Kline suggests, "the application of the circumcision sign to the male organ of generation" would indicate "that the descendants of the circumcised were consecrated with him to the Lord of the covenant" (1968:88). In other words, by instituting circumcision God is implicitly claiming the covenant offspring as His own.

Ross's idea of marital purity, as important as that is, seems to play less of a role here (unless we are to read more significance into the fact that it will be Sarah's yet-unborn son, rather than Ishmael, who will inherit the promises, as God indicates in vv. 15ff.).

Perhaps most significant is the relationship of purpose in the foundational statements in verses 1 and 2. The fruition of the covenant promises is to come in the way of blamelessness. Thus, when God says concerning circumcision, "This is My covenant which you shall keep" (10), part of what we are likely intended to understand is that circumcision is to signify blamelessness or purity. That means implicit demand, but also promise: "life and its origin are also sanctified in the covenant" (De Graaf 1977:107).

This denotation of blamelessness is a line that can be explored further. Kline (1968:41-43) suggests that the entire procedure is first of all a self-maledictory oath. Here, as in Genesis 15, a covenant is literally "cut" when the flint knives come out. Thus, "circumcision symbolized the oath-curse by which the Abrahamic community confessed themselves under the judicial authority and more precisely under the sword of God Almighty" (ibid. 42). This, especially, is why God can identify circumcision with the covenant. Kline writes that verse 14 expresses this fact: "There the threat of the curse sanction sounds against the one who breaks the covenant by not obeying the command of circumcision: '(he) shall be cut off'" (ibid. 43).

This particular argument is undermined by the simple fact that it is the one who has not undergone the oath that is "cut off," whereas with a self-maledictory oath, it is the one who has undergone the oath who becomes subject to the negative sanctions of the covenant. Still, the identification of covenant and sign in verse 10 probably indicates that in general Kline is on the right track, even if his argument from verse 14 is misguided.

Kline adds further that circumcision was an oath of consecration (1968:43-49). He writes,

Circumcision's consecratory import appears in the figurative use made of the idea in the law of the fruit trees in Leviticus 19:23-25. For the first three years the fruit was regarded as "uncircumcised" and might not be eaten. The fruit of the fourth year was to be consecrated in joyful praise to the Lord, and then Israel might eat of the fruit of the fifth year. According to this pattern it was the act of consecrating the tree in its firstfruit to the Lord that terminated the state of uncircumcision and so constituted the circumcision of the tree.3

Here again, I agree with Kline's general position but find his argumentation dubious, since what was offered to the Lord by the nature of the case had to be already clean (and without defect), as is evident throughout the Levitical offering prescriptions.4 In Leviticus 19, it is not the consecration which circumcises the fruit; rather, it is the expiry of three years of uncleanness. However, given the context of the institution of circumcision in Genesis 17, the idea of consecration doubtless is in the background. God has just told Abraham to walk before Him and be blameless (verse 1, tamim); in response to such a command, Abraham is to be circumcised. Since circumcision of the flesh itself did not constitute such a requirement, it seems reasonable to understand that it represented a consecration to that requirement. Indeed, the institutional issue shows without any doubt that the one circumcised is in the covenant and thus set apart to God: that is, he is consecrated to Him.

Kline again develops this theme further by seeing in the consecration the notion of sacrifice (a quite natural connection in the Levitical order).5 Kline holds that in Genesis 22, through requiring the offering of Isaac as a burnt offering, God was requiring the 'perfection' of his circumcision (1968:44-45). At first I resisted this thought, since the foreskin is unclean and is not offered to God. However, that is to miss the point of the sacrifice: not the (unclean) foreskin but the (now clean) Israelite male has by circumcision become the sacrifice. It is not accidental that in Jewish tradition circumcision did indeed become associated with, and even identified as, sacrifice (Vermes 1957-1958:308-319). The rabbis even called the blood of circumcision "the blood of the covenant" (McEleney 1974:333). This is sacrificial language (Ex. 24:8). So, with his (fore-)skin having been removed in the manner of the burnt offering (Lev. 7:8), Isaac was to be offered up (Gen. 22; note that verse 2 explicitly says that Abraham is to offer Isaac as a burnt offering).6 In other words, circumcision was a sacrificial act (or at least, an act in preparation for sacrifice).

Such observations, it is clear, do not lie upon the surface of the text, but arise out of reflections on the total context. Such reflection is a necessary exercise, but it is equally necessary to lay stress upon what is most clear within our passage. In general, we can readily see that circumcision has reference to purity and separation. Further, the fact that such a rite of purification must be administered to an infant suggests that sin and defilement is transmitted, not merely through environment, but through the very act of generation. The human race - yes, even the covenant family - is born stained and requiring purification. Moreover, the idea of a consecratory oath is not difficult, given the language of covenant and the purpose of the sign within that covenant. (Analogously, this thought is reinforced by Peter, when he identifies baptism as a pledge: 1 Pet. 3:21).

Chronology. Another observation which will be picked up further when we reach the New Testament is that this entire encounter takes place long after Abram has begun walking with God. Indeed, God had already sworn an oath to Abram many years previously - in Genesis 15, prior even to the birth of Ishmael (at the time, Abram thought that Eliezer of Damascus would end up being his heir, 15:2). That oath included the same sorts of promises that are repeated in Genesis 17: an heir, a multitude of descendants, and inheritance of the land of Canaan. And even those were echoes of similar earlier promises (12:1-3, 7). Therefore, we cannot consider the stipulation of circumcision to be foundational to God's promises to Abraham.

Yet, the grammar of 17:1-2 does show a link between the purity symbolized by circumcision and the 'giving' or fruition of the promises. The ultimate reception of the truth of the promises will not come apart from "walking before God and being blameless." Now, as Kline stresses, God "underwent the knife" (Gen. 15) several years before Abraham did (Gen. 17), even as Christ's baptism preceded our own (1968:61). Thus, there is necessarily an element of promise, since divine action is antecedent to human. This promise does not undercut the requirement but simply guarantees that it will somehow be fulfilled.

To keep covenant. Finally, I drew attention to the fact that Abraham and his descendants are (by means of circumcision) to keep (shmr) the covenant. This is an interesting divine choice of words; the term (a common one)7 carries connotations of guarding, protecting (Gen. 3:24), although often it simply seems to mean observe (Ex. 12:17). Even there, however, there is an idea of a charge conveyed. The keeping of God's commandments means obedience (e.g. Ex. 20:6), indeed, but that obedience is a rendering of responsibility to the charge of God; it is a 'keeping' of His covenant (Ps. 78:10). Here, the covenant is a charge given to Abraham and his descendants, and it will be 'kept' through circumcision.

Provisions of the Law

Considering how closely circumcision comes to be identified with the law, it is somewhat surprising how little attention it receives in the actual Mosaic provisions. There are only two passages which give any directions concerning the rite: Exodus 12:44-49 and Leviticus 12:1-3.

Exodus 12:44-49

This passage's treatment of circumcision is rather incidental. In dealing with the Passover, the Lord stipulates that household servants and sojourners may partake if they have been circumcised. That circumcision will imply that such a stranger "shall be as a native of the land." Covenant rights are tied to covenant rite: no one may partake of Passover unless he is circumcised (Ex. 12:48).

Leviticus 12

This passage is more foundational: it deals with post-childbirth rituals, including purification of the mother (8). Prior to making those stipulations, the Lord directs, "on the eighth day the flesh of [the male child's] foreskin shall be circumcised" (3). This itself adds nothing new to the directives in Genesis 17, although the attendant material on purification may serve to remind us of one of the fundamental truths that circumcision itself points us to: impurity surrounds the generation of human life (cf. Ps. 51:5).

Emblematic usage in the Torah

The language of circumcision/uncircumcision does appear elsewhere in the Torah. These appearances are not literal, but a brief consideration of them can help us analyze the symbolic value of the rite.8

Exodus 6

Perhaps the least clear of these is Moses' claim that he has "uncircumcised lips" (Ex. 6:12, 30). Because of this 'uncircumcision of the lips,' he implies that Pharaoh will not listen to him. This seems rather obscure. We have a parallel excuse in Ex. 4:10, however, which leads us toward the solution. There, Moses objects to being sent by Yahweh, for "I am not eloquent, neither before nor since You have spoken to Your servant; but I am slow of speech and slow of tongue." Literally, "I am of heavy [kbd] of mouth and heavy of tongue." Given this parallel, we can see that circumcision of the lips is set over against infacility, dullness of speech. An uncircumcised mouth, we may say, has too much flesh attached to move well. Circumcision removes obstruction.

Leviticus 19

Less difficult is Leviticus 19:23, mentioned earlier: "When you come into the land, and have planted all kinds of trees for food, then you shall count their fruit as uncircumcised. Three years it shall be as uncircumcised to you. It shall not be eaten." This 'uncircumcision' is contrasted to the fourth year, when the fruit "shall be holy, a praise to the LORD" (24). This indicates that uncircumcision was equated to impurity or defilement. Circumcision means holiness. This may relate to the institutional significance of circumcision in Genesis 17: those who belong to the covenant are holy to the Lord, set aside to Him.

Circumcision/uncircumcision of the heart

The concepts in the passages above reappear in the figurative spiritual meaning found elsewhere in the Pentateuch.

After providing Israel with a summary of the law (Deut. 10:12-13), as well as the almighty power, sovereign ownership and electing love of Yahweh (14-15), Moses directs the Israelites, "Therefore circumcise the foreskin of your heart, and be stiff-necked no longer" (16). Here we especially find the idea of obstruction, similar to Exodus 6: a spirit of rebellion, 'stiff-neckedness' characterizes the uncircumcised heart.

Both Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 27-30 give extended promises and warnings of sanctions in relation to how Israel responds to the stipulations of the covenant. Both passages end up assuming ultimate failure. Based upon that failure, God promises in Leviticus 26:40-42 that if Israel confesses her iniquity (and that of her fathers), "if their uncircumcised hearts are humbled, and they accept their guilt," then He will remember His covenant for their sake. Here again the focus is upon the removal of the obstruction of a stiff-necked heart which is too dull to humble itself before God.

Deuteronomy 30:6, however, appears to be somewhat more comprehensive. The setting is similar to that in Leviticus 26: it refers to a time after Israel has been carried away captive (30:1). In connection with promises of restoration, Moses adds, "And Yahweh your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your descendants, to love Yahweh your God with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live." The Israelites will have 'holy-fied' hearts, enabled to love the Lord as He has commanded them. Doubtless, this is substantially the same promise as the new covenant promise of Jeremiah 31:31-34, particularly verse 33, in which God commits Himself to putting His law within His people, and writing it upon their hearts (cf. Ezek. 36:26-27.)

As I noted, such promises are given in the context of a bleak assertion: Israel will not keep the covenant and will therefore come under the negative sanctions. More than once in Deuteronomy, Moses explains why he can be so sure of their failure. Even now, they are receiving the land, not because of their righteousness, but 1) because of the wickedness of the Canaanites; and 2) because of the covenant God swore to the fathers (Deut. 9:5); as for the Israelites, "you are a stiff-necked people" (v. 6). Although they have seen all the Lord's wonders in Egypt (29:2-3), "Yet Yahweh has not given you a heart to perceive and eyes to see and ears to hear, to this very day" (29:4). Without using the precise words, Moses is clearly describing uncircumcision of the heart - a concept repeatedly appealed to by the prophets, particularly Jeremiah (see below).

Joshua 5

We make a rather remarkable discovery when we arrive at Joshua 5. In order to keep the impending Passover (v. 10), the Israelites must be circumcised (2-9). Moses, whose name is almost synonymous with the law, did not enforce circumcision during the wandering in the wilderness. It is certainly not the case that he opposed it (despite his initial failure to circumcise his own son: Ex. 4:24-26); although the Sinaitic legislation does not overflow with references to the rite, as we have seen, it was indeed assumed and incorporated into covenant duties. Still, there had certainly been time for the second generation to be circumcised; they had stayed in some places months and even years (cf. Num. 9:22). This anomaly carries a certain degree of irony. If there was a generation uncircumcised in heart, it was the one that perished in the wilderness. This second generation, at least, was allowed to enter the promised land.

Keil and Delitzsch locate the explanation in verse 6:

For the children of Israel walked forty years in the wilderness, till all the people who were men of war, who came out of Egypt, were consumed, because they did not obey the voice of Yahweh - to whom Yahweh swore that He would not show them the land which Yahweh had sworn to their fathers that He would give us, "a land flowing with milk and honey."

The uncircumcision has to do with the sin of the previous generation. Keil and Delitzsch comment, "Not only was the generation that came out of Egypt sentenced to die in the wilderness because of its rebellion against the Lord, and therefore rejected by God, but the sons of this generation had to bear the whoredom, i.e. the apostasy of their fathers from the Lord. . . ." (1986:54-55).

This explanation seems to gain further support from the final verse of the pericope (9): Yahweh tells Joshua that now He has "rolled away the reproach of Egypt from you." Up to this point, Israel had not been allowed to come out from under the shadow of the reproach of Egypt. Uncircumcision is a reproach to Israel (Gen. 34:14). In this case, it seems that God intentionally left Israel under that reproach. The implication of the situation, particularly in the context of verses 10-11, is that Passover had ceased being celebrated (since no uncircumcised male could partake of it, Ex. 12:48). It was indeed observed in the second year (Num. 9:5), but there are no further records of observance (as opposed to commandments) in the Pentateuch. Note that this last observance took place in the same year the first generation refused to possess the land (Num. 13-14). In a rather practical way, those who wished to go back to Egypt (Num. 14:2-4) got their wish: God 'stopped time' and treated them as if the exodus had never occurred. Their sons would "bear the brunt" of their infidelity (Num. 14:33). Now, however, that reproach is rolled away from the second generation. Even as Moses tied circumcision of the heart to the return to the land, so circumcision of the flesh is tied to initial entrance.

Circumcision in the prophets

Circumcision appears frequently in the major prophets. The nations of the uncircumcised are those that perish under the wrath of God (Ezek. 28:10; 31:18; 32:19, etc.).

Uncircumcised hearts

The concept of spiritual uncircumcision reappears in the prophets, particularly in Jeremiah. He calls upon the men of Judah and Jerusalem to break up their fallow ground; "Circumcise yourselves to Yahweh, and take away the foreskins of your hearts." This will avert the Lord's fury which burns against them because of the evil of their doings (Jer. 4:3-4). But, as Jeremiah complains, such warnings are fruitless, since "their ear is uncircumcised, and they cannot give heed," and thus they have no delight in the word of the Lord (Jer. 6:10). Therefore, their outward circumcision is really an illusion. So the Lord promises (Jer. 9:25-26),

"Behold, the days are coming," says Yahweh, "that I will punish all those who are circumcised with the uncircumcised - Egypt, Judah, Edom, the people of Ammon, Moab, and all who are in the farthest corners, who dwell in the wilderness. For all these nations are uncircumcised, and all the house of Israel are uncircumcised in the heart."9

This passage indicates that the end of the uncircumcised in heart is properly the same as that of the uncircumcised in flesh (i.e. outsiders to the covenant). A like punishment awaits them both.10 Physical circumcision may not be appealed to superstitiously. By itself it does not make an ultimate difference; it is meant to sign and seal a spiritual reality.

Prophetic hope

Among the glorious promises for Zion in the book of Isaiah is that "the uncircumcised and the unclean shall no longer come to you;" therefore, Zion is to put on her beautiful garments (Is. 52:1). Contextually, the issue is how foreign (uncircumcised) nations have overrun Jerusalem. She will return to safety, and thus be freed from the uncleanness involved with being trampled by the unclean. In response, she is to depart, go out from the midst of the filthy nation which has oppressed her, touching nothing unclean, so that she may again bear the vessels of the Lord (52:11). Implicitly, the central characterization of uncircumcision in this passage is not 'stiff-neckedness' or stubbornness, but uncleanness.

Circumcision in the New Testament

The Gospels

The Gospels provide relatively scant material on circumcision. It is mentioned incidentally that circumcision was done on the Sabbath (Jn. 7:22-23).11

The most significant Gospel statement is that Jesus was circumcised (Lk. 2:21): He was indeed born under the law (Gal. 4:4), the Son of Abraham in every way (Mt. 1:1). It is fitting that, according to custom, boys received their names at the time of circumcision (cf. Lk. 1:59). For here, at the point of this rite symbolizing purification and removal of the obstruction of sin, our Lord receives the name Jesus, for He shall save His people from their sins (cf. Mt. 1:21).

It ought to be observed again that the fruition of the Abrahamic covenant was dependent upon walking before Yahweh in blamelessness. In the ultimate sense, Israel's entire history demonstrated that such blamelessness was beyond her reach. Thus, so was the fruition of the covenant promises. Even though there had indeed been descendants and a possession of the land, yet even first century Jews realized that true Israel was but a remnant, and further, that their present condition was essentially exilic.

With the circumcision of Jesus Christ, however, there was indeed a Jew signed and sealed Who would walk before Yahweh and be blameless. Therefore, He held the key to the flowering of the promises. It is little wonder that Paul will later say that Christ - alone, singular - is the Seed of Abraham (Gal. 3:16). Now, in an ultimate and final sense, the reproach of Egypt will be finally rolled away (cf. Josh. 5:9; Mt. 2:15).

Historic moments in Acts

In Acts 7:51, Stephen had echoed the language of Jeremiah and Moses by identifying his persecutors as "stiff-necked and uncircumcised in heart and ears," resisting the Holy Spirit even as their fathers did.

Acts 10-11

Stephen's incidental reference to spiritual uncircumcision is overshadowed in Acts by two very big redemptive-historical events. The first, which we summarize only briefly, is recorded in Acts 10 and recounted by Peter in Acts 11, and details the official spread of the gospel to the Gentiles. It took a heavenly vision (10:9-16) to prepare Peter to preach to these Gentiles, since his predilection was still to consider them unclean (cf. 10:28). The dramatic climax came when God poured out the Holy Spirit upon the hearers, apart from circumcision, and indeed, prior to baptism. Peter, recognizing the significance of this divine activity, could not deny baptism nor insist upon circumcision (44-48). God had pre-empted him, as Peter himself pleads when he is confronted with accusations upon his return to Jerusalem (11:15-17). (Paul will use a similar argument from the Galatians' experience to deny the necessity of their becoming circumcised; see below.)

Acts 15

The other significant passage relating to circumcision in Acts is clearly the record of the historic Jerusalem council in Acts 15.

15:1-5 Setting. Men from Judea had gone to Antioch and insisted that to be saved, the Gentiles must be circumcised according to the law. The ensuing dispute between these Judaizers and the leaders in Antioch (including Paul and Barnabas) led to the council. There it became apparent that believing Pharisees required circumcision and observance of the Mosaic law (5).

15:6-11 Speech of Peter. In response, Peter appealed to the divine activity in Acts 10. The Holy Spirit was poured out upon the Gentiles (re: Acts 10:44-48) even as He had been poured out upon the Jews. Thus God had acknowledged them without making a distinction between Jews and Gentiles, "purifying their hearts by faith" (9). It may be that here Peter is picking up on the notion that the Holy Spirit fulfills the purification which circumcision depicts. Interestingly, Peter says that the introduction of the law is a yoke which even the Jews had not been able to bear (10). The bottom line: "we believe that through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ we shall be saved in the same manner as they" (11). This implies that salvation does not come through the law but precisely in the manner the Gentiles had received it (cf. Gal. 2:15-16). So Peter undercuts the value of circumcision for the Jews as well.

15:13-21 Speech of James. After Paul and Barnabas gave a recounting of the Lord's mighty works in their Gentile ministry (12) - which would confirm the Lord's acceptance of their missionary method (i.e. sans circumcision), James provided a speech that in general accords with that of Peter. God is clearly gathering for Himself a people (covenant language!) from among the Gentiles. This comports with Scripture: appealing to Amos 9:11-12, James reminds the council that the restoration of David was meant to involve a resulting seeking of the Lord by the rest of mankind. Since this is so, the Gentiles should not be troubled. However, James does suggest that the council write to the Gentiles to abstain from idol food, sexual immorality, strangled things and from blood. Commentators disagree over the significance of these prohibitions: do they reflect the continuing ethical normativity of the 'moral law' (e.g. Farley 1975:868) or are they simply parameters to avoid giving unnecessary offense to Jews? It would be fascinating to follow through on that issue, but the issue of circumcision is clear enough: the Gentiles are not to be 'troubled' with such a requirement.

James closes his speech with an interesting comment: Moses has his expounders everywhere. On the face of it, the idea seems to be that we need not preach Moses, when many others are doing so. Alexander, probably more accurately, prefers to read this statement in support of his view that the decrees were given for peace between Gentiles and Jews: since Moses is being proclaimed widely, for the sake of such peace we need to spare the Jews to some degree by observing these few things (Alexander 1963:2.86-87).

15:22-29 The decree of the council. This consists essentially of two parts. The first section implicitly denies that the Judaizers were sent by the Jerusalem leadership, thus undercutting the authority by which the circumcision party had 'unsettled your souls' (cf. 24); this leads into the second part, which is a virtual verbatim reproduction of the suggestion of James, with the qualifier that these requirements are "necessary things" which "it seemed good to the Holy Spirit, and to us, to lay upon you" (28).

16:1-3. Circumcision of Timothy

As Paul began his ensuing journey, delivering this letter to the various churches (16:4), he recruited Timothy at Lystra, whose mother was Jewish but whose father was Greek. Paul circumcised him for the sake of the many Jews in the region. This is a move whose legitimacy has often been disputed: Paul is adamant that the Galatians and others not be circumcised; why does he cave in here? But it is hard to suppose that Paul would capitulate on this issue, particularly given the nature of this very mission: pronouncing freedom from circumcision for the Gentiles! As Alexander points out (1963:2.103), however, Timothy was partially Jewish and thus the situation is not the same. In Galatia, the objects of attack were Gentiles and they were being compelled. Here, the one being circumcised is a Jew, and the act is a voluntary removal of offense to the Jewish community. Bruce aptly notes (1988:304) that it was much worse to associate with an uncircumcised Jew than an uncircumcised Gentile: the former was considered an apostate Jew (in correspondence with the terms of Gen. 17:14). Since Paul's modus operandi was to go to "the Jew first" by means of the synagogue, he could not expect to travel with an apostate Jew without abandoning his whole approach.

This 'inconsistent' approach of Paul is one he never abandons (in fact, he essentially makes it a matter of principle in 1 Cor. 9:19-21). When James in Acts 21:21 reports that the Jewish believers who are zealous for the law have heard that Paul teaches Jews to abandon Moses and forbids them to circumcise their children, Paul takes the advice of James and engages in ritual purification (ironically, this was the occasion for his arrest on the mistaken grounds of defiling the temple). For Paul, circumcision no longer carries any weight in itself (cf. Gal. 6:15), and so he is free to use it for the furtherance of the gospel.


Romans 2:26-29

Since Paul is the apostle to the Gentiles, it is not altogether surprising that the role of circumcision finds a place in his letters. In Romans 2:26-29, the apostle's stress is upon the heart-reality which circumcision was designed to refer to. An uncircumcised man who keeps the righteousness of the law will be counted as circumcised (26), while the physically circumcised man who transgresses the law will be judged (27). True Jewishness is not merely outward, but inward. True circumcision is that of the heart, by the Spirit (28-29). (The normal translation, "in the Spirit, and not in the letter," is manifestly unlikely. The two phrases parallel one another, and one is confronted with the question of what being circumcised "in the letter" would mean. The point is what the law, i.e. "the letter," can do, and what the Spirit can do [cf. 8:3-4]. Thus en in both cases must be instrumental. So too Murray 1968:1.88-89.)

It is striking what underlies this argument, however: implicit is the revolutionary notion that the sign is removed once the reality has come. Otherwise, Paul could not argue that "uncircumcision will be counted as circumcision" (26). This is where Barclay obscures the point: he does not point out the redemptive-historical character of Paul's argument.12 It may be true, as he says (1998:545), that most Jews would have agreed that "without law-observance circumcision will not count." But Paul means something much deeper than what they would have meant by that: the law-keeping he has in view is not by the letter, but by the Spirit. Circumcision is not abrogated merely by law-keeping, but by its genuine fulfillment which makes such law-keeping possible. If one is circumcised by the Spirit, that is, in the heart, he is a partaker of the eschatological circumcision, and thus outward circumcision has become unnecessary (cf. Schreiner 1998:141-142).

All of this means that circumcision always looked forward, to the age of the Spirit. The law could not administer circumcision of the heart; it could only administer circumcision of the flesh, functioning in a prophetic role, as it were, to prefigure the reality. (The forward-looking character comports with the mode, which required the shedding of blood, in line with other Old Testament sacraments and ceremonies.)

Romans 4:9-12

Here Paul refers back to the institution of circumcision. He is particularly forceful in stressing that the rite was introduced after Abraham had already been reckoned righteous (4:10). Circumcision was given as a sign and "seal of the righteousness of faith which he had while still uncircumcised, that he might be the father of all those who believe, though they are uncircumcised, that righteousness might be imputed to them also" (4:11).

The infinitival purpose clause is not entirely clear. Grammatically, one would think that Abraham was given circumcision in order to become the father of later believers, but that seems a difficult concept. On the other hand, some refer it back to the substance of the previous verse: God introduced the rite later in order to make possible salvation to those who are uncircumcised. Schreiner (1998:225) suggests that this is syntactically questionable; moreover it would also force the purpose clause in verse 12 likewise to refer back to verse 10, which is conceptually impossible.13 Instead, he opts to place the causative force, not in the verb of the main clause in 11a (received, elaben) , but in the righteousness of the faith (possessed in the period of uncircumcision; Paul's grammar is very tight, with no verb here: tes dikaiosunes thes pisteos tes en to akrobustia). One questions whether this works: for the purpose clause of verse 12, Schreiner draws off the main verb of 11a (1998:226; so too Murray 1968:1.138-139). Since, however, the same infinitival construction is the base of both clauses, it seems unlikely that such a flip-flop is probable.

It seems more likely, then, to reexamine the verb. The initial difficulty arises in laying too much stress upon the object (circumcision), rather than the action. Abraham received the sign of circumcision (from God), which sealed acceptance of his faith. Such an act of divine approval qualifies Abraham, on the one hand, to be the father of uncircumcised believers, and on the other, to be the father of the "circumcision" (i.e. Jews) who walk in his same faith. Upon that basis, we can build: circumcision is significant because it was the covenant sign - a covenant which promised not only land and seed, but also blessing for the nations. That is, blessing for both the circumcised and the uncircumcised.14

Most crucial in the context of Romans 4, however, is the simple fact that righteousness is by faith, not by works. To attribute righteousness to circumcision is to undermine the integrity of faith.


It may be said that the entire book of Galatians is about circumcision. It was a demand in Galatia that Gentiles be circumcised that necessitated Paul's writing of this epistle. It is therefore clear that we will not exhaust the material in Galatians in this paper. Rather than attempting even an outline of the epistle here, I will merely sketch a few features of the situation and argument.

The Judaizers were compelling the Gentiles to be circumcised. So seriously does Paul take this error that he argues forcefully that the result is an attempt to be justified by the law (5:4). This is surprising, since circumcision did not originally represent such an attempt. But we must remember that Galatians was not written at the same redemptive-historical point as Genesis. Christ has come and fulfilled circumcision. For this reason, accepting circumcision is a rejection of Christ and therefore of His fulfillment of the whole law. In consequence, those who become circumcised become debtors to keep the whole law (5:3).

Some point to 6:12 as the key to the letter. The Judaizers, it is suggested, introduced circumcision merely to avoid persecution (cf. 5:11). There is certainly an element of truth to the statement that fear of persecution motivated the Judaizers. But we must be careful to distinguish the underlying motives of the Judaizers from the ostensible reasons they would have offered as argument to the Galatians.15 For the whole course of argument in chapter 3 indicates that Paul is trying to prove to the Gentile believers that they are indeed, already, the seed of Abraham. That he goes to such length makes it clear that the Judaizers insisted that: 1) linkage to Abraham is necessary; and 2) such a relationship to Abraham can be had only via circumcision. This would have been an apparently plausible argument, since as we have seen, whoever was not circumcised was to be cut off from his people (Gen. 17:14).

This helps us see Paul's central point in the epistle. The full blessings of God, which had been promised long before to Abraham, belong to all those who belong to Christ. Those blessings cannot be obtained by the law. The only way that Gentiles (or Jews) can become sons of Abraham and thus heir to the promises given him is through Christ, Who Himself is the (singular) Seed of Abraham Who owns those promises (3:16). Therefore, to become circumcised is to deny the nature and sufficiency of Christ's work and thus to fall back on nothing but a naked law; it is to fall from grace (5:4b). One cannot complete the work of Christ begun by the Spirit by moving on to works of the flesh under the law (3:3).

Key to the argument is simply that the law, as a covenantal administration, is ill-suited for the time of fulfillment which has arrived in Christ. It served its purpose. That purpose was good, although existentially it can be viewed as negative: "it shut up all under sin" (3:22). Wright (1986:113) aptly notes that the law did not relate negatively to Jews and Gentiles in precisely the same way: "it shut up the Jews under sin and shut out the Gentiles from the hope and promise of membership in God's people." Although Wright's choice of language seems to undermine the wording of 3:22 ("shut up all"), conceptually he is surely correct: Jews and Gentiles were not shut up under sin in the same way. The former laboured under the bondage of minority; the latter were simply excluded from the household altogether (see 3:23-4:8).

Perhaps the simplest summary of Paul's view of circumcision in Galatians, then, is this: if you as Gentiles become a part of Israel (which is the intention and import of circumcision), you come under Israel's law. Since Christ is the end, climax, and fulfillment of that law (cf. Rom. 10:4), this is to attempt to go backward in redemptive history - without the forward-looking hope previously afforded to Israel. In consequence, the one who is circumcised falls from grace (5:4) and must find his whole righteousness in the law (5:3).


Ephesians 2:11-22 gives us a depiction of the dramatic redemptive-historical shift that has arrived in Christ, similar to what we find in Galatians (although minus the polemical edge). The Gentile Christians which Paul addresses were formerly aliens to Israel; they were the Uncircumcision, strangers to the covenants of promise (contrast to 3:6). This meant that they were without Christ (12a - without the Messianic hope and the retroactive benefits of Christ's work; cf. Lincoln 1990:136-137), without hope and without God in the world (12b). Actually Paul says they were "once" (pote) Gentiles (11) - such is their rightful designation no longer. They can no longer be termed Gentiles (eqnh = nations), since they are now fellow citizens with the saints (19). In other words, they are no longer "of the nations" (plural), but "of the nation" (singular): they are members of the household (or people) of God (cf. 1 Pet. 2:9).

All of this presupposes that at one time, circumcision did indeed rightly demarcate the people of God, but now that Christ has come, such is the case no longer. Indeed, this is at the heart of the argument of 2:14-16: Christ made Jews and (former) Gentiles one. How? By breaking down the middle wall of division (phragmou = fence, genitive of apposition) which functioned to place enmity between them. What was that middle wall? "The law of commandments contained in ordinances" (15): the Torah administration served as a fence around Israel, keeping out the Gentiles (cf. the imagery of Mt. 21:33; Is. 5:1-7). But Christ abolished this enmity "in His flesh" (en tw sarki autou; perhaps better: "by His flesh"; cf. "by - en - the blood of Christ," 2:13).16 Through the cross, He wrought reconciliation to God for both Jews and Gentiles (16); thus it is through Him that both have access by one Spirit to the Father (18).

We observe here that the law, by means of circumcision and other ordinances, separated Jews from Gentiles, thus creating "enmity."17 For Gentiles, this meant alienation from God and His covenantal dealings. When Christ came, however, His death abolished (15a) or put to death (16b) that enmity. In other words, His work reversed the nature of separatism; those separation ordinances died with Him. The law as a covenant was rendered inoperative. The result is that approach to God is no longer conditioned by circumcision, but "through Christ by the one Spirit" (cf. 18). Not the blood of circumcision, but the blood of Christ, is what brings us near to one another and to God (13; cf. 16: both reconciled to God, in one body).


In Philippians 3, Paul contrasts true circumcision with what the unbelieving Jews put their trust in, using his own past as an example. Not followers of Judaism, but we, are the circumcision: we "who worship God in the Spirit, rejoice in Christ Jesus, and have no confidence in the flesh" (3). The former, to the contrary, are "the mutilation" (2). The principal difference is "confidence in the flesh" (3b, 4; cf. 9) or confidence (i.e. faith) in Christ. Although Paul had counted as gain his circumcision, Hebrew stock, law-keeping and zeal (5-7), he has renounced such self-confidence in favour of being found in Christ (7-9).

This passage does not offer an extended discussion of circumcision, but it does again indicate that after Christ's advent there is a clear shift in the nature of circumcision. Whereas God demanded both flesh and heart circumcision in the Old Testament, now the latter displaces the former. This suggests again that the circumcision of the heart is not viewed, in retrospect, as a phenomenon belonging to the Old Testament era. It is introduced with Christ. Old Testament believers were meant to be 'dissatisfied' with the present state of things, whereas Jews who remain satisfied with the law after the coming of Christ show themselves guilty of a vain self-confidence, rather than a fitting hunger for that toward which the law (including the rite of circumcision) points.


The material in Colossians 2 is highly similar to that in Ephesians 3, except that here there is a clear polemical element. Unlike in Ephesians, where Paul's discussion centres upon thanksgiving and praise to God for delivering the Gentiles from a previously hopeless situation, the apostle here must counter a very real practical attack upon the sufficiency of Christ. This attack, at least in part, comes by way of a Judaizing teaching.18


The book, then, is essentially a sustained defense of the greatness and thoroughgoing sufficiency of Christ. Believers are complete in Him, since "in Him dwells all the fullness of the Godhead bodily" (2:9-10). Since Christ is sufficient, then, it may not be said that Christians are uncircumcised, since they were circumcised in Him. By His circumcision, the flesh-body was put off (from apekduomai: the body of flesh was removed or stripped off, 11). (There is likely a wordplay on "flesh" here.) Kline points out (1968:46-47) that with this language, Paul makes circumcision a death-event. At the minimum, we must say that Christ's death is a circumcising event. "The death on the Cross is the Gentile's circumcision, since the blood of the covenant was shed at that time" (McEleney 1974:339). The next participle, "buried with Him in baptism" (12), whether viewed as temporal, causative, complementary or instrumental/modal (perhaps most likely), links this true circumcision to a reality shared by all believers, whether Jew or Gentile. Connection to Christ is linked, not to outward circumcision, but to baptism (Wright 1986:106-108).


As in Ephesians, the apostle points to the previous condition: he parallels their state of "being dead in trespasses" with that of "uncircumcision of the flesh." In other words, the old Judaic assessment of the Gentiles had been thoroughly correct: uncircumcision meant that they were dead to divine things. But it is Christ who has reversed the situation by making them alive together with Him (13); in the process He "wiped out the handwriting of requirements that was against us, which was contrary to us" (here Paul seems to include himself as one of those who was opposed by the Mosaic dispensation; cf. Acts 15:10). Christ removed this handwriting by nailing it to the cross (14). This occasioned a triumph that turned the whole world order (with its divisions and exclusions, etc.) upside down and handed it to Christ, Who is now the Head of all rule and authority (15, cf. 10; Mt. 28:18; Wright 1986:104, 115-118).19 The result is that no one may any longer judge the believers for the old reasons: non-kosher food and drink, Jewish festivals (and implicitly, circumcision), since these were but shadows of the Christ who has now come (16-17).


Building further upon this conclusion in the next chapter, Paul determines that in Christ "there is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcised nor uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave nor free, but Christ is all and in all" (3:11). Soteriological status is rooted in Christ alone; He is the only meaningful source of religious identity that remains. The walls of division that were so well represented and enforced by circumcision have come down.


An everlasting covenant?

It may be distressing to us that at the institution of circumcision, God said that this was to be a permanent rite. His covenant was to be "in your flesh for an everlasting covenant" (Gen. 17:13). But when we arrive at the New Testament revelation, we seem to have a redefinition of 'everlasting.' Suddenly, there is no more (religious) place for circumcision.

Doubtless, it is because of this that some have suggested that Jews need to still submit to circumcision, but Gentiles need not. Yet such a position undercuts the whole New Testament position, which makes it clear that there is no longer Jew nor Gentile (Gal. 3:28; Col. 3:11).

It must be recognized that this struggle is by no means unique to the circumcision issue. Many facets of the religion of the old covenant were clearly identified as everlasting. The sons of Aaron were to be "an everlasting priesthood throughout their generations" (Ex. 40:15). Yom Kippur "shall be an everlasting statute for you, to make atonement for the children of Israel, for all their sins, once a year" (Lev. 16:34). Likewise with the Passover (Ex. 12:14), the light of the lampstand in the Holy Place (Ex. 27:21), the priestly garments (Ex. 28:43), the Bread of the Presence (Lev. 24:8), and on and on.

We are confronted, then, with a need to recognize how such things continue forever. It is evident by the overwhelming New Testament testimony, such things do not continue forever in their initial form. But, as Christ claimed, He came to fulfill the law and the prophets (Mt. 5:17). By His work, the priestly offices are completely and perfectly discharged (as they never could be when the offices were filled by sinful men).

So too we must view the issue of circumcision. Christ did not merely abolish circumcision. He fulfilled it. Now, in outward practical terms, it is not immediately obvious that there is a difference. Yet the difference is not only real, but thoroughly profound. Even as Christ did not merely throw out the sacrifices of the law but rather offered up Himself as the supreme sacrifice, so too He did not merely throw out physical circumcision. In His own circumcision, His subsequent life and especially in His death, He took upon Himself our stiff-necked rebellion and uncleanness, so that He might not only impute His own righteousness to our account, but also and especially, circumcise our very hearts with His Holy Spirit.

Why circumcision was set aside

This does not answer every question that we may have with regard to circumcision, of course. Why was it necessary to set aside circumcision? After all, the new covenant still includes outward sacraments. Therefore, the issue cannot be merely inward religion versus outward religion. And why does the New Testament so closely tie circumcision to the Mosaic law, since it antedates it by hundreds of years? We cannot answer all such questions exhaustively, but there are some relevant observations that it is fitting to make.

Circumcision as bridge to Moses

Prior to the Mosaic law, the patriarchs also offered sacrifices and offerings (e.g. the burnt offering of Gen. 22:13). Although these predate the law, by the nature of the case, they come under its rubric, as being anticipatory. In other words, burnt offerings were as pre-Mosaic as circumcision, but they are nonetheless inescapably Mosaic due to their character. So it is not all that stunning that circumcision, too, becomes associated with the Mosaic law, even as over against the promissory covenant with Abraham (cf. the argument of Gal. 3, which argues for the priority of the Abrahamic covenant, despite the fact that the occasion for the contention is circumcision, which derived from the Abrahamic era to begin with).

I argue, then, that circumcision provides a bridge between Abraham and Torah. It is the sign of the covenant promise in that it witnesses to the coming Spirit; it is the sign of Torah in that it indicates that the circumcision of the heart has not yet occurred.


Circumcision, like so many of the other rites of the law, involves the shedding of blood (cf. Heb. 9:22; Lev. 17:11). The argument of Hebrews, which focuses so much on the once-for-all nature of Christ's blood-shedding (e.g. Heb. 10:10), suggests that circumcision would be an inappropriate rite under the new covenant. Paul views the circumcision of Christ (here, likely referring to His death) to be the circumcision of all those Gentiles who are in Him (Col. 2:11-14). It is probably not accidental, either, that a painful operation (particularly for adults) such as circumcision has been dropped in the era of New Testament mission.

This repeated shedding of blood itself, when compared with the analogy of the sacrifices, suggests that the sacrament of circumcision was redemptive-historically proleptic, forward-looking. The sacrifices needed to be repeated, and this demonstrated that they made nothing perfect themselves (Heb. 10:1-4); they therefore looked forward to a perfect offering. This fits well with our exegetical studies of the Old Testament passages: circumcision of the heart was not yet a present reality, but a promise that would find its realization after Israel had experienced the depths of her own sin and the judgments of God in exile (Deut. 30:6). A sacrament which looks forward is not appropriate to the time after which the fulfillment has arrived.20

Concentric circles vs. unlimited access

Circumcision stands in a redemptive-historical period marked by circles of concentric holiness. Although this was not as clear in the patriarchal period as it became later, yet the principle is still present: males but not females were to receive the sign of the covenant. True, as Calvin says, females were understood to be included in the covenant as well, so that the circumcision and inclusion of the male also implied the inclusion of the female. Yet this still falls short of the new covenant revelation of the equal standing of the sexes before God. The Old Testament circles meant that under the established order, closeness to God was dependent to a large degree upon ecclesiastical authority (high priest > priest > Levite). Since women (under the conditions of both testaments) are not allowed to exercise such authority, they were likewise restricted in their access to God. In the new covenant order, however, the whole body is one man in Christ Jesus (Gal. 3:28); each believer is the temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 3:16). Given this new order of affairs, it is unsurprising that God chooses to employ a more inclusive sacrament.

National vs. international

Circumcision, like much of the law, served to fence Israel off from the nations. This created a particular national identity. In this way, the covenant became inescapably nationalistic. The resulting separation between Jews and Gentiles was clearly intentioned by God. By the same token, it turns out to be abundantly clear in the New Testament revelation that that same divinely intentioned separation was also divinely intentioned to be temporary. Indeed, we may suggest that it was necessitated by the fact that the circumcision of the heart had not been fulfilled in Israel, so that the fences had to be higher until that fulfillment should come. On the other hand, appealing to Galatians 3:19-25, that fencing served to demonstrate that Israel was stricken with inability. She could not blame her circumstances (she was inundated with pagans) for her failure, for God had fenced her in. Yet that very act of fencing showed sin for what it really was, and therefore the law served as a pedagogue, driving the hopes of Israel to the coming Christ. The hope, therefore, lay not in separation ordinances or circumcision of the body, but in the circumcision of the heart provided only by Christ through the Spirit.

But my central point here is that because circumcision helped create a national identity, God's goal of worldwide conquest for His kingdom, in which there would be no Jew nor Greek, necessitated a discontinuance of circumcision.

Further, as I noted in summarizing Galatians, to become circumcised is to become an Israelite, and thus to come under her law - which has now served its redemptive-historical purpose. Hence, circumcision is no longer to be observed.

The anomaly of Ishmael

In our study of the Genesis 17 passage, we were confronted with the strangeness of the fact that Ishmael was to be circumcised, even though the covenant was not to be established with him. Further, Abraham's household servants received the same sign. Yet by direct revelation, Abraham was made fully aware that the covenant was to be established in Isaac, rather than in them. In my research, satisfactory explanations were not in abundance. Nonetheless, I will offer a couple of suggestions.

First, the fact that others were circumcised according to the stipulations of the Abrahamic covenant ought to have reinforced in Israelite minds the truth that blessing and communion with God was not guaranteed by observance of the rite. It was not to be reduced to superstition. If Ishmael and his descendants can be removed from the presence of God, circumcision is powerless to maintain a living relationship with its attendant benefits.

Redemptive-historically, the circumcision of Ishmael and the servants may be seen as proleptic: even as the sign itself looks forward to an as yet unrealized blessing, so too its recipients look forward. At the day when the reality comes, that fulfillment will burst the bounds of Isaac in a new way. This is reinforced at Pentecost: although the initial recipients of this outpouring of the Spirit (which fulfills the reality toward which circumcision points) are all Jews, they speak with the tongues of the nations (Acts 2:4-11 - including those of Arabia, v. 11!). The intensive climax of the covenant means simultaneously an extensive explosion of the covenant.

Although it is going too far to suggest (as I noted that many wish to claim) that at the beginning Ishmael, as well as Abraham's later sons (Gen. 25) were intended to stick around and Isaac and draw covenant blessing from him, it may be that the sending away early on was practical: Israel was not yet a great nation and able to assimilate outsiders. It ought to be noted that when the nation emerged from Egypt she took with her a "mixed multitude" (Ex. 12:38), and certainly at many points later, foreigners were inducted into the covenant people (e.g. Ruth).21

Circumcision and baptism

We could scarcely conclude our study without including observations that speak more directly to the issue of the relationship between circumcision and baptism. As a clarifying remark, I wish to stress that baptism does not fulfill circumcision. Fulfillment belongs to the reality, not to the new symbol. We must be careful in our use of language. Lord's Day 27 correctly states that in the new covenant, baptism comes in the place of circumcision. This is the proper language; it not only alludes to Colossians 2:11-12, but reminds us how baptism functionally parallels circumcision throughout the New Testament.

Vermes draws attention to the sacrificial notion being bound up with circumcision by the time of first-century Judaism (1957-1958:308-319). He writes (319),

The conjunction of baptism and sacrifice was not due to Paul's own insight, but sprang directly from a traditional Jewish belief. Just as Paul's Jewish contemporary entered into the Covenant by means of circumcision, so also the Christian, by means of baptism, entered into the New Covenant concluded by the death and resurrection of Christ. In other words, by relating baptism to the sacrifice of Christ's redemption, Paul merely christianized the Jewish 'sacrament' of circumcision.

Perhaps Vermes has slightly overstated the case by suggesting that baptism is nothing more than a 'christianized' circumcision, but the points of continuity, as we have seen, are indeed strong. Besides the almost direct link in Colossians 2, we may summarily refer to the following: 1) Both sacraments symbolize purification (cf. Lev. 12:1ff.; Acts 22:16). 2) Both serve as identity markers for the covenant community (Gen. 17:14; Acts 2:41). 3) Both carry an oath element (Gen. 17:10; 1 Pet. 3:21; note also the baptism language of 1 Cor. 10). 4) Both are connected to the promise of the Spirit (cf. Deut. 30:6; Ezek. 36:26-27; Mt. 3:11; 1 Cor. 12:13, etc.). 5) Both seem to carry an idea of consecration (see esp. the development of argument in Rom. 6).

Doubtless, following this pattern, we could identify many more such correspondences.

Through his study of the patristics, Ferguson suggests a development in recognizing baptism's relationship to circumcision, occurring in three stages: 1) as circumcision was the seal of the old covenant (Rom. 4:11), the Spirit is the seal of the new (Eph. 1:13-14); 2) the gift of the Spirit is associated with or credited to baptism; 3) therefore, baptism is the counterpart of circumcision (Ferguson 1988:496). While this may indeed be an insightful analysis of the fathers (and is a true enough connection in the biblical text), however, we ought to affirm that Scripture itself (as we have seen) provides other links between the two sacraments, and that therefore the identification is not merely a later theological deduction.


We have indeed covered a great deal of material and concepts in our study of circumcision. It is readily seen that the subject is highly complex; the rite was symbolic on a number of levels and carried institutional functions as well. Indeed, one could argue that examination of the development of circumcision can serve as a guide to open up the whole of redemptive-history, since it is so closely tied to covenant institution, promise, demand (and covenant failure), as well as Christ's fulfilling death and outpouring of the Holy Spirit. Circumcision teaches us both law and gospel.


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1 For the sake of both space and focus I have passed over apocryphal material, as well as discussions in Philo and Josephus. For Philo, see especially Barclay 1998.

2 Contra De Graaf 1977:113: "The Lord promised to bless Ishmael as long as he cherished his bond with the Lord and accepted Isaac as the bearer of the promise." This has been read into the text. To the contrary, the promises God makes concerning Ishmael in Gen. 17:20 came to fruition after he had been expelled from the household.

3 1968:44.

4 Cf. Lev. 22:17-33, etc.

5 Kline also builds upon both the self-malediction theme and the sacrifice theme by stressing that circumcision was an 'ordeal,' a notion he develops extensively with baptism (1968:50-83). I am not convinced, however, that such language adds much to the already-established concept of oath.

6 It is to be admitted that at one point the burnt offering analogy breaks down: the skin of the sacrifice was to be given to the priests, whereas in this case, the foreskin is evidently to be considered unclean (and thus would not qualify as a priestly gift).

7 Although, as Wenham 1994:24 points out, it occurs only 13 times in connection with covenant.

8 It will be noted that I have passed over the incident in Exodus 4:24-26, where Yahweh sought to kill Moses for not circumcising his son. This passage is notoriously difficult, and the multitude of material on it conspired to make it impracticable to examine in this paper. Moreover, I am not convinced that such labour would provide a great deal of light on our subject that we do not obtain elsewhere. For some interesting thoughts, see Ashby 1995:203-205, who highlights (overplays?) the sacrificial element (particularly intriguing in this article is Ashby's connection between this event and the slaying of the firstborn of Egypt, 204).

9 Cf. Ezek. 44:7-9.

10 Taken simplistically, this would appear to indicate that on my view (i.e. that genuine circumcision of the heart is peculiar to the new covenant), no one could be saved during the Old Testament era. Such is clearly erroneous. We indeed cannot lump in Abraham or Moses with the rebels in the wilderness, etc. Yet we still must maintain that the new covenant blessings remained an eschatological hope for them, not a present reality (even as we likewise await the new heavens and earth). They did not receive what was promised; God provided something better for us, so that apart from us they could not be made complete (Heb. 11:39-40). Principally (for our purposes), the promise of the Spirit arrived with Christ (Gal. 3:14; 4:6). (It is interesting that although the O.T. faithful are never called uncircumcised in heart, they are never called circumcised in heart either.)

11 Derrett gives attention to this passage (1991:211-224), where Jesus asks rhetorically, "If a man receives circumcision on the Sabbath that the Law of Moses may not be broken, are you angry with Me because I made a whole man healthy on the Sabbath?" Derrett attempts to tie the notion of wholeness to the tamim of Gen. 17:1. Thus the idea is that Christ fulfills circumcision's intention. Though fascinating, Derrett's argument depends upon conjecture regarding the underlying Aramaic (holos and hugies are thought to have the same Aramaic root, 217), and so I have not pursued the proposal here.

12 A fault he corrects later to some degree: 1998:553-554.

13 Verse 12 picks up on the infinitival purpose construction in verse 11 ("that he might be the father of all those who believe, though they are uncircumcised. . .") and adds, "and the father of circumcision to those who not only are of the circumcision, but who also walk in the steps of the faith which our father Abraham had while still uncircumcised." The chronological order indicated in verse 10 would not contribute to this.

14 For a similar analysis, see Hodge 1947:116-118.

15 Matera writes, "The agitators operate from hypocritical motivation, therefore do not follow them" (1988:87).

16 Commentators argue over where this phrase fits. But whether one attaches en to sarki autou to lusas (14) or to katarghsas (15) makes little difference, since the latter clause is epexegetical of the former. Cf. Bruce 1984:298: "the sense is not materially affected by the construction."

17 Although McEleney (1974:328-333) attempted to show that some sectors of first-century Judaism were lax with regard to enforcing circumcision on proselytes (and thus in part alleviated the enmity or lowered the wall of division), Nolland (1981 passim) has definitively rebutted such a notion.

18 Wright (1986:23-30) sees the whole of the "Colossian heresy" to be Judaism, rather than a syncretistic blend of Jewish and pagan elements, as most commentators contend. Wright, however, suggests the polemic is not addressed to a situation that actually includes agitators within the Colossian church (27-28).

19 A credible alternative view of the rulers and authorities is that they are angelic (i.e. demonic) powers (see e.g. Bruce 1984:112). Thus, Paul's main point could be that through the liberating work of the cross, Christ triumphed over these powers. Another alternative is to view the "rulers and authorities" as a personification of the previously mentioned authoritative decrees which Christ nailed to His cross. This would appear to comport well with 2:10 (Christ is the head of all rule and authority) but is not comparable to similar usage elsewhere (e.g. Eph. 6:12).

20 It is clear that I have stressed the discontinuity, and thus suggested that during the Old Testament period there essentially was no circumcision of the heart (cf. the ambiguity of Barker 1982:5). We need to be aware of the complexity of the question. As I have indicated, the total picture indicates that the circumcision of the heart is essentially to be identified with the new covenant work of the Holy Spirit. I have necessarily not entered into the full discussion of the level of old covenant enjoyment of the Spirit. Some theologians essentially identify the new covenant experience as one of extent (i.e. now more people partake of the Spirit), but I would maintain that the new covenant is new, not only in extent but also in content or efficacy (Jer. 31:33; Rom. 8:3-4, etc.). Nonetheless, all must admit that the Spirit indeed worked in the hearts of old covenant believers - else how could there be any faithful at all?

21 Although, interestingly, none of these seem to have come from Abrahamic tribes. Ruth, of course, was from Moab, a descendant of Abraham's nephew Lot (Gen. 19:37).

— Tim Gallant

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