The Covenant of Circumcision
By Reed Benson
Male circumcision is a practice that is steadily being abandoned in the United States. Historically associated with Christianity, this long-standing tradition is often cast in a negative light, some calling it cruel and barbaric. Others insist that is inappropriate on the basis that all babies are born without flaw, perfect—just the way God intended them to be. Are the critics right? Should Christians circumcise their young sons?
This essay will not explore the reasons why circumcision is an excellent choice involving the future health of a boy. Indeed, there are multiple sensible arguments in favor of this practice for health reasons alone, but examining these areas would be too involved for our present purpose. Rather, this article will specifically review only the theological reasons in favor of circumcision.
Are Babies Born Perfect?
Let it be stressed from the beginning that children are not born flawless. Indeed, the Bible makes it quite plain that the proclivity to sin is present from the start. Consider the following passages from Scripture: "Behold, I was shapen in iniquity; and in sin did my mother conceive me" (Psalm 51:5). "Man that is born of a woman is of few days and full of trouble . . . Who can bring a clean thing out of an unclean? not one" (Job 14:1,4). "Among whom also we all had our conversation in times past in the lusts of our flesh, fulfilling the desires of the flesh and of the mind; and were by nature the children of wrath . . ." (Ephesians 2:3). The only reason that infants do not immediately burst forth sinning is that they are incapable of expressing the sinful nature that is present in their being, a part of their innermost person. Unable to grasp objects, they do not steal. Unable to speak, they do not yet lie. But within a matter of months, their selfish ways emerge, and parents start taking steps to begin the lifelong struggle of restraining the sinful passions that well up within every one of us. Even Saint Paul fought against this problem: "For we know that the law is spiritual: but I am carnal, sold under sin. For that which I do I allow not: for what I would, that do I not; but what I hate, that do I. If then I do that which I would not, I consent unto the law that it is good. Now then it is no more I that do it, but sin that dwelleth in me" (Romans 7:14-17).
All children, both males and females, are conceived in a state of sin and will actively begin a life of sinful words and deeds as soon as their physical body develops sufficiently to express this sinful nature as it contacts the larger world. How did this dismal condition fix itself upon mankind?
In brief, the answer is that we are laboring under the curse of our original progenitors, Adam and Eve. Their failure in the Garden of Eden is called original sin. From that sad episode comes sin nature, also called birth sin; in a transliteration of the Hebrew idiom, it is called flesh and blood. It is from this curse that we must be delivered, for "flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God" (1 Corinthians 15:50).
There are several different theories regarding how this curse is transmitted to each of us. These include a spiritual transference, or perhaps a genetic link or a representative transmission. But setting these theories aside, one precept that Scripture clearly teaches is that the party held guilty for Adam and Eve's failure and the party through whom sin nature is commuted upon us is Adam. Although Eve was first to blunder, Adam is the one who is held culpable. Saint Paul is plain in Romans: "Wherefore, as by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin; and so death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned . . . Nevertheless death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over them that had not sinned after the similitude of Adam's transgression, who is the figure of him that was to come. . . For if by one man's offence death reigned by one; much more they which receive abundance of grace and of the gift of righteousness shall reign in life by one, Jesus Christ . . . For as by one man's disobedience many were made sinners, so by the obedience of one shall many be made righteous" (Romans 5:12,14,17,19).
It is essential to note that it was the male that was held guilty for original sin. The male is he by whom the curse of sin was transmitted to the rest of his descendants. Birth sin, or flesh and blood, is a direct and literal consequence of the failure of the male.
The State of Uncircumcision
The Old Testament portrays an exceptionally distasteful image of being an uncircumcised male. Consider this small sampling of passages from the Old Testament on this topic: "And they said unto them, We cannot do this thing, to give our sister to one that is uncircumcised; for that were a reproach unto us" (Genesis 34:14). "And Moses spake before the Lord, saying, Behold, the children of Israel have not hearkened unto me; how then shall Pharaoh hear me, who am of uncircumcised lips?" (Exodus 6:12). "And when a stranger shall sojourn with thee, and will keep the passover to the Lord, let all his males be circumcised, and then let him come near and keep it; and he shall be as one that is born in the land: for no uncircumcised person shall eat thereof" (Exodus 12:48). "And when ye shall come into the land, and shall have planted all manner of trees for food, then ye shall count the fruit thereof as uncircumcised: three years shall it be as uncircumcised unto you: it shall not be eaten of" (Leviticus19:23). "And that I also have walked contrary unto them, and have brought them into the land of their enemies; if then their uncircumcised hearts be humbled, and they then accept of the punishment of their iniquity" (Leviticus 26:41). "Then said Saul unto his armourbearer, Draw thy sword, and thrust me through therewith; lest these uncircumcised come and thrust me through, and abuse me. But his armourbearer would not; for he was sore afraid. Therefore Saul took a sword, and fell upon it" (1 Samuel 31:4). "To whom shall I speak, and give warning, that they may hear? behold, their ear is uncircumcised, and they cannot hearken: behold, the word of the Lord is unto them a reproach; they have no delight in it" (Jeremiah 6:10).
Now notice that being uncircumcised in the flesh was a disgrace, a shame, a symbol of uncleanness. Please observe how deep this sentiment runs, for the state of uncircumcision was so scorned that it became a symbol of uncleanness of every sort: uncircumcised hearts, uncircumcised ears, uncircumcised lips, even uncircumcised trees. The taint of this condition was associated with dirtiness, lack of conversion, being lost in sin, marred in paganism, and generally despised as a state of the gravest depravity.
The sense of shame, filthiness, and depravity associated with being uncircumcised in the Old Testament is very much like the shame, guilt, and depravity of birth sin, sin nature, or flesh and blood. Is it possible that they are connected? Could the state of being uncircumcised be symbolic of sin nature? It is an idea worth consideration.
Is Circumcision Necessary to Obtain Salvation?
The short answer is no. Despite the shame of being uncircumcised, even the Old Testament clearly teaches that physical circumcision of the male is not enough to please God: "Circumcise yourselves to the Lord, and take away the foreskins of your heart, ye men of Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem: lest my fury come forth like fire, and burn that none can quench it, because of the evil of your doings" (Jeremiah 4:4). "Behold, the days come, saith the Lord, that I will punish all them which are circumcised with the uncircumcised; Egypt, and Judah, and Edom, and the children of Ammon, and Moab, and all that are in the utmost corners, that dwell in the wilderness: for all these nations are uncircumcised, and all the house of Israel are uncircumcised in the heart" (Jeremiah 9:25-26).
In the New Testament, Paul plainly tells us that, as far as obtaining salvation, faith is what matters, not circumcision: "For in Jesus Christ neither circumcision availeth any thing, nor uncircumcision; but faith which worketh by love" (Galatians 5:6). "For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision availeth any thing, nor uncircumcision, but a new creature" (Galatians 6:15). This is confirmed in Acts 15 when the early church at Jerusalem had to decide whether circumcision was a requirement for salvation. Paul, Peter, and James all concurred that it was not. In terms of actual practice, Paul offers a mixed record; he did not circumcise Titus (Galatians 2:3), but he did Timothy (Acts 16:3).
The Eternal Character of Circumcision
Although we can be confident that uncircumcised males can inherit salvation, there remains a permanence to the covenant of circumcision. That is to say, its practice has never been abrogated and ought to continue forever. The phrase covenant of circumcision is being used loosely, with some license, for it could be argued that there is no scriptural covenant of circumcision. But, and this is an important detail, circumcision of the flesh is a token or symbol of one the most vital of covenants in the Bible: the Abrahamic Covenant. It is, if nothing else, a subset of the Abrahamic Covenant, and as will be seen, one of eternal character. Circumcision should not be lightly brushed off as irrelevant.
It might be worth observing why Titus was not circumcised. He was meant to be a living object lesson to show that salvation was by faith in Jesus Christ, not works: "But neither Titus, who was with me, being a Greek, was compelled to be circumcised: And that because of false brethren unawares brought in, who came in privily to spy out our liberty which we have in Christ Jesus, that they might bring us into bondage . . . Knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law, but by the faith of Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Jesus Christ, that we might be justified by the faith of Christ, and not by the works of the law: for by the works of the law shall no flesh be justified" (Galatians 2:3-4,16). So we are not saved by works but by faith alone in Jesus Christ. This is an absolutely true statement. But does that mean that we should not seek to perform good works? Does that mean that we are free to ignore God's precepts? Is it acceptable to reject the counsel of God with impunity? Are we at liberty to make up our own standards of conduct? Are not good works the fruit of our salvation? Does not James tell us that "faith without works is dead" (James 2:20)?
Consider now the precise language of the Abrahamic Covenant and the symbol of that covenant, circumcision: "And I will establish my covenant between me and thee and thy seed after thee in their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be a God unto thee, and to thy seed after thee. And I will give unto thee, and to thy seed after thee, the land wherein thou art a stranger, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession; and I will be their God. And God said unto Abraham, Thou shalt keep my covenant therefore, thou, and thy seed after thee in their generations. This is my covenant, which ye shall keep, between me and you and thy seed after thee; Every man child among you shall be circumcised. And ye shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskin; and it shall be a token of the covenant betwixt me and you. And he that is eight days old shall be circumcised among you, every man child in your generations, he that is born in the house, or bought with money of any stranger, which is not of thy seed. He that is born in thy house, and he that is bought with thy money, must needs be circumcised: and my covenant shall be in your flesh for an everlasting covenant. And the uncircumcised man child whose flesh of his foreskin is not circumcised, that soul shall be cut off from his people; he hath broken my covenant" (Genesis 17:7-14). Please note the eternal character of the covenant that God made with Abraham. The Bible flatly states that the covenant is "everlasting" and God's "covenant shall be in your flesh for an everlasting covenant." What could be more simple and clear?
Let us fast forward in time to the Kingdom of God. The future kingdom as described by Ezekiel has a grand temple of enormous scale and of infinite cost. His description of this yet future temple has a number of interesting details, one of which is highly relevant to our topic. Consider these verses: "And thou shalt say to the rebellious, even to the house of Israel, Thus saith the Lord God; O ye house of Israel, let it suffice you of all your abominations, In that ye have brought into my sanctuary strangers, uncircumcised in heart, and uncircumcised in flesh, to be in my sanctuary, to pollute it, even my house, when ye offer my bread, the fat and the blood, and they have broken my covenant because of all your abominations. And ye have not kept the charge of mine holy things: but ye have set keepers of my charge in my sanctuary for yourselves. Thus saith the Lord God; No stranger, uncircumcised in heart, nor uncircumcised in flesh, shall enter into my sanctuary, of any stranger that is among the children of Israel" (Ezekiel 44:6-9). Do you see the pertinent fact? No one who is uncircumcised in the flesh shall enter into that temple: they will be considered strangers. This is consistent with the sense of permanence regarding circumcision that is associated with the Abrahamic Covenant.
To summarize our conclusions so far, it can be stated that although a man's salvation does not depend on circumcision, there is some sort of loss if one chooses to remain uncircumcised, for it is a token that God means to be a permanent symbol of His covenant. It is a good work, a blessing, a help, and the evidence points to the plain fact that circumcision is a noble and desirable goal for every Christian male child.
Why Was Circumcision Selected As the Token of God's Covenant?
Many people have observed that the cutting off of the foreskin of the male sexual organ seems like an odd mark to place upon a person. Why circumcision? Why, of all places on the male body, in that location? Such a choice makes every conversation about this practice rather sensitive, even embarrassing. Why could God not have commanded Abraham to place a tattoo on the shoulder, like the Roman army did to its soldiers, or maybe a notch in the ear, like cattlemen do to their stock, or burn a scar on the back of the hand, like some crime syndicates use to mark their henchmen? Why, of all places, did God select the male organ, a hidden location almost never seen by anyone, to be the place for the symbol of His covenant?
As a preface to answer this question, it is worth noting that circumcision was not new to Abraham; it predated him in a number of other ancient cultures. We know that much of what we call Mosaic Law preceded Moses. It is not implausible that much of this law-code, including circumcision, even preceded Abraham and was practiced by the pre-flood patriarchs. Indeed, God's Law, including circumcision, may have begun with Adam. The Jewish Targums have a tradition that states that Noah, being perfect in his generations (Genesis 6:9), was born already circumcised. This is no doubt false, for even Jesus was not born so, and we know He was sinless; but the existence of such a legend emphasizes the idea that purity is associated with circumcision and the possibility that the origin of this practice was exceedingly ancient. So why did God choose circumcision of the male foreskin as the symbol of his covenant?
First, circumcision is an acknowledgment on the part of the father that his newborn son was born already flawed. Remember, it is the male that is held guilty for original sin. The father is given one week, seven days, to celebrate and revel in the joy of a new son, a little piece of himself. But then, on day eight (a number that means a new beginning), he is commanded to circumcise his son. It is time to acknowledge the presence of sin in this child and take steps to curtail sin, to "cut it off." Remember that Paul tells us we are not born perfect either spiritually or physically: "For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh,) dwelleth no good thing: for to will is present with me; but how to perform that which is good I find not . . . O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from the body of this death?" (Romans 7:18,24). One scholar, Edward Porter Humphrey, had this to say in his book Sacred History from the Creation to the Giving of the Law: "Now the matter of the ordinance, the mark in the flesh, points first of all to the natural generation of sin in the race; secondly, to the necessity of spiritual renovation. In other words, circumcision has a double meaning. It assumes the existence in man of original sin or birth sin and is symbolical of inward purification by the divine spirit. Uncircumcision is a striking symbol of moral defilement" (page 255).
Second, circumcision points to the relationship between Christ and the Church as illustrated in the intimacy of a marriage relationship. God wants such an intimate connection with us that He put the physical mark of His covenant in the most private place possible. The removal of the foreskin represents the uncovering of our most hidden parts. Consider that when a man is entirely naked, his most private part is still covered by his foreskin. Only under the most intimate of circumstances is he completely exposed, and then only with his wife, the one with whom the intimacy is shared, in the act of marriage. God wants that degree of intimacy with us on a spiritual level. Scripture expresses this concept indirectly when marriage is used as an earthly picture of the heavenly relationship of Christ (the bridegroom) and His Church (the bride). See Matthew 25:1 and Revelation 19:7-8 for expansion of this idea. Thus, circumcision represents the complete uninhibited abandonment of modesty and privacy between bridegroom and bride, like unto what God wants between Him and us.
Third, circumcision, a bloody rite, foreshadows Christ's bloody atonement on the cross. Covenant signs always point to Jesus and say something about Him. Circumcision looks forward to the Crucifixion, whereas baptism looks backward to it. This fits well with the bride/bridegroom picture. Men always represent Christ in relationships and women the church. It was Christ that was to die; therefore, only males were to be circumcised. Now, since in Christ there is neither male nor female (Galatians 3:28), both men and women get the sign of baptism.
Should We Circumcise Our Sons?
The answer is an unequivocal yes, not because it is required for salvation, but for other sound theological reasons. Foremost, it is a token of an eternal covenant with Abraham that will outlast this present world system and be a noted feature in the coming Kingdom of God. Next, it is an acknowledgement that sin nature or flesh and blood is present from the very beginning of life, and we are in desperate need of a redeemer. Additionally, it is a constant reminder to every male that bloody sacrifice would one day be required to take away the curse of sin. Last, it points to the intimacy in marriage as a model of what God wants with us, not hiding our innermost selves from Him.