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7 Important Things to Know about Circumcision in the Bible

7 Important Things to Know about Circumcision in the Bible

It was a typical evening. I cleared the supper dishes and began loading them in the dishwasher. My six-year puttered around helping in her little girl way. She stopped at the garbage can, looked up at me and asked a big girl question, “Mama, do you know what an idol is?” I decided to see what she thought and instead of answering her question, I asked her to tell me what she thought an idol is. She replied, “It’s anything we love more than God.” And in that moment, out of the mouth of a young child, great wisdom flowed.

The state of our hearts before the Lord is vital to our relationship with him, which is why we must cut away anything that hinders us from loving him with our whole heart. The Bible refers to circumcision throughout the Old and New Testament. It’s part of the Jewish identity, their agreement with the Law, and it’s an internal position of our devotion to the Lord.

What Is Circumcision in the Bible?

1. In the Bible, circumcision is the ritual act of removing a male’s child or adult’s foreskin. In the Jewish culture this took place eight days after birth. God first instituted circumcision in Genesis 17 when he made an everlasting covenant with Abraham. This act demonstrated the Israelites commitment to the covenant and to let God be God in their lives. It also reminded them of God’s part of the covenant, which was that God promised to make Abraham the father of many generations, that he would be a faithful, personal God, and that he would give them a land to call their own.

2. Other Old Testament references that refer to circumcision are Exodus 12:43-49, which indicates that circumcision was a requirement for participation in Passover. Later, in Joshua 5, before the battle of Jericho, Joshua circumcised all the males born in the desert. Deuteronomy 10:16 refers to circumcision of the heart, so that the Israelites might love and obey the Lord.

3. The New Testament shows us that the Jewish custom of circumcision was still prevalent in their society. Luke 1:59 and 2:21 tell us that eight days after they were born, both John and Jesus were circumcised. Paul also was circumcised eight days after his birth. Later, as Christianity spread to the Gentiles, circumcision became a source of division. Some Jews believed circumcision was necessary for salvation and others believed that Gentile Christians needed to observe Mosaic law. We can read about these disputes in Acts 15 and Paul’s response in Galatians 5 and 6, and Romans 2.

Four Things to Know about Circumcision in the Bible

1. It began in the Jewish culture as a sign of the covenant between God and Abraham, but it was a common practice among many desert tribes.

For the Israelites, it fulfilled their part of the Abrahamic Covenant, but not just those born into Jewish families needed to be circumcised. It was for every male who lived in a Jewish household: natives, servants, and aliens. And anyone who was not circumcised broke the covenant with God.

Other cultures who practiced circumcision did so as a rite of passage. The Egyptians, Edomites, Ammonites, and Moabites practiced a form of circumcision on young men at puberty or before marriage. Those who did not practice circumcision were the Philistines, Assyrians, Babylonians, Greeks, and Romans. A lack of circumcision signaled wickedness and godlessness.

2. Circumcision occasionally empowered and protected the Israelites.

In the case of the attack of Dinah by Shechem, recorded in Genesis 34, a proposal of marriage was accepted on the contingency that the Shechemites would be circumcised. However, during the men’s weakened state of recovery, Jacob’s sons exacted revenge by killing and plundering the Shechemites.

Prior to the battle of Jericho, Joshua circumcised the men before they began their march to conquer the Promised Land. These were the sons of the generation that refused to obey God when he brought them to the Promised Land to conquer and occupy. Since circumcision was a sign of devotion to the Lord, these men needed to fulfill their part of the Abrahamic covenant before the Battle of Jericho could take place.

3. It is more than a physical symbol; it is a symbol of the state of the heart.

In Deuteronomy, we read two separate passages regarding circumcision. The first is Deuteronomy 10:16, “Circumcise your hearts, therefore, and do not be stiff-necked any longer.” The second is Deuteronomy 30:6, “The Lord your God will circumcise your hearts and the hearts of your descendants, so that you may love him with all your heart and with all your soul, and live.”

In Deuteronomy 10, prior to verse six, some important steps we need to take are listed: to fear the Lord, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve him with everything within us, and to observe his decrees. In order to do any of that, we must circumcise our hearts. We must get rid of the sin that tangles our feet and trips us. This passage looks ahead to Romans 12 where Paul writes that we are to be transformed by the renewing of our mind. Deuteronomy 10 also calls to mind Colossians 3, where we are instructed to put off the attitudes of our old self and to put on the new self we have in Christ Jesus. Circumcision of the heart purifies us. But we are not left to struggle on our own.

In Deuteronomy 30:6, we discover that God does the work in us. We are willing partners as we cultivate a deep, reverent respect for the Lord. We partner with God’s work when we say no to ungodliness and say yes to the hard work of maturing in Christ. When we love God, we obey him. We can learn from the Israelites and circumcise our hearts so that we don’t stand stiff-necked, but bow before him in worship, adoration, and obedience. Circumcision is a symbol of the attitude of our heart toward the Lord.

4. Circumcision became a divisive topic in the early Church of the New Testament.

As Gentiles became grafted into the family of God, some Jews believed that these Gentile Christians needed to follow the Jewish Law completely, including circumcision. Other Jewish believers wove salvation and circumcision together, making salvation contingent on circumcision.

Paul spoke against imposing physical circumcision on Gentile Christians. He declared that “circumcision has value if you obey the law, but if you break the law, you have become as though you had not been circumcised” (Romans 2:25). In Galatians 5:2-6 he wrote that those who decide to be physically circumcised are then trying to justify themselves by the law and not by the Lord’s grace.

Paul settled this division among believers by pointing people to the grace of Jesus. He called them to remember the burial and resurrection of Jesus by reminding them of the forgiveness of sins and the removal of the dividing wall of hostility between them and the Lord (Ephesians 2:14). He concluded the debate in 1 Corinthians 7:19 where he wrote, “Circumcision is nothing and uncircumcision is nothing. Keeping God’s commands is what counts.” Repentance and faith are what mattered most in the early Church’s debate over whether Gentile Christians needed to be circumcised.

Circumcising Our Hearts

Circumcision of the heart is a cutting away of anything and everything that prevents us from fearing the Lord, loving him with all our heart, serving him with wholeheartedness, and obeying his principles and precepts. It includes removing anything we love more than him via repentance and faith.

My little girl has grown taller than me and she still makes me marvel at her insight. Idols make us dumb, mute, and deaf—unable to hear or respond to the Lord—and uncircumcised ears cannot hear (Jeremiah 6:10) and uncircumcised lips cannot speak (Exodus 6:12). I’m reminded to examine my heart and circumcise doubt, dismay, and disappointments that turn into bitterness and resentment. May we circumcise our hearts so that we may keep God’s commands.

Photo credit: ©Getty Images/Manusapon Kasosod

Jessica Van Roekel author headshotJessica Van Roekel loves the upside-down life of following Jesus as she journeys to wholeness through brokenness. As an author, speaker, and worship leader, she uses her gifts and experiences to share God’s transformative power to rescue, restore, and renew. She longs for you to know that rejection doesn’t have to define or determine your future when placed in God’s healing hands. Find out more You can connect with her on Instagram and Facebook.