Michael S. Heiser
Circumcision is mentioned nearly one hundred times in the Bible. It is a central focus for Old Testament and New Testament theology (Rom 4:9–12; Gal 2:1–12; 5:1–10). If we’re honest, that just sounds absurd.
Circumcision was the sign of God’s covenant with Abraham (Gen 17:9–14), but it was also widely practiced in the ancient Near East (the method, though, wasn’t always the same). Jeremiah 9:25–26 notes that Israel’s neighbors were circumcised. Archaeologists have also found that it was practiced in Syria and Phoenicia. Textual remains indicate that circumcision in Egypt goes back to at least 2200 bc, centuries before the Israelites were enslaved. Israelite men may have even submitted to Egyptian circumcision while in Egypt, since Joshua commanded the men crossing into the Promised Land to be re-circumcised in order to “roll away the reproach of Egypt” (Josh 5:2, 9). The evidence suggests that circumcision did not distinguish Israelite men from their foreign neighbors.
When God told Abraham to be circumcised, he was past the age of bearing children and his wife, Sarah, was incapable of having children (Gen 18:11). Nevertheless, it would be through Sarah’s womb (Gen 17:21; 18:14) that God would fulfill His promise of innumerable offspring to Abraham (Gen 12:1–3). God’s covenant with Abraham could only be realized by miraculous intervention.
The miraculous nature of Isaac’s birth is the key to understanding circumcision as the sign of the covenant. After God made His promise to Abraham, every male member of Abraham’s household was required to be circumcised (Gen 17:15–27). Every male—and every woman, since the males were all incapacitated for a time—knew that circumcision was connected to God’s promise. It probably didn’t make any sense, though, until Sarah became pregnant.
Everyone in Abraham’s household witnessed the miracle of Isaac’s birth. From that point on, every male understood why they had been circumcised: Their entire race—their very existence—began with a miraculous act of God. Every woman was reminded of this when she had sexual relations with her Israelite husband, and when her sons were circumcised. Circumcision was a visible, continuous reminder that Israel owed its existence to Yahweh, who created them out of nothing.
In the New Testament, membership in God’s family is “circumcision neutral” (Gal 5:6). It is faith in Christ, not a Jewish identity signified by circumcision, that makes someone part of the Church. Paul even connects baptism to circumcision (Col 2:10–12). Like circumcision, baptism is a response driven by faith. Both signs are for men and women.