The ceremony of circumcision for young boys is usually referred to as a “brit milah” or just “brit/bris”, which means “covenant”. In English we talk about making a covenant with someone, but in the Bible, the verb is “to cut” a covenant. And when you think about it, circumcision does seem to be a rather odd covenant to cut, if you’ll pardon the pun. It begins with Abraham in Genesis 17:

Jewish Circumcision ceremony (bris) performed by a rabbi.

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

Circumcision is a blood covenant between all those in the house of Israel (the male ones anyway) and God, and God takes it seriously. He says it’s an everlasting covenant, and those who do not enter into it are to be cut off from the people. Ordinarily in any ancient covenant blood is spilled as an ominous warning about the consequences of breaking it, but typically an animal is cut instead of a person. In the blood covenant of circumcision we see the symbolism of a line being cut off, the seed of the man stopped in its tracks, as abandoning the covenant means being cut off from the people.

Why did God choose circumcision as a sign?

Today circumcision has become common in many nations and cultures with no particular spiritual significance. Although we can see the symbolism of the seed and blood lines, the account in Genesis doesn’t iterate exactly why is was required. It is only later in the New Testament that the whole circumcision deal is explored. God could have chosen any sign. It could have been a shaved head, or a defining mark somewhere on the body… but circumcision is not a pubilcly visible sign. God specified other laws to visually differentiate the Israelites from the pagan peoples around them, but circumcision is not a sign that is immediately evident to others. So what was the point of it? Here’s my take:

It’s to do with the most graphic symbol there is of fleshly desire, and how our flesh can be at war with God. It’s to do with our innermost being: our hearts.

We all battle between what we want in the flesh, and what we know God wants. God has given us free choice, but every believer can relate to the battle Paul describes in Romans 7:

For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. (Romans 7:19-23)

Primal urges and instincts to survive, to reproduce, and so on are just part of who we are as human beings. But we’re also made in the image of God and so posses capacity for moral reasoning. We, in short, are capable of choosing to be selfless, righteous, loving, and caring. Or the opposite. We have choices. We can choose to control our base instincts and to act sacrificially—or not. God gave us this free will because He wants us to love and love is only possible if it’s genuinely voluntary. So circumcision symbolizes this struggle to love the Lord our God first, and to love our neighbor as we love ourselves… even when it costs us. Circumcision is a personal, private, reminder. It’s a reminder of the agreement to submit to God and His ways.

obelisks and phallic fertility symbols stand in opposition to circumcisionSo that’s how the covenant of circumcision got started with Abraham. In stark contrast to his pagan neighbors, he was called to worship the one, true God, and mark in his flesh the very opposite of all the fertility idols of the surrounding peoples.

I think it’s not incidental that so much of the symbolism of pagan worship involves obelisks, poles, and fertility gods, all in the glorification of sex. In contrast, circumcision is a symbol of relegating that sexual desire and putting God first.

It’s also no coincidence that God commands circumcision to be done on the eighth day. The eighth day signifies the eternal in Scripture—the first seven days represent our temporal, mortal time on earth in our fleshly “tents” as Paul puts it (2 Corinthians 5:1-4), but the eighth is going into the next paradigm. It speaks of the eternal and heavenly life we are destined to live with our Father forever.

For we know that if the tent, our earthly home, is torn down, we have a building from God—a home not made with human hands, eternal in the heavens. For in this we groan, longing to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling— if indeed, after we have put it on, we will not be found naked. For we groan while we are in this tent—burdened because we don’t want to be unclothed but to be clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. (2 Corinthians 5:1-4)

The peculiar circumcision incident with Zipporah and her knife

God told Abraham that his descendants would spend 400 years in slavery in Egypt, but that they would become numerous and come back to the land God promised them. It all happened, just as God said, but somewhere along the line, the covenant of circumcision seems to have dropped out of circulation because Moses did not circumcise his son. His wife Zipporah had to do it after a most peculiar encounter with God:

At a lodging place on the way, the Lord met Moses and was about to kill him. But Zipporah took a flint knife, cut off her son’s foreskin and touched Moses’ feet with it.“Surely you are a bridegroom of blood to me,” she said. So the Lord let him alone. (At that time she said “bridegroom of blood,” referring to circumcision.) (Exodus 4:24-26)

This happened just as Moses had come from the burning bush experience. Why in the world did God want to kill him? And how on earth is circumcision the answer here? God had just commissioned Moses for one of the greatest tasks of all time. Now he was on his way to tell Pharaoh to “let my people go”… Covenant and blood are big themes in the story that was about to unfold. Blood covenant is required for the people of God, and God was just about to launch a faith community which would become a vessel to bring salvation for the whole world. Israel had been growing as a people group over their 400 years in Egypt, to the point that Pharaoh was getting nervous about their numbers. They started out with just Jacob and his 12 sons, but now Israel had become an ethnic group. But God was doing something unique: He wanted them to be a people group and a faith community. There is nothing like it on earth. God created a people for Himself, for His own purposes, by bringing the nation of Israel to the point where they—by faith—collectively obeyed the instruction to cover their households with the blood of an innocent sacrifice, and then agreed to the terms of the covenant at Sinai. Now Israel, as a whole people, were in covenant with God. God created His covenant people. (1 Samuel 12:22, Isaiah 43:1) 

All the sons of Israel would become part of this covenant people on the eighth day, through the ritual of circumcision. It was important. This was to be a marker of blood covenant for the people through whom God would work out His redemption plan for all the nations of the world, through the New Covenant in the blood of Messiah.

So, as Moses and his family were traveling back to Egypt on their way to go get the rest of the tribe, the great perils of being out-of-covenant were reinforced. It spells death. Even death at the hands of God. Just as the consequences of not applying blood to the doorframe on the night of Passover meant death for the firstborn, killed by the destroyer sent by God, and just as the consequences of not being covered by the blood of Messiah’s atoning sacrifice for our sins, death is the result of failing to come under the covering of blood covenant with God. The cost is very high: death… but that price been paid by Jesus our Messiah. But those who enter into covenant with God receive it for free.

Circumcision and the New Covenant

Since the inauguration of this New Covenant, circumcision for those grafted into Israel is no longer required. The sons of the Sinai covenant were to carry the physical sign of circumcision, but the children of the New Covenant are marked by circumcision of the heart. Physical circumcision served as a sign of agreement to God’s ways in the flesh, but today our hearts are engraved with the ways of God, and we live by His Spirit.

“The days are coming,” declares the Lord“when I will make a new covenant with the people of Israel and with the people of Judah. It will not be like the covenant I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt, because they broke my covenant, though I was a husband to them,” declares the Lord. “This is the covenant I will make with the people of Israel after that time,” declares the Lord“I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people.” (Jeremiah 31:31-33)

The New Testament book of Romans explains that Abraham received the sign of circumcision as evidence that he was in a covenant with God… and crucially, that his faith came before the physical sign of the covenant:

He received the sign of circumcision as a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised. The purpose was to make him the father of all who believe without being circumcised, so that righteousness would be counted to them as well, and to make him the father of the circumcised who are not merely circumcised but who also walk in the footsteps of the faith that our father Abraham had before he was circumcised. (Romans 4:11-12)

This shows us that it was not the circumcision itself that brought the righteousness, but faith in God and in His promises.

Submit yourselves, then, to God

Today, as if returning to primitive paganism, we see sex made into an idol again. It’s not the only sin, but it’s symbolic of the demands of the flesh that stand in opposition to God. Today we see the widespread worship of sex, where what you do in the bedroom is what defines you.

The meaning of circumcision is counter to sexual licenseEverything seems to revolve around making sure sexual “freedom” (licentiousness) is top priority. This is particularly evident during pride month. Many have pointed out that pride is one of the so-called “deadly sins”: pride, envy, wrath, sloth, avarice, gluttony, and lust. Though not listed in this way in the Bible, these seven sins will be familiar adversaries to every believer who seeks to lead a holy life. Conversely, seven virtues have been listed in contrast: Humility, kindness, patience, diligence, temperance, abstinence [outside of biblical marriage], and charity. These are the moral claims on our lives as servants of God and followers of Jesus, and strike horror into the hearts of those who are focused on the flesh. God’s ways may seem like inaccessibly strict ethical demands, and indeed, His standards are very high. So high, in fact, that they are impossible to attain. But! There is abundant grace, and there is great forgiveness, freely available. Contrast this with the progressive ‘religion’ of LGBTQ+ and their campaign of ‘free’ love (where the bar is so low it’s in the gutter) yet there is no grace and there is no forgiveness if you slip up even once. One ill-advised tweet, one mis-gendering crime, and there is no return. This supposed liberty leads to a life of fear and captivity, full of people desperately trying to signal their virtue yet never feeling forgiven or free.

Our true identity is that we are God’s children, His precious handiwork, whether we are married or not. Our sexuality is not the most important thing about us, and when we fall, the offer of redemption is freely available. We can be transformed, restored, and made new. God gives us a completely clean slate. Over and over and over again. What a breath of fresh air! As is so often the way, the Kingdom of God seems contrary, because it is.

Let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. (Hebrews 10:22)

Just as in the Jesus movement of the seventies when many hippies came to faith against everyone’s expectations, let’s be ready for a revival of a new kind, with people just as apparently unreachable: those trapped in sexual depravity and sin, who have been convinced that the way to freedom is through lawlessness. Let’s pray them all in! Many are starting to realize the sexual revolution has done the opposite of liberating people, and they are hurting. May God bring his powerful love, freedom, and forgiveness to this broken generation. May they learn the beauty, grace, and power of living in covenant with God, obeying His precepts, and walking in His ways. God loves us more than we can ever possibly love ourselves.

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