16

Genesis 17:9 —

Then God said to Abraham, “Your responsibility is to obey the terms of the covenant. You and all your descendants have this continual responsibility. This is the covenant that you and your descendants must keep: Each male among you must be circumcised. You must cut off the flesh of your foreskin as a sign of the covenant between me and you. From generation to generation, every male child must be circumcised on the eighth day after his birth. This applies not only to members of your family but also to the servants born in your household and the foreign-born servants whom you have purchased. All must be circumcised. Your bodies will bear the mark of my everlasting covenant. Any male who fails to be circumcised will be cut off from the covenant family for breaking the covenant.”

God clearly meant that foreigners were to be circumcised also, but Paul disagreed in the NT.

Galatians 5:2 —

Mark my words! I, Paul, tell you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no value to you at all.

3
  • A somewhat related question.
    – Lucian
    Oct 5 '20 at 10:45
  • Genesis 17 talks about Abraham's gentile employees/servants/slaves. It's not a general rule from God - it specifically applies to Abraham and his descendants who are part of the Abrahamic covenant. Please explain how you think this is at all relevant to the Christian Church?
    – curiousdannii
    Oct 6 '20 at 7:13
  • 1
    Ask the Galatians. Oct 7 '20 at 23:41
16

Succinctly stated, as Christ himself was circumcised,1 all those who are “in Christ” are also circumcised with Christ,2 just as all those who are in Christ:

  • suffer with Christ3
  • are crucified with Christ4
  • die with Christ5
  • are buried with Christ6
  • are resurrected with Christ7
  • are made alive with Christ8
  • live with Christ9
  • are glorified with Christ10
  • inherit with Christ11
  • reign with Christ12
  • are seated with Christ in heaven13
Footnotes

        1 Luke 2:21
        2 Col. 2:11
        3 Rom. 8:17 (συμπάσχω)
        4 Rom. 6:6; Gal. 2:20 (συσταυρόω)
        5 2 Tim. 2:11 (συναποθνῄσκω)
        6 Rom. 6:4; Col. 2:12 (συνθάπτω)
        7 Eph. 2:6; Col. 2:12, 3:1 (συνεγείρω)
        8 Eph. 2:5 (συζωοποιέω)
        9 Rom. 6:8; 2 Tim. 2:11 (συζάω)
        10 Rom. 8:17 (συνδοξάζω)
        11 ibid. (συγκληρόω)
        12 2 Tim. 2:12 (συμβασιλεύω)
        13 Eph. 2:6 (συγκαθίζω)

For this reason, there is no need for Christians to be circumcised again, for to do so (in the flesh) implies that the same Christian is not truly “in Christ,” for if he were, he would already be circumcised by virtue of being in Christ. Therefore, to be circumcised in the flesh means that Christ’s work is inefficacious, as the supposed Christian does not truly believe in the salvific effects imparted to the Christian by their spiritual unity with Christ himself.

Addendum

@Ryan asked an important question which is essentially this:

If a Christian need not be circumcised because the Christian is circumcised in Christ, who himself was circumcised, isn’t it also true that a Christian need not be baptized because the Christian is baptized in Christ, who himself was baptized, indeed, to fulfill all righteousness? (Matt. 3:15)

To this question I answer that a Christian does not need to be baptized in water in order to be saved, as the example of the thief on the cross testifies. Nevertheless, the New Testament undoubtedly commands Christians to be baptized. So, why does the New Testament command Christians to be baptized but does not command Christians to be circumcised?

Baptism in water has a special significance. Maimonides wrote the following,14

Just as we circumcise and immerse the converts, likewise we circumcise and immerse the slaves who are acquired from the Gentiles for the purpose of servitude... Therefore, his master must overcome him in water, until he arises and he is under his servitude.

כְּשֵׁם שֶׁמּוֹלִין וּמַטְבִּילִין אֶת הַגֵּרִים, כָּךְ מוֹלִין וּמַטְבִּילִין אֶת הָעֲבָדִים הַנִּלְקָחִים מִן הַגּוֹיִים לְשֵׁם עַבְדוּת... לְפִיכָּךְ צָרִיךְ רִבּוֹ לְתָקְפוֹ בַּמַּיִם, עַד שֶׁיַּעֲלֶה וְהוּא תַּחַת שִׁעְבּוּדוֹ

The Lord Jesus Christ was baptized in order to demonstrate his servitude, submission, and obedience to God the Father.15 Indeed, he was “obedient unto death.”16 Likewise, Christians are baptized in order to demonstrate their servitude, submission, and obedience to their master, Jesus Christ.

κύριος (“lord”) literally means “owner,” as in the owner of a servant (slave).

Hence, “you [Christians] are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s.”17 Indeed, the apostle Paul asked, “Don’t you know that to whom you yield yourselves servant to obey, his servants you are to whom you obey?”18

In summary, baptism in water is not necessary for salvation, but it is a demonstration of an individual’s submission and obedience as a servant to the Lord Jesus Christ, and therefore, it is proper for anyone who considers their self to be a Christian to be baptized in water although they are baptized in Christ.

Footnotes

        14 Mishneh Torah, Sefer Kedusha, Hilkhot Issurei Biʾah, Chapter 13, Halakha 11
        15 Phil. 2:7; 1 Cor. 15:28
        16 Phil. 2:8
        17 1 Cor. 3:23
        18 Rom. 6:16

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  • I would also add Romans 2:25-29: "Circumcision has value if you observe the law, but if you break the law, you have become as though you had not been circumcised. 26 So then, if those who are not circumcised keep the law’s requirements, will they not be regarded as though they were circumcised? 27 The one who is not circumcised physically and yet obeys the law will condemn you who, even though you have the[c] written code and circumcision, are a lawbreaker."
    – mbomb007
    Oct 5 '20 at 14:13
  • 1
    ... "28 A person is not a Jew who is one only outwardly, nor is circumcision merely outward and physical. 29 No, a person is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the written code. Such a person’s praise is not from other people, but from God." Essentially, the Jews who were "whitewashed tombs" (Matthew 23:27) kept the law outwardly, but just as Abraham was justified by faith (see Romans 4), so also must everyone else be. Physical circumcision is of no value for salvation, nor was it ever -- even in the time before Christ died and rose
    – mbomb007
    Oct 5 '20 at 14:14
  • 1
    This is great reasoning, but why does Paul have the right to outweigh the word of the Lord? Oct 7 '20 at 2:37
  • Couldn't this same argument be applied to baptism?
    – Ryan
    Oct 7 '20 at 3:21
  • @TheEnvironmentalist—It is the Lord’s work. How, then, does Paul outweigh the Lord? Oct 7 '20 at 3:42
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Simply put, the law of circumcision was given by God to the Hebrew people who made up the physical, geographical nation of Israel and to all the foreigners who would live in the nation of Israel. Jesus came fulfill the law and the prophets, and to be the atoning sacrifice for sin once and for all for all who trust in him, so thanks to Jesus, our right standing with God is no longer dependent on OUR obedience, but on JESUS's obedience, and our faith alone in him makes us right with God, not our righteous works or obedience to the law.

So when Paul writes to the Galatians, he is writing to gentile (non-jewish men and women) who were being misled by certain religious Jews that they had to be undergo circumcision like the Jews for them (the gentile Christians) to be made right with God. To believe this lie and undergo circumcision to be saved makes a mockery of the sacrifice and shed blood of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins and for us to be made right with God.

Our salvation is not based on things we do or don't do, it is based completely on the work that Jesus has done. We rely on his perfect performance before God, not on our attempt at perfecting our performance before God by attempting acts of righteousness.

Paul is not cancelling what God chose. God chose cirumcistion for Israel as a nation, not for the whole world. Paul is discouraging the Galatians from doing something they were never obligated to do as non-Jewish people, to try to attain something that only Jesus could attain and did attain for them: perfect righteousness and obedience to the law of God.

1
  • Welcome to BH. Please see the Tour and the Help (below, bottom right) as to the purpose and the functioning of the site. (Up-voted +1.)
    – Nigel J
    Oct 5 '20 at 16:24
9

The understanding for the sign of circumcision is deeply embedded in the OT concept of covenants.

All divinely initiated covenants in the Bible contain the following six elements:

  • Statement of pre-amble and/or purpose of the covenant
  • Promise of benefits given by God. This shows that such divine covenants are the initiative of God alone. In no case were such covenants initiated by humans.
  • Promise of curses/consequences if the covenant is not kept
  • Requirements of people on whom the benefits are bestowed. This is sometimes also call the associated “law” of the covenant.
  • A sign of the covenant to remind the people of their responsibilities
  • A ceremony, usually consisting of a “cutting”, always a sacrifice or similar.

In the OT there are five explicit covenants, each of which has the above elements. For the sake of brevity, I will list only the covenant "sign" associated with each one.

  1. Noahide Covenant: Gen 8:20 – 9:17. Covenant sign = rainbow (Gen 9:12, 13, 17) signifying that this covenant was made for all mankind (Gen 9:8-10, 16, 17) forever.
  2. Abrahamic Covenant: Gen 15, 17, 18:9-15, 22:15-18. This covenant was made with Abraham's biological descendants to occupy the land of Canaan (Gen 15:18); with covenant sign being circumcision (Gen 17:10, 11, 13, Rom 4:11)
  3. Israelite Covenant: Exodus 19-24 plus parts of Levitus, Numbers and most of Deuteronomy. While given to the Israelites, it applied to anyone who decided to become an Israelite such as Ruth, Uriah the Hittite, etc. The covenant sign tokens/signs appear to have been the law of the 10 Commandments themselves (Deut 6:8, 11:18), and especially the Sabbath (Ex 31:13, 16, 17, Isa 56:4, 6, Exe 20:12, 20, see “Sabbath”); the blood of the covenant from the Passover Lamb is also used as a sign in Ex 12:13; the famous “Ark of the Covenant” containing the 10 Commandments on tablets of stone (Ex 16:34, 24:12, 25:16, 21, 31:18, 32:15, 19, 34:1, 4, 28, 40:20, Deut 4:13, 9-11, etc).
  4. Levitical Covenant – Lev 1-9, 16, 21-27 , Num 3, 4, 8, 18, 25:10-13, Deut 33:8-11. This is an eternal covenant (Num 25:12, 13, Ps 106:30) of salt, Num 18:19. This was with the Levites and Priests only and served as teaching device about the plan of salvation. Jesus fulfilled this covenant and continues to act as our high priest, etc. The token/sign of the Levitical covenant appears to have been the unleavened bread at the annual festival (Ex 13:6, 9, 16, Lev 24:8).
  5. Davidic (or Regal, or Royal) Covenant: 2 Sam 7, 23:5, 1 Kings 6:11, 12, 8:25, 1 Chron 17:11-14, 2 Chron 6:14-16, 7:17, 18, 13:5, Ps 132:11, 12, Eze 37:15-28. Again, Jesus fulfilled this covenant and continues to be the King of Heaven and King of the Kingdom of God. The sign of this covenant was apparently "peace" (which the NT makes much of but that is another discussion.)

Therefore, circumcision was only ever a sign of the Abrahamic covenant to which the Israelites fell heirs. When the Gospel message went to all the world, and the Christian community lived every where, the promise to the Israelites of the the land of Canaan and its sign of circumcision became irrelevant.

Therefore, circumcision, as a sign of the Abrahamic covenant was abandoned. (Note that the Israelites correctly continued the practice of circumcision after Abraham because they inherited the promised land but Christians do not.)

17
  • 1
    How can you justify from the NT that "the promise to the Israelites of the the land of Canaan" is no longer valid, is that not saying God can't be trusted to keep promises? Oct 5 '20 at 22:19
  • 1
    @IanRingrose - I would be not foolish enough to say that. Look carefully. What I said was that the Christian community (as opposed to the Jews) are scattered around the world and the promise of the literal land of Canaan does not apply and so circumcision is irrelevant.
    – Dottard
    Oct 5 '20 at 22:56
  • "In no case were such covenants initiated by humans." The covenant with the Israelites was - they asked for a code of rules to live by, after they refused God's offer of becoming a nation of his priests. "Promise of curses/consequences if the covenant is not kept" This is true of some of the covenants, but not all of them - some are one-sided blessings unilaterally granted by God (e.g. the Noahide Covenant, where God promises not to destroy the Earth with water ever again, in exchange for nothing).
    – nick012000
    Oct 6 '20 at 7:50
  • @Dottard I think you misunderstood what I said. I'm saying that not all the statements apply to all of the covenants, unlike your post states. Some of them were initiated by humans rather than God, some of them don't involve curses or behavior requirements, some of them don't require ceremonies or sacrifices.
    – nick012000
    Oct 6 '20 at 7:58
  • 1
    @Stewart - The Abrahamic covenant is still very active for modern Jews and that is why they still cling to Palestine and Circumcision. That is why I said above - it is moot. For Christian who inherited "the promises" of the Israelite covenant (NOT the Abrahamic Covenant) circumcision is not relevant because we do not keep the Abrahamic covenant and do not live in Palestine
    – Dottard
    Oct 10 '20 at 19:53
8

The answer is quoted (Genesis 17:13) in the question.

Your bodies will bear the mark of my everlasting covenant.

If the covenant is everlasting, how can a human body, subject to death and decay, display that covenant . . . everlastingly ?

It cannot.

But the sign can be borne, during this life. And that is what circumcision is - but a signification of that which is spiritual : the everlasting testament. The New Testament.

But once the reality is fulfilled, what need of a sign ?

Therefore Paul says, to those who have believed in Christ and who enter into the everlasting testament, by a new birth, by repentance and faith :

I, Paul, tell you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no value to you at all.

This is no contradiction.

This is a fulfillment.

But if those who have believed turn back, from the reality to the mere figure, then Christ shall be of no benefit. Faith will deteriorate to mere fleshly observance, legal works, national pride.

But Paul says in another place

We are not of them that turn back unto perdition, but of them that believe to the saving of the soul. [Hebrews 10:39, KJV]

8

In your question you state:

God clearly meant that foreigners were to be circumcised also...

This is a misinterpretation of the inclusion of foreign-born slaves in the commandment that Abraham's slaves were to be circumcised. There is no exegetical reason to take that commandment as anything but literal. Abraham's males slaves (and the slaves of anyone claiming to be part of this covenant) were to be circumcised.

Later we read in Exodus that a foreigner who wished to partake of the Passover feast was also to be circumcised before being allowed to participate. There is nothing in that passage, or in any related passage, requiring a non-literal interpretation, or extending it beyond the simple requirement that only circumcised people eat of the feast.

The chief flaw in the OP, as posed, is the assumption that Christians of modern times are subject to these commandments. This represents a misunderstanding of the role of covenants in God's revelation. The commandments within a covenant apply only to those who are party to that covenant. The Mosaic covenant was given to the nation of Israel and to nobody else; its commandments apply only to those who are in that nation. The Abrahamic covenant applies only to Abraham and his house.

Acts 15 makes this abundantly clear, well before Paul wrote his letter to the Galatians. The apostles and elders do not argue that the Judaizing teachers were restoring a burden to the Gentiles that had previously been taken away, but instead state that the Judaizing teachers were imposing a burden that previously did not exist and for which there was no divine authority.

Paul, in a like manner, did not take away circumcision. He emphasized that for those who were not Israelites or Abrahamites, the commandments within the Law of Moses simply did not apply.

5

Essentially, the Jews who were "whitewashed tombs" (Matthew 23:27) kept the law outwardly, but just as Abraham was justified by faith (see Romans 4), so also must everyone else be. Physical circumcision is of no value for salvation, nor was it ever -- even in the time before Christ died and rose.

Romans 2:25-29

Circumcision has value if you observe the law, but if you break the law, you have become as though you had not been circumcised. 26 So then, if those who are not circumcised keep the law’s requirements, will they not be regarded as though they were circumcised? 27 The one who is not circumcised physically and yet obeys the law will condemn you who, even though you have the[c] written code and circumcision, are a lawbreaker.

28 A person is not a Jew who is one only outwardly, nor is circumcision merely outward and physical. 29 No, a person is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the written code. Such a person’s praise is not from other people, but from God.

Romans 4:9-12

Is this blessing then only for the circumcised, or also for the uncircumcised? For we say that faith was counted to Abraham as righteousness. 10 How then was it counted to him? Was it before or after he had been circumcised? It was not after, but before he was circumcised. 11 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, 12 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.

I recommend reading not just this excerpt of Romans 4, but the whole chapter, because it goes into more detail after this.

1
  • Welcome to BH. Please see the Tour and Help (below, bottom right) as to the purpose and the functioning of the site. (Up-voted +1.)
    – Nigel J
    Oct 5 '20 at 16:21
4

A guide to interpreting Paul's letters is to examine how they are consistent with Torah and Tanakh, and not to wonder whether they are consistent.

Paul had an elite intellectual training and upbringing in the Pharisee tradition, based firmly on Torah and Tanakh. He approvingly witnessed the stoning to death of Stephen for his faith in Yeshua. Yeshua personally and dramatically appeared to him while he was in the act of persecuting followers of The Way (how early Messianic assemblies described themselves). His theology is deep, his understanding is vast, and his letters are meant to teach us and to help us put these doctrines into practice in our lives.

Shaul/Paulos does not contradict Torah or Tanakh. He would never do such a thing. Rather, he is trying to teach us the theology of Yeshua as the risen Messiah and how that relates to Torah, Tanakh, the Covenants, and also how Gentiles fit into the Kingdom of Elohim.

In Acts 16:3 we learn that he had his student Timothy circumcised. Does it make sense that he would then teach that circumcision was to be shunned?

In Acts 23:6 Shaul/Paulos declares:

My brothers, I am a Pharisee, the son of a Pharisee...

"I am," not, "I was". He did not cease being a Pharisee on the Damascus road or afterward. He calls the Sanhedrin "brothers" - they are Jews, he is a Jew. Shaul/Paulos did not give up his Jewish identity and neither did the other Shlichim.

Rav Shaul never changed his name to Paulos. As he was a Roman citizen of relatively high station in Judea Capta, he would naturally have his Hebrew name and also a name to use among foreigners. To his Jewish brothers he was Shaul, to the Romans and Gentiles he was Paulos. This is why he identifies himself as Paulos in his letters to the Asian and Greek assemblies; he apparently used his Greek name on his travels.

Wherever Shaul/Paulos travelled, he would stay in the homes of the sympathetic elders of the local synagogues. He would teach the Evangelion (the re-established Davidic Kingdom) of Yeshua HaMashiyach to the Jewish assembly in that city, and also to the Gentile believers among them. This is clearly enumerated in later chapters of Acts.

English translations today use words based on Greek, Latin or Old High German like "church", "bishop", "apostle", and "Christ" in the Brit Chadasha as opposed to "assembly", "elder", "shaliach", and "Messiah/Mashiyach". This difference tends to obscure the perception of what is being written about, making it seem less Jewish in nature. But if you read carefully, and mentally substitute these terms, it becomes more clear what Rav Shaul is teaching us. He is most certainly not replacing Judaism with a new religion, as the late 1st-century and 2nd-century 'church fathers' were all too eager to do.

After his experience on the Damascus road, Shaul had to rethink everything. He sought understanding in Torah, in Tanakh, in the teachings of Mashiyach. He learned how they complement, not contradict, each other. He learned how Yeshua HaMashiyach was the key to it all. He learned that the Gentiles were not to be excluded from the Kingdom of Elohim. He calls Luke's gospel "scripture" in 1 Timothy 5:18, quoting Luke 10:7.

Given the great depth of Rav Shaul's understanding, it really is no surprise that so many people, even well learned people in modern times, read Paul's letters and critically misunderstand them. Translation issues from (possibly Aramaic to) Greek to Latin to English, plus theological baggage from the anti-Nicene 'fathers' and Catholic and Protestant thinkers (the 'doctrines of men') make it even more difficult for the modern reader to comprehend Paul's messages to us. I feel that I myself only understand a small sliver of what Paul taught. Even after reading these other excellent answers, I feel I do not really comprehend the relationship of circumcision to the Gentiles. Perhaps even Mar Shimon, who was pejoratively nicknamed "the stone" (Peter, meaning dumb) by his peers, felt similarly. He wrote of Paul:

And count the patience of our Lord as salvation, just as our beloved brother Paul also wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, as he does in all his letters when he speaks in them of these matters. There are some things in them that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures. (2 Peter 3:15-16)

Paul's letters are, for the most part, master-classes in Messianic Pharisee theology. A person who has not studied Torah and Tanakh thoroughly already cannot expect to understand them properly, and they cannot be properly understood except within the context of Tanakh. And no one should expect to properly understand them when reading them one line at a time, or casually.

2

God gave circumcision as an external sign in response to Abraham's faith. Nigel J points out to a very interesting verse highlighting that

A servant who is born in your house or who is bought with your money shall surely be circumcised; thus shall My covenant be in your flesh for an everlasting covenant.

Genesis 17:13 NASB https://bible.com/bible/100/gen.17.13.NASB

But at some point in history, circumcision became more important than the decision to believe and follow God as the following two passages show

Circumcise yourselves to the Lord And remove the foreskins of your heart, Men of Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem, Or else My wrath will go forth like fire And burn with none to quench it, Because of the evil of your deeds.”

Jeremiah 4:4 NASB https://bible.com/bible/100/jer.4.4.NASB

and

Behold, the days are coming,” declares the LORD, “that I will punish all who are circumcised and yet uncircumcised— Egypt and Judah, and Edom and the sons of Ammon, and Moab and all those inhabiting the desert who clip the hair on their temples; for all the nations are uncircumcised, and all the house of Israel are uncircumcised of heart.

Jeremiah 9:25-26 https://www.bible.com/bible/100/jer.9.25-26.NASB

What matters to God is doing the things for the right motives.

Moreover the Lord your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your descendants, to love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, so that you may live.

Deuteronomy 30:6 NASB https://www.bible.com/bible/100/DEU.30.6.NASB

That's what leads Paul to be consistent in his speech, who also does so in Romans 2:29 while quoting from Jeremiah 4:4 and Deuteronomy 30:6 when speaking of circumcision of the heart. He wanted to give emphasis to genuine loyalty to God. That's what God's good, pleasant and perfect will is.

In other words, Paul argues that circumcision has value only if one keeps the law and Christ is the only one who does this work (so we all need Him)

and in Him you were also circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, in the removal of the body of the flesh by the circumcision of Christ

Colossians 2:11 NASB https://www.bible.com/bible/100/COL.2.11.NASB

If by now you're still considering if God cares about our heart, then why circumcision... go ahead and read Romans 3 where that's addressed.

Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?

Galatians 3:3 NASB https://bible.com/bible/100/gal.3.3.NASB

0

circumcision was of the Jews but now that a greater than the prophets, priest, kings, Solomon is here. He is our circumcision. Circumcision was a symbolic of being in convent with God during the days before Jesus. Now we circumcise our hearts as Paul instructs the Romans. Paul lets the people know they are no longer under the law of Moses but under the law in the life of Jesus Christ.

1
  • 1
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    – Dottard
    Oct 6 '20 at 22:40

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