This verse by verse Bible study on Genesis is an inductive verse by verse study with extensive reflections, teaching points, cross-references, and applications. They are the personal study of notes of a very good doctor friend of mine. His native tongue is Mandarin, but his English is amazing as you will see below. It is refreshing to take a look at this important book of Genesis through the eyes of a believer from another culture. Without further adieu: The Scribblings According to David.
Genesis 17 Inductive Bible Study
An Unlikely Man of Faith (VI)
XVII 1-8. The Nature of the Covenant – Everlasting Nationhood
XVII 9-14. The Sign of the Covenant – Male Circumcision
XVII 15-21. The Means of the Covenant – Supernatural Conception
XVII 22-27. The Response to the Covenant – Immediate Obedience
Thirteen years after the birth of Ishmael, God appeared to Abram again, confirmed His promises to the patriarch and gave him the sign of the Covenant, which was male circumcision. Abraham obeyed God by promptly carrying out the command.
What’s so special about the name of God El Shaddai?
El Shaddai is translated in many English versions as God Almighty, or the Almighty God, in which El is the common Semitic word for God, and Shaddai is thought to highlight the power of God (which in the immediate context is to enable Sarah in her 90s to bear Abraham a son). According to the NIV Study Bible, Shaddai occurs 31 times in the book of Job and 17 times in the rest of the Bible.
The Faithlife Study Bible, however, arguing lexically, suggests that there is little evidence to justify the common translation ofEl Shaddai as God Almighty. The following passage is a direct quote from the study note of the Faithlife Study Bible:
Shaddai is similar to Hebrew term shad, meaning “breast” (Eze. 23:3; 21; 34; Song 4:5; 7:4), but “God of breast” is not a reasonable translation. The Akkadian words shadu (“mountain”) and shadda’u – along with the abundant testimony in the OT associating God with mountains (e.g. Sinai) – suggests that the word means “God of the mountain” or “God of the mountainous wilderness”.
It seems like the English Bible translators took a step to interpret Shaddai by comparing God’s power and strength to mountain. Anyway, the phrase God Almighty has thus made its way into the vocabulary of both the sacred and the secular.
Tab -1. Names of God in the OT (from the Faithlife Study Bible)
Why did God reveal His Covenant to Abraham in such progressive manner?
Abram was 75 years old when he first received God’s promise, and was called to leave Ur for the land of Canaan (Gen. 12:1-4). The promise was officially ratified some years later (Gen. 15:1-21). Yet at the age of 86, in a fateful twist of unbelief, Abram begot Ishmael thru the Egyptian slave-maid Hagar (Gen. 16:16). Then, when 13 more years had eclipsed and Abram became 99 years old, God finally spelled out the specifics of that promise. From the perspective of man, God waited quite a long time in unfolding His will and fulfilling His promise. One may very well ask why?
Some commentators do believe that the last 13 years of “silence” was “probably on account of his hasty and blamable marriage with Hagar”. I tend to disagree that the extended waiting was a divine punishment for his presumptuous sins. For one thing, it is merely a speculation without any Scriptural basis. In addition, such “karmic” thinking of causatively linking specific sufferings with specific sins is foolish and dangerous, as we see from the biblical example of Job’s three friends. Borrowing the phrase by Philip Yancey in his book Where Is God When It Hurts, instead of looking backward and ask “why”, we should perhaps look forward and ask “to what end”? We may never know all the nuances behind God’s progressive revelation to Abraham, but we definitely can understand the maturing work He must have wrought in the life and faith of the patriarch. As for us today, God will neither speak to us directly as He did to Abraham, nor once-and-for-all show us the full plan He has for us. Nonetheless, through His providential circumstances, and as we become progressively perfected in Christ-likeness, we will gradually comprehend what He has done, is doing, and perhaps will do in our lives. We do not need to know what the future holds; we only need to know who holds the future.
For each of these three occasions where God made known to Abraham His promise (Gen. XII, XV, and XVII), Abraham believed God. Despite all his failures, let us give credit to him for being such an unlikely man of faith who walked by faith, not by sight.
What exactly is the nature of the Abrahamic Covenant?
This question has been dwelt with in my study of the 15th chapter. Please allow me to quote my own notes and with some minor modifications made:
… the Abrahamic Covenant is a covenant of nationhood. It has two components with regard to Abram: one is his physical offspring (Gen. 15:1-6; 17:2, 4-7); the other is the physical land for his offspring (Gen. 15:18-21; 17:8). Abram could not be “made into a great nation” (Gen. 12:2) unless these two conditions are met.
According to the Nelson’s Complete Book of Bible Maps and Charts, the Abrahamic Covenant was foundational to other covenants:
The promise of land in the Palestinian Covenant (Deut. 30:1-30)
The promise of kingly descendants in the Davidic Covenant (2 Sam. 7:12-16)
The promise of blessing in the Old and New Covenants (Ex. 19:3-6; Jer. 31:31-40)
Why did God change Abram’s name into Abraham (v.5)?
This is the first time in the Bible where God changed someone’s name. For oriental people, names carry significant meanings as well as anticipations by the one who gives the name (e.g. Israel being changed from Jacob; Peter being changed from Simon).
The name Abram (avram) in Hebrew means “exalted father” or “the father is exalted”, which perhaps was a reference to Abraham’s father Terah. The name Abraham (avraham) means “father of nations” or “father of a multitude”, which encapsulates the significance of God’s Covenant. His old name is retrospective, speaking of his aristocratic progenitor; his new name is prospective, speaking of his theocratic progeny.
What does it mean when God spoke to Abraham in His promise, “kings will come forth from you” (vv.6, 16)?
This phrase was not mentioned in earlier Covenant statements in Gen. XII and Gen. XV. It will later appear again in Gen. 35:11. Some commentators believe it not as perpetual royalty for his offspring, but as human beings’ exercising dominion (as “kings”) over the earth. Yet most commentators unanimously see this as an anticipation of the reestablishment of Creation mandate, which will one day culminate in the Messianic Kingdom (cf. the Davidic Covenant in 2 Sam. VII). In other words, not only many kings, but, more importantly, the King of kings shall come from the line of Abraham (Gal. 3:16).
How can God’s Covenant be unilateral if there are responsibilities for the recipients attached to it?
Before God made a three-fold reaffirmation of His Covenant, He commanded Abraham to “walk before me, and be blameless” (v.1). In other words, as the ESV Study Bible puts it, a conditional dimension is now explicit for Abraham, indicating this covenant concerns only those who has an ongoing personal relationship with God (“walk before [Him]”, cf. Deut. 4:29, Prov. 8:16) and lovingly obeyed Him in every matter (“be blameless”, cf. Matt. 5:48, 1 Pet. 1:15-16). The responsibility of the recipients, then, is an active response to God in faith and faithfulness, without which the blessings associated with the Covenant will not befall.
As we can see, the great mystery, namely the doctrine of 200% (of God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility) once again lies behind the scene. But that is beyond the scope of our present study. Coming back to the question: how can God’s Covenant be unilateral yet conditional at the same time? The answer to that hinges on a proper understanding of God and of us. Hence, the index question can be rephrased and broken down into the following two questions with regards to our understanding of God and of ourselves:
(1) Is God obligated to make Covenant with men?
(2) How can men be a part of this Covenant?
Is God obligated to make Covenant with man? The answer is no. In a sense, there is no ultimate cause (particularly in us) that “compels” God to make a covenant of blessings to man (or else this “cause” would be greater than God). He is the sovereign ruler of the universe, accountable to none but Himself, and has the independent freedom to do whatever He wills, whenever He wills, wherever He wills, and however He wills. As the psalmist says, “… our God is in the heavens; He does whatever He pleases” (Ps. 115:3). Men do not deserve to be involved in the Covenant. If anything, men deserve wrath. Therefore, for God to stoop down and to make Covenant with His creatures, this is a free act of divine mercy. In this sense, the Covenant is unilateral on God’s part, for it is He who takes the initiative to make it and keep it.
How can men be a part of this Covenant? The answer, as mentioned above, is faith and faithfulness. We are to see ourselves as the undeserving beneficiaries, thrilled to know that we are to receive an inheritance from our Father. And the only thing we need to do is, figuratively speaking, believe in Him that He will grant us that inheritance, and to live like His son. As it is written in Heb. 11:6, “without faith it is impossible to please Him, for he who comes to God must believe that He is and that He is a rewarder of those who seek Him.” The only necessary condition is that we believe it; of course, on God’s terms, not our own. Hence, the Covenant is conditional on our part, for we are to take that leap of faith and exercise that act of faith in order to receive it and enjoy it.
The above is a discussion merely of the Abrahamic Covenant. Such an understanding is applicable (and crucial!) in viewing both the unilateralside and the conditional side of the glorious works of redemption in the New Covenant: God had freely decreed to saved sinners, and used the death of Christ as the necessary means to achieve salvation; sinners are, upon hearing the Gospel, to repent and put their faith in Christ, receiving Him as the Savior of their souls and Lord of their lives.
Does the New Testament replace the Old Testament such that the Abrahamic Covenant became nullified?
After the era of the United Kingdom, Israel never saw this promise realized in its fullest sense. Subsequently, some may ask, does the New Testament become an “extension” of the Old Testament in a way that God’s Promises to the Israelites in the OT have been nullified? In fact, this is a sophisticated topic of theology, namely, how do we see Israel today?
There are basically two schools of thoughts. One is called “Supersessionism” (also called, “fulfillment theology”, “replacement theology”), which means that the NT has superseded (or fulfilled) the OT, and thus the Christian church now replaces the children of Israel. Supersessionism believes that the biblical promises of God made to the children of Israel (specifically the land promises to Israel, the Messianic Kingdom and the universal reign of Christ on earth) had been nullified by the New Testament.
The other school of thoughts, in contrast, sees that God’s promises to Israel are yet to be fulfilled in the future. This framework of interpretation is called “Dispensationalism”, which means that men are related to God under different Biblical covenants in a series of “dispensations” (or “times”, “periods” of history). Through this lens of understanding, the fulfillment of God’s promises in terms of the Promised Land to Israel, the Messianic Kingdom and the universal reign of Christ is to be anticipated in the End Times when He returns (but before that, the world is going to get worse and worse). In a nutshell, Dispensationalism believes that not only God has not casted away Israel and replaced them by the Church, but one day what He had promised to the children of Israel shall surely come to pass.
Therefore, as you can see, how we see Israel today closely relates to how we see the future of human history (and to the understanding of the Millennium, giving rise to Amillenialism and Premillenialism, respectively). These two schools of thoughts are a part of the advanced theories of Eschatology, which is beyond the scope of this study. For me, I am comfortably n the Dispensationalist’s camp. I believe when God made a promise, He would keep it. There is no reason to believe that when God told Abraham that He will establish His covenant with him and his offspring throughout generations for an everlasting covenant (v.7,13,19) and that all the land of Canaan shall be for an everlasting possession (v.8), He didn’t mean it or wasn’t able to deliver. Also there’s a difference between Israel and the Church in the divine timetable in redemptive history. A convincing case can be made for Dispensationalism, of course, but is, again, beyond the scope of this study.
One more footnote. From a historical standpoint, the epidemic animosity of Jews (“anti-Semitism”) across Europe, which culminated in the dreadful horror of the Holocaust, I think, perhaps had its theological root in Supersessionism. It was largely because Christians then believed that Jews had been casted away by God and replaced by the Church that they started to treat them with contempt, malice and antipathy. With hatred, they would see Jews as the culprit of crucifying Jesus. Such is a distorted view of the Covenant People of God, resulting from a misunderstanding of the God of the Covenant. Dispensationalists, on the other hands, would act in favor of Israel. The restoration of the state of Israel in 1948, for example, is a good illustration of this. Many Christians who supported Israel financially and politically then, were influenced by a dispensationalist understanding of Israel, God’s Promise and the future, knowing that the Church is not a definitive “replacement” of Israel, that the Jews are still the Covenant people of God, and that God’s promise to them are still waiting to be fulfilled.
What’s so special about male circumcision (esp. on the 8th day after birth)? And how does it relate to us today?
A comprehensive note on the topic of circumcision, quoted from the Lexham Bible Dictionary, is attached at the rear end of this study note as an appendix. Several key points worth emphasizing here:
Circumcision is the ritual act of incising or removing the foreskin of the male organ. In this way, the sign of the Covenant was made physical. Such a practice was later reiterated in the Mosaic Law (Lev. 12:3). In the New Testament, John the Baptist, Jesus and Paul received circumcision also (Lk. 1:59, 2:21; Phil 3:5). However, historically, such a physical mark had caused troubles and even persecutions for the Jews.
Circumcision was neither entirely new nor ethically exclusive to Israel. It was practiced in ancient Near East for males in preparation for marriage, and was thus carried out in adolescence rather than infancy. Nevertheless, for Abraham and his offspring, as a physical sign of the covenant, circumcision bore special religious significance and remained a manifest theocratic distinctive.
From the scientific standpoint, there are two noteworthy points: (i) vitamin-K—dependent coagulant factors in the circulation peaks precisely at the 8th day after birth [ref], theoretically resulting in the least hemorrhage; (ii) epidemiologic studies show that Jewish women had the lowest rate of cervical cancer [ref].
From the spiritual standpoint, circumcision is a symbolism that reminds people to cut away sin and be cleansed. That is why for the Israelites to circumcise their hearts was both commanded (Deut. 10:16) and promised (Deut. 30:6) by God. Later, the apostate Israel was referred to as uncircumcised in heart (Jer. 9:26); Judah and Jerusalem were warned to circumcise the foreskins of their hearts in order to avoid God’s wrath (Jer. 4:4). In other words, spiritual circumcision is deemed more important than the physical procedure. This theme was repeated in the New Testament, as Paul speaks of circumcision “not in the flesh” but “of the heart” is true circumcision (Rom. 2:28-29, Phil. 3:3, Col. 2:11; Acts 7:51).
Circumcision became of focal point of contention in the early church (cf. Acts 11:2-3, 15:1). Judaizers were trying to adulterate the Gospel by adding observance to the Law (among which circumcision stood out) as a necessary requirement for salvation. The apostle Paul relentlessly refuted such damning legalistic heresy in his epistle to the Galatians, with Gal. 6:15 being the summary statement, “For neither is circumcision anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation”.
Why did God change Sarai’s name into Sarah (v.15)?
Sarai means “my princess”; and Sarah, “princess”. By taking away the personal pronoun “my”, the honor of the matriarch shall no longer be confined to one family only, for she shall be “the mother of nations”, from whom “kings of people will come” (v.16). The son whom God promised to Abram long ago was now purposefully made known to be through Sarah.
Why did God name Abraham and Sarah’s son “He laughs” (v.19)?
Isaac, the name of the promised son, literally means, “he laughs”. When God told Abraham that a son would be born through Sarah, he “fell on his face and laughed” (v.17), and then God used “laughter” to be the name of his son. One may ask, why did Abraham laugh?
Commentators disagree on the nature of Abraham’s laughter. Some believe that it was a laughter of delight; others say it was a laughter ofdistrust. Judging from the context, I believe the latter was probably the case. When Abraham reasoned in his heart, “Will a child be born to a man one hundred years old? And will Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?” (v.17) It was very much like the “How-can-these-things-be” exclamations in the Bible: these words could be cried out in faith or in doubt (I have dealt with this phenomenon in Question 3 of Interpretative Challenges section from my study notes on Genesis XV). Only from the next verse can we glimpse at the true intentions of the patriarch, “Oh that Ishmael might live before You!” (v.18) By saying that, Abraham was in effect saying, “Lord, you must be kidding. Too say the least, this is highly improbable. We are too old to have children. If Sarah were to conceive, when the baby is born I will be 100 and she will be 90! This must be a joke. Luckily I do have a son, Lord – Ishmael.” Despite falling on his face, which indicated an act of adoration and worship, such a response to God’s promise betrayed an unbelieving heart, and resembles that of Zechariah to the angel Gabriel (Lk. 1:18, 20). It was a laughter of incredulity, not confidence.
God then gave “Isaac” to Abraham to be the name of his son as a reminder, which was more of a merciful playing on of words than a mild rebuke (because the passage nowhere suggests that Abraham was disbelieving God in a substantive sense), as if to proclaim His own power that will turn their laughter of doubt into the laughter of joy. Some commentators believe this reveals God’s sense of humor. And I tend to agree.
Lessons and Reflections
God was gracious to Abraham despite all his failures.
We often talk about the heroes of faith in the Bible with admiration. Seeing the extraordinary examples they had, we very much wish that we could be like them. We should. But one mistake we often make is that we would be tempted to think it was their spiritual “achievements” that prompted God to give them something in return as a reward, e.g. a promise of nationhood, a triumph in battle, a kingdom to rule, a legend that lasts, etc. And then, we would be tempted, following such line of thinking, to work hard to serve God so that we could receive more blessings from Him.
But nothing is farther from the truth.
Paul wrote in Rom. 11:6, “But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works, otherwise grace is no longer grace.” Grace, according to the New Oxford American Dictionary, is “the free and unmerited favor of God, as manifested in the salvation of sinners and the bestowal of blessings”. Grace is something what we do not deserve and yet God freely gives us anyway. If it were His to give, then there is nothing we can do to “earn” it or “increase” it.
The operation of grace is a mind-boggling concept. In the parable of the landowner, all who were hired at different time spots during the day were given the exact same denarius in the end. “So the last shall be first, and the first last” (Matt. 20:16)? Com’on! That doesn’t make any sense!
The question is frequently posted this way, “if I read my Bible everyday, pray everyday, go to fellowship and worship every week, straighten up my life, treat people more kindly, share the Gospel more often, and so on and so forth, will God love me more?” Or, to phrase it backwards, “if, having already believed, I still have all kinds of issues and problems in life, and very often find myself being caught in transgressions, stumbled again and again, will God love me less?”
The answer to both questions is (Surprise! Surprise!), a resounding NO.
The apostle Paul wrote in Rom. 8:32, “He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him over for us all, how will He not also with Him freely give us all things?” The truth is, if your faith is saving faith, if your relationship with the Lord is a living and loving relationship, if you are truly born again and granted divine sonship and daughtership, … in a word, if you are a true believer, then God has loved you with an unsurpassable love – He has given you His most precious Son. The act of sending His only begotten Son to die on the cross for you, in and of itself, speaks volumes to the unfathomable depth of grace. Armed with this understanding, the apostle Paul took it one step further, “how will He not also with Him freely give us all things?” The logic is simple: if God had already given you the greatest gift He could ever give, how will He not freely give you the lesser ones?
So, God has already loved us in the supreme way. Nothing we do can make God love us more; nothing we do can make God love us less. The love with which God loved us is infinite, in the sense that it is uncountable, borrowing the concept from Mathematics. Adding 1,000,000,000 to or subtracting the same amount from infinite simply would not make any difference. Such is the mystery (and the beauty) of grace: it is not dependent upon what we do, or in the language of Eph. 2:9, “not as a result of works”. Think about it: if our eternal security is directly related to our daily “job performance”, how long do you think you could keep your salvation? Last time I check, I can barely make it for 5 good seconds.
Back to the question above: if nothing we do can cause God to love us more or less, what then?
On the positive side, we need to remind ourselves that our seeking and serving God ought to be a spontaneous response of heartfelt gratitude, not of reluctance, not of compulsion, not of peer pressure, not of pastoral intimidation, and most certainly not in exchange for some divine favor. “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God”, wrote Paul (Eph. 2:8). Let’s face it: we can’t earn it before we are saved; nor can we after.
On the negative side, we need to remind ourselves that our falling and stumbling in sin, albeit causing loss of joy in and usefulness for Him, as well as temporal consequences and divine chastisement, will not be the reason for God to cast us away definitively. “I will never desert you, nor will I ever forsake you”, says the Lord (Heb. 13:5). Let’s face it: once we’re saved, we can’t keep our salvation either, for it isn’t ours to keep (1 Pet. 1:5). Of course, that does not mean that we thenceforth have the license to keep on living in a sinful lifestyle.
Abraham was commended as the “father of faith”. But God didn’t make the Covenant with him on account of his virtue: it was God’s free and unmerited favor. Remember, this man had multiple blemishes in his life records: cheating about his wife, marrying the slave-maid… Despite all his failures, God was still gracious to this unlikely man of faith. God did not bless Abraham because He had to; He blessed him because He chose to. And the same is also true for all the redeemed. We could pray that God could use us to achieve great things, but ultimately it is His sovereign choice. In the meantime, we are to remain faithful and obedient, in all our ways humbly trusting Him, for, indeed, He is a gracious Lord.
The Bible is true even in the area of science.
There are countless evidences that point to the scientific veracity of the Scripture. The prescription of circumcision at 8th day after birth is perhaps the most famous of all. In a time when medical science and technologies were virtually non-existent, the only way to minimize post-operative trauma was to rely on our body’s own systems to heal. The 8th day after birth is exactly the time when the circulating coag factors reach their heights, and thus choosing to do the operation at this particular time would bring the fewest bleeding complications physiologically possible. By the way, the command was given millennia before the dawn of modern medicine! The only rational explanation is that: the Bible is the Word of God; it is true even in the area of science.
He created everything including us; of course He knew!
Abraham showed us an outstanding example of obedience.
If we survey the three major divine encounters in the life of the patriarch, we see an outstanding model of obedience.
In Genesis XII, when God called Abram out from Ur to go into the land of Canaan, when He finished speaking to Abram, the next verse says, “So Abram went forth as the Lord had spoken to him, …” (Gen. 12:4).
In Genesis XVII here, when God gave Abraham instructions on circumcision as the sign of the Covenant, the next verse says, “Then Abraham took Ishmael his son, and all the servants who were born in his house and all who were bought with his money, every male among the men of Abraham’s household, and circumcised the flesh of their foreskin in the very same day, as God had said to him” (Gen. 17:23).
In Genesis XXII, when God asked Abraham to sacrifice his own son Isaac, the next verse says, “So Abraham rose early in the morning and saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him and Isaac his son; and he split wood for the burnt offering, and arose and went to the place of which God had told him” (Gen. 22:3).
Three things about Abraham’s obedience are most impressive:
Abraham obeyed God without challenge. He obeyed willingly. In fact, he did not even ask questions, let alone bargain or complain! Whether it was to leave his own country to head for the unknown, or to perform a minor surgery of unknown hygienic significance at the age of 99, or to sacrifice the son he had waited for a quarter of a century, … he just obeyed it the minute God finished speaking. If we really think about it, these things were in no way easy to do (the offering of Isaac was even counterintuitive!). But he simply trusted God, and not his own understanding about why God asked him to do such and such.
Abraham obeyed God without reserve. He obeyed completely. Pay attention to the little phrases, “as the Lord had spoken to him, …” (Gen. 12:4), “as God had said to him” (Gen. 17:23) and “[as] God had told him” (Gen. 22:3). They show us that Abraham did exactly as God had told him. His obedience was uncut and unabridged. He did not pick-and-choose the easy ones and left out the hard ones. His submission was not selective ordiscounted, limited only to the more convenient and expedient commands; it was full-scale and complete submission. He simply obeyed, trusting that God will empower him to finish everything He has commanded, even the humanly tough ones.
Abraham obeyed God without delay. He obeyed immediately. Every time when God finished speaking, the next second he was gone, on his way doing what God had told him to. “So Abraham went forth…” (Gen. 12:3), “Then Abraham took Ishmael… and every male…” (Gen. 17:23), “SoAbraham rose early in the morning” (Gen. 22:3). The swiftness of Abraham’s obedience is by all means staggering. He didn’t take a minute to catch his breath, or give it a second thought, or use some stalling tactics as we do today, “Wow, this one is tough. Well, let me first pray for a while, and perhaps seek some counsel…”. As long as it is God’s command, he just does it the minute he understands it. Not a single second wasted. He simply obeyed, knowing that obeying God in and of itself is right, and best.
In a word, Abraham gave us an extraordinary example to follow: obedience to God should be without challenge, without reserve and without delay.
Contemplate more on the grace of God.
Walk with Him and be blameless, not fulfilling the deeds of the flesh, as an uncircumcised in heart.
Learn to obey willingly, completely, immediately.
Excerpt from the Lexham Bible Dictionary
CIRCUMCISION (מל, ml; περιτομη, peritomē).
The ritual act of incising or removing the foreskin of a male’s penis. A sign of Abraham’s covenant with God.
Circumcision in the Old Testament. In Genesis 17:10–14, God establishes a covenant with Abraham. As part of that covenant, every male living with Abraham must be circumcised; in this way, the covenant was in their flesh. In addition, every newborn male must be circumcised on the eighth day—a ritual also prescribed in Lev 12:3.
According to the Pentateuch, all males—both Israelites and other males living with them—must be circumcised. Mosaic Law commands that (in order to participate in Passover) a male must be circumcised—this includes any slaves or alien residents (Exod 12:43–49). This statute is reinforced in Josh 5, when Joshua circumcises all the uncircumcised Israelite males in the wilderness. Immediately following the circumcision, the Israelites observe Passover.
Circumcision occasionally empowers or protects the Israelites. In Genesis 34, when Shechem rapes Dinah and then asks for her hand in marriage, Jacob’s sons agree under the condition that all Shechemite males be circumcised. When the Shechemites are in a weakened state after the circumcision, Jacob’s sons kill them and plunder the city. An act of violence is countered with another act of violence—in this case, that violence includes a ritual which is part of God’s covenant with Abraham. The Shechemite circumcision and other circumcisions in the Old Testament are similar in that the Israelites are empowered through the act. In Joshua 5, they are circumcised just before the Battle of Jericho, and they win; in Genesis 34, they are victorious by circumcising the Shechemites. Circumcision is also a sign of God’s covenant and the blessing it brings.
In Exodus 4, God tries to kill Moses. Moses’ wife, Zipporah, circumcises her son and touches Moses’ feet with the foreskin. There is efficacy to this act because God stops pursuing him. The reason for God’s pursuit of Moses is ambiguous, but the circumcision protects Moses from death.
Circumcision also has a metaphoric connotation. Circumcision of the heart is mentioned in Deut 10:16, where the Israelites are told to circumcise the foreskins of their hearts and not be stubborn anymore. Similarly, Deuteronomy 30:6 promises that the Lord will circumcise the Israelites’ hearts so that they will love Him. In both cases, circumcision of the heart brings about a proper attitude toward God. Both verses in the Septuagint translate not with the common Greek word for circumcision, but with a verb associated with purity—περιτέμνω (peritemnō) and περικαθαρίζω (perikatharizō). This connects circumcision with purification—a Jewish practice that also helped people be in proper relationship with God.
In Jeremiah 4:4, Judah and Jerusalem are warned to circumcise the foreskins of their hearts in order to avoid God’s wrath, and in Jer 9:25 the Lord warns that He will call to account all who are circumcised in the foreskin. Jeremiah 9:26 states that the Israelites are uncircumcised in heart. This suggests that they must do more than just circumcise their foreskins—a circumcised heart is necessary to avoid God’s wrath.
Circumcision in the New Testament. The practice of circumcising males, in agreement with the Pentateuch, continues in the New Testament—both John the Baptist and Jesus are circumcised on the eighth day (Luke 1:59; 2:21). Acts 7:8 also mentions that Isaac was circumcised on the eighth day, and Paul identifies his own circumcision in Phil 3:5. The author of Luke and Acts makes it clear that circumcision is an important part of Jewish identity.
In the New Testament, circumcision becomes a point of contention for some followers of Jesus. In Acts 15, people from Judaea teach that circumcision is necessary for salvation. Some Jewish followers of Jesus thought that Gentiles should follow the precepts of the Mosaic Law, while others, such as Paul, thought this was unnecessary for Gentiles. Paul discusses the matter in more detail in his letters. In particular, Galatians takes a strong stance against imposing circumcision on gentile believers. In Galatians 5, Paul argues that circumcision demands that someone obey the whole law (Gal 6:15). Paul makes a similar argument in Romans, where he speaks of circumcision of the heart as being true circumcision (Rom 2:29).
Circumcision was not uncommon in the ancient Mediterranean and Near Eastern world. There is no evidence that suggests circumcision was practiced in Mesopotamia, but it was practiced elsewhere in the ancient Near East. In non-Israelite culture, primarily adolescent and adult males were circumcised. For this reason, the ritual may have been associated with male fertility or in preparation for marriage. Sometimes the foreskin was simply incised, but at other times it was removed.
Egypt and Syria—Palestine. Circumcision took place in ancient Egypt and Syria-Palestine. The Egyptians circumcised males when they were adolescents; it was probably required to serve in the temples in later periods (Pinch, “Private Life in Ancient Egypt,” 378).
Circumcision was associated with purity in Egypt—requiring that priests be circumcised (Te Velde, “Theology, Priests, and Worship in Ancient Egypt,” 1733). The method of circumcision seems to have involved an incision of the foreskin rather than complete removal (Sasson, “Circumcision in the Ancient Near East,” 474).
Evidence of male circumcision exists in northern Syria in the early third millennium BC (Sasson, “Circumcision in the Ancient Near East,” 476). There may be textual evidence of circumcision of bridegrooms in Ugarit in the second millennium BC (Wyatt, “Circumcision and Circumstance,” 421–22). Circumcision may have been a general practice in this region, with the exception of the Philistines.
Greece and Rome. Neither the Greeks nor the Romans circumcised males. Because of this, differing viewpoints among Jews were prominent under these empires. Jewish writings from the Hellenistic period display a varied viewpoints—sometimes contentious—about the practice of circumcision. There are no explicit arguments against circumcision in the Old Testament, but circumcision of the heart is sometimes deemed more important than physical circumcision (Jer 9:25–26).
During the Alexandrian Empire (ca. 333 BC), male members of society participated in gymnasium, where they practiced sports in the nude. Because the Greeks did not circumcise, those who were circumcised could be shunned socially. This brought about different responses among circumcised Jews. Some—often called Hellenized Jews—ceased the practice of circumcision so their sons could participate without persecution. Others may have tried to restore the foreskin, or only removed a symbolic, but unnoticeable, piece of the foreskin. These attempts to assimilate caused discord with Jews who viewed circumcision as essential to Jewish identity.
In 1 Maccabees 1:15, Jews who “made themselves uncircumcised and abandoned the holy covenant” are associated with evil actions. Later in the same chapter, the author describes the historical event of desecrating the Jewish temple in Jerusalem during the reign of Antiochus IV Epiphanes (1 Macc 1:54–56). In the next verses, the Greek officials are said to have killed anyone who circumcised their children (1 Macc 1:60–61)—an event retold in 4 Macc 4:25. These verses reveal contention with Greek society, which shunned circumcision, and Jews who turned from the Mosaic Law. Circumcision was considered a physical mark of distinction for Jews. For some, this was a mark that must always be observed, while for others it was not obligatory.
Pinch, Geraldine. “Private Life in Ancient Egypt.” Pages 363–81 in Civilizations of the Ancient Near East. 4 vols. Edited by Jack M. Sasson, et al. Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson Publishers, 1995.
Sasson, Jack M. “Circumcision in the Ancient Near East.” Journal of Biblical Literature 85 (1966): 473–76.
Te Velde, Herman. “Theology, Priests, and Worship in Ancient Egypt.” Pages 1731–49 in Civilizations of the Ancient Near East. 4 vols. Edited by Jack M. Sasson, et al. Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson Publishers, 1995.
— Kelly A. Whitcomb