Covenant to the Patriarchs

9 Circumcision: Token of the Covenant

by Hubert F. Sturges, , December 2013

This is my covenant, which ye shall keep, between me and you and thy seed after thee; Every man child among you shall be circumcised. And ye shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskin; and it shall be a token of the covenant betwixt me and you. Genesis 17:10, 11.

Circumcision has always been a significant ritual for the Israelite nation. It was, possibly, the most notable token of membership among the chosen people. The significance of circumcision has always been a matter of discussion. One aspect of its significance was to keep the nation pure that there might be a people through whom the Messiah could come. After the Messiah came and provided the true sacrifice for sin, circumcision was no longer meaningful.

Another aspect of its significance is that God wanted them to see circumcision as a symbol of entire obedience and holiness in the life. God has always been disappointed when people depended on circumcision alone as a qualification for belonging to Him.1

Children of Abraham

Abraham and his descendants had a strong self-identity as God’s chosen covenant people.2 God chose Abraham to receive the covenant, a legacy to his descendants throughout time, reinforced by the detailed system of laws given at Sinai. The Sabbath became a sign of the close relationship between God and His people, tangibly demonstrating their belief in His being a loving and approachable God who desires their fellowship (Exod. 31:13; Ezek. 20:12, 20). Yet, circumcision was to be the physical token of the covenant, identifying Abraham’s descendants as followers of the living God.

It was in giving the covenant that God changed Abram’s name to Abraham (Gen. 17:5), meaning “to be populous, the father of a multitude.” In this same setting, God provided the token of circumcision. When Abraham understood the will of God, his obedience was prompt. On the same day that God explained the meaning of circumcision, Abraham circumcised every male in his household (Gen. 17:23).

In Jewish tradition, circumcision is the primary symbol of male membership within the Jewish people and the sign of entry into the covenant made with Abraham. The Jews performed the rite of circumcision (brit milah) on the eighth day. Creation took place in six days; the seventh day was the Sabbath; our first parents began their work together on the eighth day. The Hebrew child also received his name on the eighth day. When God rejected the nation of Israel as His chosen people, circumcision no longer had value, and it would have no religious significance for the Christian church.3

Is circumcision itself a “covenant?” There is no punctuation in the original manuscripts, hiding the division in thought in Genesis 17:10. The first part of the verse, “This is my covenant, which ye shall keep, between me and you, and thy seed after thee” (Gen. 17:10), is a summary of the covenant previously described (Gen. 17:2-9). The second part of the verse, “Every man child among you shall be circumcised,” introduces how circumcision was to be practiced (Gen. 17:11-14). Verse 11 clarifies the relation between circumcision and the covenant, declaring that God gave circumcision as “a token of the covenant,” not as a covenant in itself.

In Acts 7:8, we find, in several translations, the problematic phrase “the covenant of circumcision.” However, the Amplified version clarifies that circumcision is the “seal” of the covenant, and the New Century Version calls it the “sign” of the covenant.4 In other words, “the covenant of circumcision” means the covenant that includes circumcision as its sign. In no passage does the Bible specifically say that circumcision is the covenant itself. Moreover, the rite of circumcision lost its significance at the cross.5

The commonwealth of Israel required non-Jews to be circumcised to become members of the community and receive the benefits of the covenant.6 At the time of the Passover in Egypt, non-Jews could partake of the Passover only if circumcised and, in effect, became Jews. “He that is born in thy house, and he that is bought with thy money, must needs be circumcised: and my covenant shall be in your flesh for an everlasting covenant” (Gen. 17:13).

The Jews also spoke of circumcision in a figurative sense. The Philistines were called “the uncircumcised” (Judges 14:3). This was literally true, but the term came to be practically equivalent to the word “heathen” or “Gentile.” Jeremiah referred to Israel as being “uncircumcised in the heart” (Jer. 9:26), and “their ear is uncircumcised” (Jer. 6:10). To have uncircumcised ears and heart is to be unwilling to heed divine instructions.

To Preserve the Family

God gave the everlasting covenant to Abraham with the promise and prophecy, “in thy seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed” (Gen. 22:18). The promise is fulfilled in Christ, through whom Abraham’s descendants would teach all peoples holiness and faith in the true and living God (Gal. 3:14, 16). In response to these promises, Abraham “believed in the Lord; and he counted it to him for righteousness” (Gen. 15:6; Rom. 4:3). Because of his faith, Abraham commanded his household after him, walked as if in the presence of God, and accepted circumcision as a sign of the covenant (Gen. 17:23 27; 18:19).7

Considering that circumcision was a rite symbolizing the dedication to God of man’s reproductive and family life to preserve Abraham’s heredity in preparation for the coming Messiah, one can see why this rite would come to an end once the Messiah had come. This is exactly what happened (Acts 15:1, 5, 19-21; Rom. 2:21-29; 1 Cor. 7:19). The council at Jerusalem upheld the law but ruled that Gentiles who come to God are not required to keep any part of the law of Moses except for four things: “abstain from meats offered to idols, and from blood, and from things strangled, and from fornication” (Acts 15:29).8

Circumcision was also a symbol of purity. Once a person had chosen his mate with care, no one was to come between a man and his wife or break the circle of their home. Their heredity was to be closely guarded. They were to follow the laws of healthful living. Homes were to be happy, a foretaste of heaven. Children were to learn a useful trade and to value work. The education and the example of the home life were to be preserved from generation to generation. To be circumcised meant to dedicate one’s lifestyle to God, to prepare a people to receive the Messiah.

Covenant Complete

Just before He died while hanging upon the cross of Calvary, Jesus cried with a loud voice, “It is finished” (John 19:30). He had paid the price for humankind’s redemption. Without retaliation, He had met the demands of the broken law. He had taken the worst that Satan could give Him. He could say, “The prince of this world cometh, and hath nothing in me” (John 14:30). The battle was now over, and Jesus Christ was the victor!9 “And, behold, the veil of the Temple was rent in twain from the top to the bottom; and the earth did quake, and the rocks rent” (Matt. 27:51).

Jesus fulfilled the moral law by living a sinless life and becoming an example to all His followers. He fulfilled the ceremonial law by His willing sacrifice on the cross.10 Jesus’ victory on the cross provides grace for every Christian to live a victorious life. The “hour” for people to worship God “in spirit and in truth” had come (John 4:23, 24). The Temple in Jerusalem would be destroyed, and the ceremonies, rituals, and sacrifices no longer had significance. Among these was circumcision, though it continued to be an issue in the New Testament church (see Acts 15).

Circumcision was never to be a physical sign only. Dedication of the heart and mind were of even greater importance, even from the first. Moses had said, “And the Lord thy God will circumcise thine heart, and the heart of thy seed, to love the Lord thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, that thou mayest live” (Deut. 30:6, emphasis supplied).11


1. God has always wanted circumcision to be more than “skin deep,” as the following examples demonstrate. “Circumcise therefore the foreskin of your heart, and be no more stiffnecked” (Deut. 10:16, emphasis supplied). “And the Lord thy God will circumcise thine heart, and the heart of thy seed, to love the Lord thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, that thou mayest live” (Deut. 30:6, emphasis supplied). “Circumcise yourselves to the Lord, and take away the foreskins of your heart, ye men of Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem: lest my fury come forth like fire, and burn that none can quench it, because of the evil of your doings” (Jer. 4:4, emphasis supplied). “But he is a Jew, which is one inwardly; and circumcision is that of the heart, in the spirit, and not in the letter; whose praise is not of men, but of God” (Rom. 2:29, emphasis supplied).
2. Through Abraham, Israel was the “chosen people of God.” In the language of the covenant given to Abraham, God declared that He would “be a God unto thee [Abraham], and to thy seed after thee” (Gen. 17:7). Long before this, Adam and Eve had a close relationship with God. God took a personal interest in Adam’s creation and acted openly in a number of the events of his life (Gen. 2). When sin increased in the world, Noah stood out as “a just man and perfect in his generations” (Gen. 6:9). These verses emphasize that God has always had a “chosen people” and that Israel would become that people (Deut. 7:6; 14:2; 1 Chron. 16:12, 13; Ps. 33:12; 89:3, 4; 105:6; 135:4; Eph. 1:4, 5; 1 Peter 2:9; Rev. 17:14).
3. Circumcision was a token of the covenant, not the covenant itself. The Bible uses “everlasting covenant” sixteen times but never in reference to circumcision. In Genesis 17:11, God declared circumcision to be a “token” of the everlasting covenant. As some have said, circumcision is a sign of the everlasting covenant, not the everlasting sign of the covenant!
4. Similarly, the rainbow was said to be the “token” of God’s covenant with humanity following the flood (Gen. 9:12, 13, 17). The Hebrew word for “token” is also translated “sign.” The Sabbath is called the sign of sanctification of the relationship between God and His people (Exod. 31:13, 17; Ezek. 20:12, 20).
5. Baptism became the sign of the church (Col. 2:11, 12; cf. Gen. 17:11; Titus 3:5; 1 Peter 3:21).
6. Non-Jews were accepted and allowed to participate in Israel’s festivals (and could marry into their families) if their males were circumcised (Gen. 17:10-13, 23; 34:14-17; Exod. 12:43-48). For more on circumcision, see Ronald L. Eisenberg, The JPS Guide to Jewish Traditions (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 2004), pp. 7-13; and Francis D. Nichol, ed., Seventh-day Adventist Bible Commentary (Washington, D.C., Review and Herald Publishing Association, 1953), vol. 1, pp. 322, 323.
7. Dr. Ralph F. Wilson has written an excellent article that covers important aspects of circumcision at http://www.jesuswalk. com/abraham/6_circumcision.htm, accessed 7/20/12. One must understand that circumcision was not the sum total of the covenant but was rather the “sign” or “token” of the covenant (Gen. 17:11), an important part of the covenant, nevertheless.
8. Gentiles were called “strangers” in Leviticus. The four requirements for Gentiles in Acts 15:20, 29; 21:25 parallel the four requirements for “strangers” in Leviticus 17:10, 12, 15, 18:26; 19:3, 4.
9. The victory that overcomes the world is faith in our Lord, Jesus Christ (1 Cor. 15:57; 1 John 5:4, 5; Rev. 12:11).

10. Whenever I use the term “ceremonial law,” I am referring to the ceremonial requirements of the law aside from the moral code of the Decalogue, as recorded in the “book of the law of Moses,” sometimes called “the law of Moses” or merely “the law” (Josh. 8:31; 23:6; 2 Kings 23:25; 2 Chron. 30:16; Dan. 9:13; Luke 2:22; Heb. 7:5).
   The term “ceremonial law” has been commonly used by writers of different backgrounds in describing the ceremonial requirements of the law. Search on “ceremonial law” in Google Books and you will find older and more recent uses of the term. See, for example:
   William Barclay, The Gospel of Matthew (2001);
   Albert Barnes, Notes, Explanatory and Practical on the Gospels (1836), vol. 1;
   Rudolph Bultmann, Theology of the New Testament (1951);
   F. F. Bruce, The Epistle to the Hebrews (1990);
   John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (2008);
   Adam Clarke, The Holy Bible Containing the Old and New Testaments (1823);
   John Edmund Cox, Protestantism Contrasted with Romanism by the Teaching of Each (1852), v. 1;
   Jonathan Dickinson, Familiar Letters to a Gentleman (1835);
   M. G. Easton, Illustrated Bible Dictionary (2006);
   Jonathan Edwards, The Works of Jonathan Edwards, A.M. (1840);
   John Flavel, Whole Works of the Rev. Mr. John Flavel (1799);
   Norman Geisler, Christian Ethics:
   Contemporary Issues and Options (1989);
   John Gill, A Collection of Sermons and Tracts (1773);
   Matthew Henry, The Comprehensive Commentary on the Holy Bible (1839);
   Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology (n.d.), vol. 2;
   Walter C. Kaiser, The Promise-Plan of God:
   A Biblical Theology of the Old and New Testaments (2009);
   James L. Kugel, Early Biblical Interpretation (1986);
   John Lightfoot, The Works of the Reverend and Learned John Lightfoot (1684);
   Martin Luther, Commentary on Galatians, Luther (2002);
   John MacArthur, The MacArthur Bible Commentary (2005);
   John Milton, A Treatise on Christian Doctrine (1825);
   A. W. Pink, Studies in the Scriptures (2001), vol. 9;
   Matthew Poole, Annotations upon the Holy Bible (1700);
   Thomas Ridgley, A Body of Divinity (1815);
   Charles Ryrie, Basic Theology (1999);
   Thomas Scott, The Holy Bible, with Explanatory Notes (1822);
   John Wesley, Sermons on Several Occasions (1825);
   and Henry A. Virkler, Hermeneutics: Principles and Processes of Biblical Interpretation (2007); etc.

Though the term does not appear in the biblical text, Moses did divide the law into various categories. First were the Ten Commandments (literally “the ten words”), also called the “testimony,” which were inscribed in stone and deposited in the ark. Then there were also the statutes, judgments, and laws (Lev. 26:15; Deut. 5:31; 6:1; 7:11; 8:11; 11:1; 26:17; 30:16), which Moses wrote in a book (Lev. 26:45, 46). Nehemiah acknowledged these categories in describing what God gave on Sinai: “Thou camest down also upon mount Sinai, and spakest with them from heaven, and gavest them right judgments, and true laws, good statutes and commandments” (Neh. 9:13, emphasis supplied).

11. Other references on circumcision of the heart (and ear) include Leviticus 26:41; Deuteronomy 10:16; 30:6; Jeremiah 4:4; 6:10 (ear); 9:26; Ezekiel 44:7, 9; Acts 7:51; Romans 2:28, 29. References on the inapplicability of circumcision for Gentiles include Acts 15:5-29; Galatians 2:3-5 (Titus, a Gentile, was not circumcised); Acts 16:1-3 (Timothy, whose mother was a Jewess, was circumcised, Luke says, “because of the Jews”); Galatians 5:6; 6:15; and 1 Corinthians 7:19.