Circumcision in the Old Testament

Exploring the biblical origins and application of this ancient practice.

Photo (c) by Christopher Furlong / Getty Images

There are many sensitive issues addressed throughout the Bible -- war, money, sexuality, and more. But there are few sensitive issues addressed more often than the practice of circumcision. It's a major topic of conversation and instruction in both the Old and New Testaments.

This article will explore the origins of circumcision, as well as its spiritual and cultural implications throughout the Bible's Old Testament.

A second article explains the way circumcision was viewed by the New Testament authors and its application for today.

The Beginning

Just to make sure we're all on the same page, here is a quick dictionary definition of the practice I've been referencing:

Circumcision: surgical removal of the foreskin of males.

The big question you may be wondering is: Why? Why did circumcision become a way of life for the people of Israel in the Old Testament? Why did anyone develop a ritual so personal and potentially painful?

The short answer is that God commanded it:

Then God said to Abraham, “As for you, you must keep my covenant, you and your descendants after you for the generations to come. 10 This is my covenant with you and your descendants after you, the covenant you are to keep: Every male among you shall be circumcised. 11 You are to undergo circumcision, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and you. 12 For the generations to come every male among you who is eight days old must be circumcised, including those born in your household or bought with money from a foreigner—those who are not your offspring. 13 Whether born in your household or bought with your money, they must be circumcised. My covenant in your flesh is to be an everlasting covenant. 14 Any uncircumcised male, who has not been circumcised in the flesh, will be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant.”
Genesis 17:9-14

As an interesting tidbit, Bible scholars believe circumcision was practiced on the eighth day after a child's birth because of the high infant mortality rate in the ancient world. Medical practice was lacking in many areas, and it was common for infants to die during childbirth or within the first week after birth.

If the child survived until the eighth day, however, chances were good he or she would fully mature and be welcomed into the community.

Obviously, we can't pin down exactly why God chose to initiate a ritual involving the male reproductive organ -- although there are plenty of theories. Many Bible scholars have suggested that circumcision brings several benefits in terms of health and hygiene; however, that theory has lost some steam based on modern research. Others believe circumcision involved such a personal body part in order to demonstrate its high importance.

In the end, however, focusing on the body part involved with circumcision is missing the point. Circumcision was a permanent sign of inclusion in God's covenant community. As God said in verse 11 above, the practice was "the sign of the covenant between me and you" -- that is, between God and His people.

This "covenant" goes back to God's very first interaction with Abraham (or Abram), who was the founder of the Jewish people:

The Lord had said to Abram, “Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you.

“I will make you into a great nation,
    and I will bless you;
I will make your name great,
    and you will be a blessing.
I will bless those who bless you,
    and whoever curses you I will curse;
and all peoples on earth
    will be blessed through you.”
Genesis 12:1-3

This covenant is one of the central themes of the Old Testament. It was the basis of the Israelites' relationship with God -- He had called them to be His people and live in relationship with Him. This covenant connection wasn't for the Israelites' benefit alone, however; they were called to serve as witnesses for God and to spread the truth about Him through all the nations.

Circumcision was the physical mark of participation in God's covenant, but the act itself was largely unimportant. That's important to remember.

God could have commanded the Israelites to shave their heads or grow out their fingernails as a symbol of their covenant relationship. The physical aspect of circumcision was only important because of its connection with that covenant relationship.

For the Israelites, the ritual of circumcising every male baby on the eighth day was part of a continual renewal of their covenant relationship with God.

By incorporating that practice into the community, they actively obeyed God and were reminded of their covenant relationship with Him. For these reasons, circumcision rightly became a crucial element of their culture.

Unfortunately, the Israelites ultimately lost sight of the original purpose for that ritual.

Circumcision in the Old Testament

For the most part, the Israelites were faithful in the practice of circumcision throughout the Old Testament. However, there were periods of Israelite history in which God's people largely abandoned the ritual in favor of pagan practices. In these times, the Israelites allowed their relationship with God to deteriorate so much that they even neglected His command to continually renew the covenant through the practice of circumcision.

This passage from Joshua represents one of those times:

At that time the Lord said to Joshua, “Make flint knives and circumcise the Israelites again.” So Joshua made flint knives and circumcised the Israelites at Gibeath Haaraloth.

Now this is why he did so: All those who came out of Egypt—all the men of military age—died in the wilderness on the way after leaving Egypt. All the people that came out had been circumcised, but all the people born in the wilderness during the journey from Egypt had not. The Israelites had moved about in the wilderness forty years until all the men who were of military age when they left Egypt had died, since they had not obeyed the Lord. For the Lord had sworn to them that they would not see the land he had solemnly promised their ancestors to give us, a land flowing with milk and honey. So he raised up their sons in their place, and these were the ones Joshua circumcised. They were still uncircumcised because they had not been circumcised on the way. And after the whole nation had been circumcised, they remained where they were in camp until they were healed.
Joshua 5:2-8

There is even an incident recorded in Scripture where Moses -- one of the greatest men of faith who ever lived -- failed to circumcise his young sons. His wife was a Midianite and had presumably resisted the ritual of circumcision, with Moses had given in to her wishes. In Genesis 4, we're told that God was close to killing Moses before his wife intervened and circumcised the children herself.

This story reveals the importance of circumcision as an act of obedience toward God. Again, it wasn't such a big deal that Moses' children were uncircumcised on a physical level. But by failing to circumcise his sons in obedience to God's command, Moses had rebelliously placed himself outside of God's covenant relationship with His people. That was a big deal!

As we continue exploring the Old Testament, it becomes clear that the Israelites' view of circumcision changed in two subtle and dangerous ways.

First, God's people began to use circumcision as a way of reinforcing an "us verses them" mentality regarding the rest of the world. The Israelites were circumcised and therefore demonstrably set apart as God's people. Everyone else, on the other hand, was uncircumcised -- Gentiles who had no covenant connection with God. There are many passages of Scripture in which God's people speak contemptuously of the "uncircumcised" people groups among the Gentiles. (See Judges 14:3, 1 Samuel 31:4, and so on.)

This was not a positive development. The larger story of the Old Testament reveals that the Israelites quickly forgot one of the primary purposes behind their covenant with God: to serve as a blessing to all people (Genesis 12:3).

Second, God's people began to regard circumcision as a kind of legalistic proof of their relationship with God -- almost as a talisman that guaranteed spiritual health and an easy life.

Specifically, the Israelites began to believe that circumcision was the most important element of their relationship with God. As long as they were circumcised, they reasoned, they were assured membership in God's covenant community. Consequently, they began to neglect other important elements of their special relationship with God -- elements such as offering the proper sacrifices, obeying God's commands, living generously, and serving as a witness to the surrounding nations.

In other words, the Israelites began to act as if circumcision was the only practice they needed to follow in order to enjoy the blessings of living as God's chosen people. They forgot that circumcision was supposed to be a sign of God's covenant relationship -- a covenant in which they were required to participate.

For this reason, many of the Old Testament prophets called the Israelites to change their ways, including Jeremiah:

This is what the Lord says to the people of Judah and to Jerusalem:

“Break up your unplowed ground
    and do not sow among thorns.
Circumcise yourselves to the Lord,
    circumcise your hearts,
    you people of Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem,
or my wrath will flare up and burn like fire
    because of the evil you have done—

    burn with no one to quench it.
Jeremiah 4:3-4

Jeremiah's call for the Israelites to circumcise their hearts was a reminder of God's instructions back in Deuteronomy 10 -- a passage that contains several reminders of God's covenant with His people:

16 Circumcise your hearts, therefore, and do not be stiff-necked any longer. 17 For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who shows no partiality and accepts no bribes. 18 He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing. 19 And you are to love those who are foreigners, for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt. 20 Fear the Lord your God and serve him. Hold fast to him and take your oaths in his name. 21 He is the one you praise; he is your God, who performed for you those great and awesome wonders you saw with your own eyes. 22 Your ancestors who went down into Egypt were seventy in all, and now the Lord your God has made you as numerous as the stars in the sky.
Deuteronomy 10:16-22

Ultimately, Israel's misconception regarding the practice of circumcision pointed to their larger inability to keep their end of the bargain in terms of their covenant relationship with God. For that reason, a new covenant was necessary.

All of these factors combined to make circumcision an important and contested practice for the early Christians -- a phenomenon I'll explore in the article Circumcision in the New Testament. That article also answers the key question many people ask when they think about circumcision today: Should modern Christians be circumcised?