The Significance of Circumcision in Old Testament



In the New Testament there are many passages discussing circumcision and Jewish identity. The significance of circumcision initiated in Genesis 17 is restated several times in the Old Testament. In this article, the significance of circumcision primarily in the Old Testament is explored under the discipline of Biblical Theology. The study draws the same conclusion as Paul did based on the text in Pentateuch and the Prophets. The circumcision is a sign on the flesh of the chosen people, while the purpose is to remind the human obligations in Abraham’s covenant with God. While the rite is on the flesh, the true reflection should be in the heart.


In 2006, BBC Mischief series took a documentary video named “Circumcise Me.” The purpose of the video is to explore whether circumcision can really bring people benefits or not. When a group of Jewish young people were interviewed by the journalist on the reason for circumcision, they laughed at what seemed to be an obvious question. One young man responded, “Because we are Jewish.”

Paul argued about circumcision in his letters many times. In the New Testament, circumcision is treated as a sign of being Jewish, and most of the time connected with legalism and ignorance of God’s grace through Jesus Christ. If circumcision is commanded by God, it must carry some deeper significance. Though most modern Jews and Jews of Paul’s time treat circumcision solely as a sign of ethnicity or being a chosen people, one must understand the original meaning that God assigned to circumcision. One must also seek to understand whether it is Paul or the Jewish people who abolished the true meaning of the circumcision.

The research will be conducted under the discipline of Biblical Theology. Biblical theology seeks to understand a certain passage in the Bible in light of all of the biblical history leading up to it and later biblical references to that passage.[1] It can help us to

understand the reasons for the differences, and develop a sound method of approaching the text of the Bible in order to find out what literally says and means.[2] By leveraging Biblical Theology, we can put the event of circumcision in the big picture of the Bible. Due to the nature of circumcision and the time constraint, most of the studies are focused on the Old Testament verses, in which both Christian and Jewish people would believe as the word from God.

Origin of Circumcision

In Genesis 17, when Abram was 99 years old, the LORD appeared to him and established covenant with him. This narrative is treated as the origin of Jewish circumcision, which has become the national identity of Israelites. This covenant is not God’s sudden interest, but a continuity of the covenant established in Genesis 15, in which God promised the relationship (Gen 15:1), the offspring (Gen 15:4), and the land (Gen 15:7). We need to notice that in the later part of the 15th Chapter, the LORD leveraged a treaty structure that was generally practiced in ancient Near East to establish the covenant with Abram. The format of the covenant is similar to ancient Near Eastern royal land grants made by kings to loyal servants and their descendants[3]. Then why does God go to Abram again in the beginning of Chapter 17 and ask for male circumcision?

In Genesis 17:11, it is claimed by the LORD himself that “And ye shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskin; and it shall be a token of the covenant between me and you.” Verses 12-13 define both the scope and the time of the circumcision: “every man child … born in the house or bought with money” should be circumcised while they are “eight days old.” It is clear from previous verses that the LORD is not asking to establish a new covenant but to reaffirm the covenant established in Chapter 15, so that “my covenant shall be in your flesh for an everlasting covenant.” It is not that the LORD thinks the rite in Genesis 15 not enough, but it is a necessity of a sign of covenant in the flesh.

Significance of covenant restated in Genesis 17

Comparing Chapter 15 with Chapter 17, we can find slight difference here. The covenant in Chapter 15 is more related to nationhood (heirs and inheritance) without any explicit mention of international blessing and fatherhood, while Chapter 17 is more related to the international significance of Abraham and his offspring. Furthermore the covenant in Chapter 15 is unilateral[4] because God himself walked alone through the animal pieces. In Genesis 17 the LORD described bilateral commitments, which require Abram and his offspring to keep the covenant “throughout generations.” There’s a shift of the covenant from one nation’s possession of the land to an enduring covenant of multiple nations. At the beginning of Chapter 12 in which the LORD made the first call to Abram, we can find a brief description of the covenant but covered the two different focuses of the covenant mentioned in Chapter 15 and 17. The LORD also mentioned the land (12:1), the offspring – both the nation and the blessing (12:2) and the covenant relationship (12:3). I believe that Chapter 15 and 17 are not two covenants as Williamson claimed[5], but the unfolding of one covenant briefed by the LORD to Abram in Chapter 12.

As mentioned earlier, the covenant restated in Chapter 17 is unilateral. It does not stand alone, but related to Abraham’s faith. There is a loose connection between Abraham’s response and the effectiveness of the covenant. In the beginning of the chapter, the LORD said to Abram “Walk before me, and be blameless, that I may make my covenant between me and you.” “Walking before” the LORD and “being blameless” means a close relationship with God. It sounds like a moral prerequisite for the covenant between God and Abraham[6]. And in 12:9, God said again that “As for you, you shall keep my covenant, you and your offspring after you throughout their generations.” The responsibility of keeping the covenant is not only belonging to the LORD, but also to Abram and his descendant. Here God claimed that it is an everlasting covenant (12:7), thus Abram should also understand that the faithfulness should also be everlasting in him and his descendants.

Significance of Circumcision as a Sign

Then in Genesis 17:9 God raised the commandment of circumcision. It is natural for God to ask a sign for the everlasting covenant so that the counterpart of the covenant – Abram and his descendants – can remember and keep the oath. As 12:11 says, the purpose of the circumcision is to be a sign of covenant between God and Abram. But why is circumcision chosen, instead of any other signs or rites? In 17:23, the Scripture tells us that Abram (now Abraham) executed the order immediately without asking for the detail steps of the circumcision. It might indicate that Abraham was familiar with circumcision, or at least it is not the first time he had heard of this operation. Eduard Meyer believes that circumcision was common in Egypt from the earliest times and that the Israelites and the Phoenicians adopted the rite from the Egyptians.[7] But according to Sasson, the earliest evidence is the palette from the Late Gerzean era (late 4th or early 3rd millennium) which shows circumcised Asiatic captives being devoured by vultures and a lion, and the traveled from the north to the south.[8]

While the origin of circumcision is unclear, we need to explore the reason God chose circumcision as the sign of the covenant. The anthropologist Erich Isaac has shown that the biblical term for covenant-making is likrot brit, "to cut a covenant." he remarks that "it would seem highly probable that ‘cutting’ was a covenant rite by which treaties between equals as well as vassal obligations were confirmed." [9] It is also recorded in Exodus 4:25, that Zipporah, wife of Moses, cut off the foreskin of her son to stop the wrath of the LORD. Levenson argues that one thing is "reasonably clear": "the blood of circumcision saves Moses from YHWH’s sudden attempt to kill him …. Moses lives because Zipporah has circumcised the boy." He concludes that the evidence suggests that "the impulse to sacrifice the first-born son remained potent long after the literal practice had become odious and fallen into desuetude."[10] And obviously circumcision is the prerequisite of serving God.

Besides the verb “cut” and the indicated blood sacrifice, circumcision can also be a reminder of the obligations for the loyalty toward God. It can remind Abraham and his descendant of the covenant, and the close relationship they ought to maintain with God, as God said Abraham’s descendants should walk before Him and be blameless. In the past, God use rainbow as a sign of covenant to remind the covenant with Noah (Genesis 9:12), in which God is the only doer. Here God use circumcision as a sign of covenant to remind his chosen people about the covenant with God.

While many Jewish people today think circumcision only as a “boundary maker” or “badge” of their ethnicity while they have already stopped other religious obligations,[11] Williamson argues that it is neither noticeable nor outstanding among other nations for many of Israel’s ANE neighbors also practiced circumcision. [12] Goldingay sees the significance of circumcision in “disciplining of (especially male) procreation”.[13]

Significance of Keeping the Circumcision

The Scripture tells us that Abraham and his decedents had truly kept the circumcision as a sign of the covenant. In Genesis 17:23, Abraham immediately took Ishmael and all that were born in his house, and all that were bought with his money, every male among the men of Abraham’s house circumcised. Then in Genesis 21 he also circumcised Isaac at the 8th date after his birth.

In Genesis 34, the sons of Jacob answered Shechem and his father Hamor deceitfully when they requested to marry their sister Dinah. They asked Schechem to circumcise himself and all men in the city, so that “you will become as we are by every male among you being circumcised.” This claim indicates that though the sons of Jacob had kept circumcision, they forget the true meaning of circumcision, and treat it as a “badge” of the ethnicity. The notes in my Study Bible state that “they emptied the holy covenant sign of its religious significance, and abuse it for the purpose of inflicting vengeance.”[14]

For this reason in Exodus 12 God claimed to Moses and Aaron again the true meaning of circumcision. “And when a stranger shall sojourn with thee, and will keep the Passover to the LORD, let all his male be circumcised, and then let him come near and keep it;” (Genesis 12:38). The focus for the circumcision here is to allow Gentiles to “keep the Passover” with Israelites, and the prerequisite is that they are “to keep the Passover to the LORD.” It’s not because the Israelites want to involve them for business or family reasons, but because they have a strong will to worship the God that the Israelites are worshiping, and eager to enter into the same covenant relationship. It is not those who are circumcised who can enjoy the redemption; it is those who are enjoying God can have the sign of the redemptive covenant. Moreover, in Joshua 5 God commanded Joshua to perform the circumcision on all Israelites again because they were the new-born generation in the wilderness, the decedents of those experienced Passover with circumcised gentiles in Egypt. I believe when Joshua announced the circumcision, he proclaimed the origin of this sign of the covenant in Genesis 17 and the order Moses received from God before Passover. The covenant, promise, and chosen people’s obligations are proclaimed again.

Though circumcision is not an ethnic sign, the word “uncircumcised” is used multiple times in the Old Testament to refer to the gentiles. In Exodus 12:48, while God commanded that foreigner can be circumcised and keep the Passover together with Israelites, he also commanded that “But no circumcised person shall eat of it.” Uncircumcised here is not referring to the Gentile ethnicity, but to the identity of those outside of the covenant. A more interesting verse regarding “uncircumcised” is Levitics 19:23. In this verse circumcision is not referring to people, but to plants: “And when ye shall come into the land, and shall have planted all manner of trees for food, then ye shall count the fruit thereof as uncircumcised: three years shall it be as uncircumcised unto you: it shall not be eaten of. ” From the context, in the whole chapter God was requiring that Israel be a holy people, because the God of Israel is a holy God. Through this law (together with verse 24), the fruits are not available for Israelites as food for the first four years, while the fourth year they need to offer the fruits to God as an offering of praise. Verse 23 is a complex imagery for a simple commandment, while fruits of the plants in the first three years are imagined as foreskin thus not eatable. Bernat think that fruit in the first three years was considered immature, unfit for divine consumption, ritually unviable and also off-limits to Israel. The imagery is comparing to the foreskin of a child which is remained until the eighth day.[15] There might be other explanations of this verse, but what we can obviously see here is that the “uncircumcised” is used to refer to something that is not holy and not suitable for divine offering.

“Uncircumcised” is also used by God in other books referring to unholy people or stuff. In Isaiah 52, the prophet said “for henceforth there shall no more come into thee the uncircumcised and the unclean.” Hence the word “uncircumcised” again act as a separation of divine and secular, clean and unclean, inside covenant and outside of covenant. We will see the meaning of uncircumcised in another aspect in the following section.

Circumcision of the Heart

Circumcision is always target at the foreskin of the male. It would be weird for anyone to think of circumcision on any other part of the human body. However, it is mentioned many times in the Scripture regarding circumcision of the heart. The first instance is in Leviticus 26:41. God is prophesizing the consequence of not keeping the covenant, and He is talking about those disobedient Israelites have “uncircumcised hearts”. Because they “despised my judgments, and because their soul abhorred my statutes.” (Leviticus 26:43). Bernat suggests that this chapter concerns Israel as a corporate entity. And the use of the heart metonymy allows the Priestly trident to extend the circumcision ideology to the group level while gender is no longer a concern.[16] Besides this, if we connect circumcision with the covenant, in which human also have obligations, literally God is saying that the circumcision is not about the foreskins of male, but about the heart of the Israelites. When God judges that the rebellious Israelites have uncircumcised hearts, he is also saying that their circumcisions on the flesh are not true signs of the covenant. The true sign of the covenant happens in the heart.

Before entering into the Promised Land, Moses again proclaims the law in the book of Deuteronomy. But the interesting thing is that in the whole book of Deuteronomy he did not mention anything about male circumcision. Instead, he was talking about circumcision in the heart. In 10:16, Moses said “Circumcise therefore the foreskin of your heart, and be no more stiff necked.” Moses himself urges the Israelites to circumcise themselves mentally and spiritually and not be resistant to God’s teaching (Deut. 10:16).[17] From this verse literally the circumcision of the heart is to cut the foreskin of the heart. And in 30:6 Moses showed us that by doing so, “so that you will love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul that you may live.” Jer 4:4 also express the same text: “Circumcise yourselves to the LORD, and take away the foreskins of your heart”. Because Lev 26:41 says the LORD will turn to the rebellion people if they humble their uncircumcised hearts, which despised God’s judgments and abhorred my statutes, we can connect humbling of heart with the commanded circumcision in the heart.

And we all know what God will do for his chosen people in Ezekiel 11:19-20: “I will take the stony heart out of their flesh, and will give them a heart of flesh. That they may walk in my statutes and keep mine ordinances, and do them: and they shall be my people, and I will be their God.” Compare these two verses with what he promised in Deut 30:6: “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.” A stony heart is a heart which desires evil and away from God, while a heart of flesh is the one who keep God’s order and loves God. The foreskins that are going to be cut by God, is a stony heart, and replaced with a holy, divine heart that longs for God. The consequences of the cut, are to “fear”, “serve” and “hold fast” to the LORD, as Moses proclaimed in Deut 10:20.

IMPLICATIONS and Conclusion

In the book of Romans, Paul argued in 2:28-29 saying “For he is not a Jew, which is one outwardly; neither is that circumcision, which is outward in the flesh: 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.” Paul is not inventing a new concept of circumcision, but he is echoing what Moses commanded in Deut 10:16 and God promised in Deut 30:6. As in Genesis 17, the meaning of circumcision is to make a sign on the flesh on all decedents of Abraham. The purpose of the sign is to remind the chosen people the covenant that God established with Abraham and his descendants. They need to remember the human obligation in the covenant: Walk before the God, and be thou perfect. God also spoke through Moses and Joshua urging them to realize the true meaning of circumcision, which is the circumcision in the heart. And God even promised that he will cut the foreskins in his people’s heart. His promise is implemented by Jesus Christ and his new covenant. The only occurrence that Jesus talks about circumcision is John 7:22-24, in which he suggests that his healings make people completely whole, and contrasts himself with Moses, implying that the blessing he brings is far greater than that of circumcision.[18]

Use Paul’s statement in Phil. 3:3 as a conclusion: “For we are the circumcision, which worship God in the spirit, and rejoice in Christ Jesus, and have no confidence in the flesh.” Paul is bringing up the true, original meaning of circumcision, based on the prophetic texts to interpret the narrative texts of Deut 29-30 and Genesis 17, thus the true Israelites’’ identity and the circumcision is redefined and reformed.[19] This study shows how the conclusion is reached under the discipline of Biblical Theology, and clarified the true meaning of circumcision in God’s plan. From the very beginning circumcision is a sign of established covenant, and now through the work of Christ it is put into our hearts.


Alexander, T. Desmond and Rosner, Brian S., ed. New dictionary of biblical theology. Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press, 2000.

Berkley, Timothy W. From a Broken Covenant to Circumcision of the Heart. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2000.

Bernat, David A. Sign of the Covenant: circumcision in the priestly tradition. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2009.

Glick, Leonard B. Marked in Your Flesh. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.

Goldsworthy, Graeme. According to Plan: The Unfolding Revelation of God in the Bible. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 1991.

McComiskey, Thomas Edward. The covenants of promise: a theology of the Old Testament covenants. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1985.

Polhill, John Bowen, Circumcision and the Early Church, a Hermeneutical Inquiry. University Microfilms, 1969.

Williamson, Paul R. Abraham, Israel and the Nations. Sheffield, England: Sheffield Academic Press, 2000.

[1]D. A. Carson, “Systematic Theology and Biblical Theology.” in New Dictionary of Biblical Theology, ed. T. D. Alexander and Brian S. Rosner (IVP, 2000), 89.

[2]Graeme Goldsworthy, According To The Plan, (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 1991), 19.

[3]Tim Hegg, The Covenant of Grant and The Abrahamic Covenant, (a document read at the Regional Evangelical Theological Society), 1989.

[4]Paul R. Williamson, Abraham, Israel and the Nations, (Sheffield, England: Sheffield Academic Press 2000), 103.

[5]Ibid., 111.

[6]Ibid., 174–76.

[7]Harold O. Forshey, “Circumcision: an initiatory rite in ancient Israel?” Restoration Quarterly 16, no. 3-4 (1973), 150-158.

[8]Jack M. Sasson, “Circumcision in the ancient Near East.” Journal of Biblical Literature 85, no. 4 (D 1966), 473-476.

[9]Erich Isaac, “Circumcision as a Covenant Rite.”Anthropos 59.1964, 444-456.

[10]Levenson Jon D. The Death and Resurrection of the Beloved Son: The Transformation of Child Sacrifice in Judaism and Christianity, (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press 1995), 50-52.

[11]Leonard B. Glick., Marked in Your Flesh, (New York: Oxford 2005), 8.

[12]Williamson, Abraham, 176.

[13]John Goldingay, “The Significance of Circumcision”, Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 88 (2000), 3–18.

[14]Ed. R.C. Sproul, The Reformation Study Bible (Orlando: Ligonier Ministries 2005), 65.

[15] David A. Bernat, Sign of the Covenant (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature 2009), 93-94.

[16] Ibid., 102.

[17] Goldingay, John. “The Significance of Circumcision.” (Atlanta: Journal for the Study of the Old Testament), no. 88 (Je 2000): 3-18.

[18]P. D. Woodbridge, “Circumcision” in New Dictionary of Biblical Theology ed. T. D. Alexander and Brian S. Rosner (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2000), 414

[19]Timothy W. Berkley, From a Broken Covenant to Circumcision of the Heart (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2000), 216.