Monday, March 12, 2012

Why Does the Bible Talk About Circumcision?

A few days ago, I was teaching through Colossians 2 which includes Paul’s last recorded dialogue about circumcision. I realized just how strange the topic seems and started more study on the issue. In keeping with good Bible interpretation I’ve had to examine context, dig around the Scriptures, use quality resources, and think.  The topic has made for some very interesting conversations between my husband and me over the last few nights!  Here is my attempt to shed light on a subject that is often talked about in Scripture, but rarely talked about in Christian circles.  Since this blog is from my imperfect perspective, I’m sure it contains error: please read Genesis 15-17, Deut 10, Romans 2-5, Col 2 if you’d like to study more.

It is the surgical removal of the foreskin of the male reproductive organ.

In Genesis 15, God makes a covenant with Abram.  God says that the aging Abram will one day have a son and will be given many offspring.  God also promises a land that Abram’s descendants will inhabit.  Abram believed God, but in Genesis 16, Abram listened to his wife, Sarai, and slept with her servant in hopes of having a son through Hagar. In chapter 17, God reminds Abram that His covenant remains and that the Lord Himself will multiply Abram’s descendants.  God changes his name to Abraham, and tells him to circumcise all the males of his household.  The circumcision is a sign of God’s promise and covenant (Abraham’s family would become the Jewish nation, inhabit the land that God gave them,  kings would come from the line of Abraham, and ultimately, Jesus the promised Messiah). 


Abraham had failed.  He did not wait for God to make good on His promise, and had sex with a woman who was not his wife (Gen 16).  God placed a permanent bodily sign on Abraham, on the very organ that was used to carry out the sinful act.  The circumcision, which can never be reversed, shows that God’s promises will never fail, and are not contingent on man’s credibility. God will always be faithful when people are not. 

God takes sin seriously. Abraham was 99 years old when he underwent the surgical procedure. “Ouch” is an understatement.  God is not condemning Abraham, but is giving him a consequence--not as punishment, but as a measure of grace that would lead him to a more intimate relationship with God Himself.

God starts with the men and expects them to lead.  Fathers are charged with the responsibility to circumcise their own sons on the 8th day of their birth and then give them their names.  Men are also spiritually responsible for their families. As in the case of Adam, Abraham, and others recorded in Scripture, God calls forth the man first in terms of accountability, even though women are responsible for their own actions.  

Since circumcision was applied to the reproductive organ of the body, the sign of the covenant involved the reproduction of the race.  God’s faithfulness would continue for generations.

An uncircumcised male had to continually clean the foreskin of his penis so that infection would not set in.  Circumcision was an external symbol of and inward reality (the need to be spiritually pure and clean in the sight of God).

For boys, medical research has confirmed that prothrombin (the substance that aids in clotting) is present in the blood with greater quantity on the eighth day than any other time of life.  This is further evidence that God is not random, and has purposes for the commands that He gives, even if He doesn’t tell why at the time. For the sake of clarity, it could be argued that circumcision carries no negative, long term impact on the male, while female circumcision is a cruel, direct removal of a source of pleasure.

The Jews were entrusted with the spoken words of God.  They were a people set apart for Him, but due to their sin they were not holy.  When Abraham’s descendants exited 400 years of slavery, God established a written law.  Before the Isrealites could enter into the promised land (God’s holy possession), they needed to be clean. Circumcision was performed as an act of faith, putting no confidence in the flesh, but in the cleansing work of God.

Everything Private is Public before the Lord
What is private to man is seen by God.  God is not ashamed by what He made, and expects us to be vulnerable and open with Him.  God is involved with the intimate details of our lives.

Participation in the Promise regardless of Profession
Circumcision was performed on the male children when they were eight days old, before they had the chance to make their own profession of faith.  This didn’t automatically mean the child would follow the Lord, but that they would be participants in fulfilling God’s promise to bring a Savior to the world and God’s commands to the world.  No wicked heart or disobedience on man’s part would thwart God’s ultimate fulfillment of His covenant.

God wants intimacy.  Sin comes between man and God.  Only when His people die to self can they enjoy the fullest pleasure that God gives—the joy of knowing Him.

This is debatable and I can’t prove it, but I find the theory fascinating.  When the foreskin is cut off of the man, the most sensitive part of him is exposed.  No longer does he have an annoying barrier between him and his wife during intercourse.  Being circumcised makes it possible that a fuller amount of pleasure can be accomplished more easily.

If you’re married, you’re welcome.  If you’re single, I’m sorry and hope you find a spouse soon.

The circumcision did not make anyone righteous.  It was the outward symbol of an inward faith, first given to Abraham as a realization of God’s future promises.  The fleshly symbol was the way his descendants could understand their need for a circumcision of the heart after they were given the law by Moses. “And now, Israel, what does the Lord require of you, but to fear the Lord your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul…Circumcise therefore the foreskin of your heart, and be no longer stubborn.” (Deut 10:12,16) 

If there is one thing the Israelites proved, it was that they could not keep God’s law, no matter how well it was explained to them.  The entire Old Testament recounts consistently that man was not faithful to God’s commands, but that God was always faithful to His people and His promises.  Matthew 1 recounts 42 generations between Abraham and Jesus Christ.   Included in that list are sexual sinners, liars, deceivers, evil kings, and murderers.  Time and time again, hope seemed bleak.  But then He came—the One who could permanently defeat sin and death.  While it is man’s responsibility to obey God’s commands, God takes responsibility for what people cannot do. 

God made the world and the body and declared it good.  Sin corrupted our bodies and our hearts.  Those who accept God by faith have the promise of Heaven with a holy God.  Just as the Israelites could not enter the promised land, you and I cannot enter Heaven by ourselves.  We cannot stand before a Holy God and have a relationship with Him because we are unclean.  We need a cleansing of a different sort as described in Colossians 2:11-14 “In [Jesus] also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, having been buried with Him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead.  And you who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by cancelling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands.  This He set aside, nailing it to the cross.”

So, what are some other practical implications of all of this for you?  Circumcision of the flesh is no longer a commandment or necessity, because Jesus has done the work.  But since most American men are circumcised due to hygienic reasons, I think the symbol is still relevant and powerful in today’s culture prevalent with porn and sexual immorality.  The circumcision of the penis is a change in perspective.  If a woman could view a naked man and be reminded of God’s promise, she might change who she promises herself to.

It is my hope that this explanation of the Old Testament alteration of the male sex organ might prevent masturbation and sex with anyone other than one’s spouse.  There is a clear-cut reminder every time a man pulls down his pants: “God is faithful; therefore I should be.”  It’s healthy for every man to have a little fear of God before his eyes. I’d love to know that pastors are teaching their congregations and fathers are giving their sons visual images that none can forget: “You belong to the Lord!  God cut off the barrier between you and Him, so that you can know Him.  Use your body the way God intended. Trust in God’s faithfulness to provide for your needs in His perfect timing, and DON’T TAKE MATTERS INTO YOUR OWN HANDS.”

Look to the cross as your new symbol of circumcision.  If you have faith in Jesus’ work on the cross, then He has already cleaned you.  There is a permanent seal and a promise waiting.  Practice your purity and honor Him with your head, heart, hands, and hidden parts.

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