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Circumcision in Tanakh: When, Why & What for?

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Probably no rite or ceremony so closely identifies with Jews and being Jewish as circumcision – cutting off the foreskin from the male organ.  Though others also practice circumcision (ex. Muslims also circumcise) it does not define them in the same way as it does Jews.  A Jew can be non-observant, an atheist, orthodox or not, Zionist or not, but few forego the Jewish rite of circumcision.

When did Circumcision begin?

Circumcision began with Abraham.  The Torah records how Hashem told him to circumcise himself and his family as a sign of an unfailing covenant between them on the one side and G-d on the other.

When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the Lord appeared to him and said, “I am God Almighty; walk before me faithfully and be blameless. Then I will make my covenant between me and you and will greatly increase your numbers.”

Abram fell facedown, and God said to him, “As for me, this is my covenant with you: You will be the father of many nations. No longer will you be called Abram; your name will be Abraham, for I have made you a father of many nations. I will make you very fruitful; I will make nations of you, and kings will come from you. I will establish my covenant as an everlasting covenant between me and you and your descendants after you for the generations to come, to be your God and the God of your descendants after you. The whole land of Canaan, where you now reside as a foreigner, I will give as an everlasting possession to you and your descendants after you; and I will be their God.

The Generational Circumcision Covenant

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.”

The promise of Isaac’s birth

15 God also said to Abraham, “As for Sarai your wife, you are no longer to call her Sarai; her name will be Sarah. 16 I will bless her and will surely give you a son by her. I will bless her so that she will be the mother of nations; kings of peoples will come from her.”

17 Abraham fell facedown; he laughed and said to himself, “Will a son be born to a man a hundred years old? Will Sarah bear a child at the age of ninety?” 18 And Abraham said to God, “If only Ishmael might live under your blessing!”

19 Then God said, “Yes, but your wife Sarah will bear you a son, and you will call him Isaac. I will establish my covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his descendants after him. 20 And as for Ishmael, I have heard you: I will surely bless him; I will make him fruitful and will greatly increase his numbers. He will be the father of twelve rulers, and I will make him into a great nation. 21 But my covenant I will establish with Isaac, whom Sarah will bear to you by this time next year.” 22 When he had finished speaking with Abraham, God went up from him.

Abraham’s Obedience in Circumcision

23 On that very day Abraham took his son Ishmael and all those born in his household or bought with his money, every male in his household, and circumcised them, as God told him. 24 Abraham was ninety-nine years old when he was circumcised, 25 and his son Ishmael was thirteen; 26 Abraham and his son Ishmael were both circumcised on that very day. 27 And every male in Abraham’s household, including those born in his household or bought from a foreigner, was circumcised with him.

Genesis 17:1-27

Initiated even before the birth of Isaac, the circumcision covenant, ongoing through the generations, requires the circumcising of all males at 8 days of age. 

Why Circumcision?

So why did G-d establish this rite? 

‘…it will be the sign of the covenant between me and you…’

Genesis 17:11

And what specifically was this covenant that circumcision served as a sign for?

The whole land of Canaan, where you now reside as a foreigner, I will give as an everlasting possession to you and your descendants after you; and I will be their God

Genesis 17:8

Moses & Circumcision

After G-d had commissioned Moses at the Burning Bush to lead the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt, when Moses began his journey from Sinai back to Egypt

24 At a lodging place on the way, the Lord met Moses and was about to kill him. 25 But Zipporah took a flint knife, cut off her son’s foreskin and touched Moses’ feet with it. “Surely you are a bridegroom of blood to me,” she said. 26 So the Lord let him alone. (At that time she said “bridegroom of blood,” referring to circumcision.)

Exodus 4: 24-26

G-d would only accept Moses’ service if he circumcised his son.  Not even Moses was exempt from circumcision.

Mosaic Law & Circumcision

The Mosaic Law inscribed the circumcision rite after the Egyptian exodus.

On the eighth day the boy is to be circumcised.

Leviticus 12:3

But though instituting a physical rite, the Torah concludes by commanding a ‘circumcision’ of the heart.

And now, Israel, what does the Lord your God ask of you but to fear the Lord your God, to walk in obedience to him, to love him, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, 13 and to observe the Lord’s commands and decrees that I am giving you today for your own good?

14 To the Lord your God belong the heavens, even the highest heavens, the earth and everything in it. 15 Yet the Lord set his affection on your ancestors and loved them, and he chose you, their descendants, above all the nations—as it is today. 16 Circumcise your hearts, therefore, and do not be stiff-necked any longer.

Deuteronomy 10:12-16

Recasting this command as a vision for the future, after the curses and exile, and the promised restoration back to the land, Moses wrote.

Even if you have been banished to the most distant land under the heavens, from there the Lord your God will gather you and bring you back. He will bring you to the land that belonged to your ancestors, and you will take possession of it. He will make you more prosperous and numerous than your ancestors. The Lord your God will circumcise your hearts and the hearts of your descendants, so that you may love him with all your heart and with all your soul, and live.

Deuteronomy 30:4-6

Circumcision in the Prophets (Nevi’im)

The prophets after Moses echoed this ‘heart’ circumcision.

Circumcise yourselves to the Lord,
    circumcise your hearts,
    you people of Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem,

Jeremiah 4:4

Jeremiah went even further, writing that solely a physical circumcision would one day become insufficient.  G-d would punish those ‘only circumcised in the flesh’.  This will include those nations around Israel that today are Arab Muslim nations which also practice physical circumcision only.

25 “The days are coming,” declares the Lord, “when I will punish all who are circumcised only in the flesh26 Egypt, Judah, Edom, Ammon, Moab and all who live in the wilderness in distant places. For all these nations are really uncircumcised, and even the whole house of Israel is uncircumcised in heart.”

Jeremiah 9:25-26 (9:24-25 in Hebrew tanakh)

Circumcising the heart?

So G-d envisioned, as well as commanded, a circumcision of ‘the heart’ after the return of the Children of Abraham’s covenant to Israel.  Since this is where we find ourselves today in the timeline of history would it not be profitable to both understand and put into practice circumcision, not only of the physical rite, but of the heart also?

So what does ‘circumcision of the heart’ entail?

Abraham’s Example

We have a clue given in the example of Abraham from the Torah.  G-d initiated the covenant of circumcision (see above) when Abraham was 99 years old, in Genesis 17.  However, G-d had called him previously, declaring covenant promises to him in earlier chapters, in his younger years – before his circumcision.

Covenant first promised

Consider the initial call to Abraham (explored more fully here) when he was 77 years old and G-d promised:

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

What did Abraham do given this promise and call?  The Torah says…

So Abram went, as the Lord had told him…

Genesis 12:4

Covenant Promise Re-iterated

Then after a decade of Abraham waiting and still remaining childless G-d made another covenant promise

After this, the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision:

“Do not be afraid, Abram.
    I am your shield,
    your very great reward.”

But Abram said, “Sovereign Lord, what can you give me since I remain childless and the one who will inherit my estate is Eliezer of Damascus?” And Abram said, “You have given me no children; so a servant in my household will be my heir.”

Then the word of the Lord came to him: “This man will not be your heir, but a son who is your own flesh and blood will be your heir.” He took him outside and said, “Look up at the sky and count the stars—if indeed you can count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring be.”

Genesis 15:1-5

What was Abraham’s response to this call and promise?

Abram believed the Lord, and he credited it to him as righteousness.

Genesis 15:6

So G-d ‘credited righteousness’ to Abraham years before his circumcision.  The circumcision given years later did not grant righteousness. It was a sign of righteousness already given, just as a wedding ring does not grant anyone marital status, but is a sign of their marital status.

Following Abraham’s example

Abraham is the Jewish root who also had favor with G-d such that he was ‘credited righteousness’.  Therefore, we do well to follow his example. 

What we see from this man is that he embarked on a journey though the destination was not clear.  Abraham did so because he trusted Him who gave the promises.  He foreknew that G-d would provide all that he needed, and he bet his son Isaac on this, marking the spot that would turn the hinge of history

Circumcision of the heart and the New Covenant

The Tanakh also foresees a New Covenant (Brit) using ‘of the heart’ language very similar to the language it uses for ‘circumcision of the heart’.  Hear the words of Jeremiah

31 “Look, the time is coming,” says the Lord,
    “when I will make a new agreement.
It will be with the people of Israel
    and the people of Judah.
32 It will not be like the agreement
    I made with their ancestors.
That was when I took them by the hand
    to bring them out of Egypt.
I was a husband to them,
    but they broke that agreement,” says the Lord.
33 “I will make this agreement
    with the people of Israel,” says the Lord.
“I will put my teachings in their minds.
    And I will write them on their hearts.
I will be their God,
    and they will be my people.

Jeremiah 31: 31-33

Perhaps the coming of this new covenant (Brit) to be written ‘on their hearts’, as opposed to the tablets of stone that Moses used, is how G-d would establish the circumcision of ‘the heart’, as opposed to simply the foreskin circumcision.  If so, then the key to understanding circumcision of the heart lies in exploring this new covenant that Jeremiah foresaw.  We do so here.

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