What is circumcision?


Most people think that circumcision is something only practiced within Judaism. Some however know that it also is a custom in Islam. But only a few know that quite some men are circumcised for medical or hygiene reasons. Almost nobody knows that it was also practiced by pagans in ancient history. What is written about it in the Bible?

Circumcision in Biblical sense is the complete removal of the foreskin from the male genital. This is done for various reasons, but in the Bible it is written that God commanded it to be performed. Surprisingly it is not a custom in Christianity.

Word study
The Hebrew verb moel (circumcise) is used 32 times in the Bible. Circumcision is directly related with the Hebrew word ’orlah (foreskin/being uncircumcised) and the word ’arel (being pagan/having a foreskin)[1]. The word originates from the root ’aral – being uncircumcised/religiously disqualified[2].

In Greek the word ‘peritome’ (cutting circular) and similar words are used for circumcision. The custom is more often mentioned in the New Testament then in the Old. That is remarkable. It goes against the idea that circumcision is supposedly irrelevant for Christians. Also, most Christians are unaware that circumcision was the reason why the first official meeting of all apostles and leaders took place after the Holy Spirit was poured out (Acts 15).

Reasons for circumcision
The foreskin can be altered in case of a defect on the male genital or as a precaution for possible complications. For example, when the foreskin is too small this causes much pain. There are also men who choose to become circumcised for hygiene reasons. It is presumed that circumcision will decrease the chance of diseases, like cancer. In those cases, the foreskin is fully or partially removed through a medical operation. This already happened in ancient times.

Circumcision can also be a (mandated) religious custom. This was the case with Abraham, a main character in the Bible book Genesis, whom God commanded to circumcise himself and all the men in his camp (Gn 17:23). God made circumcision a fixed custom and the mark of the covenant relationship with Him. From then on every male child was to be circumcised on the eight day after his birth (Gn 17:12). This religious circumcision is a festivity for the parents and their family.

Many people think that a circumcised man is always a Jew. But that is a mistake[3]. Even Jews think that this is so. Also, the Jews in the days that the Lord Jesus was on earth. He reminded them that God didn’t command circumcision to Moses, but that Moses simple repeated the command of God (Lv 12:3) which was indeed older (Jh 7:22).

The Hebrew word ‘ot (Gn 17:11), which was used for the mark of circumcision, represents remembrance and identifying the believer. Setting him apart. So, it became the mark on the body to show that he was within the covenant relationship with God. However, Abraham, to whom God commanded to circumcise, was not an Israelite, but a Hebrew, father of many nations (Hebrew gojim; Gn 17:4, 6, 16)[4].

The fact that almost half (14*) of the references to circumcision in the Bible are found in the book of Genesis shows that the origin of circumcision clearly was long before Israel became a nation at mount Horeb (Ex 19:6).

Covenant mark
Circumcision is the mark of God’s covenant with Abraham, the same way that the rainbow is the mark over His covenant with mankind and the earth (Gn 9:13)[5]. The mark of the covenant represents the whole covenant. But the circumcision is a command within the covenant of God with Abraham[6]. That means that it is both a general and a specific given. This explains the confusion about circumcision. The general given applies to all the people of God (also the uncircumcised female members), which as a whole are within His covenant.

However, God’s people are dispersed. It has lost its central institutions, like the Land, the Temple and the religious statehood which was called Israel. Until these central institutions are reinstated (by the Messiah), only the specific given of the circumcision is in force. This specific given applies to every individual male believer who is enters into the covenant of God. He needs to consider the obligation to let his son (and himself if he still is uncircumcised) undergo circumcision[7].

Since the circumcision represents the whole of the covenant of God and all its conditions, thus the one who willingly undergoes circumcision needs to realize the ‘burden’ (Torah observance) which is taken on immediately (Gal 5:3). Therefore, the apostles however did not make circumcision a condition for all entering unto the New Covenant, which goes against the general rule in Judaism. They wanted to give the non-Jews time[8] to get used to the covenant conditions, by requiring from them only some initial rules deducted from the 10 Words (Ex 20:1-17) after entering to it.

Some Christians do not undergo circumcision, because they think that the water baptism has replaced it. But in the Bible the water baptism is not instituted[9] as a mark of the New Covenant and never compared with the command to circumcise. Water baptism is also no permanent mark on the body[10]. The specific, single mark of the New Covenant is the fulfillment with the holy Spirit[11].

Nowhere is it mentioned in the Bible that circumcision is no longer needed or replaced by another mark. There is no competition between covenantal marks, as if one mark would be superior to another. Fact is however that only one covenant is in force: the New Covenant. But in Biblical sense each covenant that God enforced[12] on a specific moment encompasses the previous covenant. Hence, the rainbow still applies as mark of the covenant of God as He first presented that to Noah. Also, circumcision still applies as mark as He first presented it to Abraham[13]. It is the fulfillment with the holy Spirit that indeed confirms that.

Invalid circumcision
Circumcision is also practiced for the wrong reasons, such as initiation (becoming an adult) and/or entering a religious group[14]. In some societies a man only will be accepted as full number of the community once a certain initiation or rule of access is accomplished. Because circumcision is very painful without a tranquilizer this is seen as proof of strength or endurance[15].

There are also groups[16] that assume to be part of (the 10-tribes of) Israel and therefore undergo circumcision. Then there are also who think that circumcision will give them access to eternal life. A deviant form of circumcision is that of female[17] circumcision[18] which is also used as religious custom. All these forms of invalid circumcisions are based on twisted assumptions. In the NT such circumcisions are rejected (Gal 5:2).

Hidden mark of the covenant
The circumcision is hidden on a very intimate place. Why? It seems to have a link with sexuality. Some claim that circumcision proofs that God rejects sexuality and regards it as sinful. Others suspect that circumcision points some specific rules for sexuality. But such arguments cannot be found in the Bible.

Why then this adjustment to the male genital? The human body belongs to God and therefore it is not surprising that God wants to see a mark of distinction on it. The Hebrew word moel stems from the verbal root which means ‘front’. So, the mark of the covenant must be set on the front of the human body. Still, it remains hidden in daily life. So, seemingly the mark is not meant for others, but the circumcised will daily see his genital and its circumcised state reminds him of his covenant with God.

But why does only the believing man receive this mark and not the believing female? It shows that men take the initial place in Creation. Adam, the first human, was a man and it is also a man that penetrates the female for the natural conception. This puts the emphasis again on sexuality. Probable the strongest passion of humans[19].

From the beginning God wanted man to learn to control its passions (Gn 4:7). Therefore, it is not surprising that this through circumcision is brought in relation with the covenant of God. So, that means that this passion should not be stimulated but avoided. But when one succumbs to it, the circumcised state reminds that sexuality must be put under the conditions of God’s covenant. So, in a sense circumcision also has a safety purpose. To question sexuality.

In the Bible circumcision is related to spiritual health (Jh 7:23). Since it is fulfilling a command of God, but also the expression of being committed to the whole of the covenant of God. Such a person shall certainly be blessed and in that sense a spiritual healing will become active so that he will become healthy.

But is a grave mistake to do any of God’s commandments, so also circumcision, to seek physical health. Because honoring and serving God for personal gain is in direct violation of the will of God. Seeking oneself in Biblical religion is blasphemous. Especially when this takes place over a long time.

That there are men who choose to circumcise themselves for health reasons is a choice outside of the realm of Biblical religion. Likewise, a circumcision for medical reasons cannot be regarded as a circumcision in a religious sense.

Circumcision of the heart
In the Bible circumcision is given a deeper meaning, which is complementary to the physical circumcision: the circumcision of the heart (Dt 30:6). The foreskin in Biblical sense is defined as recalcitrance against God (Ct 10:16). Recalcitrance which is not so much in the physical foreskin, but in the disposition of the heart. Both are needed: the physical circumcision and that of the disposition of the hearth (Jr 9:25-26).

Some think that circumcision of the heart has got something to do with fulfillment with the Holy Spirit (becoming reborn) and that circumcision of the heart goes above or replaces the physical circumcision, but these are mistakes. In the Bible it is consistently stated that like physical circumcision the circumcision of the heart is also an act of faith. Every man has to do that. It has to be clear that no man, not even the Lord Jesus, can force the Holy Spirit to do something on their behalf, like fulfillment with That Spirit of a human, because believing is meaningless and irrelevant without deeds of believers that please God.

[1] It also means not being an Israelite or being (Israelite or not) outside of God’s covenant. So, in the Bible it has a negative meaning.
[2] A believer who purposely avoids circumcision, whilst living amongst those who entered the covenant of God, will be cast out (Gn 17:14) and has no access to the service of God (Ex 12:28).
[3] Many Jewish men are not circumcised.
[4] A pagan.
[5] Likewise, the conditions (Torah) of the covenant Moses mediated are its mark (Dt 6:8).
[6] Thus also within the Sinaic covenant.
[7] A son who is circumcised as baby needs to commit himself from a young age on to the covenantal life.
[8] Being a Jew depends however on physical descendancy. But circumcision has got nothing to do with descendancy, but with the covenant. Therefore, circumcision applies to all believers (Jew or not), since every believer is a citizen of one people of God (Ef 2:19).
[9] Water baptism is the one-off custom in the New Covenant representing the willingness to let the old life as an unbeliever die and expecting to be raised from the death as believer. It also represents spiritual cleansing which the believer receives to be able to enter into the people of God, although this cleansing is not one-off, but needs to be repeated according to Torah.
[10] Circumcision is a state, whilst the water baptism is about acts of the covenant. Water baptism is not meant to only be applied to newly born male babes, but to all believers. Conscious belief has to go before the application of the water baptism, whilst circumcision can be administered in the ‘unconscious’ state. However, water baptism is administered on adults, as for example it was to Paul.
[11] Many Christians do not know that and therefore do not have this mark of the New Covenant.
[12] The moment a covenant is enforced that covenant becomes the one which He reckons with.
[13] Therefore circumcision is a custom in Islam.
[14] Water baptism is also used in that wrong way.
[15] This contrasts sharply with the fact that circumcision was commanded by God as mark of His covenant. This makes it not human effort or a human achievement. Thus, using a tranquilizer for circumcision is evident.
[16] Especially in Anglo-Saxon countries.
[17] Applied to take away sexual feeling for women because of different (religious) reasons.
[18] Circumcision is a harmless custom which as mark honors God. Female circumcision however is harmful and not a religious marking commanded in the Bible. It goes way beyond the boundaries of circumcision. It is nothing else then serious mutilation of the female body against the will of God and therefore objectionable and blasphemous.
[19] In the Bible this is even called ‘burning of sexual desire’ (1 Cor 7:9).