18. God Commands Abraham to be Circumcised as a Sign and Seal of the Covenant

This is an icon of Abraham and Sarah that represents the Covenant and  Abraham as the father of faith.
Icon of Abraham and Sarah

There is a grand unity to the Bible. The story of Abraham itself can seem confusing because there are so many moving parts to it. But the story of Abraham fits together as a unified whole around the theme of covenant. Below is the outline that I will use to discuss the Abrahamic covenant so that hopefully it makes more sense as you grasp the big picture of this remarkable story. Below is a summary of the Abrahamic Covenant up to this point in our story:1

1. The Sevenfold Promise of the Abrahamic Covenant – Genesis 12:1-3

2. The Inaugural Blessing of the Abrahamic Covenant – Genesis 14:17-24

The inaugural blessing set in motion the following:

3. The Ratification of the Covenant; Abraham would be a great nation – Genesis 15

4. The Sign and Seal of the Covenant, Circumcision; Abraham’s name would be great meaning that kings would come from him – Genesis 17

With the institution of the covenant of circumcision, God reiterated his promise to Abraham that he would make his name great. In the ancient Near East, that meant that kings would arise from Abraham’s line. What happened in Genesis 17 was part of the unfolding of the overall covenantal promise of Genesis 12. There was one Abrahamic covenant that contained several moving parts. 

In the previous post, I discussed the different types of covenants in existence at that time. The ratification of the covenant in Genesis 15 was a “grant” covenant where the superior party pledged to benefit the inferior party.2 Just when Abraham thought that he could get off easily, God called on him to participate in the covenant making process through the act of circumcision.3 Circumcision was to be the sign and seal of the covenant. A sign is an outward manifestation of the covenant. A sign was to serve as a reminder to both parties involved in the covenant, and even as a witness to the world, that a covenant had been made. 

In ancient times, a seal was a wax impression applied to a document to make it official. It functioned the same way as a signature does today. In this case, the one act that God required, circumcision, acted as both a sign and a seal. Even though it was Abraham who performed the act, the sign of circumcision was God’s official seal on Abraham and his descendants that a covenant had been made. So literally, God was making sure that Abraham had skin in the game. Unlike the “grant” aspect of the covenant in chapter 15, this aspect of the covenant was more like a “vassal” covenant where an inferior pledges loyalty and submission to a superior:4 

“This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and your offspring after you: Every male among you shall be circumcised. You shall circumcise the flesh of you foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and you. Throughout your generations every male among you shall be circumcised when he is eight days old. Any uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin shall be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant.” 

Through the covenant of circumcision, God repeated the promises of of Genesis 15 that Abraham would have many descendants and would inherit the land. But now he emphasized a new aspect of the promise concerning Abraham’s name being great – that kings would arise from him and Sarah. It was during this part of the covenant making process that God changed their names. Up until this time, they were Abram and Sarai. God now changed their names to Abraham, which means “father of a multitude,” and Sarah which means “princess.”5 Name changes in the Bible signify a change in a person’s role or capacity in regards to their service to God. With Abraham and Sarah now in covenant with God, their new roles were clear – they were to be the royal patriarch and matriarch of a new nation biologically and many nations spiritually. The scope of their influence would be national and even global: 

“God said to Abraham, ‘As for Sarai you wife, you shall not call her Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name. I will bless her, and moreover I will give you a son by her. I will bless her, and she shall give rise to nations; kings of people will come from her.'”

This was fulfilled in the Davidic covenant that God made with King David saying that he would always have a descendant on the throne. Famous kings like King Solomon and King Hezekiah came from David’s line, but the ultimate fulfilment was to be the King of all Kings, Jesus Christ. 

The idea behind circumcision as it related to the covenant was that if a person broke the covenant, they would be cut off from the people of God.6 Abraham’s descendants weren’t the only ones to be circumcised, other nations were as well, but only the Israelites had the covenantal significance of the act. In the New Testament, circumcision came to be replaced by baptism as the sign and seal of the New Covenant. 

Later on in Israel’s history, circumcision came to signify a cutting off of the sinful desires of the flesh from someone’s life in order to live a life of purity.7 Being in the covenant meant living a life of obedience to God. In Deuteronomy 10, Israel is commanded to circumcise their hearts. The Apostle Paul picked up on this theme in the New Testament when he stated  that a man is not a true Jew if he is one outwardly and circumcision is merely an outward sign. A true Jew is one inwardly whose circumcision is a circumcision of the heart.8 

Abraham is the father of faith of all who believe – both the Jew and the Gentile. The biggest controversy in the apostolic era of the New Testament was whether a Gentile needed circumcision in order to become a Christian. In other words, did a Gentile need to become a Jew first in order to become a Christian or not? The Apostles, who were Jews, were emphatic that a person did not have to become a Jew first. They did not have to follow the ceremonial “law.” The Apostle Paul stated that Abraham was justified (Genesis 15) prior to being circumcised which makes him the father of all who believe whether Jew or Gentile. As St. Paul states in Romans 4:

“Abraham received circumcision as a sign, a seal of righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised. So then, he is a father of all who believe but have not been circumcised, in order that righteousness might be credited to them. And he is then also the father of the circumcised who not only are circumcised but who also follow in the footsteps of faith that our father Abraham had before he was circumcised.”

Baptism Replaces Circumcision in the New Testament

If circumcision wasn’t required in the New Testament, if a Gentile did not have to became a Jew to be saved, what would be the mark of the New Covenant? Surely there would need to be a mark in order to delineate the believers from the non-believers and to serve as an entryway into the New Covenant.

In the Old Testament, the animal sacrifices and circumcision were bloody signs pointing to Christ. With the coming of Christ and the shedding of His blood, bloody sacrifices were not longer needed. In the case of circumcision then, it was replaced by the bloodless sign of baptism. Moreover, this sign can be administered to everyone, not just males. An interesting transition verse between circumcision and baptism occurs in St. Paul’s Epistle to the Colossians:

“In Him you were also circumcised with a circumcision not performed by human hands. Your whole self ruled by the flesh was put off when you were circumcised by Christ, having been buried with Him in baptism, in which you were also raised with Him through your faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead.”

-Epistle to the Colossians 2: 11-12

There is a lot to unpack in these verses. First of all, St. Paul states implicitly that the New Covenant equivalent of the Old Covenant circumcision is baptism. And lest we think that this is biased against the Jews, we have to remember that Paul was a Jew and that the Christian Church was founded by Jews! Baptism then is not merely an outward sign performed by the hands of man, but an inward regeneration of the soul performed by Christ Himself. The New Testament priest or minister performs the outward sign with water, but the work of regeneration is done by Christ.

This makes baptism superior to circumcision, as the New Covenant was superior to the Mosaic Covenant.9 The Old Covenant lacked the power of regeneration found abundantly in the new. Thus circumcision was merely an outward sign, which is why God had to command the Israelites to “circumcise your hearts.”10 Whereas the New Testament sign of the covenant, baptism, carries along with it regeneration. This is one of many reasons why the New Covenant is superior to the old.

This does not preclude a baptized person making good on their baptism by leading a life in obedience to God. Baptism is not a free ticket, but a solid foundation with which a person, whether adult or child, can begin a life love and service to God. And this brings up another point. Just like circumcision was the doorway into the old covenant, so too the entryway into Christianity is baptism. As an adult, one becomes a Christian by repenting and being baptized, and as an infant by simply being baptized, the repentance comes later. For an adult, then, it is not a “prayer to let Jesus into your heart,” but the covenantal sign of baptism that makes one a Christian.

“Peter replied, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”

-Acts of the Apostles 2:38

“Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

-Gospel of St. Matthew 28:18-20

 

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Amazon Review: “Scott Hahn’s central idea of covenant and kinship (family) proves to be a Rosetta Stone for Scriptural hieroglyphics, and a disarmingly simple one at that. Once you have glanced through this lens, you will never see the big picture of salvation history in the same way again….I know of no more authentically Biblical, more reliably Catholic, or more exciting theologian in the world today than Scott Hahn.” –Peter Kreeft, Professor of Philosophy, Boston College

Footnotes:

  1. Hahn, Ph.D., Scott, A Father Who Keeps His Promises, pp. 93-110, Franciscan Media, Cincinnati, 1998
  2. Balentine, Samuel E., editor, The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Bible and Theology: Two-Volume Set, Vol. 1, p. 156, Oxford University Press, Oxford, England, 2015
  3. Balentine, Samuel E., editor, The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Bible and Theology: Two-Volume Set, Vol. 1, p. 157
  4. Isaac, Erich. “Circumcision as a Covenant Rite.” Anthropos, vol. 59, no. 3/4, 1964, pp. 444–456. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/40456422.
  5.  Lizorkin-Eyzenberg, Dr. Eli, “What is the Difference Between Abram/Sarai and Abraham/Sarah?” Israel Bible Weekly, June 12, 2018, https://weekly.israelbiblecenter.com/the-meaning-of-the-hebrew-names
  6. Genesis 17:14
  7. Bernat, David, “Circumcision as Purification, The Torah – com, https://www.thetorah.com/article/circumcision-as-purification
  8. Romans 2:25-29, Colossians 2:11-12
  9. Hebrews 8
  10. Deuteronomy 10:12-17

Bibliography

Balentine, Samuel E., editor, The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Bible and Theology: Two-Volume Set, Oxford University Press, Oxford, England, 2015

De Mieroop, Van, A History of the Ancient Near East, ca. 3000-323 BC, 3rd Edition (Blackwell History of the Ancient World), Wiley-Blackwell, Hoboken, N.J., 2015

Hahn, Ph.D., Scott, A Father Who Keeps His Promises, Franciscan Media, Cincinnati, 1998

Hahn, Ph.D., Scott, Kinship by Covenant: A Canonical Approach to the Fulfillment of God’s Saving Promises, Yale University Press, New Haven, CT., 2009

Weinfeld, M., “Covenant Terminology in the Ancient Near East and Its Influence on the West.” Journal of the American Oriental Society, vol. 93, no. 2, 1973, pp. 190–199. JSTOR

Voegelin, Eric, Order and History, Vol. 1: Israel and Revelation, classic reprint hardcover, Forgotten Books Publishers, London, 2018

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