Covenant of Circumcision

Should the Assimilated Jews be Circumcised?

The covenant of circumcision, known in Hebrew as "brit-milah" is not just an abstract religious ritual that identifies someone as a Jew. It represents the hope of the Jewish people, that they and their descendants would possess the Land of Israel, according to the promise that God made to Abraham. For an assimilated Jew, or for someone with an ambiguous Jewish / Gentile identity, the question of circumcision depends on whether or not they intend to live in Israel, or at least to live in a Jewish community among other people who share the same hope.

This study traces the Biblical references to circumcision, and we will see that in almost every case it is associated with the Jewish aspiration to possess the Land of Israel.

Is there any difference between Jew and Gentile? As far as faith and salvation is concerned there is none at all. We are all saved by faith in Yeshua the Messiah. The difference between Jews and Gentiles is that Jews are the rightful heirs to the Land of Israel and Gentiles are not.

God's Covenant with Abraham

And when Abram was ninety years old and nine, the Lord appeared to Abram, and said unto him, I am the Almighty God; walk before me, and be thou perfect. And I will make my covenant between me and thee, and will multiply thee exceedingly. And Abram fell on his face: and God talked with him, saying, As for me, behold, my covenant is with thee, and thou shalt be a father of many nations. Neither shall thy name any more be called Abram, but thy name shall be Abraham; for a father of many nations have I made thee. And I will make thee exceeding fruitful, and I will make nations of thee, and kings shall come out of thee. And I will establish my covenant between me and thee and thy seed after thee in their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be a God unto thee, and to thy seed after thee. And I will give unto thee, and to thy seed after thee, the land wherein thou art a stranger, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession; and I will be their God. And God said unto Abraham, Thou shalt keep my covenant therefore, thou, and thy seed after thee in their generations. This is my covenant, which ye shall keep, between me and you and thy seed after thee; Every man child among you shall be circumcised. And ye shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskin; and it shall be a token of the covenant betwixt me and you. And he that is eight days old shall be circumcised among you, every man child in your generations, he that is born in the house, or bought with money of any stranger, which is not of thy seed. He that is born in thy house, and he that is bought with thy money, must needs be circumcised: and my covenant shall be in your flesh for an everlasting covenant. And the uncircumcised man child whose flesh of his foreskin is not circumcised, that soul shall be cut off from his people; he hath broken my covenant. (Gen. 17:1-14).

The command to be circumcised is directly related to the promise, that Abraham would be a father of nations, and that he and his descendants would possess the land of Canaan which subsequently became known as Israel. The statement that an uncircumcised person is "cut off from his people" does not amount to a statement of spiritual doom, because the person is not cut off from God, although it would nevertheless be a disastrous state of isolation for anyone who was born into Abraham's household.

When this command was given, Abraham had a son called Ishmael, not through his wife Sarai, but through Sarai's servant Hagar. He thought that the covenant would be established through Ishmael, but God had other plans.

And God said unto Abraham, As for Sarai thy wife, thou shalt not call her name Sarai, but Sarah shall her name be. And I will bless her, and give thee a son also of her: yea, I will bless her, and she shall be a mother of nations; kings of people shall be of her. Then Abraham fell upon his face, and laughed, and said in his heart, Shall a child be born unto him that is an hundred years old? and shall Sarah, that is ninety years old, bear? And Abraham said unto God, O that Ishmael might live before thee! And God said, Sarah thy wife shall bear thee a son indeed; and thou shalt call his name Isaac: and I will establish my covenant with him for an everlasting covenant, and with his seed after him. And as for Ishmael, I have heard thee: Behold, I have blessed him, and will make him fruitful, and will multiply him exceedingly; twelve princes shall he beget, and I will make him a great nation. But my covenant will I establish with Isaac, which Sarah shall bear unto thee at this set time in the next year. (Gen. 17:15-21).

The promise, as it applies to Abraham, his wife Sarah, and their descendants, was fulfilled as follows:

The covenant was therefore established through the line of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, that they would possess the land of Canaan which became known as Israel. As for Ishmael and Esau, they became nations, but the covenant was not with them.

In response to the promises that God had made, Abraham and all his household were expected to receive the mark of circumcision. In faithful obedience they received the mark on the very day that the command was given.

And Abraham took Ishmael his son, 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; and circumcised the flesh of their foreskin in the selfsame day, as God had said unto him. And Abraham was ninety years old and nine, when he was circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin. And Ishmael his son was thirteen years old, when he was circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin. In the selfsame day was Abraham circumcised, and Ishmael his son. And all the men of his house, born in the house, and bought with money of the stranger, were circumcised with him. (Gen. 17:23-27).

In response to Abraham's act of obedience, God appeared to him and repeated the promise that Sarah would have a son.

If Genesis 17 was considered in isolation, it would appear that the covenant with Abraham depends on circumcision. However we will see that by this time the covenant had already been made and was irrevokable. Circumcision was just something that Abraham was expected to do in response to it. God had already promised that Abraham would become a great nation, and the promise was first made while he was still in Haran and had not departed for the land of Canaan.

Now the Lord had said unto Abram, Get thee out of thy country, and from thy kindred, and from thy father's house, unto a land that I will show thee: And I will make of thee a great nation, and I will bless thee, and make thy name great; and thou shalt be a blessing: And I will bless them that bless thee, and curse him that curseth thee: and in thee shall all families of the earth be blessed. (Gen. 12:1-3)

In this case there is a more direct association between the promise and the act of obedience. Abraham was commanded to go to the unknown land so that God could make him into a great nation.

In Genesis 13, after Abraham and Lot had separated, God repeated his promise.

... Lift up now thine eyes, and look from the place where thou art northward, and southward, and eastward, and westward: For all the land which thou seest, to thee will I give it, and to thy seed for ever. And I will make thy seed as the dust of the earth: so that if a man can number the dust of the earth, then shall thy seed also be numbered. Arise, walk through the land in the length of it and in the breadth of it; for I will give it unto thee. Then Abram removed his tent, and came and dwelt in the plain of Mamre, which is in Hebron, and built there an altar unto the Lord. (Gen. 13:14-18).

The repetition of the promise, and the invitation to walk through the land and see it, appears to be a reward for Abraham's decision. He had chosen to live in the hill country of Canaan, rather than in the plains that surround the wicked city of Sodom. However, the promise had already been given and did not depend on where Abraham chose to live.

Again, in Genesis 15, after Abraham had rescued his brother Lot from captivity and received a blessing from Melchizedek, king of Salem, God repeated the promise in a way that was irrevocable.

... Look now toward heaven, and tell the stars, if thou be able to number them: and he said unto him, So shall thy seed be... I am the Lord that brought thee out of Ur of the Chaldees, to give thee this land to inherit it...And he said unto him, Take me an heifer of three years old, and a she goat of three years old, and a ram of three years old, and a turtledove, and a young pigeon. And he took unto him all these, and divided them in the midst... And it came to pass, that, when the sun went down, and it was dark, behold a smoking furnace, and a burning lamp that passed between those pieces. In the same day the Lord made a covenant with Abram, saying, Unto thy seed have I given this land, from the river of Egypt unto the great river, the river Euphrates: The Kenites, and the Kenizzites, and the Kadmonites, and the Hittites, and the Perizzites, and the Rephaims, and the Amorites, and the Canaanites, and the Girgashites, and the Jebusites. (Gen. 15:5-21).

In those days, when two people wanted to make an irrevokable covenant, they would cut animals in half and walk between the pieces. On this occasion, the Lord passed between the pieces, in the form of a smoking furnace and a burning lamp. Nothing was required of Abraham, not even to walk between the pieces. This covenant depended only on God, as the Lord said in Genesis 22:16 "By myself have I sworn, saith the Lord...".

This latest statement was in the context of Abraham being willing to offer his son Isaac to God as a sacrifice, although in the end the sacrifice was not required. The Lord responded by confirming his promise:

And the angel of the Lord called unto Abraham out of heaven the second time, and said, By myself have I sworn, saith the Lord, for because thou hast done this thing, and hast not withheld thy son, thine only son, that in blessing I will bless thee, and in multiplying I will multiply thy seed as the stars of the heaven, and as the sand which is upon the sea shore; and thy seed shall possess the gate of his enemies, and in thy seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed; because thou hast obeyed my voice. (Gen. 22:15-18).

How could God say "because thou hast done this thing" and then simply repeat a promise to fulfil a covenant that was already irrevokable? I suppose it could be taken as one of the proofs of predestination. When God made his irrevokable promise, he already knew that Abraham would be faithful in this matter.

We have seen that the covenant regarding the land pre-dates the covenant of circumcision on two occasions, firstly when Abraham was called to leave his home in Haran, and then when the Lord passed between the pieces of the divided animals. What, then, is the relationship between circumcision and the promise? Circumcision was not required to validate the covenant with Abraham because it was already irrevocable. It was simply something that God wanted Abraham to do, because of the Covenant.

In the same way, baptism is something that a believer in Yeshua is expected to do. Peter said, on the day of Pentecost:

Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins... (Acts 2:38).

We know that it is repentance and faith in Yeshua that saves us, rather than the outward sign of baptism. There is an equivalence between circumcision and baptism. Circumcision is the outward sign that a Jew is a participant of God's covenant with Abraham regarding the Land. Baptism is the outward sign that someone is a believer in Yeshua. If a Jew is not circumcised, he is "cut off from his people", according to Gen. 17:14. In the same way, baptism is taken as proof that a person is a believer in Yeshua and is a requirement for church membership. Many churches refuse to give communion to someone who has not been baptised, so that he is also "cut off from his people". In Colossians 2:11-14, the Apostle Paul makes a comparison between circumcision and baptism, a subject we will return to later.

God's Promise to Ishmael

As we have already seen, God's covenant with Abraham was made on two occasions before the command was given to be circumcised. Both of these occasions were before the birth of Ishamael. Sarah was barren and had no children and offered Abraham her maidservant Hagar, to bear him children on her behalf. This was a common practice among the early patriarchs, but it was not what God wanted. The child of the covenant would later be born through Sarah herself.

When God commanded that Abraham and all his house should be circumcised there was a promise that Ishmael, along with the promised son Isaac, would become a great nation. (Gen 17:18-21). But there was no promise that Ishmael and his descendants would be a blessing to the nations. Instead, a curse was given at the time of Ishmael's birth:

And he will be a wild man; his hand will be against every man, and every man's hand against him; and he shall dwell in the presence of all his brethren. (Gen. 16:12).

The descendants of Ishmael lived among the Arabs and became gradually assimilated with them, so that they were themselves called Arabs. The original Arabs were the descendants of a much earlier patriarch called Joktan (Gen. 10:25). The Arab nations today occupy the whole of North Africa and most of the Middle East, and they have spawned the religion of Islam which is fiercely opposed to everything Jewish and Zionistic. The most radical factions of Islam are opposed to everything non-Islamic, and are prepared to use violence to achieve their aims. However, Muslims have one thing in common with Jews. They practice circumcision, probably due to the influence of the Ishmaelite Arabs.

Circumcision of the Shechemites

In Genesis 34 there is the story of how Dinah, the daughter of Jacob, went out to see her friends and met a prince called Shechem, who had his way with her. Shechem wanted to do the honourable thing and marry Dinah, and was told he was allowed to do so, provided that he and all the men of his household become circumcised. The idea was, that to intermarry with the Israelites, the men of Shechem should become "as we are" (Gen. 34:15). Circumcision was therefore regarded as the symbol of identification with the Israelites, to whom God had made a covenant regarding the Land.

However, the agreement was made deceitfully. When the men of Shechem had been circumcised and were feeling sore, Simeon and Levi attacked the city and killed them all. Their father Jacob was greatly displeased with this and and he told Simeon and Levi they had made him stink among the inhabitants of the Land. Clearly, he was afraid of retaliation.

Circumcision of Moses' Son

Moses was born in a Levite family during the days of affliction when Pharaoh had issued an order that all male children among the Hebrews should be killed at birth. His mother hid him for three months (during which time he would have been circumcised on the eighth day) and then he was put in a basket in the bulrushes and picked up by Pharaoh's daughter. Moses grew up in Pharaoh's house and was brought up as an Egyptian, although he sympathised with the Hebrews and on one occasion he saw an Egyptian hitting a Hebrew, so he killed the Egyptian. At first he thought nobody had seen him, then he realised it had become common knowledge that he had killed an Egyptian, so he fled to the land of Midian where he married Zipporah, the daughter of the priest of Midian.

Then God spoke to Moses out of the burning bush and told him how he would have to go and speak to Pharaoh, and would lead the Israelites out of Egypt. God introduced himself in a rather interesting way:

I am the God of thy father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. (Exodus 3:6).

Moses had spent so long away from his Hebrew people, he had become unsure of his identity. He had been brought up as an Egyptian, and then he lived in exile in Midian, so he had very little contact with the Hebrews. God wanted to remind him that he was an Israelite, and that his ancestors were Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

As long as Moses was away from his people, it didn't seem to matter all that much that he had not circumcised his son. But then when God had finished speaking with him and he was on his way, to return to his people and speak to Pharaoh, God wanted Moses' son to be circumcised. It was so important that God was prepared to kill Moses for failing to do it.

And it came to pass by the way in the inn, that the Lord met him, and sought to kill him. Then Zipporah took a sharp stone, and cut off the foreskin of her son, and cast it at his feet, and said, Surely a bloody husband art thou to me. So he let him go: then she said, A bloody husband thou art, because of the circumcision. (Exodus 4:24-26).

In other words, she said "Why should I have to do this bloody job" (if you'll forgive the language).

Here again, we see that circumcision becomes important when Moses comes to live among the Israelites. It is a sign of identification with the people and their hope to return to the Land of Israel.

Circumcision at the First Passover

When the Israelites came out of Egypt, and celebrated the first Passover, they were all commanded to be circumcised, including all the strangers who joined them:

And the Lord said unto Moses and Aaron, This is the ordinance of the passover: There shall no stranger eat thereof: But every man's servant that is bought for money, when thou hast circumcised him, then shall he eat thereof. A foreigner and an hired servant shall not eat thereof. In one house shall it be eaten; thou shalt not carry forth ought of the flesh abroad out of the house; neither shall ye break a bone thereof. All the congregation of Israel shall keep it. And when a stranger shall sojourn with thee, and will keep the passover to the Lord, let all his males be circumcised, and then let him come near and keep it; and he shall be as one that is born in the land: for no uncircumcised person shall eat thereof. One law shall be to him that is homeborn, and unto the stranger that sojourneth among you. Thus did all the children of Israel; as the Lord commanded Moses and Aaron, so did they. And it came to pass the selfsame day, that the Lord did bring the children of Israel out of the land of Egypt by their armies. (Exodus 12:43-51).

There is no way of knowing how many of the Israelites had been circumcised while they were in Egypt. Probably most of them had been circumcised, although interference from the Egyptians might have prevented some circumcisions. The people who came out of Egypt were a 'mixed multitude' according to Exodus 12:38, so there were many people from the surrounding tribes who joined themselves to the Israelites but had not been circumcised.

The commandment of the Lord was that all these people should be circumcised before they could participate in the first Passover and join the Israelites in the Exodus from Egypt. So here again, we see circumcision being associated with the return of the Israelite people to the Land of Israel.

Circumcision at Jericho

When the Israelites first arrived at the Promised Land, they sent out twelve spies to find out what it was like there, and how heavily armed it was. Ten spies came back with a bad report saying the inhabitants were giants and it was impossible to conquer them. The other two spies, Joshua and Caleb, gave an encouraging report saying that even though the people were big, we can still defeat them because God is with us. The people believed the bad reports and rebelled, so the Lord became angry and sent them back into the desert for forty years. Except for Joshua and Caleb, none of the generation who came out of Egypt would go into the Land, but their children would go there.

Forty years later, after the first-generation Israelites had died, their children crossed over the Jordan into the Promised Land, together with Joshua and Caleb. However, before they could take the city of Jericho, they had to be circumcised. The people who came out of Egypt had all been circumcised, but the children born in the desert had not been circumcised. Joshua made sharp knives and circumcised them at the "hill of the foreskins", meaning there were so many circumcisions that they made a hill out of all the foreskins. Then they kept the Passover, just as their parents had done when they came out of Egypt. (Joshua 5:1-10).

So here again, we see circumcision associated with possession of the Land.

Circumcision of John the Baptist

When Z'kharyah went into the Temple to do his regular service (according to the six-month cycle of the families of the priests) he was struck dumb. He regained his speech at the time when his son was circumcised, and he wrote on a piece of paper that his name would be called "Yochanan". Then he spoke and said:

Blessed be the Lord God of Israel; for he hath visited and redeemed his people, and hath raised up an horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David, as he spake by the mouth of his holy prophets, which have been since the world began, that we should be saved from our enemies, and from the hand of all that hate us; (Luke 1:68-71).

The Greek word poieolutrosin means to "loose". In some translations it means "redeem" and in others it means "liberate" depending on whether it is considered to be spiritual or political. Both translations are correct, because John the Baptist was the forerunner of Yeshua the Messiah who comes twice, first as the Suffering Servant to bring spiritual redemption and then to establish his Kingdom.

The context of the passage, and particularly the phrase "delivered from our enemies", indicates the hope of political liberation. So again, we see that circumcision is associated with the aspirations of the people to live in the Land of Israel.

Circumcision of Yeshua

The Gospel of Luke continues with the circumcision of Yeshua, and here again we see the hope of political liberation.

And there was one Anna, a prophetess, the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Aser... And she coming in that instant gave thanks likewise unto the Lord, and spake of him to all them that looked for redemption in Jerusalem. (Luke 2:36-38).

The Greek word used here is apolutrosis which means "loosing", the same as in Luke 1:68. The same principle applies, that it could mean spiritual redemption or political liberation. The context is about the expectations of the people, rather than what Yeshua would actually achieve as the Suffering Servant. Considering that Luke 1:68 most likely means political liberation, Luke 2:38 should be taken to mean the same thing. So again, we see that circumcision is associated with the aspirations of the people to live in the Land of Israel.

Stephen's Defence

Stephen was hauled before the Sanhedrin and falsely accused of speaking against the Torah, the Temple, and the customs of Moses. In his defence he says:

... The God of glory appeared unto our father Abraham, when he was in Mesopotamia, before he dwelt in Charran, And said unto him, Get thee out of thy country, and from thy kindred, and come into the land which I shall show thee. Then came he out of the land of the Chaldaeans, and dwelt in Charran: and from thence, when his father was dead, he removed him into this land, wherein ye now dwell. And he gave him none inheritance in it, no, not so much as to set his foot on: yet he promised that he would give it to him for a possession, and to his seed after him, when as yet he had no child... And he gave him the covenant of circumcision: and so Abraham begat Isaac, and circumcised him the eighth day; and Isaac begat Jacob; and Jacob begat the twelve patriarchs. (Acts 7:2-8).

So again, we see that circumcision is associated with the command to live in the Land of Israel.

Although this passage appears to be quoting Genesis 12:1, where God speaks to Abraham in Charan and commands him to leave his family and go to the unknown land, Stephen is actually referring to an earlier occasion which is not recorded in the book of Genesis. He says that Abraham lived in Chaldea before he went to Charan, and God spoke to him there. This may well have happened, as God had scattered the Babylonian people (Gen. 12:9) and Abraham's departure from Chaldea would have been part of the general dispersion.

The New Covenant

Peter was a real Chassid and needed some persuasion to go to the house of an uncircumcised Gentile, eat his food and preach to him. This "Gentile", called Cornelius, was actually a "God Fearer", meaning he had gone part of the way towards Judaism, but still it was a hard thing for Peter to go there. He became convinced that the Gentiles could be saved when he saw that they had received the Holy Spirit.

Then he had to explain himself to the so-called "Circumcision Party", and they also accepted that the Gentiles had received the Holy Spirit.

The Lord had commanded Peter "What God hath cleansed, that call not thou common". (Acts 10:15, 11:9). The Jews believed that an uncircumcised person was unclean. The clear implication of this command is that God was going to cleanse the Gentiles, not by circumcision, but by the Holy Spirit.

When it became clear that the Gentiles had received the Holy Spirit, they were also baptised in water (Acts 10:47-48).

Baptism in water is man's confirmation that someone is a believer in Yeshua the Messiah. Baptism in the Holy Spirit (however it might occur) is God's confirmation. These two signs together are the confirmation of the New Covenant (Jer. 31:31-34, Heb. 8:8-11).

The Apostle Paul, in the letter to the Colossians, compares circumcision with baptism as follows:

And ye are complete in him, which is the head of all principality and power, in whom also ye are circumcised with the circumcision made without hands, in putting off the body of the sins of the flesh by the circumcision of Christ, buried with him in baptism, wherein also ye are risen with him through the faith of the operation of God, who hath raised him from the dead. And you, being dead in your sins and the uncircumcision of your flesh, hath he quickened together with him, having forgiven you all trespasses, blotting out the handwriting of ordinances that was against us, which was contrary to us, and took it out of the way, nailing it to his cross, and having spoiled principalities and powers, he made a show of them openly, triumphing over them in it. (Col. 2:10-15).

Now that we are under a New Covenant, does the Old Covenant have any purpose? Yes, it does, because as long as God has purposes for the physical Land of Israel, and there are plenty of prophetic reasons why this should be so, then there needs to be a Covenant People who are sealed under the Old Covenant, by the mark of circumcision, and are ultimately headed for the Land of Israel.

There are, of course, people who are sealed under both the Old and New Covenants. These are the Jewish Believers in Yeshua. The Old Covenant brings them to Israel, and the New Covenant brings them salvation. They are the same as other Believers, except that they have two covenants to fulfil instead of just one.

The Old Covenant of circumcision is effective only for keeping together the Israelites and bringing them into the Land of Israel, but it does not save anyone. Only the New Covenant is effective for salvation.

Has the Old Covenant Vanished?

The Apostle Paul, in the letter to the Hebrews, quotes Jeremiah 31:31-34 as follows:

For if that first covenant had been faultless, then should no place have been sought for the second. For finding fault with them, he saith, Behold, the days come, saith the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah, not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day when I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt; because they continued not in my covenant, and I regarded them not, saith the Lord. For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, saith the Lord; I will put my laws into their mind, and write them in their hearts: and I will be to them a God, and they shall be to me a people, and they shall not teach every man his neighbour, and every man his brother, saying, Know the Lord: for all shall know me, from the least to the greatest. For I will be merciful to their unrighteousness, and their sins and their iniquities will I remember no more. (Heb. 8:7-12).

Then he suggested that the Old Covenant was vanishing:

In that he saith, A new covenant, he hath made the first old. Now that which decayeth and waxeth old is ready to vanish away. (Heb. 8:13).

The question is, what is it that he expects to vanish? There are actually two "Old Covenants". The first is the Covenant of Circumcision that the Lord made with Abraham, as we have already discussed. The second is the Covenant of the Torah that the Lord made with the people at Mount Sinai.

And Moses wrote all the words of the Lord, and rose up early in the morning, and builded an altar under the hill, and twelve pillars, according to the twelve tribes of Israel. And he sent young men of the children of Israel, which offered burnt offerings, and sacrificed peace offerings of oxen unto the Lord. And Moses took half of the blood, and put it in basins; and half of the blood he sprinkled on the altar. And he took the book of the covenant, and read in the audience of the people: and they said, All that the Lord hath said will we do, and be obedient. And Moses took the blood, and sprinkled it on the people, and said, Behold the blood of the covenant, which the Lord hath made with you concerning all these words. (Exodus 24:4-8).

The Apostle Paul, writing to the Hebrews and quoting Jeremiah, refers to the covenant that God made with the Israelites "when I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt". (Heb. 8:9). Clearly, this is not the Covenant of Circumcision that was made with Abraham, but the Covenant of the Torah that was made with the people of Israel. This covenant involved a promise on the part of the people, when they said "All that the Lord hath said will we do, and be obedient". (Exodus 24:7). Before Paul gets into his quotation from Jeremiah, about the New Covenant, he says something about the Old Covenant being at fault:

But now hath he obtained a more excellent ministry, by how much also he is the mediator of a better covenant, which was established upon better promises. For if that first covenant had been faultless, then should no place have been sought for the second. For finding fault with them, he saith, Behold, the days come, saith the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah: (Heb. 8:6-8).

What does he mean by "finding fault with them"? Clearly it does not mean the Torah itself, because the Torah is not referred to as "them". It means the people who accepted the covenant and promised to obey it. So when you get to Hebrews 8:13 and you read that the Old Covenant is on its way to "vanishing altogether", the thing that is vanishing is not the Covenant of Circumcision, which is totally irrelevant to this discussion. Neither is it the Torah. The only thing that is vanishing is the Covenant of the Torah which the Lord had made with the people at Mount Sinai. They promised to obey it totally. They said "All that the Lord hath said will we do, and be obedient". But the best they could ever achieve was partial observance, leaving them at fault and under condemnation. So they were absolved from the covenant, and as the early believers in Yeshua realised that they were absolved, the covenant was considered to be in the process of vanishing.

However, just because we are not bound by the Covenant of the Torah, this does not mean that we can go around wilfully disregarding the Torah itself. We can't go around stealing and murdering, contrary to the Ten Commandments, just because we are absolved from a Covenant that we could not keep.

Circumcision and the Torah

Although the Covenant of Circumcision is different from the Covenant of the Torah, there is clearly a relationship between the two. The people who were given the Covenant of Circumcision, through Abraham, are the same people who were subsequently given the Covenant of the Torah. Circumcision became known as the mark of the people who were obligated to observe the Law.

In addition to the two different Covenants, Paul acknowledged two different circumcisions, the circumcision of the flesh and the circumcision of the heart as follows:

For circumcision verily profiteth, if thou keep the law: but if thou be a breaker of the law, thy circumcision is made uncircumcision. Therefore if the uncircumcision keep the righteousness of the law, shall not his uncircumcision be counted for circumcision? And shall not uncircumcision which is by nature, if it fulfil the law, judge thee, who by the letter and circumcision dost transgress the law? 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. (Romans 2:25-29).

There are some people who would use this passage to claim that Believers in Yeshua are not just the real Jews, they are the only Jews. They claim that God no longer has any business with the physical descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, they dismiss the Torah and all the Jewish customs as irrelevant, they dismiss the Land of Israel as a political accident, and they claim that the church is the Spiritual Israel and it replaces the Israel of the Old Testament. It's called "Replacement Theology".

However, they fail to notice the first sentence of this passage:

For circumcision verily profiteth, if thou keep the law. (Romans 2:25)

Clearly, he is talking about physical circumcision and not the "circumcision of the heart" that he mentions later on. Since Paul is writing to a church, he is talking about the value of circumcision to a Believer in Yeshua. He says it is of value if we observe the Torah, but why should it have a value? What use is circumcision to a person who is saved by faith in Yeshua? The answer is that it has no value for salvation, but it does have a value for the Land of Israel. It has the same value now that it had in the days of Abraham. It is the outward sign of the Covenant that God made with Abraham, to give him the Land of Israel.

Physical circumcision is of value, not just to the believing Jew, but also to the unbelieving Jew. It gives him the link with his people and with the Land of Israel. It might also encourage him to read the Torah, and if he can do so without interference from the unbelieving Rabbis, he might find the Messiah. Circumcision in itself won't save him, but it won't prevent him from being saved either.

In the next chapter of Romans, Paul reaffirms his belief in the value of physical circumcision:

What advantage then hath the Jew? or what profit is there of circumcision? Much every way: chiefly, because that unto them were committed the oracles of God. (Rom. 3:1-2).

Stay The Way You Are

But as God hath distributed to every man, as the Lord hath called every one, so let him walk. And so ordain I in all churches. Is any man called being circumcised? Let him not become uncircumcised. Is any called in uncircumcision? Let him not be circumcised. Circumcision is nothing, and uncircumcision is nothing, but the keeping of the commandments of God. Let every man abide in the same calling wherein he was called. (1 Cor. 7:17-20).

Paul says he is giving them a rule that applies to all the congregations, but what is his rule? Is he giving them an arbirtrary list of instructions that are written in tablets of stone and must be observed in all circumstances? I don't think so, because if he did he would be giving them a new type of legalism that would be contrary to all the rest of his teaching. Basically he is saying we should accept ourselves the way we are and don't try to be something we are not. This is the same advice that we get from many phsychologists and counsellors today. Much damage is done by people trying to pursue a fake identity. If you are a Jew, don't try and be a Gentile. If you are a Gentile, don't try and be a Jew. If you are an assimilated Jew of mixed ancestry, just accept what you are. There is nothing much to gain by trying to profile yourself as one or the other.

The remark that "circumcision is nothing" does not mean it is absolutely nothing, otherwise it would contradict Romans 2:25 and Romans 3:1-2. Circumcision is nothing in comparison with keeping God's commandments.

There is another reason to believe that Paul is giving them a general rule and not a set of specifics. In Acts 15 we read about how Paul and Barnabas went to the Jerusalem Council to discuss the Judaising Controversy and they came back with the result that the Gentiles did not need to be circumcised, but should live a lifestyle that is compatible with the Noachide Laws. Then in Acts 16 we see that he circumcised Timothy. Is he breaking his own rule by circumcising a Believer? No, not at all, because Timothy had a Jewish mother and he should have been circumcised anyway. Timothy was about to embark on a mission to the Jews, so he had to be circumcised. His father was a Greek, and circumcision was necessary to avoid disputes about his Jewish identity. So here again, we see circumcision being associated with the intention to live and work among the Jewish people.

Circumcise And Be Damned!

Stand fast therefore in the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free, and be not entangled again with the yoke of bondage. Behold, I Paul say unto you, that if ye be circumcised, Christ shall profit you nothing. For I testify again to every man that is circumcised, that he is a debtor to do the whole law. Christ is become of no effect unto you, whosoever of you are justified by the law; ye are fallen from grace. For we through the Spirit wait for the hope of righteousness by faith. For in Jesus Christ neither circumcision availeth any thing, nor uncircumcision; but faith which worketh by love. (Gal. 5:1-6).

For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision availeth any thing, nor uncircumcision, but a new creature. (Gal. 6:15).

The book of Galatians was written during Paul's first evangelistic journey, in the white heat of the Judaising Controversy before it had been resolved by the Jerusalem Council. Paul was continually being pursued by the Judaisers who insisted that people couldn't be saved unless they were circumcised. In that situation, anyone who got circumcised would be giving moral support to the Judaisers, so Paul forbade it. If people got circumcised, thinking that it would save them, they had denied the sufficiency of the death and resurrection of Yeshua and had fallen from grace.

In other circumstances, when circumcision was required for different reasons, Paul allowed it, for example when Timothy was circumcised because of his ministry to the Jews.

Circumcision in the New Jerusalem

In Ezekiel Chapters 40 to 46 there is a lengthy description of a vision of the Temple. Ezekiel, in his vision, is in the Land of Israel, so it might seem that this is a physical Temple. In Chapter 47 there is the vision of the waters flowing out from the House of the Lord, irrigating the Land. Chapter 48 is about the division of the Land between the twelve tribes of Israel. Clearly, if this is to be literally fulfilled, the lost tribes of Israel must be recovered from obscurity. Today only the tribe of Judah has remained intact and they are called Jews. Within the Jewish community there are people called Cohen and Levi, whose names are derived from the priestly tribe of Levi, but they are also assimilated with the other Jews. There is no clear division of the tribes now, like there was in the days of Ezekiel. The division of the Land between the tribes must therefore be spiritual rather than literal. At the end of Chapter 48 there are twelve gates of the city, named after the twelve tribes of Israel.

At this point we know that this is a spiritual city, because it appears in Revelation 21 and is called the New Jerusalem. There are the same twelve gates, named after the twelve tribes of Israel. The city comes down from Heaven, and there is no Temple, instead the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are the Temple. In that case, what do we make of the Temple that is seen in Ezekiel's vision. Is this a vision of a physical Temple, or a vision of the Lord. I think it's a vision of the Lord, and I have touched on this subject in my article on Yeshua the Temple.

In that case, what do we make of the following?

Thus saith the Lord God; No stranger, uncircumcised in heart, nor uncircumcised in flesh, shall enter into my sanctuary, of any stranger that is among the children of Israel. And the Levites that are gone away far from me, when Israel went astray, which went astray away from me after their idols; they shall even bear their iniquity. Yet they shall be ministers in my sanctuary, having charge at the gates of the house... And they shall not come near unto me, to do the office of a priest unto me... But I will make them keepers of the charge of the house, for all the service thereof, and for all that shall be done therein. (Ezekiel 44:9-14).

If this is a spiritual Temple, then there is no need to go around looking for priests of worthy credentials, who are circumcised in heart and in flesh, and there is no need to make rules about the limited services that can be performed by those who went astray.

If, on the other hand, this is a physical Temple to be built in Jerusalem in the Land of Israel, the argument about circumcision still holds true. Circumcision is the mark of identification with the Land of Israel, and with its people, and is necessary for Temple service. The "Levites that are gone away" would represent the secular Jews or maybe the Kabbalists. It would certainly not represent the Gentiles or the assimilated Jews, who were never Levites in the first place, or if they were, they never knew about it.


Copyright 1998 Updated January 2004

Mike Gascoigne
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