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Why Circumcision?

I received an email some time ago posing a few questions concerning circumcision, questions I have answered privately due to the awkward nature of the subject. (Have you noticed how quiet everyone gets when it comes up in the adult Sunday School class?) I’ve decided to answer at least one of those questions* here. The particular question I am addressing today is,

Why, of all things, did God choose circumcision as the sign of the covenant?

The question is not why God instituted circumcision; it is why he chose circumcision rather than something else.

That is a question I’ve asked myself, and I imagine a lot of people have wondered with me. Why did God institute such a strange practice? Really, isn’t it just weird, to say the least? Surely he could have come up with something else, something that would cause less embarrassment when it comes up at Wednesday night Bible study—a tattoo, or a piercing, anything, just not that! Yes, I have had these thoughts, and so have many other Christians, I think.

The answer is I don’t know, and I’ve never read any attempt at answering this question. I have an idea, though, and while I must admit it is only an opinion, I’m fairly well convinced it’s right—at least as convinced as I can be without a direct word from Scripture.

I believe circumcision demonstrates the depth of intimacy God wants to have with his people. He wants such an intimate connection with us that he put the physical mark of his covenant with us in the most intimate possible place. Furthermore, the removal of the foreskin represents the uncovering of our most hidden parts. Think about it: even when a man is entirely naked , his most private part is still covered by his foreskin. Only under the most intimate of circumstances is he entirely exposed, and then only to the one with whom the intimacy is shared. God wants that degree of intimacy with us.

This concept is by no means unexpressed in scripture. Marriage is explicitly an earthly picture of the heavenly relationship of Christ and his church (Matthew 25:1–13; Ephesians 5:22ff; Revelation 19:7–8). And so I believe that circumcision, in part, represents the total, uninhibited abandonment of modesty and privacy between bridegroom and bride.

As I have said, this is my opinion. But I think it’s as good an answer as any to the question of why God chose that specific sign.

* They were all valid questions, but I’m unsure about the propriety of addressing them here. We’ll see . . .

Update: This page continues to be one of the most read on this site. That’s unfortunate, because it is only an opinion. In fact, I’m not sure it’s even an opinion. It’s just an idea I had one day as I was thinking about it, just speculation about something about which we can only speculate. Reading it myself, five years later, it seems a little nutty, but still as good an explanation as any—not that any explanation is needed. Don’t take it any more seriously than that. If you want something on this subject to take seriously, try this. And please, stop emailing me to tell me that circumcision was the sign of the Abrahamic Covenant. I get that. Really—I do.

Posted 2008·12·29 by David Kjos
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#1 || 08·12·29··07:46 || donsands

Difficult subject. I appreciate your posting this. Some good thoughts as well.

I think Paul says we need to circumcise our hearts. The circumcision of the flesh was very important to the Jew. And yet they took it too far, when they said Titus has to be circumcised, and Titus said, "No way, man!" (I'm guessing that's how he said it.)

Thanks for the post. And it's an awkward subject for sure. But there are good teachers who know how to explain the Scriptures when dealing with circumcision, and then there are those who are way to blunt. And there are those who avoid it altogether.

Thanks again for the good words to ponder and pray on.

#2 || 08·12·29··10:02 || David

"No way, man!"

Yeah, that's probably how it went.

Just to be clear, I'm not presenting these reasons as justification for practicing circumcision today. God forbid! It is indeed our hearts that need circumcision (Deuteronomy 10:16, 30:6; Jeremiah 4:4; Romans 2:29).

#3 || 08·12·29··10:25 || Will

Best explanation I've heard is that the sign of circumcision served as a link to God's covenant promises. The promise is connected to the propagation of Abraham's seed/offspring. Placing the mark on the means of procreation would serve as a reminder of this promise.

This would also explain why Paul explains that circumcision is no longer for New Testament saints, since the ultimate fulfillment of the seed/offspring promise was found in Christ (Gal 3:16).

Interesting thing to think about.

#4 || 08·12·29··10:57 || Betsy Markman

You know, the Bible is a lot less squeamish than a lot of Christians! While it's important to speak with propriety (as this entry does), it's equally important not to act as if anything God has made or done is shameful and unmentionable. When we act overly squeamish, we lose a lot of credibility, I think. (Those who know me would laugh to see me write this, since my face turns flaming red at the slightest provocation. It seems my face doesn't quite believe what my mind has decided on the subject!)

Anyway, I like the explanation offered in this posting, as well as the one about the covenant that was carried on by procreation. Both seem quite valid to me. And I might add that it's significant that such a covenant sign was carried out only on the male of the species, since the man is required to be the spiritual leader.

I appreciate the willingness to tackle a sensitive subject in an appropriate manner.

#5 || 08·12·29··12:27 || David

I think Will's explanation is valid also.

That only males were circumcised brings up another issue entirely, that men as heads represent entire failies, including the females. Some would then point out that the sign of the covenant was something that could only be performed on males, but I would answer that that is not true. Females do in fact (to risk turning Betsy's face red) have a prepuce equivalent to the male foreskin that can be, and sometimes is, removed (this is not the grotesque mutilation commonly called "female circumcision"). That fact emphasizes the significance of male-only circumcision.

#6 || 08·12·30··11:35 || David

After an email exchange with my friend Daniel, I believe my previous comment misses the point. Daniel said,

I think that had God circumcised both sexes, it would not have served his purpose as effeciently or as clearly, since a universal circumcision would suggest that there was something salvific in act of physical mutilation. The fact that we baptise universally all Christians has led many sects to believe that very idea - that there is something salvific in the act of physical baptism, so I know I am not suggesting anything that isn't an obvious truism. While it may not be that God reasoned this way, and I don't demand that it is, yet I think one cannot deny the nature of the beast, as it were.

Due to the fact that the entire purpose of circumcision is to point to God's covenant with man, I doubt very much that human relations have anything to do with it. Therefore, I recant my last comment.

#7 || 09·12·16··05:47 || ag

I like this take on the subject, using the imagery of intimacy and nakedness. However, I believe the prime reason was to accurately foreshadow Christ's atonement. Covenant signs always point to Jesus and say something about him, not the individual person. Circumcision looked forward to the crucifixion, whereas baptism looks back to it. This fits well with the Bride-Bridegroom picture. Men always represent Christ in relationships and women always represent the Church. It was Christ that was to die, therefore only males were to be circumcised. Now, because of his death, there is no need for shedding of blood. And since in Christ there is neither male nor female, jew nor greek, both men and women get the sign now (baptism). But your view on the intimacy symbolism goes along nicely with this as well. Well done.

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