Circumcision is a topic that arises in the Old and New Testaments. For example, Bible readers encounter it in the biography of Abraham, the Law of Moses, and the early church, where it was a hotly debated topic. Scripture also uses circumcision metaphorically multiple times, which may confuse some Bible readers. For these reasons, many people want to know more about circumcision.
Circumcision refers to cutting off the foreskin of a penis. Circumcision was the sign of the covenant between God, Abraham, and his offspring. In the Law, God repeated the command to circumcise male boys when they were eight days old. The early church debated continuing the act.
What did God’s requirement of circumcision signify to Abraham? Why was the act done with male babies eight days old? Why did God require non-Israelites to be circumcised? What is circumcision of the heart? Why did Paul oppose requiring circumcision under the New Covenant? Keep reading to learn the answers to these questions and others.
Also, see What is a Eunuch in the Bible? to learn more.
Circumcision was a physical sign of God’s covenant
Genesis 17 describes the covenant sign of circumcision. While circumcision was a physical act, its utmost importance was what it reflected about the Israelite’s relationship with God. However, the physical act alone didn’t imply that an individual was in good standing with God.
Covenant is at the heart of the Bible’s teaching about circumcision. In chapter 17 alone, the term “my covenant” appears nine times in 27 verses, and the word “covenant” occurs four times. (These numbers may vary slightly depending on the English translation.)
Genesis 17:9 describes who God made a promise to: “And God said to Abraham, ‘As for you, you shall keep my covenant, you and your offspring after you throughout their generations'” (ESV).
Thus, God established circumcision for Abraham and his descendants, called “Hebrews” and “Israelites,” later in Scripture.
God prescribes circumcision for all of Abraham’s descendants
Circumcision was a physical sign of Israel’s covenantal relationship with God. “This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and your offspring after you,” God declared. “Every male among you shall be circumcised” (v. 10).
Like the rainbow was a visual reminder that God wouldn’t flood the world again (Gen. 9:16), circumcision was a physical sign of God’s covenant with Abraham (cf. Gen. 12:1-3).
God also told Abraham when he and his descendants should circumcise their male babies. “You shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and you. He who is eight days old among you shall be circumcised.” (v. 11-12a, emphasis added).
Circumcising male babies when they were eight days old made them immediately part of the Israel community and extended covenantal blessings to them.
This differentiated Israel from pagan cultures at the time, who performed circumcision at the onset of puberty.  It also allowed for the mother’s seven days of ceremonial uncleanness to reach completion (Lev. 12:1-3).
Traditionally, fathers performed circumcision on their sons. In rare instances, the mother could (e.g., Exod. 4:25). Later, an individual in the community, like a doctor or surgeon, had the responsibility.
The circumcision of non-Hebrews and non-Israelites
God also told Abraham that if there were male babies among the community of his family members, they should also be circumcised. “Both he who is born in your house and he who is bought with your money, shall surely be circumcised. So shall my covenant be in your flesh an everlasting covenant” (v. 13).
Why did God prescribe circumcision to non-Israelites? Genesis scholar Kenneth Mathews explains: “Such inclusion was based on the subservient relationship of the parent and child to the Hebrew household; by this mark in the body the slave identifies with the master’s covenant with God.” 
Circumcision united God’s chosen people
Circumcision united the community of Abraham’s descendants. The act was a sign between God and his people, but it was also a common experience that Israelite males shared.
God expelled community members if they weren’t circumcised. Verse 14 reads, “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.”
The punishment results from rejecting God and the covenant he made with Abraham’s offspring, not merely rejecting a medical procedure.
Also, see What is a Lust in the Bible? to learn more.
What is the circumcision of the heart?
In addition to describing the physical act of circumcision, the Old Testament also uses the word metaphorically. When used this way, circumcision refers to the heart and “cutting off” sins like pride, empty religious rituals, a desire to be like pagans, and much more. Here are three examples:
- Leviticus 26:41, “So that I walked contrary to them and brought them into the land of their enemies—if then their uncircumcised heart is humbled and they make amends for their iniquity” (ESV).
- Deuteronomy 30:6, “And the Lord your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your offspring, so that you will love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live.”
- Ezekiel 44:7, “In admitting foreigners, uncircumcised in heart and flesh, to be in my sanctuary, profaning my temple, when you offer to me my food, the fat and the blood. You have broken my covenant, in addition to all your abominations.”
Deuteronomy scholar Daniel Block explains: “The metaphor refers to removing all psychological, moral, and spiritual barriers to true devotion to Yahweh, resulting in undivided love and obedience.” 
Also, see What is a Sodomy in the Bible? to learn more.
The controversy over circumcision in the early church
After the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, a controversy arose in the early church. A group of certain men, known as Judaizers, taught that circumcision was necessary for salvation.
However, this isn’t the case under the New Covenant because God saves sinners by grace through faith in Jesus Christ alone (Rom. 3:24-25, 6:23, 10:9-10; Eph. 2:8).
Acts 15:1 sets the scene: “But some men came down from Judea and were teaching the brothers, ‘Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved'” (ESV). In response, Paul and Barnabas vehemently disagreed with their teaching.
“And after Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and debate with them, Paul and Barnabas and some of the others were appointed to go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and the elders about this question” (Acts 15:2).
Peter called the Judaizer’s requirement of circumcision for salvation a “yoke on the neck” (v. 10). The imagery of placing a yoke on the neck of the disciples implies that circumcision was an unnecessary load for people to carry. Therefore, under the New Covenant, requiring circumcision for salvation would be legalism.
So the leaders decided that people don’t have to be circumcised to become Christians: “Therefore my judgment is that we should not trouble those of the Gentiles who turn to God” (v. 19).
Also, see What is a Hyssop in the Bible? to learn more.
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