9 And God said to Abraham, “As for you, you shall keep my covenant, you and your offspring after you throughout their generations. 10 This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and your offspring after you: Every male among you shall be circumcised. 11 You shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and you. 12 He who is eight days old among you shall be circumcised. Every male throughout your generations, whether born in your house or bought with your money from any foreigner who is not of your offspring, 13 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. 14 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.” – Genesis 17:9-14 ESV
Up to this point in the story, the covenant between God and Abram had been non-binding. The agreement had been unilateral in nature, obligating God to keep all that He had promised to Abram. Even when God had ordered Abram to sacrifice and divide the animals, God had walked through the midst of them alone (Genesis 16:1-21). He had not required Abram to join him in this covenant ratification ceremony. God, in the form of a smoking pot and a flaming torch, passed through the midst of the dismembered animals, signifying His commitment to keep all the promises He had made to Abram. In a sense, God was saying, “May what happened to these animals be my own fate should I fail to honor my word.” This action by God ratified or sealed the agreement, but nothing was required of Abram. Until now.
Thirteen years after Ishmael’s birth, God visited Abram again and revisited the covenant agreement between them. But this time, God revealed to Abram that he could no longer be a non-participant in the covenant. He too would have a binding and costly obligation to uphold. Gone were the days of simply waiting on God to fulfill His commitment. Other than delay and possible disappointment, Abram had no skin in the game (excuse the pun). So, God upped the ante and placed upon Abram a sobering obligation.
“…walk before me, and be blameless, that I may make my covenant between me and you, and may multiply you greatly.” – Genesis 17:1-2 ESV
God had already committed Himself to shower this obscure individual from Ur of the Chaldees with blessings beyond his wildest imaginations.
“I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” – Genesis 12:2-3 ESV
But now, decades later, Abram was still waiting for a son so that this amazing future might come to fruition. And as Abram waited and wondered about the future, God called him to live his life in the present with a soldout commitment to and trust in the trustworthiness of El Shaddai, God Almighty. Abram had been set apart by God for a divine purpose and God wanted Abram to conduct his life in keeping with His calling.
But this call to a committed life was going to be far more costly than Abram could have imagined, and it would be perpetual in nature, being passed down to Abram’s descendants. While Abram was still waiting for an heir, God had already confirmed His covenant commitment to Abram’s progeny.
“I will establish my covenant between me and you and your offspring after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you.” – Genesis 17:7 ESV
God’s promise was unconditional. He would do what He said He would do. But, as His chosen people, the descendants of Abram were to walk before Him and be blameless. They were to conduct their lives in keeping with their calling and set-apart status – just like Abram. They would belong to God. And as a reminder of their status as His prized possession, God provided them with a sign, a very intimate and extremely painful sign: The rite of circumcision.
This latest directive from God must have left Abram slack-jawed and a bit confused. It had to have sounded strange and unnecessary. As far as can be discerned from the text, this was an unprecedented command from God. There is no indication that this rite was practiced by any other people group at the time. But God had made it a non-negotiable requirement for Abram and all his male descendants.
“As for you, you must keep the covenantal requirement I am imposing on you and your descendants after you throughout their generations.” – Genesis 17:9 NET
This was an addendum to the original covenant agreement. But it did nothing to alter God’s previous commitment to fulfill His covenantal obligations. In other words, God was not attempting to move the goal post or change the rules in the middle of the game. He would still do what He had promised to do. But He was placing a binding requirement on Abram and his descendants.
“This is my requirement that you and your descendants after you must keep: Every male among you must be circumcised. You must circumcise the flesh of your foreskins. This will be a reminder of the covenant between me and you.” – Genesis 17:10-11 NET
Even to the modern mind, this rite or ritual sounds strange and difficult to rationalize. Why was God demanding such a painful and personal “sacrifice” on the part of Abram’s male descendants? What possible reason could God have for commanding the removal of the foreskin of every male’s sexual organ? How would that be a “sign,” when no one would ever see it?
The key to understanding this rite is found within the nature of God’s promise to Abram. God had told Abram that he would be a father and that he would fruitful. He would produce seed or offspring. Just as God had commanded Adam to be fruitful, multiply, and fill the earth, so too, He was expecting Abram to obey the divine mandate to procreate and populate the earth with more of his kind. And the male genitalia would play a vital role in the fulfillment of that command to be fruitful.
In commanding the circumcision of the flesh of their foreskin, God was providing a very personal and intimate sign to each and every male descendant of Abram and Adam. This sign would be invisible to the rest of the world. But those who bore it would have an unavoidable and daily reminder of its meaning. Even when fulfilling their divine mandate to “be fruitful,” they would be forced to recognize the set-apart nature of their relationship with God.
And it’s important to recognize that this ritual was not reserved for Abram’s blood descendants alone. He was told to circumcise every male in his household.
“This applies not only to members of your family but also to the servants born in your household and the foreign-born servants whom you have purchased.” – Genesis 17:12 NLT
This would have included Abram’s man-servant, Eliezer of Damascus, as well as Ishmael, the son of Hagar, the Egyptian handmade to Sarai. Every male associated with Abram was to undergo this “surgical” procedure. No one was exempt. Their bodies were to bear the mark of God’s everlasting covenant.
And God makes it clear that anyone who fails to be “cut” will be “cut off” from His people.
“Any male who fails to be circumcised will be cut off from the covenant family for breaking the covenant.” – Genesis 17:14 NLT
There is a rather subtle but obvious wordplay going on here. In Hebrew, the word for “circumcised” is מוּל (mûl) and it literally means “to cut” or “to cut off.” God is declaring that those who refuse to cut off their foreskins will face equally painful consequences. They will be “cut off” (כָּרַת – kāraṯ) from the household of Abram. In other words, failure to be circumcised will result in their physical expulsion from the covenant community. They were to be excommunicated. Some Old Testament scholars speculate that this punishment may have included execution, not just expulsion. Whatever the case, it was intended as a strong incentive to obey God’s command and submit to the sign of the covenant. The fact that God decreed that this rite take place on the eighth day of an infant’s life, ensures that it was adhered to without the risk of refusal. It was mandatory and not optional. One can only imagine what went through the mind of a grown man like Eliezer when Abram informed him of this new requirement. It would be easy to see how someone might want to avoid this painful and humiliating ritual. But, as the text will reveal, Abram obeyed and command of God and the men of his household complied.
It is essential to understand that this caveat or condition to the covenant in no way altered God’s commitment. If a man refused to undergo circumcision, he would be forfeit his right to the blessings of the covenant. But God would remain fully committed to keeping the promises He had made to Abram. He would make of Abram a great nation, and that nation would enjoy the blessings of God. And through that nation, God would raise up an offspring of Abram who would one day bestow divine blessings on all the nations of the earth – even upon the uncircumcised. And the apostle Paul points out the staggering implications of God’s commitment to His covenant promises.
Don’t forget that you Gentiles used to be outsiders. You were called “uncircumcised heathens” by the Jews, who were proud of their circumcision, even though it affected only their bodies and not their hearts. In those days you were living apart from Christ. You were excluded from citizenship among the people of Israel, and you did not know the covenant promises God had made to them. You lived in this world without God and without hope. But now you have been united with Christ Jesus. Once you were far away from God, but now you have been brought near to him through the blood of Christ. – Ephesians 2:11-13 NLT
English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.