This week’s text in the International Sunday School Lesson is Genesis 17:1-14. Ninety year old Abram received from God a promise and a procedure. The promise was first expressed from the time of his calling in Genesis 12.
“I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” (Genesis 12:2-3)
Over and over God affirmed that he was going to keep his promise, no matter how unpromising the situation became. All of this was to come through a son. Not the son of the Egyptian slave Hagar, though Abram loved Ishmael and God blessed him in his own way. No, he was not the son of promise. Through it all Abram believed God. Even though his own devices and plans to try to help God failed miserably. Perhaps that’s at the core of the procedure.
God reminded Abram that he would the “the father of many nations”. He changed his name to Abraham (a footnote in the NIV says this “probably means father of many nations”). After affirming the land promise and the peoples promise, God gave Abraham a sign of the covenant he made with him. It was a sign that would be a national symbol, every male would carry with him.
“As for you, you must keep my covenant, you and your descendants after you for the generations to come. This is my covenant with you and your descendants after you, the covenant you are to keep: Every male among you shall be circumcised. You are to undergo circumcision, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and you. For the generations to come every male among you who is eight days old must be circumcised, including those born in your household or bought with money from a foreigner—those who are not your offspring. Whether born in your household or bought with your money, they must be circumcised. My covenant in your flesh is to be an everlasting covenant.”
I will admit that most Bible class teachers are going to squirm a bit to be talking about such a personal procedure. It is one that would affect Abraham in a personal way also. He’s trying to procreate, and this is going to take some time to heal. It’s one more delay in producing a son with Sarah. This is quite a request for an almost-100-year-old-man and for all the males in his nomadic tribe. So Abraham and his son Ishmael were circumcised on the same day.
The term ‘circumcise’ means ‘cutting around’. In the last verse of our text, God uses that terminology to demonstrate his intention.
“Any uncircumcised male, who has not been circumcised in the flesh, will be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant.”
So a refusal to be circumcised was equal to being cut off from the promises of the covenant. We all know Abraham was the father of the faithful and he did act in faithful response to this command from God. In Israel’s history they kept this command, mostly.
During the journey through the wilderness, the practice of circumcision fell into disuse, probably because the Israelites were under God’s judgment during that time, but was resumed by Joshua’s command before they entered the Promised Land (Joshua 5:2–9). It was observed always afterwards among the tribes of Israel, although it’s not expressly mentioned from the time of the settlement in Canaan until the time of Christ, about 1,450 years later. (Freeman, J. M., & Chadwick, H. J. (1998). Manners & Customs of the Bible (pp. 23–24). North Brunswick, NJ: Bridge-Logos Publishers.)
By the New Testament times a question arose among the Apostles. The Gentiles were flooding into the church … they were an uncircumcised people … what is supposed to be done about this? At the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15) it was decided that they could be allowed into the church without this procedure.
Later Apostle Paul would use the idea of circumcision in a spiritual way.
For it is we who are the circumcision, we who serve God by his Spirit, who boast in Christ Jesus, and who put no confidence in the flesh… (Philippians 3:3)
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. (Colossians 2:11-12)
Paul also played down the role of circumcision for today when he concluded, “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love” (Galatians 5:6).
Circumcision has been released from faith practices today except among Jews and Muslims. It remains a common practice among the general population. Neonatal circumcision has been the most common surgery in America for over a century. Nearly six out of ten newborns are released from hospitals foreskin-free in the United States, but it is rare everywhere else in the world. (LINK)
So how to apply this passage without demanding circumcision of all Christian males today? Some questions to ponder…
Are We Willing to do Difficult Things for God?
Observe the faithfulness of Abraham when he was asked to do a difficult thing. To institute this painful procedure he would have to put off for a while the desire of his heart, procreation with Sarah as promised by God. He could cut off the foreskin in obedient faith, or he could be cut off from the people of God. Being a disciple of Jesus Christ also calls us to demonstrate obedience, sometimes in difficult situations. A read-through of the beatitudes or the Sermon on the Mount can demonstrate this.
Are We Willing to Obey God When the Path Ahead is Unclear?
Abraham’s obedience was not only difficult, it seemed arbitrary. Abraham demonstrates an obedience that is stunning in it’s borderless following. Even later when Abraham is willing to sacrifice Isaac, we are amazed at his faith demonstrated in obedience. Do we have enough faith to obey when we can’t see the significance of our actions? When we are obedient to God’s Word without having to understand all the details we are walking in fields of faith.
Do We Really Believe God?
We’re all given a choice in whether or not we choose to follow God, or take the path of being cut off from Him forever. But I think there’s a deeper issue at work here. Do we believe God when everything we see and experience is opposite of what He has promised? Who hasn’t looked up at the sky and with all we have within us shouted, “WHY?” Ultimately when we choose to follow God there are things that we do that may or may not make a lot of sense to us. Who can explain why baptism washes away sin? The Bible clearly states that it does, and I believe it. But the mechanics of that escape me. How does prayer ‘work’? Can we sense the Holy Spirit as He lives within us? Do we need to know the answers to those questions before we can believe Him?
At first the circumcision of Abraham, and the nation, seems like an ancient ritual with nothing to do with our modern times. But in actuality it teaches us a lot about faith. That’s a discipline in which I always need to grow.
Thanks for reading, JD.