[Author’s note: I wrote this study almost 15 years ago as a means of trying to understand what God’s word said about who should partake of the bread and wine within the Passover ceremony, as that was a topic of debate in our small group at that time (specifically regarding children). The study outlines what I concluded, though in my mind this is not a topic I would “fall on my sword” about.]
Circumcision required in God’s covenant with Abraham
Abram was a righteous man who followed and obeyed God throughout his life. In Genesis 12, we see the Lord (who later came as Jesus Christ) come to Abram and initiate a covenant, which was later reiterated and expanded upon in Genesis 13 and 15. More than thirteen years later, the Lord again appeared to Abram, tells him to be blameless, and instituted a new part of their covenant:
“This is My covenant which you shall keep, between Me and you and your descendants after you: Every male child among you shall be circumcised; and you shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between Me and you…and My covenant shall be in your flesh for an everlasting covenant. And the uncircumcised male child, who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin, that person shall be cut off from his people; he has broken My covenant.” (Gen. 17:1-14)
These verses show circumcision being added as requirement of God’s covenant with Abraham and applying to his descendants as well. Circumcision was a symbol of the faith Abraham already had, an outward symbol or action of the change already evident in Abraham’s heart. It was also used to signify the people God had made a covenant with.
Circumcision involves the shedding of blood, a crucial component in sacrifices for the atoning of sins. Leviticus 17:11 tells us that “the life of the flesh is in the blood…for it is the blood that makes atonement for the soul”. This is a forerunner of Christ shedding His blood for the atonement of mankind’s sins (I John 1:7).
Israel’s requirements as God’s covenant people
Fast-forward to Israel preparing to leave Egypt and to keep the Passover for the first time. Throughout Exodus 12, God gives Moses and Aaron the instructions for the sacrifice of the lamb, the blood on the doorpost (again, the shedding of blood and coming under it), and eating the meal. Towards the end of the chapter, God instructs them that no foreigner shall eat the Passover (the body of the lamb that has been sacrificed), and tells them:
“All of the congregation of Israel shall keep it. And when a stranger dwells with you and wants to keep the Passover to the Lord, let all his males be circumcised…For no uncircumcised person shall eat it.” (Ex. 12:47)
The Lord is very clear that no uncircumcised person can keep the Passover, because it’s impossible to come under the blood of the lamb (Lamb) and partake of its (His) body without being circumcised—the sign of God’s covenant with His people. In this patriarchal society where God made a covenant with the nation as a whole, circumcision for family members was ascribed to the head male family member, who stood for the whole family (and all males in the family were also circumcised).
Over the centuries, God frequently made a connection between the act of physical circumcision and an analogy of spiritual circumcision, or circumcision of the heart. Throughout many years of wandering in the desert, Israel continually rejected God and longed with their carnal hearts to return to their old ways. Before they finally were allowed to enter the Promised Land after the 40 years of wandering, God hammered home this connection and how He wanted His relationship with them to function.
- “And now, Israel, what does the Lord your God require of you, but to fear the Lord your God, to walk in all His ways and to love Him, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to keep the commandments of the Lord and His statutes which I command you today for your good?…Therefore circumcise the foreskin of your heart, and be stiff-necked no longer.” (Deut. 10:12-16)
- “Then the Lord your God will bring you to the land which your fathers possessed…And the Lord your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your descendants, to love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live…And you will again obey the voice of the Lord and do all His commandments.” (Deut. 30:5-8)
Circumcision represented removing the part of a person that is resistant to God. This never happened with physical Israel, though they were (often) physically circumcised. The fact is that this circumcision of the heart can’t truly happen without God’s spirit at work in a person, and this was not available beyond a few specific cases until Christ’s sacrifice.