A Cut Above:

The Covenant of Circumcision

Douglas Gilliland


The covenant of circumcision is an interesting contemporary focal point for the debate between Covenantal and Dispensational theologians. This paper analyzes the development of circumcision from the time when it was originally given to Abraham, through the Law, and into the New Testament period.

What is Circumcision?

Circumcision is a religious ritual that involves the removal of the foreskin of the male sex organ.

Circumcision, as ordained by God to Abraham, was to be performed on all male children on the eight day after birth. In the case of servants, they were to be circumcised when they were brought into the household.

Medical Benefits?

It has long been claimed by some Christians as well as some "non-religious" medical doctors, that circumcision has medical benefits such as a reduced cervical cancer rate in the spouses of circumcised males, reduced incidence of urinary tract infections, and reduction in rates of penile cancer. Hence, a rationale is seen in Godís command with the justification that the medical benefits are worth the physical pain of the procedure.

Currently, there are many groups that oppose this view. They feel that circumcision has no known medical benefits, and can lead to complications and even death in rare cases. They say that the studies showing reduced cervical cancer rates were flawed due to inadequate statistical models and claim that the rate of penile cancer is actually higher in circumcised males than in non-circumcised males.

At present, urinary tract infections can easily be cured due to the wide availability of antibiotics. However, antibiotics are a fairly recent invention, so there may be a historical advantage to circumcision.


Dispensational Claims

Dispensational authors claim that the covenant made with Abraham was an unconditional covenant requiring no action on Abrahamís part. They point to the ratification ceremony where God alone walked through the separate animal carcass halves as proof that the covenant was unconditional. Regardless of the future actions of Abraham or his descendents, they say, God will fulfill his promises to the genetic descendents of Abraham. This translates into a future fulfillment of the land promises. This continues to be one of the major theological Dispensational distinctives.

Covenantal Claims

Covenantal authors claim that the covenant God made with Abraham had several conditions attached including circumcision. All of these conditions relate to obedience to the conditions of the covenant. They see a continuity of the covenant between that made with Abraham through faith, and the covenant of those who place their faith in Christ.

Interaction between the Views

Both Covenantal and Dispensational theologians have written critically of each otherís views on this particular issue. For instance, Pentecost criticizes Allis on this very point. Allis, in turn, had written critically of the teachings of Classic Dispensational author C. I. Scofield. Pentecost claims that the covenant was not actually instituted in Genesis 17, but rather with the initial promise by God in Gensis 12, 13, and 15. Thus, he argues, if it was a condition of the covenant, why would it be offered later? Pentecost differentiates between receiving the covenant and enjoying the blessing of the covenant. However, he does not deal with the force of the passage where God says that anyone not being circumcised would be cut off from the people.


Biblical Examples of Circumcision

There are many interesting passages that contain Biblical examples of circumcision. Some of these include:

Circumcision of Abraham and Ishmael

Circumcision of Isaac

Circumcision of Shechem (Gen 34)

Circumcision of the son of Moses

Circumcision of the children of Israel

Circumcision of Christ

Circumcision of the Companions of Paul

Circumcision of Abraham and Ishmael (Gen 17)

This was the first recorded Biblical instance of circumcision and the institution of the covenant of circumcision between God and Abraham.

Abraham was 99 years old when he circumcised himself and the same day he circumcised Ishmael and his servants.

Ishmael was thirteen when he was circumcised. Interestingly, Ishmael excluded from the promise, but was still circumcised as part of the household of Abraham.

Circumcision of Isaac

Isaac was circumcised on the eight day. The use of the phrase "as God had commanded him" is the same Hebrew word that was used when God commanded man not to eat of the tree of life.

Circumcision of Shechem (Gen 34)

The sons of Jacob were disturbed by the relationship between their sister Dinah, and Shechem. Shechem wanted to marry Dinah, but several of the sons of Jacob came up with a plan to avenge their sister. They had Shechem, and his entire community, agree to be circumcised and be joined to their family as a result. While they were in recovery from the pain of the circumcision, they killed them all.

Circumcision of the son of Moses (Exodus 4:24-26)

This incident is an exegetical nightmare. In the passage, God seeks to kill Moses. The only reason seems to be that God wants to kill Moses since his son was not circumcised. In the text, his wife cuts off the foreskin with a sharp stone and tosses it at Moses. If she was so bothered by the bloody circumcision, then why did she do it herself? Why toss it at the feet of Moses? The brief conclusion is that a father can be put to death for neglecting to have his son circumcised. Moses would have been not credible as a leader to Israel and as a testimony to Pharoah, if his son was not circumcised. The choice would seem to have been between his wife, who was a Midianitess, and God. After the circumcision, Moses sent his wife and son back to Media.

Circumcision of the children of Israel

Oddly, during the 40 years of wandering in the wilderness, the children of Israel did not circumcise their children. Before they entered the land, there was a mass circumcision.

Circumcision of John the Baptist (Luke 1:59)

In the circumcision of John, the naming of the child happened the same day that he was circumcision. The selection of the name, John, by Elizabeth was remarkable to the people around her since it was not a family name. The angel had told Zacharias to name him John.


Circumcision of Christ

The circumcision and naming of Jesus was on the eighth day. Additionally, after the days of purification, Jesus was presented to God in the temple. The circumcision of Jesus was done under the requirements of the law.

Circumcision of the companions of Paul

There are at least two interesting examples of Paulís interaction with circumcision. Paul was winning converts in the Gentile community. When he brought these converts to Jerusalem the issue of their lack of circumcision came to light.

Paul and Titus (Gal 2:3)

When Paul brought the Greek, Titus, to Jerusalem with him, the Jews insisted on circumcising him. Titus stood his ground and refused to be circumcised.

Paul and Timothy (Acts 16:3)

Unlike Titus, Paul had Timothy circumcised. This event is even more puzzling due to the close proximity in time to the Jerusalem council where they decided that the Gentile converts should not be placed under the same restrictions of the Jewish law as the Jews.


Biblical Usages of the Word "Circumcision"

There are a number of ways that the word "circumcision" is used in the Bible:

Entrance rite to the Abrahamic Covenant

Connection to ordinance repeated in the law

As a description of the national Jews who accepted Christ

As a pejorative description of the Jews who opposed Paul on the issues around the law, ie, Judaizers

Circumcision of the heart

Each of these usages are examined in detail.

Entrance Rite to the Abrahamic Covenant

In Genesis 17, God commanded Abraham to circumcise himself, his offspring, and any male living in his household, as a token of the covenant. Prior to that, God had set the rainbow as a token, i. e., a sign of his covenant with Noah, that He would never destroy the earth by flood. This same language is repeated in the Genesis 17 account of the covenant between God and Abraham.

Transition to the Mosaic law

The law of Moses included a provision for circumcision with the same requirements as those given to Abraham. As the author of the first five books, Moses is pointing out that that the promises made to Abraham go to the descendents of Israel. This was to the exclusion of the other descendents of Abraham. Esau was excluded from the land promises to Abraham.

The circumcision of a child under the law was a complex situation. The woman was unclean for seven days after the delivery of the child. Then there was a one day period where the woman was able to enter the temple to have the child circumcised. A thirty three day time of uncleaness followed.




Lineal Jews who accepted Christ

(Rom 4:9)

Pejorative Uses

(ex: Acts 11:2, Acts 15:1, Titus 1:11)

Spiritualized Meaning

The surprise here is that the New Testament is not where the spiritualized meaning first occurs.

Deu 30:6 And the LORD thy God will circumcise thine heart, and the heart of thy seed, to love the LORD thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, that thou mayest live.

Deu 10:16 Circumcise therefore the foreskin of your heart, and be no more stiffnecked.

Jer 4:4 Circumcise yourselves to the LORD, and take away the foreskins of your heart, ye men of Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem: lest my fury come forth like fire, and burn that none can quench it, because of the evil of your doings.

Jer 9:26, Phil 3:3, Col 2:11, Rom 2:28)

Deu 10:16 Circumcise therefore the foreskin of your heart, and be no more stiffnecked.


Rom 15:8 Now I say that Jesus Christ was a minister of the circumcision for the truth of God, to confirm the promises made unto the fathers:


New Testament Theological Aspects

Gal 5:6 For in Jesus Christ neither circumcision availeth any thing, nor uncircumcision; but faith which worketh by love.

John 7:22 Moses therefore gave unto you circumcision; (not because it is of Moses, but of the fathers;) and ye on the sabbath day circumcise a man.

John 7:23 If a man on the sabbath day receive circumcision, that the law of Moses should not be broken; are ye angry at me, because I have made a man every whit whole on the sabbath day?

Analysis of the Views

The command from God that Abraham circumcise himself as well as his descendents, along with the curse that would rest upon any descendent who was not circumcised, is a conditional requirement involving Abrahamís obedience. As the text itself notes, if the act is not performed, the person is not an heir to the covenant regardless of the natural descent.


John 7:22 Moses therefore gave unto you circumcision; (not because it is of Moses, but of the fathers;) and ye on the sabbath day circumcise a man.

John 7:23 If a man on the sabbath day receive circumcision, that the law of Moses should not be broken; are ye angry at me, because I have made a man every whit whole on the sabbath day?

Relationship to Baptism

Current Status

Virtual circumcision Rom 2:26 Therefore if the uncircumcision keep the righteousness of the law, shall not his uncircumcision be counted for circumcision?


Performed on the 8th day. John 7:22 regardless of whether itís a Sabbath or not.


Relationship with Modern Judaism

Isaac M. Wise, in 1869,suggested that circumcision be declared optional for adult converts to Judaism.



Allis, Oswald T., Prophecy and the Church, (Phillipsburg, N. J.: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1945, 1947).

Pentecost, J. Dwight, Things to Come: A Study in Biblical Eschatology, (Grand Rapids, MI.: Zondervan, 1958.

Ryrie, Charles C., Basic Theology: A Popular Systematic Guide to Understanding Biblical Faith. (Wheaton, IL.: Victor Books, 1986).


Current Medical status of circumcision


American Cancer Society

Research suggesting a pattern in the circumcision status of partners of women with cervical cancer is methodologically flawed, outdated, and has not been taken seriously in the medical community for decades.

Likewise, research claiming a relationship between circumcision and penile cancer is inconclusive. Penile cancer is an extremely rare condition, affecting one in 200,000 men in the United States. Penile cancer rates in countries which do not practice circumcision are lower than those found in the United States. Fatalities caused by circumcision accidents may approximate the mortality rate from penile cancer.




Medical studiesÖ



The rite is attested in the intertestamental period (1 Macc. 1:15, 60-61; 2 Macc. 6:10) and is still observed in Judaism and Islam

New Testament Circumcision Ė baptism?


Moslem view of circ.


Christian Israelites Ė "). It is therefore a pre-requisite on all members who wish to partake of the Covenant"

Sacrificial Aspect


History of Circumcision


Current Jewish practices


Circumcision Information Pages