We are used to seeing various kinds of body piercings and skin adornments displayed in public, but have you ever seen anyone with circumcised lips? Or circumcised ears? Probably not, since we have trouble even visualizing what such physical alterations would look like. The source of this terminology comes from Scripture (Ex. 6:12; Jer. 6:10), but it is obviously intended to be interpreted metaphorically, along with the often-repeated references to circumcision of the heart (e.g., Deut. 5:16). This turning of circumcision into metaphor is bold, even a bit shocking, but it is a revealing instance of using physical reality as a bridge to spiritual truth.
Like any metaphor, figurative circumcision is rooted in physical circumcision. Although the practice of excising the male foreskin, particularly for newborn infants, is now a common medical procedure, its religious significance has its origin in God’s Covenant with the Jewish people, first instituted by God as a sign of His Covenant with Abraham (Gen. 17:9-14) and later reinforced under Mosaic Law (Josh. 5:2-6). Since the ritual inherently applies only to males, the question arises as to how it signifies God’s Covenant with all His people, male and female. I would suggest that seating this procedure in the male reproductive organ carries significance in two ways. First, in the patriarchal society of ancient Jews, men bore the primary responsibility for seeing that the meaning of the Covenant was passed on to the next generation; the circumcision of their male sons at eight days old was a commitment to teach those sons what it means to serve God. Second, circumcision of the foreskin betokens a dedicated channeling of male libido under the Lord’s discipline. The man is not free merely to pursue his own lust, but is to dedicate this intimate part of himself to honoring God, through marital fidelity and self-control, thus assuring the perpetuation of a pure line of God’s Chosen People. So we see that the rite of circumcision betokened much more than the physical marking that took place in infancy.
Scripture actually places more emphasis on circumcision of the heart than on physical circumcision. Even in the Old Testament, where physical circumcision is required, there are more references to inner circumcision than to physical circumcision. Circumcision of the heart, as presented to the children of Abraham, involves above all submission to God’s will and obedience to His commandments. “Circumcise therefore the foreskin of your heart, and be no longer stubborn,” Moses tells the Israelites in Deut. 10:16. He also tells them that “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” (Deut. 30:6). What begins as a command for outward obedience to God’s law ends up as a challenge to go beyond the outward process of being physically marked for the Covenant to being spiritually marked by the Covenant.
Under the New Covenant instituted by Jesus’ death and resurrection, the requirement of circumcision was laid aside, along with the rest of the ritual laws about animal sacrifice and Temple worship. Nevertheless, some Jewish Christians from among the Pharisees insisted that circumcision was still necessary for those accepting Christ and the New Covenant. This issue came to a head in the Jerusalem Conference of all the Apostles and leaders of the church (see Acts 15:1 ff.), at which it was determined not only that circumcision was not required of uncircumcised Gentiles who became Christians, but that the core of the New Covenant was salvation by grace, not by meritorious works of law-keeping. Peter testified how God had shown him that the Good News was as much for the Gentiles as for the Jews, and God “made no distinction between us and them, having cleansed their hearts by faith. Now, therefore, why are you putting God to the test by placing a yoke on the neck of the disciples that neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear? But we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will" (Acts 15: 9-11).
Thus, under the New Covenant of salvation by grace, not only was circumcision not required, but it actually became a stumbling block to new Christians, for it came to represent a dangerous emphasis on salvation by works. Paul thundered against this heresy in his writings, as in Gal. 5:1-6:
For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery. Look: I, Paul, say to you that if you accept circumcision, Christ will be of no advantage to you. I testify again to every man who accepts circumcision that he is obligated to keep the whole law. You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace. For through the Spirit, by faith, we ourselves eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love.
Nevertheless, the figurative, deeper meaning of circumcision is still very much in evidence in the New Testament, as in Col. 2:11-15:
In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead. And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross.
In this passage, baptism, like circumcision under the Old Covenant, marks one as a participant in the New Covenant; and though it is a physical act, it signifies and expects an inner change that equates to “circumcision of the heart.”
We conclude, then, that even a God-ordered ritual has no spiritual value within itself; it becomes significant only when it represents, and results in, an ongoing ordering of the mind and heart toward God. The Lord wants to make His mark not just in our bodies, but in our souls. The command to “circumcise the foreskin of your heart” is still relevant.
Dr. Elton Higgs was a faculty member in the English department of the University of Michigan-Dearborn from 1965-2001. Having retired from UM-D as Prof. of English in 2001, he now lives with his wife and adult daughter in Jackson, MI.. He has published scholarly articles on Chaucer, Langland, the Pearl Poet, Shakespeare, and Milton. His self-published Collected Poems is online at Lulu.com. He also published a couple dozen short articles in religious journals. (Ed.: Dr. Higgs was the most important mentor during undergrad for the creator of this website, and his influence was inestimable; it's thrilling to welcome this dear friend onboard.)