From Adam to Jesus: Circumcision

Almost out of the blue, the Bible introduces us to Abram.  From the faithful line of Noah’s descendants, from Noah’s son, Shem, comes the first of the great patriarchs: “Abraham the Hebrew” (Genesis 14:13).

Abram lived in Ur (today in Iraq), a city known for its prosperity.  Abram was wealthy.  So, when God told Abram to leave Ur, He was asking Abram to give up a lot.

For simplicity, we’re going to refer to Abram as “Abraham” throughout this lesson, even though he’s not called “Abraham” until God gives him that name in Genesis 17:5.


God’s Promises to Abraham

Read Genesis 12:1-3

–          What three promises does God give to Abraham?


God gave three simple promises to Abraham.  Later, God will affirm each promise in a more serious way, working each promise into a formal covenant.  The difference between a promise and a covenant is like the difference between an engagement ring and a wedding ring.  One symbolizes a strong hope, a firm intent; the other symbolizes an unbreakable commitment.

God will make Abraham into a great nation during the Exodus.  Through the covenant God will make with Moses, Abraham’s descendants will become a nation having the land promised to Abraham (Genesis 46:3-4).  We’ll go into that in our next lesson, when we look at the books of Exodus and Deuteronomy.

God fulfills His second covenant with Abraham when David becomes King and is promised a great name (2 Samuel 7:9) and everlasting throne (Psalm 89:3-4, 132:11-12).

Finally, these covenants point us to Jesus.  His New Covenant fulfills God’s promise to make the children of Abraham the source of blessing for all the nations.  That’s why in the first line of the New Testament we find the words “Jesus Christ… the son of Abraham” (Matthew 1:1).

By the three covenants God made with Abraham, He was pointing our eyes to the future of our salvation!



God “Sneaks” in Circumcision

No sooner does God make a covenant with Abraham in Genesis 15 than he has a “mini-fall” into sin in Genesis 16.  In that chapter, Abraham and Sarah begin to doubt if God’s plan to give them a son is going to happen.  So, they decide to help God out.  Abraham agrees with Sarah to have sex with her woman servant, Hagar.

According to legal custom in those days, Hagar’s children from Abraham would be considered as Sarah’s.  So, the plan “works” in that a son was born, Ishmael.  But he was not the son God had intended to be Abraham’s heir.  The whole episode created bickering, jealousy, and unhappiness in Abraham’s family.  (We see this jealousy come out in Genesis 16:5, when Sarah told Abraham, “I put my servant into your lap …”)

So, God repeats the promise of great nationhood from Genesis 15.  God even gives Abram a greater name, “Abraham,” by lengthening it (Genesis 17:5).  God also gives Abraham a covenant duty to perform, which will identify himself and his descendants as part of God’s family.  This covenant act is circumcision.


Excursus: On Cutting and Covenants

The first time God takes one of His promises to Abraham and makes it into a covenant is in Genesis 15.  The setting is this: God comes to speak to Abraham and encourages him.  But Abraham is upset, for he doesn’t have any children yet, even though God promised them.  God tells him not to worry–it will happen in God’s way and timing.

But Abram wants more reassurance.  So, God tells him to bring some animals, lay them out, and cut them in half.  Then everything gets dark, and a torch and firepot appear and move between the animal pieces as God speaks to Abraham.

The torch and firepot represented God’s presence.  Fire is a sign of God’s presence in many places in the Bible.  Do you remember the pillar of fire that led the Israelites in the desert after Moses led them out of Egypt?  In the New Testament, we have the tongues of fire that came to rest on Christians during Pentecost.

This event with Abraham has an eerie feel to it.  But like all ceremonies, the actions had meaning.  When people would cut up animals and walk between them, it meant “if I do not keep my covenant commitments, may I be killed like these animals.”  It was like calling down a curse of death on yourself if you didn’t do what was promised.


Circumcision was the sign God gave to make Abraham’s descendants a royal dynasty: “My covenant in your flesh is to be an everlasting covenant” (Genesis 17:13).  In the New Testament, Jesus was circumcised to show that He was a member of the people of the covenant (see Luke 2:21).

Circumcision also was an act that cut off part of the flesh of the one circumcised.  (This was the male’s foreskin; a woman had no true equivalent to circumcise.  So, women were still included in the covenant but not circumcised for obvious reasons).  The circumcised flesh would die and would no longer be part of that person.  This symbolized that the way of others, who were not part of God’s Covenant, would not define who the circumcised person was.  For that “flesh” was no more.

But, of course, many Israelites did not live out the reality of their circumcision.  So, the Old Testament later speaks of “circumcision of the heart.”  That meant being dedicated with one’s whole being to God (Deuteronomy 10:16, Jeremiah 4:4; compare Romans 2:25-29, 1 Corinthians 7:18-19).  Later, Prophet Jeremiah said that God would write the law of the New Covenant on the heart (Jeremiah 31:31-34).

We must realize that while the Old Testament speaks of “circumcision of the heart,” God never stopped physical circumcisions.  It was not either/or; it was both.  Circumcision brought someone into God’s family and the “circumcision of the heart” was supposed to follow–the true belief that one had and the living out of that faith.

So, although physical circumcision ended in the Old Covenant, it did not fully go away.  Instead, it was fulfilled by something Jesus instituted in the New Covenant.  After all, circumcision was an “eternal covenant.”

Read Colossians 2:11-14

–          How are we circumcised by a circumcision not done with human hands?


–          In the same way that the foreskin died through circumcision, what dies in baptism?


–          However, what does God make alive in baptism?


–          How does He do this?


“By Your Seed”

The most important blessing God made to Abraham was His last one: “by your seed will all the nations of the earth be blessed” (Genesis 22:18).  That came true in Jesus.  But it’s not only true in Jesus but also by what He gave us in the New Covenant, which fulfilled and superseded the Old Covenant.  So far, through the flood and circumcision, we see Old Testament events and rites point forward to what God does in and through baptism.


Homework (or in class if there is time)

Read Genesis 22:1-19

–          Abraham said to Isaac, “God will provide for himself the lamb” (Genesis 22:8).  How did God do that for us?


–          The mountain range found outside Jerusalem is part of the Mt. Moriah range (2 Chronicles 3:1).  How does Isaac, “Abraham’s only son,” point forward to Jesus?


–          Seeing Jesus as THE Seed (or offspring) of Abraham, how does what the angel tells Abraham come true in Jesus: “Your offspring will possess the gate of his enemies” (Genesis 22:18)?



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