And God said to Abraham, “…You shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and you.” Abraham was ninety-nine years old when he was circumcised. (Genesis 17:9,11,24)
What then shall we say was gained by Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh? For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the Scripture say? ‘Abraham believed God and it was counted to him as righteousness.’ (Romans 4:1-3)
There is no denying that circumcision is a bizarre ancient ritual. In fact, scholars from a wide range of disciplines continue to debate the purpose and origin of the practice.
I’m the kind of person who gets tripped up on stories that aren’t clear to me and I’ve long wondered about this part of Genesis.
Now, a couple decades later, I think I finally understand it (or at least, enough of it).
First, some background.
Although relatively little is know about Abraham, it is clear that he was a nomadic herdsman. At some point, God instructs Abraham to leave his father’s homestead and travel to a new land. From what the text tells us, it appears that Abraham spent time traversing what is now modern day Iraq, Israel, and part of Egypt.
I’ve been to places in the world where there are still nomads, leading their animals to fresh pasture and camping for a season in new locations. This was Abraham.
It’s hard for us to imagine just how primitive the world of Abraham was. No one could read or write. There were no treatments for disease. People lived and traveled in small bands or tribes. They worshiped spirits in nature and sacrificed other human beings to them. War over food, water, and grazing land was a constant reality. And all of Abraham’s contemporaries (including Abraham himself) were polygamists.
Reproduction and growth of the tribe (for production of food and protection from enemies) was the key concern. Romance and fidelity in relationships were still thousands of years from being an expectation (for example: at one point Abraham gives his wife Sarah to sleep with an Egyptian so that he will not be harmed. And later, Sarah encourages Abraham to sleep with her servant so that children will be fathered).
We are talking about ancient, primitive society here. Even what I’ve seen in some of the most remote places in the world today do not compare to Abraham’s day.
Yet, Abraham and Sarah are the couple through whom God chooses to introduce monotheism to the world. Starting with them, the world will change.
So why does circumcision enter the story?
Early on, God had told Abraham that he and his wife Sarah will have a child and their descendants will one day be numerous as the stars in the sky. Yet, decades pass and Abraham’s wife moves far beyond the age of fertility.
So Abraham and his wife take matters into their own hands. Abraham sleeps with another woman and finally fathers a son. Even though Sarah consented to the arrangement, she becomes angry and bitter.
It is at this point that God tells Abraham that he must pursue holiness and reiterates his intent to bless them with a child. God then instructs Abraham to circumcise himself and his clan.
Do you see the irony here?
Abraham’s main concern is fertility and God is asking him to cut off part of his reproductive organ. I imagine this would have seemed ludicrous to Abraham. Doing so might only lessen his chance of fathering a child.
But there is a bigger story in development here.
God is taking this primitive desert nomad and teaching him to trust in him. In fact, throughout Abraham’s life he has to make difficult decisions that force him to trust in God.
First, Abraham is asked to leave his father’s house and the idols that are worshipped there. He leaves the safety and protection of his home and travels across virtually the entire middle eastern region in one of the most violent epochs in history. Then Abraham is asked to believe that God will provide him a son, in spite of the biological impossibility. And afterward, when the son is born, Abraham is asked to sacrifice the child (only to have God halt the act and reveal that unlike the other idol gods of the region, God does not desire human sacrifice).
Circumcision was simply one step along the way of Abraham learning to trust. Today, we see circumcision as a gruesome and primitive procedure, but Abraham lived in a barbaric, pre-historic world. To this dust-covered nomad it spoke of radical trust in a way that he could understand.
As Christians we understand that “in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love” (Gal 5:6). Circumcision and Abraham’s trust merely foreshadowed a greater reality.
Thousands of years later, the world would be redeemed through Jesus, the descendant of Abraham. Trust that Jesus will save us from our wrongdoing is what saves us. And as we continue to journey with God, he asks us to trust him in circumstances just as challenging and confusing as Abraham faced.
Abraham was chosen not because he was sinless, powerful, or capable. He was simply willing to trust.