Circumcision in the ancient world (Romans 3)

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The significance of circumcision  among non-Israelites of the ancient world is debated among scholars (whether circumcision was a rite of marriage or puberty or was practices for hygienic purposes). But for Israel the rite served as a “sign” of the people’s covnant pledge to “walk before Yahweh and be blameless” (Genesis 17:1, 11). The procedure was performed on the male reproductive organ in order to remind the recipient that the oath of allegiance was binding on both himself and his offspring. It is also probable that the cutting ritual within the covenant context (cf. Genesis 15:7-18, Jeremiah 34:17-20) pointed to the curse of being “cut off” that was to be brought upon all covenant violators (cf. Genesis 17:14, Exodus 4:25).

Israel’s full removal of the foreskin made its brand of circumcision a mark of ethnic distinction, setting apart Israelite males from the Egyptians from many of Israel’s western Semitic neighbours (cf. Jeremiah 9:24-25), who preformed the rite only by slitting the foreskin; from the “uncircumcised” Philistines and the eastern Semites of Mesopotamia, who did not practice the ritual at all; and, finally, from the Greeks and Romans of the intertestamental and New Testament periods, who were repulsed by all forms of circumcision.

It is not surprising that for Israel the term “foreskin” bore a negative connotation, representing all that was opposed to God and His people. In contrast, the term “circumcision” was used metaphorically to point to one who had renounced pagan practices and was now fully devoted to Yahweh (Deuteronomy 10:16, Jeremiah 4:4). Following the establishment of the Christian faith, all national markers such as physical circumcision lost their value, and God’s people became distinguished solely by faith working itself out in love – the true sign of their identification with the Messiah through the transforming work of the Spirit (Romans 2:28-29, Galatians 5:6, 6:14-16, cf. Deuteronomy 30:6, Jeremiah 31:33, 32:39, Ezekiel 36:26-27).


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