Are we breaking an everlasting covenant by ignoring circumcision?

Questions about God, the Bible and the Christian culture

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Question: Why aren't Christians required to get circumcised if God said "So shall my covenant be in your flesh an everlasting covenant. Any uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin shall be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant." (Genesis 17:13-14).

Since God called circumcision an “everlasting covenant,” doesn’t this mean that Christians too have to be circumcised — and not just the Jews? If not, how is this not a contradiction?

Answer: Greetings friend. Thank you for touching down with us at Mainsail Ministries.

You seem to be having a problem with the idea that what God called an “everlasting covenant” does not last forever — and who could blame you? That sounds like a slam-dunk contradiction! But that’s not the case. I see three issues that could result in a surface contradiction of Genesis 17:13 — not an actual contradiction, though — so let me go over them with you.

First, the term “everlasting” points to the “everlasting” testimony of circumcision on the male body, not to the covenant itself. It is the mark of the circumcision that lasts “forever” … as far as the male body is concerned anyway. The covenant demonstrably does not last forever (Galatians 5:2-11) — hence, your question… and it’s a fair one.

Some translations are clearer than others on this, but the following translations state directly that the “covenant in the flesh” is the everlasting covenant... and not the covenant itself.

“They must indeed be circumcised, whether born in your house or bought with money. The sign of my covenant will be visible in your flesh as a permanent reminder.” (Genesis 17:13, NET, emphasis mine)

“Whether born in your household or bought with your money, they must be circumcised. My covenant in your flesh is to be an everlasting covenant.” (Genesis 17:13, NIV, emphasis mine)

“A servant who is born in your house or one who is purchased with your money must be circumcised; and [the sign of] My covenant shall be in your flesh for an everlasting covenant.” (Genesis 17:13, Amp, my emphasis highlights the editors’ explanation of what it is that’s everlasting)

Second, you are applying too strict and too narrow a meaning to the term “everlasting” in Genesis 17:13. When we use the word “everlasting” today, we understand it to mean something that never ends — like the set of whole numbers extending into infinity. But the ancient Hebrews used these types of words more in a poetic sense than in an absolute sense.

Let me demonstrate by using the word “all” which has the same interpretive issue as the word “everlasting” in your question. The following passage was about Joseph when he was in Egypt. Look it over.

“When the famine had spread over the whole country, Joseph opened all the storehouses and sold grain to the Egyptians, for the famine was severe throughout Egypt. And all the world came to Egypt to buy grain from Joseph, because the famine was severe everywhere.” (Genesis 41:56–57, NIV, emphasis mine)

The Bible tells us that “all” the world came to Egypt to buy grain. But that’s not true. In fact, it’s not even possible that it could be true... because people from Europe, Asia and North America didn’t travel to Egypt to buy grain. First, they weren’t necessarily starving. Second, communication was local, so they didn’t know about the surplus grain in Egypt. Third, travel was slow and arduous, so the people in North America would have starved before they crossed the ocean.

The point is that “all” doesn’t mean “ all” in the technical (logical or mathematical) sense that we tend to use it today. This is true of the word everlasting too. It is a mistake to insist that the ancient Hebrew words work exactly like those in contemporary English.

Remember too that the ancient Hebrews had no notion of a programming language where “all” does indeed mean every item and every instance without qualification or exception. A few individuals might have thought about mathematical exactness as a thought experiment, but such thinking didn’t impact their daily lives… and the biblical languages reflected people’s lives, not logic, math or future concepts.

Third, God’s revelation is progressive. This means that God distributed “information” (the things he wanted his people to know) naturally... and by naturally, I mean gradually throughout time. The thing he did not do was dump everything he wanted them to know on the Jews all at once — and let them deal with it! He came close to doing that with the law — which, compared to the rest of his revelation, came in one big chunk. But the Israelites learned it, lived it and failed at it… just like I would if I were there.

But there is another issue with revelation: God designed things so that human knowledge accumulates as we progress as a people through life and the ages. The effect is that people “grew” in knowledge collectively... and growth implies that older knowledge would give way — or at least be informed by — any newer knowledge. That’s the knowledge paradigm, and it is unique to human beings.

For example, Abraham was an honorable man living in good conscience toward God. But when God revealed himself and his purposes for Abraham (Genesis 17), he had to put his former knowledge away and act on the newer knowledge. Abraham’s descendants were to become a covenant people with God, and circumcision was a sign of that covenant (Genesis 17:10-14) ... and his descendants lived very nicely without the law for many centuries.

But then came the law — and everything changed. The law was an advancement in God’s revelation. Now, the Jews were still expected to act in good conscience; what the law did was spell that all out. But these were not suggestions; the law superseded the rule of “mere” conscience. The Jews were responsible to the law from that time forward (Acts 17:30). But that was merely one stop on the revelatory road. A new covenant was coming... through the shed blood of Jesus Christ (Luke 22:20).

We read about that “new covenant” in a work we call the New Testament, and just as the law imposed changes upon Abraham’s covenant, so did the revelation of Jesus Christ impose changes on the law. Since signs are no longer needed when the fulfillment of those signs has arrived (Colossians 2:17), circumcision was no longer needed. Jesus fulfilled the law and all previous covenants (Matthew 5:17) … and the Bible is very clear that circumcision avails nothing (Galatians 6:15).

This is new information that supersedes the old information. Circumcision is still historically significant, but it would not be required as a sacerdotal act going forward… and “forward” is the direction we all must go until Jesus returns (1 Corinthians 11:26).

So, that’s my answer. Three things made you see a contradiction where none existed. Namely, you misidentified the object of the adjective “everlasting,” you demanded that the ancient Hebrew take on a modern mathematical precision that was foreign to the language and the culture, and you did not consider the progressive nature of God’s revelation... how older information must give way to newer information when the newer information countermands it. Therefore, the word “everlasting” is not in contradiction. Instead, it is a lesson in how language works.

I pray this helped. God bless you.

 

(Mainsail Ministries articles often have a preamble where I discuss the thinking that went into them. These are called Monday Musings — and if you haven’t read the one associated with this article — consider doing so at the following link: 20210607 Isn’t circumcision supposed to be an everlasting covenant?).

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