Eyes pinch shut; the tiny mouth forms a screech. Sudden blood appears on fresh, new skin. It’s okay, little man. Welcome to the people of God. Today you join the ranks of those waiting for the consolation of Israel.
This was not elective surgery. A brief eight days after childbirth, an Israelite baby boy was circumcised. On that day the infant was handed over: mother handed him to father who handed him to one from the priestly family of Old Testament Israel. The littlest citizen of the city of God was marked as such.
On this day he received his name. But why the sharp cutting? Why the pain? Why the body’s sexual part? One is tempted to recoil at all this. Is it one more barbaric rite of passage, straight out of National Geographic?
For the Old Testament believers, circumcision was the God-ordained mark, the badge. By it, a young Hebrew was reminded, “The Christ will come from our bodies.” Even in his most private moments, the head of the Israelite family was reminded, “I am the Lord’s man.”
Circumcision was a God-given law. While it comforted the Jewish believer, it fenced away the Gentile world. The people of the Promise must be maintained. God had said that the Messiah would come from Abraham and Sarah—not from diversity, not from intermarriage, not from the rich experience of other cultures.
It had been 2,000 years from Jesus back to Abraham. God said that from the seed of Abraham all nations on earth would be blessed (Genesis 12 and 22). Interesting: it’s 2,000 years from you, reader, back to Jesus.
It wasn’t a value judgment that God chose to speak no similar commandment for girls; none was needed. Because the fathers were marked, all God’s people were marked. God had said in Eden that an offspring of Eve, a male child, would come to crush the serpent’s head.
Though there was much seed of Abraham down through the centuries, when the time had fully come, no human seed was involved. It was a female human being whose body God chose, and Mary was overshadowed by the Holy Spirit. “So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God” (Luke 1:35).
In preparation for his birth, the remnant had been kept. Then this ceremonial law—this shadow of an approaching reality, this sign, this fence that defined Israel for 2,000 years—fell down. Other things, too, were fulfilled: Sabbath, priesthood, temple, the Passover lamb, the king. God had come to help his people
Can you see why the collected letters of the New Testament Church—our “epistles”—need to deal with the sharp memory of circumcision? How difficult it must have been for a Jewish family to set aside circumcision, which was not just a Jewish tradition but a command of God! What difficulty they had applying the new reality, “in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value” (Galatians 5:6).
Since the time of Jesus, our heavenly Father has been calling and adopting children of every nation. The chosen people of God now have different skin colors and passports. They speak a variety of languages, and each believer holds citizenship in a new, spiritual Israel: the Christian church.
The message of circumcision was “not yet”. When Christ came, the fences fell down. Like scaffolding on a building, like braces on teeth, like stakes on trees, circumcision was needed but temporary. Thank you, dear Jesus, for always remembering that you were the Lord’s man…for us.
Living Hope Lutheran Church, Omaha, NE