1. “B’rit Milah” (Covenant of Circumcision)

 

The book of Galatians contains an important rebuke and admonition to 1st century Isra'el and to the Gentiles living among her in the region known as Galatia.  Among its central topics mentioned, circumcision surely occupies a good deal of the apostle’s foundational hermeneutic principles.  He who unlocks Paul’s important corrective theology behind the popular Jewish notion of ‘covenant of circumcision’ (Hebrew=b’rit milah) unlocks a good portion of the meaning to the rest of the letter itself.  In order to properly see circumcision the way Paul saw it, our theology must be rooted, not in the teachings of the rabbis of today, or even in the sermons of the pastors of today (not that either one of those are bad), but our theology must originate from the Torah first—the very same way Paul’s was.  And in the end, if the views of the rabbis and pastors of today line up with what the Torah teaches, then all is well and good.

 

Paul took a survey of 1st century Isra'el’s current social understanding of circumcision and he immediately spotted a problem in her historic approach and application to covenant status in relation to circumcision.  Dr. Hung-Sik Choi, adjunct professor at Torch Trinity Graduate School of Theology here in Seoul, South Korea, captures the force of the problem in his short paper on ‘The Galatian Agitators’ Theological Rationale For Circumcision’:

 

Although many aspects of the agitators’ gospel are unclear, there is little doubt that circumcision was an important component. There are two indications. It can be safely inferred from 5:2-3 that the Galatians intended to be circumcised because they were persuaded by the agitators ’ demand of circumcision. In 6:12-13 it is apparent that the agitators in Galatia were teaching that the Galatians must be circumcised. They were trying to compel the Galatians to be circumcised (6:12). And also they wanted the Galatians to be circumcised so that they may boast about the circumcision of the Galatians (6:13).[1]

 

Paul knew that circumcision as a sign of the covenant was first given to Papa Abraham way back in Genesis 17, and that its location in the narrative was key to properly understanding and applying its covenantal meaning.  Paul then set out to allow the Holy Spirit to masterfully utilize this wonderful covenant sign as a didactic teaching for his readers in Galatia.  Given the fact that his immediate readers lived in the exact same social setting as him, we can only assume they better understood his use of this term when it shows up in his letter to them.  Unfortunately, since successive generations of Bible readers are understandably removed from that 1st century Jewish social context, arguably, we stand a greater chance of misunderstanding this term without help from the Genesis narrative.  To be sure, if we want to see what Paul saw, we have to start with Abraham also.

 

The implied meaning of the term “b’rit milah” is “covenant [of] circumcision.” Why does Judaism refer to circumcision as a covenant? I believe that this act reveals the Torah’s intensions to speak to the circumcised male about his responsibilities in helping to bring about the truth that HaShem and HaShem alone can bring the previously mentioned promises of Avraham to come to pass. Let us examine the details.

 

The Torah says in Genesis chapter 12, verses 1-3,

 

Now ADONAI said to Avram, “Get yourself out of your country, away from your kinsmen and away from your father’s house, and go to the land that I will show you.  I will make of you a great nation, I will bless you, and I will make your name great; and you are to be a blessing.  I will bless those who bless you, but I will curse anyone who curses you; and by you all the families of the earth will be blessed.”

 

The opening monologue from HaShem (God), containing both directives and promises, is packed with some very important facts that affect every man, woman, and child who will be born from here on out!  To be sure, it still affects everyone today!

 

Later on in Genesis chapter 17 we find God instructing Avraham (Abraham) concerning circumcision.  Amazing that God would select that part of the body to demonstrate a most wonderful spiritual truth to both Avraham and the entire world!  Equally amazing to me is that even at such an old age, Avraham did not question God’s reasons behind this somewhat strange covenantal sign!  However, important by way of theology and chronology is the fact that Avraham was pronounced as being “righteous” in B'resheet chapter 15. Sha'ul makes no small mention of the Genesis 15 incident in his letters,

 

For what does the Tanakh say? "Avraham put his trust in God, and it was credited to his account as righteousness (Romans 4:3).

 

Given its location within Paul’s arguments, both from Romans and Galatians, it is clear that the phrase is referring to imputed righteousness, that is, positional (forensic) right standing with HaShem.  For Paul, it is axiomatic that Moshe describes this quality chronologically before Avraham receives the covenant of circumcision in B'resheet chapter 17.  This bespeaks of the correct order in which to appropriate the covenant responsibilities of God.  On the micro, saving faith in God, symbolized by God accrediting his account as righteous, precedes the patriarch’s obedience to the sign of circumcision.  On the macro, the covenant of Avraham precedes the covenant with Moshe.[2]

 

Thinking from a 21st century Western mindset, one might presume that since God declared him righteous already, any added covenantal sign might prove to be superfluous.  Avraham—and apparently God—thought otherwise.

 

To neglect circumcision (b’rit milah) is to neglect the chosen sign of the covenant, and consequently, it is rejection of the covenant itself.

 

Avraham did not hesitate to circumcise both himself as well as the males of his household.  Looking forward at its effect in the biblical narratives, we learn that it was to become a unique marker, outwardly identifying those males of the offspring of Avraham, as inheritors of the magnificent promises that HaShem was making with this man.  It did not, nor does it now serve to secure those promises through personal effort. 

 

What is more, the sign of circumcision was to be an indicator that all subsequent male covenant participants were adopting the same faith that Avraham possessed!  Obviously it was incumbent upon the faithful father to pass this sign onto his son; 8-day old baby boys do not circumcise themselves.  The promises were of faith (read Romans chapter 4 carefully).  To be 100% sure, the Torah says that the promises were given to him before he was circumcised (Ibid. 10, 11)!  This is why, after HaShem promised that his seed would be as numerous as the stars (15:5, 6), Avraham was credited with being righteous—because he believed the unbelievable! 

 

With this foundational Genesis teaching in our arsenal, we are now poised to turn our attention directly to Paul’s continuing application of circumcision in the life of a 1st century covenant member—be he Jewish or Gentile.  Paul does not indicate in Galatians that circumcision was being relaxed now that the prophesied Messiah has come and gone.  What Paul does teach is that circumcision must be properly understood and applied on a community level if each Torah-true covenant member was to remain in right standing with God.  Put another way, to misunderstand the meaning of circumcision as a 1st century Jew or Gentile was to risk “falling from grace,” a warning Paul will reiterate directly in chapter five of his letter to this community.  We will continue to unpack the implications of misunderstanding and misusing this covenantal sign when we discuss the topic of ‘works of the Law’ below.

 

But just before we turn to the socio-religious aspects of circumcision, we may remind ourselves that we know as 21st century Bible students studying the scriptures that circumcision was given by God to Avraham as an important covenant sign for him and the generations to come after him.  But have you ever stopped to ask the obvious “$64, 000” question: “Why did God ask Avraham to cut away that particular part of his body?”  Since I believe it bears relevance for our correct understanding of Paul and the book of Galatians, it is to this topic that we will turn our attention next in this study.



[1] Hung-Sik Choi, The Galatian Agitators’ Theological Rationale for Circumcision (Torch Trinity Journal paper), p. 1, cf. Barclay, Obeying the Truth, 45-60; H. D. Betz, Galatians: A Commentary on Paul’s Letter to the Churches in Galatia (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1989), 6; F. F Bruce, “Galatian Problems,” BJRL 53 (1970-71): 263-266; J. D. G. Dunn, “‘Neither Circumcision nor Uncircumcision, but ...’ (Gal. 5.2-12; 6.12-16; cf. 1 Cor. 7.17-20),” in La Foi Agissant par L’amour (Galates 4,12-6,16), ed. A. Vanhoye (Rome: Abbaye de S. Paul, 1996), 79; J. L. Martyn, Galatians: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary, AB (New York: Doubleday, 1997), 290-294, 560-561.

[2] Ariel ben-Lyman HaNaviy, Excursus - Genesis 15: Credited to Him as Righteousness (Tetze Torah Ministries, 2006), p. 1.