What was the meaning of circumcision in the OT?

Geerhardus Vos, in his classic book Biblical Theology (which I am just reading for the first time, to my shame and disappointment), points out something about the meaning of circumcision that I can’t recall ever having heard before, at least not this clearly: the symbolism of circumcision, of cutting off the foreskin of the male reproductive organ, consists in the the truth that what issues forth from Abraham’s posterity is unclean, in need of purification.This is why the Pentateuch and the prophets speaks so readily of a circumcision of the heart (Lev. 26:41; Deut. 10:16; 30:6; Jer. 4:4; 9:25-26; Ezek. 44:7; cf. Rom. 2:25-29; 4:11; Col. 2:11-13). Those born of Abraham are unclean of heart, and therefore must not rely upon their lineage for acceptance with God.

In the words of Vos:

For the doctrinal understanding of circumcision two facts are significant; first, it was instituted before the birth of Isaac; secondly, in the accompanying revelation only the second promise, relating to numerous posterity, is referred to. These two facts together show that circumcision has something to do with the process of propagation. Not in the sense that the act in itself is sinful, for there is no trace of this anywhere in the Old Testament. It is not the act but the product, that is, human nature, which is unclean, and stands in need of purification and qualification. Hence circumcision is not, as among pagans, applied to grown-up young men, but to infants on the eighth day. Human nature is unclean and disqualified in its very source. Sin, consequently, is a matter of race and not of the individual only. The need of qualification had to be specially emphasized under the Old Testament. At that time the promises of God had proximate reference to temporal, natural things. Hereby the danger was created that natural descent might be understood as entitling to the grace of God. Circumcision teaches that physical descent from Abraham is not sufficient to make true Israelites. The uncleanness and disqualification of nature must be taken away. Dogmatically [theologically] speaking, therefore, circumcision stands for justification and regeneration, plus sanctification [Rom. 4:9-12; Col. 2:11-13].

We might also add that the fact that God instituted this ritual in the reproductive organ reminded Abraham of the promise that he would have an offspring as numerous as the stars in the heaves, and that in his seed/offspring all the nations would be blessed. This reminder would be on a  daily basis – every time he got dressed, every time he relieved himself, every time he enjoyed the marriage bed, he would remember his sinfulness and God’s gracious promise.

Likewise the sacrament of baptism, which has replaced circumcision, points to our need of cleansing, and the cleansing provided by the blood and the Spirit of Jesus Christ. Though we do not see our baptism on a daily basis, yet we can remind ourselves of it daily in our fight against sin (Rom. 6:1ff.), and every time we have the privilege of witnessing a man, woman, boy or girl baptized in corporate worship. Rejoice in the continuity of the purposes, the promises, and the sacraments of God’s grace!


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