What Is Circumcision in the Bible? Law, Faith, and Spiritual Insights

Circumcision is the surgical removal of the foreskin from the human penis. It is an ancient practice that has religious significance for Jews and Muslims.

Circumcision is seen as an important rite and a sign of belonging to the Jewish and Islamic faiths. Some Christian denominations also practice circumcision, though it is not as universally observed as in Judaism and Islam.

Origins of Circumcision in the Bible

Circumcision in Bible

Circumcision is first mentioned in the Bible in Genesis 17, when God makes a covenant with Abraham to circumcise all males in his household as a sign of the covenant between God and Abraham. God tells Abraham “You are to undergo circumcision, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and you” (Genesis 17:11, NIV).

God commands Abraham to circumcise himself, his son Ishmael, and all the males in his household. This included both those born in his household and those bought with money. God said “My covenant in your flesh is to be an everlasting covenant” (Genesis 17:13). This established circumcision as an important sign of God’s covenant with Abraham and his descendants.

The covenant of circumcision marked Abraham and his descendants as belonging to God in a special way. Circumcision was to be performed on all baby boys when they were eight days old as a sign of this covenant. It served as a physical reminder and symbol of God’s promises to Abraham and his offspring.

Purpose and Significance

Circumcision was given by God as a sign of his covenant with Abraham and his descendants. It served as a physical reminder to the Israelites that they were set apart as God’s chosen people. Circumcision marked Jewish males as belonging to the community and its religious practices.

In the ancient world, circumcision also had hygienic benefits in hot climates. Removing the foreskin helped keep the area clean and prevent infections. So while the religious meaning was primary, practical health reasons also factored into the command. Overall, circumcision represented a sign of God’s covenant, community belonging, and commitment to follow Yahweh for the Israelites.

Jesus and Circumcision

Jesus was circumcised on the 8th day after his birth, following the Jewish law and custom. This event is briefly mentioned in the Gospel of Luke 2:21. Jesus’ circumcision showed that he was born under the law and submitted himself to it (Galatians 4:4). However, later in his ministry, a debate arose about whether converts to Christianity needed to be circumcised.

The Council of Jerusalem in Acts 15 concluded that circumcision was not required for Gentile converts. The apostle Paul argued strongly that Christians are saved by faith in Christ, not by circumcision or following the law (Galatians 5:2-6). He contended that requiring circumcision would be a barrier for Gentiles to become Christians. Thus, the early church decided circumcision was not essential for salvation or joining the Christian community. Paul wrote, “Circumcision is nothing and uncircumcision is nothing. Keeping God’s commands is what counts” (1 Corinthians 7:19).

Circumcision in the Early Church

Circumcision in the Church

Circumcision was a controversial issue in the early Christian church. The apostles debated whether circumcision should be required for new Gentile converts to Christianity. Some Jewish Christians argued that circumcision was necessary, in keeping with Jewish law and tradition. However, the Apostle Paul opposed requiring circumcision, believing that faith in Christ superseded the requirement for circumcision and other Jewish laws.

This dispute came to a head at the Council of Jerusalem around 48-50 AD, described in Acts 15. After much discussion, it was decided that circumcision would not be required for Gentile converts to Christianity. This was a pivotal moment in the early church, establishing that Christians were not bound by Jewish ritual laws. The council affirmed that circumcision and other aspects of the Mosaic Law were not necessary for salvation through faith in Jesus Christ. This opened the door for more Gentile converts to join the Christian movement without needing to adhere to Jewish customs.

The Council of Jerusalem settled the circumcision controversy by declaring it not obligatory for Christians. This allowed Christianity to spread more rapidly within the Gentile world.

Circumcision Today

Circumcision remains widely practiced in Jewish and Muslim faiths today. Circumcision rates are near universal in Muslim countries such as Iran (99.7%). The Wikipedia article on circumcision prevalence states that 92.4% of Muslims are circumcised.

Some Christian denominations like the Eastern Orthodox church, still practice circumcision for religious reasons. The Coptic Orthodox church and Ethiopian Orthodox church are two examples.

Circumcision also remains somewhat common in the United States for non-religious reasons. Circumcision rates declined from 83% in the 1960s to 77% in 2010. It remains one of the most common medical procedures. The procedure often occurs shortly after birth for proposed health benefits like decreased risk of urinary tract infections. However, these benefits are still debated.

Biblical References

Circumcision is mentioned frequently in the Bible, both in the Old Testament and New Testament.

Some key verses include:

  • Genesis 17:10-14 – God commands Abraham and his descendants to be circumcised as a sign of the covenant between God and Abraham. This commandment is considered the origin of circumcision in the Bible.

  • Exodus 4:24-26 – God seeks to kill Moses for failing to circumcise his son. This shows the importance placed on circumcision as a commandment from God.

  • Leviticus 12:3 – States that circumcision should take place on the eighth day after birth. This became the standard practice.

  • Deuteronomy 10:16 – Moses tells the Israelites to “Circumcise your hearts” showing that physical circumcision was not enough without spiritual circumcision.

  • Joshua 5:2-8 – Describes the circumcision of the Israelites before entering the Promised Land after 40 years in the wilderness.

  • Luke 2:21 – Jesus is circumcised on the eighth day according to Jewish law and custom.

  • Acts 15 – The early church concludes that circumcision is not required for salvation or for Gentile converts.

  • Romans 2:25-29 – Circumcision only has value if you keep the law, otherwise it is meaningless. True circumcision is of the heart.

  • Galatians 5:2-6 – Circumcision has no value and availing yourself to the whole law brings alienation from Christ. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.

Physical Aspects and Effects

Circumcision is a surgical procedure to remove the foreskin from the penis. It is usually performed on newborn baby boys or young boys for religious, cultural, or medical reasons.

The procedure involves restraining the baby to prevent movement. The doctor then clamps or ties off the foreskin and makes an incision to fully expose the glans. The foreskin is then cut away from the glans and the remaining skin stitched up.

Potential medical benefits of circumcision include lower risk of urinary tract infections, reduced risk of some sexually transmitted diseases like HIV, genital herpes and HPV, and prevention of penile cancer. However, the overall risk of these conditions is low in developed countries.

Potential risks and complications include pain, bleeding, infection, improper healing, and injury to the penis. However, serious complications are rare when performed by an experienced doctor. The procedure results in reduced penis sensitivity due to the removal of nerve endings in the foreskin.

Controversies and Debates

Circumcision in the Bible

Circumcision has been a controversial practice throughout history, with debates over its necessity and ethics. Some view it as a form of genital mutilation, especially when performed on infants who cannot consent. There are arguments against routine infant circumcision, with some medical organizations no longer recommending it.

Opponents argue it is an unnecessary surgery that removes sensitive nerve endings in the penis. They say it can lead to potential complications and loss of sexual function or satisfaction later in life. Some also view it as unethical to perform on children who cannot consent.

However, supporters argue there are medical benefits, such as reducing UTIs and HIV transmission. They view it as a safe procedure with minimal risks. Religious groups also argue it is an important rite or covenant. The debate continues over the medical necessity versus risks, and the ethics of performing it on infants versus consenting adults.


Circumcision has played an important role throughout the Bible and in Judaism to this day. It began as a command from God to Abraham to circumcise all males as a sign of the covenant between God and Abraham’s descendants. Circumcision took on deep spiritual meaning as a symbol of belonging to the Jewish people.

Jesus’s arrival brought change. The New Testament makes clear that circumcision is no longer required for salvation. The emphasis shifted from external matters like circumcision to internal change through faith in Christ. Circumcision became a matter of choice, not obligation.

While important in Judaism and some other faiths today, circumcision is not considered essential in Christianity after Jesus. The old covenant was fulfilled in him. The external act of circumcision has been replaced by the circumcision of the heart through the work of the Holy Spirit. Though no longer commanded, circumcision remains a topic of some discussion and debate among Christians.

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Daniel Powell

In my twenties, I began to approach the Bible with fresh eyes. I was no longer content to simply accept what I was told. I wanted to dive deeper, to question, and to understand. My faith demanded it.

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