Atonement in Scripture: Circumcision


Circumcision marked the entrance of a man into Judaism.  Circumcision also became a primary language of salvation and image for it.  Moses used ‘circumcision’ to express the internal change that God would bring about in His people after Israel went into exile:  ‘Moreover the LORD your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your descendants, to love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, so that you may live’ (Dt.30:6).  It is this later appropriation of the practice of circumcision, or development of circumcision as a conceptual and literary theme, that interests me here, for this internal change of heart-circumcision is the language used by Moses and later biblical writers to explain what God must do to prevent Israel from sinning against God again.  Through the Sinai covenant, God called the Israelites to return their human nature to Him, in obedient partnership with Him.  Spiritual heart-circumcision therefore became an eschatological, salvation motif.  It is related to God’s resolution of the human problem of rebellion and resistance to Him.  Significantly, circumcision is a surgical and medical image, not a legal, penal, or judicial image.  It is the cutting away of something impure.

In the New Testament, Paul spoke of spiritual circumcision as something Jesus himself went through (Col.2:11) and subsequently all who believe in him (Col.2:9 – 14; Rom.2:28 – 29).  This is intrinsically and organically connected with Jesus taking onto himself the identity, role, and vocation of Israel as a whole.  Jesus was able to be the faithful covenant partner to God who presented his human nature back to God cleansed and purified, as the Sinai covenant required.  As I noted in earlier posts, the sacrifices and the centralization of those sacrifices in the Tabernacle also have a meaning similar to circumcision.  For circumcision represents God’s judgment in cutting off of something unclean from a person in such a way that both God enacts cleansing (expiation) and forgiveness (propitiation) towards the person.  But first, I want to explore the meaning of physical circumcision because it serves as the grounding and launching point for understanding spiritual circumcision.  Circumcision is often treated casually by Christians as the ‘foil’ or ‘ritualistic’ background to true ‘faith’ because Paul supposedly treats it that way in Galatians 3 and Romans 4.  I believe this exegesis of Paul is incorrect.  The consequence has been a shallow understanding of circumcision in its original context in the Old Testament, and a neglect of ‘spiritual circumcision’ as a guiding thought for Paul himself.

Circumcision physically marked Abraham and all his male descendants.  As Genesis tells us, and as Paul reminds us, God gave circumcision to Abraham after the pivotal moment when Abraham had faith in God’s promise (Gen.15:1 – 21).  So circumcision seems to be given as a sign of Abraham’s faith.  It served, not as automatic membership in the covenant itself (e.g. Ishmael was circumcised in Gen.17:18 – 27), but more as a reminder or an invitation from God to be part of His covenant by faith.  The Abraham story weaves together many elements that are surprising from the standpoint of this narrative being located in a patriarchal culture with a typical focus being on the man and his genetic descendants:  the prominent role of Abraham’s wife Sarah; episodes that might be considered morally embarrassing for Abraham and Sarah such as Abraham’s lying about Sarah and Sarah’s hostility towards Hagar; God’s blessing Hagar the Egyptian and her son Ishmael, and especially Hagar’s own relationship with God whereby she names God Himself and discovers a sacred well in the wilderness; and so on.  I believe that the narrative is already showing in the microcosm of Abraham’s family that women and Gentiles will be blessed by God in a larger sense.  God does not only bless Hebrew men.

Circumcision was not just an outward sign of Abraham’s faith, however.  It was an outward sign of the content of Abraham and Sarah’s faith.  The significance of circumcision being a sign that is marked in the flesh of Abraham and all his male descendants is significant to consider.  God commands that Abraham be circumcised in the central turning point of this narrative, for the Abraham narrative is structured in the form of a chiasm.

The literary significance of chiasms is well known.  The center of the chiasm is the place of emphasis and interpretive power.  Although we may be inclined to think that the sacrifice of Isaac in Genesis 22 is surely the high point of Abraham’s faith – and perhaps it is – the narrative itself invites us to examine Genesis 17:1 – 14 as the center point from which we interpret the other aspects of the story.  Circumcision is a key element of that center point.

Another arrangement of the five speeches of God in Genesis 17 suggests this emphasis:

A. Abram’s age (17:1a)

B. The LORD appears to Abram (17:1b)

C. God’s first speech (17:1c – 2)

D. Abram falls on his face (17:3)

E. God’s second speech (emphasizing “names/ kings/nations”) (17:4 – 8)

F. God’s third speech (emphasizing “the covenant” and circumcision) (17:9 – 14)

E’. God’s fourth speech (emphasizing “names/kings/nations”) (17:15 – 16)

D’. Abraham falls on his face (17:17 – 18)

C’. God’s fifth speech (17:19 – 21)

B’. The LORD goes up from Abram (17:22 – 23)

A’. Abraham’s age (17:24 – 25)


Literary structures like these can overlap, so there is no necessary conflict with seeing a chiastic structure in the Abraham, Sarah, and Hagar story as a whole (Gen.11:27 – 22:19) and seeing this chiastic structure in the granting of circumcision and renaming moment (Gen.17:1 – 25).  In either case, the rite of circumcision is a key to interpreting the rest of the Abraham narrative.  Thus, I wish to make the argument that circumcision was a symbol not merely that Abraham had faith, but of the content of Abraham’s faith.  Specifically, it represented a renewal of the creation order.

First, circumcision represents the death of the man being circumcised.  This is physically apparent because Abraham must endure pain when he was circumcised as a grown man.  Some African men who were circumcised as teenagers have told me that the pain can be intense, and any erection they develop within the few weeks afterwards is greeted by immense pain.  Also, in circumcision, the knife comes rather close to cutting off the whole penis, making the man a eunuch, and cutting off his reproductive abilities completely.  Surely this connotation was not lost upon Abraham, whose main concern at that point was future progeny!

There is a cultural, emotional, and spiritual ‘death,’ however, that goes beyond the physical ‘death.’  Circumcision represents the fact that Abraham, despite being the patriarch in a patriarchal age, cannot determine his own heir.  Earlier, God rejected his proposal that Eleazar of Damascus be his heir (Gen.15:2 – 4).  Then God rejected Ishmael from being the heir as well, despite Ishmael being of genetic descent from Abraham, despite Abraham’s love for Ishmael, and despite the surrogate motherhood of Hagar being a culturally acceptable way of producing an heir (Gen.16:1 – 16).  Though we should be quick to add that God respected Ishmael and his mother Hagar, along with Abraham’s love for Ishmael, God nevertheless did not choose Ishmael to be Abraham’s heir.  Instead, God insisted that Sarah, Abraham’s wife, be the mother of the heir.  This reinforces God’s original creation order for marriage as a union of oneness between husband and wife (Gen.1:26 – 28; 2:18 – 25), and was the lesson for Abram and Sarai to learn in Egypt when Abram endangered Sarai’s participation in God’s promise and blessing (Gen.12:9 – 20).  Abram had to learn that God’s promise (Gen.12:1 – 8) was not actually just to him, but to Sarai as well.  Surely God’s desire to produce a miraculous birth from Sarah’s ‘dead’ womb was part of the reason for that, as Paul writes in Romans 4:16 – 25.

However, in the literary development of Genesis, framing God’s desire to produce a miraculous birth through the reproductively dead Sarah, is God’s desire to honor His own design for human marriage from Genesis 1 and 2, that the legitimate wife of Abraham be the one to produce an heir.  In the context of Genesis 17, God gives circumcision to Abraham as a sign of the curtailment of male biological and social power to determine his own heir.  Abraham ‘dies,’ in that sense, too, when God gives him the sign of circumcision.  For if God was going to restore the creational blessing which Adam and Eve lost, then God will also restore creational marriage as He intended it.  The assumptions and attitudes that Abraham and Sarah had that did not come from God’s original creation vision for relationship had to be cut away.  Those attitudes needed to be cut off.  When Abraham and Sarah stood naked before one another in their marital union, as Adam and Eve originally did, they would be reminded of God’s promise, and not be ashamed of themselves, their old age, and their past mistakes.  Through the sign of circumcision, God was restoring the creation condition of husband and wife being naked and unashamed, through their confidence in the God who brings life out of death.  For if the biblical text calls circumcision a ‘sign,’ we must ask who sees the sign?  Other men?  Maybe on occasion, but not primarily.  Who else would see Abraham’s penis but Sarah?

Additionally, in the rest of Genesis there is a pattern of the patriarch’s power, desires, and decisions being overruled and cut off.  Despite the patriarch Isaac’s love for his son Esau, God chooses the other son, Jacob, beloved of the matriarch Rebekah (Gen.25).  Despite the patriarch Jacob’s love for Joseph and Benjamin and his affection for Rachel over Leah, God chooses Judah, the oldest legitimate son of Leah, Jacob’s first wife, to be the true firstborn among his brethren and bearer of Israel’s kingship (Gen.49:8 – 12).  Despite Judah’s attempts to break his vow and disinherit the ethnically Canaanite woman Tamar out of the family, God vindicates Tamar over her father-in-law Judah and grants her twin boys whose birth signifies divine blessing (Gen.38).  God seems to be recalling the ‘seed of the woman’ prophecy of Genesis 3:15.  God connected His messianic promise most emphatically to the wife.  Without any more information, Israelite husbands could assume that they were biologically involved, but this meant that a husband had to regard his wife with peculiar interest and care which renewed the original creation order for marriage.  For in the age of ‘the patriarchs’ – and I am inclined to reject the overwhelming tendency of commentators to call Genesis 12 – 50 the section about ‘the patriarchs’ without much mention of ‘the matriarchs’ also – God insists on honoring the wife, making her station and even her affection, choice, and naming of her child the determining factor in who is the heir of promise.  We can understand this as a reversal of the cultural power of the patriarch, but it is not simply an arbitrary decision on God’s part to spite the power of the patriarch:  God is reasserting the significance of His original creation order, where husband and wife are one, and are equal partners in His commission to bring forth life (Gen.1:27 – 28).  Now that God is preparing the nation Israel to be His covenant partner, He is cultivating this ‘chosen family’ for four generations.  The spiritual formation of this family will engrain attitudes and patterns of thought into all the children of Israel, which had unusually high views of women until the incursion of Greek anti-woman prejudice in the 5th century BCE.  The ‘death’ that Abraham must embrace in his circumcision is to endure a spiritual surgery at the hands of a God who cuts off a deep prejudice from him at the same time He cuts off Abraham’s foreskin.  God cuts a sinful attitude away from Abraham, and brings him and Sarah in their marriage one step back to His original creation order.  God cut off Abraham’s fears and propensity to lie about Sarah, which left her vulnerable and attempted to narrow God’s promise to Abraham alone without Sarah as his wife (Gen.12:10 – 20).  Then God cut off Abraham’s power to name an heir outside his own bloodline (Gen.15).  Then God cut off Abraham’s power to use impregnate a woman other than his legitimate wife (Gen.16).  Then God cut off a piece of Abraham’s penis (Gen.17).  The message could not be clearer.

Thus, at the same time, if circumcision represents the death of the man being circumcised, and a judgment on his sin, it also represents his resurrection and cleansing.  Physically, circumcision enacts the rite of the knife missing the base of the penis and cutting off only the foreskin.  Abraham learned that human life could continue; the line of promise and covenant could continue; the potentiality of God’s promise was newly ‘uncovered’ through the rite.  But the physical experience was a connection to the emotional and spiritual.  By relinquishing the power his culture gave him to name his own heir, Abraham was drawn back to God’s creation order to properly value his wife Sarah as an equal partner in the story of redemption.  This is suggestive.  For Genesis portrays the knowledge of God as passing down genealogical lines, from Adam to Noah and then Noah’s son Shem, to Shem’s descendant Abraham.  This genealogical line passes down knowledge of the biblical past and hope for God’s redemption in the future.  Abraham knew something of God’s pronouncement that a ‘seed of the woman’ would one day crush the evil one on the head.  So by turning back towards God’s original creation order for marriage, however humbling that was for him, Abraham experienced a renewal:  a renewal of hope that through Sarah and himself, God would somehow undo the sin of Eve and Adam.  And even though in Genesis 17, Abraham was one hundred years old and Sarah ninety and barren and well past menopause, even though sex for them was surely not a youthful diversion any more but perhaps an awkward and strenuous affair, even though childbirth would raise questions of Sarah’s health, this became a clarifying moment for the couple:  God will draw up their small act of faith to bring forth a disproportionate result.  He will bring forth new life out of barrenness and death.  This will be a ‘new creation’ of sorts, similar to the creation ex nihilo of Genesis 1 but taking instead the raw material of an old couple’s human flesh and their small but potent faith to receive His word unto themselves.  This was the content of Abraham and Sarah’s faith in God:  not simply that God ‘exists,’ but that specifically God brings life out of death.  This was Abraham’s and Sarah’s ‘resurrection.’  Whether or not the ancient Jews thought there was some medical or hygienic benefit to circumcision for both husband and wife remains in doubt, but the larger connotations seem clear to me:  circumcision represents a cleansing by cutting away, a restoration of a man to the state God intended, even for the sake of his wife and as God’s invitation to her as well.

Second, for Abraham, circumcision must also symbolize the death and resurrection of Isaac, as well.  I am not suggesting that it meant this initially.  There is no way Abraham could have known at the time God gave him the sign of circumcision that God would ask him to sacrifice Isaac on an altar.  But in the text of Genesis, with the whole chiastic story of Abraham from Genesis 11:27 – 22:19, and I submit for Abraham personally towards the end of his life, circumcision comes to mean this by association, especially if Abraham was the one who compiled his life in the form of this chiastic mnemonic device for future generations to consider.  If circumcision is a cutting off of a part of one’s self, in particular the foreskin of the organ of reproduction and future life, then this bears a thematic resemblance to Abraham’s willingness to cut Isaac off from himself in Genesis 22, because Isaac in fact embodied his reproduction and future life.  Abraham’s faith was about God’s work in the future, and circumcision, being about the penis, was a symbol of the future.  However, we can reasonably deduce from the narrative of Genesis – and we also know this from Hebrews 11:19 – that Abraham fully expected God to raise Isaac from the dead.  This is because Abraham’s confidence in God’s faithfulness to fulfill His word became higher and higher throughout his life.  For instance, Abraham had seen God protect Sarah despite his lies about her (Gen.12:10 – 20; 20:1 – 18).  And he apparently believed that God would care for Hagar and Ishmael even in the barren wilderness (Gen.21:1 – 19), which would ordinarily be impossible without God’s provision.[1]  So by the time God asks Abraham to bring his knife to Isaac’s throat and offer him on an altar, Abraham understands that there is no conflict between God’s promises (to bless him and the world through Isaac and Isaac’s own descendants) and God’s commands (to kill Isaac).  Abraham is left to deduce that the only way both things can be true is if God will raise Isaac from the dead.  This type of faith is what Abraham cultivated, for which circumcision was seen to be the appropriate sign.  Circumcision, after all, was a claim on the future of Abraham in a very personal way.  It was a physical mark on the body of Abraham that his trust in God concerned the future, a future now embodied in the person of his son Isaac.  God had cultivated trust in Abraham – trust that He is reliable and powerful to bring about what He had promised.  For that future-oriented faith, Abraham received from God an appropriate symbol to permanently etch into his flesh.

Circumcision therefore comes to be associated with the sacrifice of the beloved son to God.  This would later become ritualized in Israel because of God’s command to ‘sacrifice’ and ‘redeem’ their first-born sons (Ex.13:1 – 16; 22:29 – 30; 34:19 – 20), which must also be considered part of Israel’s sacrificial system, in conjunction with the rite of circumcision performed on these sons.[2]  The association between sons, sacrifice, blood, and promise is clear.  For God to mark His people on the male sexual organ, representing reproduction, children, hope, and the future fulfillment of God’s promise, surely makes any man undergoing circumcision, or watching it done on his infant son, to think of God’s relation to the future, and not just the future in a vague and general sense, but his own personal future and the future of his descendants.  For the fathers and mothers of the chosen family in Genesis 12 – 50, there is a curious but unmistakable pattern.  God wants to draw the chosen son into His larger purpose of blessing the world.  But He does this against the opposition of the parents of that son because of their desire to shelter that son and raise up that son to provide hope and meaning for the local family, not global humanity.  Hence, the parents, and most notably in the narrative, the fathers, must sacrifice their favored sons to God.  This is the reversal of Cain’s treatment of his son Enoch, and a negation of the presumptive patriarchal prerogative to have power over one’s own sons.

Abraham had to make a choice to trust God with Isaac in Genesis 22; that choice is symmetrical with the choice he made with Ishmael in Genesis 21.  For in both cases, God had larger designs for these sons than Abraham could completely understand.  Isaac also had to give up his favoritism of his son, Esau, and give his blessing to the physically weaker Jacob, the son beloved by his wife Rebekah.  Jacob in turn had to learn how to lose Joseph, not due to God’s own designs but the ten brothers’ jealousy.  Then at the hands of Joseph incognito, Jacob must release both Simeon and his next favorite, Benjamin, and then bless Judah and not Joseph with the coming kingship.  The story of these fathers and sons is a saga of loss, then miraculous recovery into an utterly different quality of relationship.  God assures Abraham that both Ishmael and Isaac will prosper in their own ways (Gen.21:12 – 13).  He makes Jacob prosperous, and brings reconciliation to Esau and Jacob, who are both present at Isaac’s death to bury him with honor (Gen.35:29).  And He protects Joseph in his meteoric rise in Egypt to save human life from the regional famine, and reunites him with his father Jacob, so that the seventeen years they have together before Jacob dies (Gen.47:28) echo but far exceed in goodness the first seventeen years of Joseph’s early life (Gen.37:2).  Each father must let God interpose Himself in his relation to his own son.  For the great price of being God’s chosen people is that God claims possession over all one’s children, especially the favored and beloved ones, because through these children, God wants to bless the entire world, and not just the immediate family.  Every father in Israel must expect to undergo a loss of his son akin to death, and a reunion with his son akin to resurrection.

Circumcision is therefore a ‘sign’ akin to the ‘sign’ God put on Cain (Gen.4:15), although Scripture remains curiously silent on what that was.  We do know, however, that the semantic link is made between Abraham and Cain through the word ‘sign’ (Gen.17:11).  I also believe that circumcision is a sign that inverts and rebukes the sin of Cain.  Circumcision is a shedding of blood to remove something unclean from a man, so he can be part of the people of God who will inherit the land as a gift from God.  That is the mirror image of Cain sinfully shedding his brother’s blood, alienating himself from God and the land.  And this is where a literary-thematic exploration of Scripture needs to be added to the ‘word study’ method of biblical exegesis; for only by doing more robust literary analysis can we see Abraham as the inversion of Cain

Not only is Abraham the inversion of Cain, but Nimrod as well.  For the motif of land is being contrasted with the motif of the city.  For Cain oppressed his own son, Enoch, in a city named Enoch; Nimrod did the same in a city called Babel.  I am assuming that Abraham knew the stories of his family, the family of Shem, marked in the biblical text as possessing unusual life (Gen.11:10 – 26).  Hence, Abraham would have recognized the pattern in rejecting a city and inheriting a garden land, for that had already happened twice in Genesis 1 – 11.  God now called Abraham out of a city, Ur of Mesopotamia, invited him to be a pilgrim in a foreign land in a way that Cain refused to, and required that he relinquish the power to name his own heir, the power to elevate his own fertility without regard for the role of his wife, the power to impregnate his wife on his own natural power, and especially the power to hold his son hostage to his own designs and fears.  Circumcision is an utter rebuke of Cain’s bloodshed, insecurity, and apathy towards the God who still wanted to protect and redeem him.  The repeating of this kind of sin by Nimrod, in the city of Babel (Gen.11:1 – 9) elicited a move from God that would remind his chosen people that their children and their future utterly belonged to God and rested in His hands.  Henceforth, God’s people would possess a sign that would turn them away from the sin of Cain.  It cleansed them of a sinful posture.  This was the decisive break that the covenant, with circumcision as its sign, made into the people of God.  Circumcision, therefore, referred to a cutting away of a part of the human being (expiation) that offended God (propitiation), so that the human being as a person could be cleansed.  It was a judgment of God on sin for the cleansing of the person, returning the person in a partial way to God’s original creation order.  Thus, I am arguing that circumcision was a preliminary sign that the wrath of God was and is directed at the corruption in our human nature, and not at our personhood as penal substitution advocates claim, whereas the love of God is directed at our personhood, for our cleansing and ultimate union with God.  This sets the stage for understanding why I believe ontological-medical substitution is the correct atonement theory that is taught by Scripture.

This sets the stage for understanding why I believe ontological-medical substitution is the correct atonement theory that is taught by Scripture.  No wonder, then, that ‘spiritual circumcision’ (Dt.30:6) is used to denote God returning Israel from exile and back to the garden land as befitting God’s true humanity, and God healing the Israelites internally to be the true humanity He had always wanted Adam and Eve to be.  When Paul quotes Deuteronomy 30:6 in Romans 2:28 – 29, he does so to show his understanding of what the eventual purpose of the Sinai covenant was:  to guide Jesus, the true Israelite, to spiritually circumcise his own heart (Rom.6:6; 8:3) and thus bring the Sinai covenant to its climax (Rom.10:4).  He would become the truly human being God always intended – by perfecting his human nature into full union with his divine nature.


[1] Eleonore Stump, Faith and the Problem of Evil (Veritas Forum lecture 2002), argues persuasively that Abraham’s trust that God will provide life after the sacrifice of Isaac is the necessary and symmetrical confirmation of his faith that God will provide life for Ishmael in the wilderness.  Both scenarios involve God providing life in the face of death.  Accessed from

[2] See also Jewish scholar Jon D. Levenson, The Death and Resurrection of the Beloved Son:  The Transformation of Child Sacrifice in Judaism and Christianity (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1993), although I disagree with his interpretation of early Judaism as continuing in child sacrifice.  Levenson takes Exodus 22:28 out of context and therefore sees in this law a reference to actual child sacrifice, as opposed to the Hebrew practice of redeeming a first-born son.  He also takes Ezekiel 20:25 – 26 out of context as if it referred to child sacrifice.  Significantly, Levenson does not treat the portrayal of Cain and Enoch in Genesis 4 as the beginning of child sacrifice in principle, and the beginning of Israel’s vigorous critique of it as a complete inversion of both life in the original garden and life lived in hope of the messianic deliverer.


6 Comments Add yours

  1. Some brilliant thinking in this piece. It was well worth taking the time to read. Found myself nodding my head appreciatively at most points and illustrations. I cringed slightly at your treatment of the Temple worship as a motif of your argument, though I could better understand your bringing it up as I continued to work through it. Especially loved the subtle and powerful analysis of circumcision representing a reduction of power and control over personal and national destiny, and the elevation of the weaker sex to equality, a concept I think Paul would applaud, as he uses much the same idea in his explanation of the function of the body of Messiah. As I read through, I thought also that the concept of kosher can be appropriately included in this as this also is centered around separating life from death. The only disappointment I had was at the very end when you affirm the dualistic nature of Messiah as God/Man. I think this dogma is a poor fit for your excellent thesis here. Your argument has greater power in the presence of a fully human redeemer after the pattern of Moses, which is clearly the pattern Jesus presented to his people. Fascinating. Thanks for writing. I’ll be tracking you going forward.


    1. makonagasawa says:

      Thank you David for your encouragement! I’ve enjoyed the literary analysis done by Jewish and Christian scholars, and am deeply in their debt. I do have the hope of coordinating these insights from the field of biblical studies to the ante-Nicene and Nicene theologians reflecting on the ontology of Jesus, and their understanding of atonement. You may feel like my drawing of the connections at this point are premature, but I will involve more themes and patterns in Scripture as I move forward, including the figure of Moses as mediator of the covenant. If you’d like to discuss that more as the series continues, please jump in.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. No, not premature. I will certainly continue reading. I have posted your essay on several faith community sites and encouraged everyone I have influence with to read it. I also utilize Jewish and Christian scholarship in my own teaching and essays and have found it most helpful and enriching. I have a blog of my own on this site (Oasis Fellowship). Not quite as scholarly as yours at this point but along the same lines. I appreciate the work you put into this. I see you’ve posted another installment which i haven’t time to read yet. But I will!


    1. makonagasawa says:

      Thank you David. I’ll check out your blog as well. Happy new year!


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