Covenants of Christ: Abraham and the Sign of the Covenant of Promise

This post continues a series about material in O. Palmer Robertson’s book The Christ of the Covenants. The previous post looked at an overview of God’s “unconditional” covenant with Abraham. In this post we look at his treatment of the sign of the Abrahamic covenant of promise: circumcision.

Robertson notes that the context of the command for circumcision is Abraham’s lapse of faith in Genesis 16. Even though Abraham believes God, he still uses human reasoning to get an heir. Trust still seems to be an issue with him, so God gives him a sign as a permanent reminder of his promise to provide Abraham’s own offspring. Although Robertson does not put it quite this crudely, Abraham would be reminded of God’s unconditional promise every time he stopped to empty his bladder.

According to Robertson, in many other societies at the time circumcision was a rite of initiation into manhood. It was so widespread that societies that did not do so seem to have been considered particularly unclean. The Canaanites seem to have been unusual for their lack of circumcision.

I’m not sure how a theory of almost universal circumcision explains Abraham’s lack of circumcision, or why the Israelites needed to be circumcised after their lengthy sojourn in Egypt. Were the Chaldeans of Ur also considered unclean? For these reasons I doubt that circumcision was as ubiquitous as Robertson believes. In those relatively few societies that did practice it, it probably did function as an initiation into manhood.

Robertson notes several important points of significance related to Abraham’s sign of circumcision:

  1. God requires it of Abraham and all his descendants. This “sign” of the covenant becomes the seal of the covenant. Circumcision becomes inextricably tied to Abraham’s covenant of promise.
  2. It is symbolic of the purity required to be God’s people. It symbolically cuts off the unclean parts of human nature. “The application of circumcision to the first father of the family line of promise indicated that physical descent alone was ‘not sufficient to make true Israelites. The uncleanliness and disqualification of nature had to be taken away.’” (p. 150)
  3. It had special significance with regard to propagation of Abraham’s race.
    1. Applying it to Abraham before his seed is conceived indicates that all subsequent seed must receive the sign of the covenant in their flesh.
    2. It is the male reproductive organ that receives the sign, indicating a connection with reproduction.
    3. Since it is applied to children at eight days of age, it must be connected to reproduction.
    4. As opposed to using it as a manhood rite, Abraham’s circumcision is an expression of solidarity between parent and child, because it applies eight days after birth. God intends to deal with families. In his work of redemption God intends to restore the solidarity of the creation order of the family. God is not disrupting his created order to bring down sin, but instead is using grace applied to the created order of the family to bring an end to sin.
    5. Rather than being an initiation into adulthood, it becomes instead an initiation into the community of the redeemed.
    6. Rather than being a badge of racial superiority, its association with cutting off impurity should lead to a humble recognition of the need for God’s cleansing grace.
    7. Even gentile slaves of Israelite households were required to undergo circumcision, making them members of the covenant community. Gentiles who attached themselves to Israel could become Israelites by undergoing circumcision to enter the covenant. Using circumcision as a badge of gentile exclusion seems to go against God’s will. In fact, in ancient Israel’s law, any gentile wishing to participate in the Passover could do so upon circumcision.
    8. When used to enter into God’s covenant, it opens the bearer to the judgments of the covenant, a principle mentioned even by the Apostle Paul in his Letter to the Galatians (Gal. 3:13-14).
    9. Ignoring this sign, once having entered into the covenant, brings judgment.

In the next post I hope to explore connections between circumcision as the sign of the Covenant of Promise and the Mosaic and New Covenants.

About John Valade

I facilitate and teach in Wascana Fellowship. I have been married to Wanda since 1984. M.Div. from Briercrest Seminary, SK in 2011 and B.R.E. Canadian Bible College (now Ambrose University College) in 2000.
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