Three Covenants, Three Cuts, and One Cross
God makes three covenants with Abraham in the Book of Genesis. Each one contains promises of land, offspring, and God’s favor. And, each one gets progressively more specific about the implications of those promises.
In Genesis 12, God calls Abraham and makes astounding claims about his future, without offering very many details. Then, in Genesis 15, God gets more specific about the land he is giving Abraham, the process by which it will be passed down, and the personal nature of the covenant.
In Genesis 17, we find out even more. Abraham’s offspring will inherit the land of Canaan and it will be their permanent possession. Not only will his family be large, he’ll be the father of many nations and rulers. God promises to be the God of Abraham’s descendants forever and claims them as his own. Abraham learns that all of this will happen through a child born to Sarah, who had been barren up to this point.
Each of the covenants also involves some kind of cutting. In Genesis 12, Abraham leaves his birthplace and his family behind to go to the land God will show him. He is “cut off” from them, in a sense. In Genesis 15, Abraham asks God how he can know his offspring will possess the land. As part of a strange ceremony where God confirms these promises, Abraham makes an offering and cuts a cow, a goat, and a ram in half.
In Genesis 17, God tells Abraham that he, along with every male in his household and all his male descendants, must be circumcised. In order to mark their ongoing participation in this covenant, there will be a cut in their flesh. A metaphorical “cutting off” becomes literal, and then personal, as these covenant promises increase in specificity, breadth, and permanence.
As we read through the progression of these three covenants, we get the sense that something is building, that God is setting the stage. But for me, at least, circumcision seems like an odd finale for the series. Paul later refers to it as the sign and the seal of God’s covenant with Abraham (Romans 4:11). So why was it such a big deal? And does it tell us anything about future covenants God will make?
A Mark of Dependance
Although the initial group included men of all ages, from Genesis 17 on, circumcision was performed on baby boys who were eight days old. This important mark of inclusion in God’s people and God’s promises was bestowed upon…infants? If that sounds strange to us, it was even stranger when Abraham and his family started doing it.
While circumcision was a common practice in ancient cultures, there is no record of any other people group practicing circumcision on infants. Most of the time, it was used to mark young men for their usefulness in warfare or other special functions in the community. Typically, it was performed on adolescent males as part of a “coming-of-age” ceremony. It was a rite of passage, and usually signified a transfer from child-status to warrior-status. In some cultures, it was practiced exclusively among the priestly classes.
Among God’s people, however, circumcision was a mark placed on those who hadn’t done anything at all. Actually, they required a lot more from the community than they could offer it. It’s hard to imagine anyone more needy, vulnerable, or dependent than an eight day old baby. And yet, this is exactly the demographic God chooses to display the sign and seal of his ongoing covenant with Abraham.
A Mark of Inclusion
Another interesting detail about the introduction of this custom is that most of the men who were circumcised in Genesis 17 were not related of Abraham. Peter Leithart helps us see the significance of this detail in his book, A House for My Name:
From the beginning, God included people who were not direct descendants in the covenant he made with Abraham. There was one begotten son, and everyone else was added by grace. This is starting to sound familiar, isn’t it?
A Mark of Faith
A third distinction we should note is that Abraham’s circumcision preceded Isaac’s birth. Up until that point, Sarah had not been able to conceive. Abraham’s circumcision led to the fruition of God’s promise to give him a son through Sarah. Once he bore the mark of this covenant in his body, miraculous life was possible.
Both the conception and the circumcision that preceded it are reminders that people of faith don’t put our trust in the flesh. We do not count on our bodies, our natural abilities, or our own strength to bring about what God has promised. The mark of circumcision was the sign of a covenant that would outlast every body that bore it. A covenant that did not depend on any of those bodies, on any flesh at all, for its guarantee but operated by faith.
Circumcised by Christ
The significance of circumcision was so ingrained in Jewish culture that it became a major issue for the early church. The gospel revealed the full implications of God’s promises to Abraham. Innumerable descendants, the blessing of all nations through one family, a large inheritance, a great reward - all of these promises looked forward to Jesus. But Jewish converts to Christianity still wondered, what about circumcision?
The Apostle Paul addressed this question often. In his letters to the Roman, Galatian, and Philippian believers, he made the case that true circumcision is not a mark on the body but a mark on the heart, and that we belong to God by faith and not by keeping rules or regulations. And then he makes this fascinating argument in Colossians 2:
Shockingly, Paul insists that everyone who has died with Christ and been raised to new life in him has been circumcised. By Christ himself. Whose claim of inclusion in the promises of God could be more valid than the one who has been circumcised by Jesus? Paul says this happened to all of us when we died to our old selves. The “flesh” was cut off.
Just like Abraham and Sarah, who brought forth new life after circumcision, we have been made alive in Christ. Like the members of their household, we are not their direct descendants, but we get in on all the benefits of the covenant. Like the infant boys, we have nothing to offer and everything to gain. Paul tells the Philippians, “For it is we who are the circumcision, we who serve God by his Spirit, who boast in Christ Jesus, and who put no confidence in the flesh.” (Philippians 3:3) Life in the spirit is the seal and sign that circumcision was pointing to all along.