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Circumcision: A Sign of the Old Testament Covenant

The Feast of Circumcision is one of the minor feasts celebrated annually by the Coptic Orthodox Church, Tobe 6 (January 14).

“You shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between ME and you” (Genesis 17:11).

Thus, the practice of circumcision began with Abraham, in fulfillment of God’s covenant. God commanded Abraham to circumcise every male descendant eight days following birth. In this manner circumcision in the Old Testament became a pronounced external physical sign of the covenant between the Lord and His chosen people (Genesis 17:14).

Irenaeus (c 180) states, “God gave circumcision as a sign, not as the completion of righteousness.”

There are many facts we know surrounding circumcision in the Old Testament. Only those circumcised were allowed to partake of the Passover Meal (Exodus 12:43-49). The rite of circumcision was not practiced during the forty years of the Israelite wandering in the wilderness. Though, in the Holy Book of Joshua 5:27, circumcision was required prior to invading the Promised Land of Canaan.

History records that circumcision came to denote being of a clean nature and purity. Uncircumcised paralleled with unclean. Many Israelite neighbors were circumcised including the Arabs and Egyptians though only with the Israelites the rite was symbolic of their relationship with the Lord.

Barnabas (c. 70-130) stated, “But you will say, ‘Yes, truly the people are circumcised for a seal.’ Yet, so is every Syrian, Arab, and all the priests of idols as well. So are these people, then, also within the bond of His covenant? In fact, the Egyptians practice circumcision, too.”

Of the Israelites immediate neighbors, the Philistines also were not circumcised. In the Holy Book of I Samuel 17:26 tells us of David’s reference to Goliath, “this uncircumcised Philistine.” In the Holy Book of Jeremiah (9:25) refers to the Israelite neighbors who were circumcised as “circumcised only in the foreskin.” This simply meant that the circumcision was a procedure that had no religious significance. Jeremiah plainly told the people of Israel to “circumcise yourselves to the Lord, remove the foreskin of your hearts” (Jeremiah 4:4). The symbolism of circumcision was to remind the people of Israel to devote themselves and their hearts to the Lord.

In the New Testament with the beginning and early growth of the Church, circumcision became one of the first issues for debate. St. Paul adamantly stated “Circumcision is nothing and not being circumcised is nothing, but obeying the commandments of God is everything” (I Corinthians 7:19). The apostles and the elders further supported this argument in the Holy Book of Acts 15:19 that circumcision was not required of the Gentiles. The apostles met in 51-52 AD in Jerusalem and agreed to send St. Paul and St. Barnabus, accompanied by Judas Barsabas and Silas to Antioch to settle the issue by explaining the spiritual significance of circumcision in light of the teachings of the New Testament (Acts 15:1-29).

In the New Testament teachings the Sacrament of holy Baptism usurped the rite of circumcision. How? Just as the uncircumcised were not allowed to partake of the Passover Meal neither are those who have not been baptized allowed to partake of the Holy Communion. “In Him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of flesh in the circumcision of Christ; and you were buried with Him in baptism, in which you were also raised with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him through faith from the dead” (Colossians 2:11-12).

Tertullian (c 197) stated, “Let the one who contends thatcircumcision on the eighth day is still to be observed because of the threat of death…prove to us that in ancient of times righteous men kept the Sabbath or practiced circumcision, and were thereby made “friends of God.” God created Adam uncircumcised and non-observant of the Sabbath. Why did God not circumcise him-even after his sinning-if circumcision purges…Furthermore, God freed from the deluge Noah, who was uncircumcised and did not observe the Sabbath. Enoch, too, God transported from this world, even though that most righteous man was uncircumcised and did not observe the SabbathMelchizedek also, ‘the priest of the most high God,’ though not circumcised and not observing the Sabbath, was chosen to the priesthood of God.”

What then is the message of the minor Feast of Circumcision for the Coptic Orthodox Church’s celebration? The symbolic message clearly is that we should all live and abide with a simpleness and purity of heart. The pure in heart being those devoted to the worship and service of the Lord. Their only simple desire is to hold fast to the Lord Jesus Christ and His holy teachings.

Lactantius (C 304-313) summarizes this in his writings, “For if God had so willed it, He could have formed man from the beginning without a foreskin. However, fleshly circumcision signified that we should live with an open and simple heart.”

In Holy Gospel of St. Matthew (5:8), the Lord Jesus Christ further emphasizes this point and teaches us all, “Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God.”

May we all strive to be pure in heart and see God through the Communion with His Son.

— His Grace Bishop Youssef
Bishop of the Coptic Orthodox Diocese of the Southern United States

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