While in Exodus 12 the LORD requires Gentiles desiring to partake in the Passover to first be circumcised (which was brutal), what makes this one verse presented in Leviticus 12 so fascinating is that it’s the only mention of circumcision in the entire Law!
Aside from this rather shocking reality, you should also note that what we find articulated in this one verse is really nothing more than a restating of a command God had given to the Hebrew patriarch Abraham some 500 years earlier. Leviticus 12:3 presents nothing new.
What makes all of this so strange is that you’d assume — because this act of circumcision becomes such a pivotal and largely controversial topic in the New Testament when the Church started becoming less Jewish and more dominated by Gentile Christians — that more would have been written about it in the Law… At least as much as the Dietary Guidelines which was an equally contentious topic. And yet, Leviticus 12:3 is all we have!
As I’ve studied this particular topic I’m convinced the reason circumcision only gets such a small mention in the Law boils down to two simple realities: First, there was likely no need to expound upon it because every Jew already understood its significance.
Keep in mind when God was giving the people the Law from Sinai and later the tabernacle of meeting not only was every Hebrew male already circumcised, but an interesting event recorded in Exodus 4:24-26 had already demonstrated how serious this was to God.
In this story we read… “It came to pass” that as Moses and his family were making their way “to Egypt” following God’s commission of him at the Burning Bush, when they drew near “the encampment” of Israel “the LORD met Moses and sought to kill him!”
Immediately realizing this was in relational to her refusal to allow Moses to circumcise their son, “Zipporah (Moses’ Gentile wife) took a sharp stone and cut off the foreskin of her son and cast it at Moses’ feet, and said, ‘Surely you are a husband of blood to me!’ So the LORD let Moses go. Then she said, ‘You are a husband of blood!’ — because of the circumcision.” Circumcision was so important God was willing to kill Moses!
Remember the core purpose of the Holiness Code was about God ordering the lives of His people to be so different from the world they’d never forget they were different from the world! These laws did not bestow to the Jewish people an identity. Instead, these laws served to remind them what their identity already was! They were the people of God! The purpose behind male circumcision was fundamentally no different. It was a “sign!”
Which leads us to the second reason God leaves circumcision out of the Law… The fundamental purpose behind this act transcended the very Law itself! Since this reference to circumcision in Leviticus 12:3 was brief but included, for our study to be complete we need to look back at the story in Genesis this verse harkened back too.
In doing so not only will we come to see why circumcision was so important to God, but we’ll understand why it’s include in Leviticus 12 in relation to a woman following childbirth!
Genesis 17:1-2, “When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the Lord appeared to Abram and said to him, ‘I am Almighty God; walk before Me and be blameless. And I will make My covenant between Me and you, and will multiply you exceedingly.’”
For a larger context as to what’s happening it’s worth pointing out that at the close of Genesis 16 we’re told Abram was 86 years old. Because chapter 17 now opens with Abram being 99, we’re left with a 13-year gap between chapters. The reason this detail matters is that it’s been more than a decade since Abram had made a critical error in judgment.
Abraham was 99 with one big problem… You see chapter 16 records for us a story where Abram failed to trust in God’s promise to provide him a son through his wife Sarai. Impatient and pressured to do something about it Abram laid with Sarai’s Egyptian handmaiden Hagar and produced a son of the flesh he named Ishmael. It was a bad move!
While Abram’s life undoubtedly continued on during these 13 years as he raised Ishmael, because no interaction between he and the Lord is recorded it’s safe to assume nothing of note took place. This season of Abram’s life was marked by 13 years of divine silence.
Imagine that… Abram fails and this failure is immediately followed by 13 long years of God’s silence! Have you ever been in a situation where someone gives you the cold-shoulder as a result of your failure? It’s safe to reason these 13 muted years left Abram wondering if his failure had completely ruined God’s plans for his life. “God, where are you?”
Notice how God breaks His silence… We read in verse 1, “The Lord appeared to Abram and said to him, ‘I am Almighty God.’” Imagine Abram’s initial reaction the moment “the Lord appeared to him” after 13 years! I’m sure this “appearing” didn’t produce delight or even relief. Instead, it likely generated a profound fear! He really messed up with Hagar! What would God do? What would He say? Uncertainty flooded his heart!
The words that followed brought immediate comfort to his anxious heart. We read that the LORD said to Abram, “I am Almighty God!” In the Hebrew this name “Almighty God” is a compound word El-Shaddai. While El spoke of the masculine strength of God, this word Shaddai is derived from the feminine word meaning breast or one who nourishes. And note this is the first time in the Scriptures this name is used for God.
What makes this name so radicle is that it uniquely encompassed both the masculine and the feminine. El-Shaddai combined the strength of a man with the tenderness of a woman. In his place of failure Abram would need the strong hand of God — El, but His strength would also need to be tempered with a real tenderness — Shaddai.
In the context of all that’s happening what relief it must have been for Abram knowing that God had not appeared to punish him for failing. This was not a day of reckoning! Instead, by the very name God uses when He appeared to Abram it became evident the Lord intended to minister to him in the same way two loving parents address their children!
Notice what else God says to Abram, “I will make My covenant between Me and you, and will multiply you exceedingly.” For starters, while the English translation makes it seem as though God is going to be establishing a new “covenant” with Abram, this word translated “make” would be better translated as to deliver or grant. This was not a new agreement.
In a sense, what is happening is that while Abram knew there were consequences to his decision to sleep with Hagar, God is letting him know the covenant He originally made with him remained intact. It’s also worth pointing out in the exchange that follows God will use this phrase “My covenant” 9 times and will declare “I will” an astounding 24 times.
Though undoubtedly Abram had made a royal mess of things with Hagar, what a wonderful reality knowing God’s covenant wasn’t predicated upon his performance. Instead, it had been solely founded upon God’s ability to make good on His promises!
Look at God’s exhortation to Abram that follows… “Walk before Me and be blameless!” In order to understand what God is saying let’s unpack this statement working backwards… In the Hebrew this phrase “and be blameless” is one word meaning complete or whole. The KJV actually translates this directive as “be perfect.” This was not something God was exhorting Abram to do, rather it was something God was reminding him he was.
Furthermore, this phrase “walk before Me” shouldn’t be overanalyzed as it’s nothing more than an invitation for Abram to come and meet with God. How incredible to think God was inviting a failed man to come and stand before Him as one who was perfect? What grace!
Though repentance is a buzz word used mostly by Christians, the sad truth is that most people don’t fully grasp what repentance actually means. Case in point, I had someone recently ask me whether I thought Kanye West needed to repent publicly for his past transgressions. The very question revealed a complete ignorance as to what repentance seeks to accomplish! As if anyone but God was owed an apology from Kanye West!
In the Hebrew you’ll typically encounter two different words translated into English as repentance. One describes sorrow and regret with the other meaning to return or turn back. It’s this second definition that lines up with the Greek word we find in the New Testament. Metanoeō was a military term describing three actions: to stop, turn around, and head the opposite direction! It was a changing of the mind that fostered a change in direction.
Repentance in a Biblical sense is not feeling remorseful or bad about one’s actions. It’s not saying, “I’m sorry” or promising to be better. Repentance is a decision that what I’m doing is wrong, a turning away from those things, and an active movement the opposite direction.
The problem with the way Christians present repentance is that so often the emphasis is placed solely upon what a person is supposed to turn from as opposed to what they’re supposed to be turning towards. Example: When you first became a Christian, what did repentance look like? Well, repentance manifested the very moment you decided to leave behind this world in order to come to the cross and place your faith in Jesus.
And this is what so many get wrong… Sure, repentance involves a turning from sin, but it’s also a turning back to something greater! Repentance is a returning to the cross, the place of salvation, the demonstration of grace, your position of right-standing before God.
You see what’s happening in God’s appeal that Abram “walk before Me and be blameless” is that He’s asking a failed Abram to repent! God reminds Abram who He is — “Almighty God.” God reminds Abram who he is — “blameless.” Before inviting him back before His presence — “walk before Me.” While Abram had failed, God’s promises had not been derailed and most importantly his standing had not been tarnished. It’s as though God is saying, “Abram, come to Me and remember you’re still a righteous man in My eyes!”
Genesis 17:3-5+15, “Then Abram fell on his face, and God talked with him, saying: ‘As for Me, behold, My covenant is with you, and you shall be a father of many nations. No longer shall your name be called Abram, but your name shall be Abraham; for I have made you a father of many nations.’  Then God said to Abraham, ‘As for Sarai your wife, you shall not call her name Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name.’”
Before God restates His promises to Abram, did you notice this amazing statement? He tells Abram, “I have made you a father…” Because Abram had been willing to place his faith in the coming Savior, God’s future promises had been based upon His unmerited favor for Abram — independent of Abram’s performance. As a result, God’s work was just as good as done. He was working in Abram and who he’d become had already been determined.
Aside from this amazing reality, I love the fact God then gives this 99 year old man and this 89 year old woman new names. He changes “Abram” to “Abraham” and “Sarai” to “Sarah.”
Keep in mind, in ancient times the ability to name something was deeply significant because the act demonstrated dominion over that thing. Example: In the Genesis record Adam was given the responsibility of naming the animals because he had been given dominion over the animals. Additionally, God named Adam, but also allowed Adam to name his wife Eve. He was responsible for her. The giving of a name mattered.
Though we have no record that God had any particular role in giving the names “Abram” and “Sarai,” this act of giving them new names illustrated God’s dominion over their lives. In his worldly life “Abram” was the “Exalted Father” — which was a cruel joke as he had no children. And yet, in this instance, God renames him “Abraham” meaning “Father of Many Nations.” Though “Sarai” meant “Princess,” the name “Sarah” means “Mother of Nations.”
So the question begs… How did Abram become Abraham and how did Sarai become Sarah? How did an exalted father and the princess without kids become respectively the “Father and Mother of Many Nations?” Did they do something to demand this name and destiny change? No! God acted on His own and totally redefined who they were to be!
And how did God practically do this? Amazingly, all he did was simply add one letter to each of their names! The letter “ah” is inserted into “Abram” making him “Abraham” and to “Sarai” making her “Sarah.” The reason this is fascinating is “ah” is the 5th letter of the Hebrew alphabet, which according to Biblical numerology always represented grace! Side point… This explains why there were also 5 offerings presented in Leviticus 1-7!
How did they receive these new identities which corresponded to their new destiny? The exact same way we do… God’s amazing grace! In 2 Corinthians 5:17 we read, “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new.” Revelation 2:17, “To him who overcomes I will give a white stone, and on the stone a new name written which no one knows except him who receives it.”
Let’s see what God does next… Genesis 17:6-8, “I will make you exceedingly fruitful; and I will make nations of you, and kings shall come from you. And I will establish My covenant between Me and you and your descendants after you in their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and your descendants after you. Also I give to you and your descendants after you the land in which you are a stranger, all the land of Canaan, as an everlasting possession; and I will be their God.”
This covenant God made with Abraham and his descendants to follow is described as being “an everlasting covenant.” This word “everlasting” implies the promises God had made to Abram would possess a continuous existence. They'd be perpetual and indefinite. God would give him a son, who’d become a nation, who’d possess all the land of Canaan.
You can imagine what a relief this reiteration of God’s promise to work in and through his life would have been for a man who’d been questioning this very reality for the last 13 years!
Genesis 17:9-16, “And God said to Abraham: ‘As for you, you shall keep My covenant, you and your descendants after you throughout their generations. This is My covenant which you shall keep, between Me and you and your descendants after you: Every male child among you shall be circumcised; and you shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between Me and you.
He who is eight days old among you shall be circumcised, every male child in your generations, he who is born in your house or bought with money from any foreigner who is not your descendant. He who is born in your house and he who is bought with your money must be circumcised, and My covenant shall be in your flesh for an everlasting covenant. And the uncircumcised male child not circumcised, that person shall be cut off from his people; he has broken My covenant.’”
While the practice of circumcision was not invented in this instance, God uses circumcision to “be a sign of the covenant” He’d made with Abraham. And what was the covenant? In an act of grace God would provide a Savior to save man from sin so that by faith in this Man’s sacrifice we might all become righteous before God!
Though circumcision is mentioned in the Law (Leviticus 12:3), the fact it’s established here in Genesis 17 is important. You see circumcision was never to be the sign of the Law, but was rather a physical reminder of the covenant God had made with Abraham — namely that God would provide a Savior through his lineage!
Consider the context… Abram had acted out in his own efforts to fulfill the promises of God by sleeping with Hagar and having Ishmael. God then appears to Abram 13 years later, reveals a new side of His person (El Shaddai), invites him to repent, imparts a new identity, and institutes circumcision as a physical reminder that their relationship and the fulfillment of His future work in Abram’s life would only be yielded through His grace!
To this point, in Romans 4:11, Paul wrote that Abraham “received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness of the faith which he had while still uncircumcised, that he might be the father of all those who believe, though they are uncircumcised (speaking of these new Gentile believers), that righteousness might be imputed to them also…”
While the Jewish people would come to see circumcision as an external act that brought with it God’s acceptance and entry into the lineage of Abraham (which is why they wanted Gentile Christians to become circumcised), the truth is that Genesis 17 demonstrated the exact opposite reality… Circumcision was God’s way of hammering home the point that no natural work of man’s flesh could ever substitute for a supernatural work of God!
As David Guzik rightly observed in his commentary, “Circumcision is a cutting away of the flesh and an appropriate sign of the covenant for those who should put no trust in the flesh.”
Circumcision never intended to yield God’s favor through man’s obedience! Instead, it was an act that physically represented one’s faith in the coming Savior! Circumcision was God’s way of emphasizing to Abram (and to all those who’d look for the coming Savior) how powerless the flesh would always be as it pertained to fulfilling the promises of God.
For the student of Scripture, this explains why the act of circumcision is no longer necessary following the completed work of Jesus. In Galatians 5, Paul would write, “For we through the Spirit eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness by faith. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision avails anything, but faith working through love.”
This act of cutting away the flesh was to demonstrate a faith that rejected human activity in the place of divine involvement! God was clear to Abraham after his mistake with Hagar that he needed to stay out of the way so God could work in and through his life!
Furthermore, it’s interesting to note, the procedure of circumcision was to occur on the 8th day following a child’s birth. Again, according to Biblical numerology, the number 8 represented a new beginning, a new creation, being born again. How fascinating God institutes circumcision directly after Abram’s been given a new identity through God’s grace!
So what does all of this tell us about Leviticus 12… Last Sunday I mentioned that with every pregnancy a Hebrew woman was reminded of two realities: First, the curse of sin was terrible. In childbirth a woman recognized the “wages of sin was death” and that all life was a gift! Secondly, God would work through this terrible experience to bring forth a Savior!
This is why if the woman had a son she was required to “circumcise him on the eighth day!” In this act she would be reminded that God had promised Abraham that He would provide a Savior for the world through their seed and a woman’s experience! God would redeem a woman’s labor in childbirth by ultimately bringing salvation into this world!
So what’s the application for you and I this morning… In this midst of his failure God gave Abraham the “sign” of circumcision to remind him of an important component pertaining to their covenant (this would also provide equal encouragement for a woman who’d just experienced the practical consequences of the curse of sin in childbirth)… God’s work saving man would not be predicated upon man’s performance, but His goodness!
Please don’t miss how amazing this idea really is! Whether you find yourself in a place of failure like Abraham or experiencing the bite of sin that manifests from the curse, the concept behind circumcision taking place on the eighth day should be equally profound.
Friend, your new life came not from anything you’ve done. Eternal life manifests from a work Jesus did on your behalf! He was born through the curse. Experienced life under its effects. Ultimately dying under its weight. And yet, Jesus rose victorious!
This is why in many ways the act of circumcision has been replaced with communion. One act looked forward to a coming Savior. The other looks back to the work He accomplished. And both are done in faith serving as a reminder that our relationship with God is founded upon His ability to make good on His promises in spite of our failures.
This morning if you’ve blown it I want to encourage you to repent of your sin by looking back to the cross. Realize your debt has already been paid by the sacrifice Jesus has made. Never forget “it’s the goodness of God that leads a man to repentance!”
And if this morning you’re struggling under the consequences of sin — please take heart knowing God’s work has never been restricted by the curse or predicated upon your performance. Amazingly, it was in the woman’s labor that God provided a Savior!
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