Teaching Kids about Circumcision: Ten Easy Answers
Circumcision is referenced over 170 times in the Bible. Unless circumcision is understood, several of the Old Testament's "Bible Stories" remain as mysteries. Books like Romans (12+ references) and Galatians (8+ references) also remain confusing unless circumcision is understood. This article is written to (i) explain the Bible's teaching about circumcision, (ii) explain circumcision itself, and (iii) assist adults who are teaching the Bible to children (thanks - a lot - for this suggestion/request from one of our grandmothers who is reading our Galatians Challenge with her grandchild).
So - what is circumcision, and why is it so important in the Bible?
As God elevated His people above ancient pagan peoples, He instituted the commandment of circumcision as an overt symbol of the covenant He made with Abraham and his descendants. Why? "Circumcision can be a matter of...personal hygiene or preventive health care" (www.mayoclinic.org...circumcision). In contrast with the religiously idolatrous, morally degraded, and physically unhealthy Gentiles, God gave the Jews a better idea.
Abraham was the first to receive this command.
- And God said to Abraham, “As for you, you shall keep my covenant, you and your offspring after you throughout their generations. This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and your offspring after you: Every male among you shall be circumcised. 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 throughout your generations, whether born in your house or bought with your money from any foreigner who is not of your offspring, both he who is born in your house and he who is bought with your money, shall surely be circumcised. So shall my covenant be in your flesh an everlasting covenant. Any uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin shall be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant (Gen. 17:9-14).
God reestablished the same visible symbol of the covenant as part of the Law of Moses.
- The Lord spoke to Moses, saying,“Speak to the people of Israel, saying, If a woman conceives and bears a male child...
Born Jews and therefore born responsible to the Old Law (see Gal. 4:4), major New Testament characters asserted their circumcision as an essential religious "credential." The New Testament reports that both John the Baptist and Jesus were circumcised eight days after being born (Luke 1.59; 2.21). Paul specifically declared that he was "Circumcised the eighth day" (Phil. 3:5). Had they not been circumcised, they would not have had any standing among other Jews.
Isn't it about time you went outside and played?
Begun as a physical symbol, circumcision also continued as a figure of speech. It also represented something deeper and more meaningful. God described idolatry and disobedience in terms of an "uncircumcised heart" (Lev. 26:41). He described repentance as "circumcision of the heart" (Deut. 10:16;30:6). Jeremiah thundered, "Circumcise yourselves to the Lord, and take away the foreskin of your heart" (Jer. 4:4). Much later, Stephen still condemned the Jews of Jerusalem as "stiffnecked and uncircumcised in heart and ears" (Acts 7:51). This non-literal meaning did not eliminate the need for the literal, physical practice among Israelites. Bible writers simply used physical circumcision as an illustration of the much deeper spiritual cutting that God also required.
Go ask your dad. Maybe he can explain.
The death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus (i) brought about a major change, but (ii) many were unable to change. By eliminating the rest of the Law of Moses (see Heb. 8), Jesus also (i) brought about the major change of eliminating circumcision as a religious prerequisite. As Paul said, "For in Jesus Christ, neither circumcision nor uncircumcision matters, but faith which works by love" (Gal. 5:6). Although the symbol of circumcision was gone, another symbol took its place.
New Testament writers continued to employ the powerful symbolism of circumcision. Although the Old Covenant and its primary outward physical symbol had been eliminated, the New Covenant was in power and needed its own new outward physical symbol. Comparing and contrasting the Old and the New, Paul said, "In him alsoyou were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands...having been buried with him in baptism" (Col. 2:11-12). Thus, baptism has become the required outward representation of membership in the New Covenant.
For ritual-minded Jews, the salvation equality with Gentiles that resulted from baptism (see Gal. 3:27-28) was intolerable and (ii) many resisted the change. Some early Jewish converts to Christianity argued that “Unless (Gentiles) arecircumcisedaccording to the custom of Moses, (they) cannot be saved" (Acts 15:1). Paul fought against this teaching saying, "For neither circumcision counts for anything, nor uncircumcision, but anewcreation" (Gal. 6:15).
In the face of this opposition, Paul "did not yield in submission even for a moment" (Gal. 2:5), even "opposing to the face" those of "the circumcision party" (Gal. 2:11-12). Unhappy with "grace and truth," "the circumcision party" returned to "the Law given by Moses" (see Jn. 1:17). Instead of preaching a "five-step" plan of salvation (hear, believe, repent, confess, be baptized), the neo-circumcisers envisioned a plan of additional steps that required Gentile converts to be circumcised, just as they had been circumcised. Paul was so disgusted with them that he wished "that those who trouble you would cut themselves off" (Gal. 5:12) - ouch!
This false teaching stands as the background to several New Testament epistles. As mentioned, Romans and Galatians constantly reference circumcision. This makes the study of these books confusing to children and uncomfortable for grandmothers.
Doesn't the school nurse have a nice coloring book about circumcision?
All of this biblical stuff really dodges THE TOUGH QUESTION question, doesn't it?
By the way, wouldn't you like some cookies?
Sigh - here goes.
Unlike grandmothers and godly others who wish to live in a highly sanitized world, Bible writers lived and wrote in the real world. Their day-in, day-out lives were much more like the lives of country people who feed and slaughter cattle than the lives of city people who only see cows behind plastic wrap at the meat counter in the grocery store. Those real-life Bible writers used real-world, non-slang, anatomically correct words to describe, for example, sexual relations in marriage (Greek: koite; English: coitus; "sexual intercourse," Heb. 13:4 - the KJV folks, by the way, prudish in their outlook, tried to tone Paul down by using the words "the bed" instead of "sexual intercourse"). Bible writers also used the real-world, non-slang, anatomically correct word circumcise. Trying to be too sweet, we become too naive, stumbling over real-world Bible teachings.
Males are born with a foreskin covering the head of their penis (I don't like this ride. Can I get off now?). "In male human anatomy, the foreskin is a double-layered fold of smooth muscle tissue, blood vessels, neurons, skin, and mucous membrane that covers and protects the glans penis" (Wikipedia - But they didn't tell me about this in preaching school!). "Male circumcision...is the surgical removal of the foreskin from the human penis" (Wikipedia again - Where are the parents on this one?). Shortly after they are born, many parents continue to have their male children circumcised in the hospital before they are brought home (Personal experience - I raised two boys - but I have just about had enough of this "personal experience!"). Although debated by groups like the World Health Organization, circumcision is still widely accepted "for both therapeutic and preventive reasons" (Wikipedia one last time - Phew!).
GOOGLE "explaining circumcision." There are only about 537,000 results. Many of the pages are very well done. Some include useful diagrams. Stand by: many of our kids have already looked there (but no, not yours).
Oh, look, there goes a pretty squirrel!
Answer Ten - Conclusion
No longer one of God's religious necessities, circumcision continues to be practiced (i) as a religious requirement among Jews, Muslims, and some off-brand Christian groups, (ii) for cultural reasons, and (iii) for medical reasons. Mentioned many times in the Bible, circumcision has to be explained in order for many Bible passages to be understood. If I can do it, so can you.