A close-up image capturing the tenderness of a newborn's hand gripping a father's finger, symbolizing the covenant of trust and faith between God and His chosen people in Genesis 17.

Why Did God Command Circumcision In Genesis 17?

Circumcision has been practiced for thousands of years, but its origins come from a command that God gave to Abraham in the Bible. If you’re looking for a quick answer, God commanded circumcision as an external sign to seal His covenant with Abraham and his descendants.

In this comprehensive article, we will examine the background and reasons behind this pivotal moment in Scripture. We will explore the covenantal significance, health benefits, and even controversies surrounding circumcision.

The Covenantal Significance of Circumcision

God’s Covenant with Abraham

In Genesis 17, God appeared to Abram and changed his name to Abraham, establishing His covenant with him.

This was an unconditional, everlasting covenant in which God pledged to greatly multiply Abraham and make him into a great nation (Genesis 17:1-8).

Circumcision was instituted by God as the sign of this covenant with Abraham and his descendants (Genesis 17:10-11).

A Sign of the Covenant

Circumcision was to be performed on all male babies born in Abraham’s household, whether born into slavery or freedom (Genesis 17:12).

This physical sign marked their bodies and signified their participation in God’s covenant with Abraham. It was an outward confirmation that they belonged to the covenant people of God.

Even today in Judaism, circumcision is still an important rite of passage for 8-day-old baby boys to mark inclusion into God’s covenantal family, just as God commanded Abraham.

So the ritual maintains deep covenantal meaning even now.

Circumcision Required for Covenant Membership

In Genesis 17, God made it clear that any uncircumcised male would be “cut off from his people” for violating the covenant (Genesis 17:14). Circumcision was non-negotiable for Abraham and his descendants.

Even foreigners and servants entering the household had to be circumcised before they could partake of the Passover meal (Exodus 12:48).

So God used circumcision as a sorting mechanism – the circumcised were part of His covenant nation, and the uncircumcised were excluded.

The significance of circumcision is that it indelibly marked who was in the covenant family of God. It preserved covenantal purity for Abraham’s descendants.

The Spiritual Meaning Behind Circumcision

Cutting Away the Flesh

In Genesis 17, God commands Abraham and his descendants to circumcise newborn boys as a sign of His everlasting covenant with them. On a basic level, circumcision was about cutting away excess flesh as a physical marker of that covenant.

But circumcision held much deeper spiritual symbolism as well.

Circumcision represented a cutting away of sin, pride, and impurities. Just as Abraham and his heirs were set apart as God’s chosen people, circumcision set apart boys and men as belonging to Yahweh.

The ritual cutting of flesh illustrated man’s need to be cleansed of unrighteousness before entering God’s covenant (Exodus 6:12).

This physical act also pointed ahead to believers’ purification through Christ. Jesus would come to perfectly fulfill God’s requirement for spotless righteousness on humanity’s behalf.

As the prophet Jeremiah wrote, God promised one day to circumcise His people’s hearts – to write His law within them and cleanse them wholly of wickedness (Jeremiah 31:33).

Christ’s atoning sacrifice would provide that circumcision of the heart for all who put their faith in Him (Romans 2:28-29).

Circumcision of the Heart

The outward circumcision commanded of Abraham and his heirs was thus meant as a metaphor and foreshadowing of an inward spiritual cleansing. As the apostle Paul wrote, true circumcision is circumcision of the heart by the Spirit of God (Romans 2:28-29).

It represents holiness, obedience to God’s word, and devotion to walking in His ways.

A heart circumcised by the Lord overflows with love for Him and for others (Deuteronomy 30:6). While outward, physical circumcision profits only a little, inward circumcision testifies of an a changed nature and a new creation in Christ (Galatians 6:15).

This kind of spiritual cutting away allows deep intimacy with the Lord and transformation into His likeness (Colossians 2:11-13).

Believers in Christ experience this circumcision of heart when they put saving faith in Him (Philippians 3:3). God’s word cuts sharply, convicting them of sin and revealing their need of a Savior (Hebrews 4:12).

As they yield their lives fully to the Lord, He circumcises and cleanses them wholly – heart, mind, and soul.

So while physical circumcision held rich symbolism under the old covenant, under the new covenant that symbolism finds its full meaning in the purifying spiritual work God begins and perfects in believers’ hearts. The outward sign pointed to the greater inward reality to come.

The Health Benefits of Circumcision

Reduced risk of UTI and STD transmission

Circumcision has been shown to reduce the risk of urinary tract infections (UTIs) in infants and young boys. UTIs can lead to kidney infections and damage if left untreated.

Circumcision eliminates bacteria and viruses that can collect under the foreskin, reducing the risk of infection.

One study found that uncircumcised infant boys had a 10 times higher risk of UTIs compared to circumcised infants. The reduced risk of UTIs lasts through childhood and into adulthood.

Circumcision also reduces the risk of contracting sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) like HIV, herpes, syphilis, and HPV in men and their partners.

The foreskin contains Langerhans cells and CD4+ T cells which are targeted by HIV and other STDs.

Removing the foreskin reduces the number of these vulnerable cells, decreasing susceptibility to infections. Circumcised men were found to have a 60% lower risk of contracting HIV heterosexually.

The protective benefits of circumcision against STDs have led the World Health Organization to recommend voluntary medical male circumcision in areas with high HIV prevalence.

Prevention of penile problems and cancer

Circumcision prevents phimosis, an inability to retract the foreskin, which can lead to infections and difficulty urinating. Paraphimosis, where the foreskin gets trapped behind the glans, is also eliminated through circumcision.

Uncircumcised men have a higher rate of balanitis, inflammation of the glans and foreskin. Circumcision in infancy or childhood significantly reduces the risk of penile cancer.

Having a foreskin limits hygiene and allows carcinogens and infections to accumulate, increasing risk of penile cancer by over 2 times.

HPV infection is a major cause of penile cancer, and circumcision reduces susceptibility to the virus. Circumcision also prevents smegma buildup which has been associated with penile cancer.

While the risks are low, circumcision can prevent rare but serious foreskin conditions like balanoposthitis, which causes foreskin swelling and head inflammation.

Overall, circumcision eliminates many penile health issues that may require surgery later in life if the foreskin is not removed.

Health Benefit Impact of Circumcision
UTIs 10X lower risk in infants; reduced risk lifelong
STDs like HIV and HPV Over 60% lower risk of heterosexual HIV transmission
Penile problems Eliminates phimosis, paraphimosis, and balanitis
Penile cancer Over 2X lower risk


While no medical procedure is risk-free, the benefits of circumcision outweigh the risks. Circumcision is a safe procedure that can prevent many infections and medical issues later in life (10). Parents should consider both the pros and cons when deciding on circumcision for their baby boys.

Controversies and Concerns Over Infant Circumcision

Pain and Risks of the Procedure

Circumcision is a surgical procedure that removes the foreskin of the penis. When performed on infants, it is usually done without anesthesia which leads to acute pain during and after the procedure.

The lack of pain management raises ethical concerns about subjecting infants to unnecessary harm. According to a study, circumcised infants showed a stronger pain response than infants getting a regular injection.

Potential risks of infant circumcision include bleeding, infection, surgical mishaps, and improper healing. These risks are present despite the procedure being done in a clinical setting.

For example, a recent report found that over 100 infant boys are hospitalized each year for complications from circumcision like life-threatening infections or partial amputation of the penis from surgical errors.

Human Rights and Consent Issues

Infant circumcision also raises human rights issues as the babies cannot consent to a permanent surgical alteration of their bodies.

Without a clear medical indication, performing irreversible procedures on individuals too young to agree raises ethical questions.

Some see infant circumcision as conflicting with basic human rights to protection from physical harm.

There are also concerns that circumcision violates an individual’s right to bodily integrity as it permanently removes sensitive genital tissue without the person’s consent.

Some argue the rights of the parents or community end where the child’s right to bodily integrity begins.

They propose boys should have a choice about circumcision when they reach an age where they can evaluate risks vs benefits and consent to the procedure themselves.


While the practice remains controversial today, understanding the original context and meaning behind God’s command of circumcision is insightful.

This ancient ritual was given as an indelible sign of God’s covenant with Abraham and his offspring, with rich spiritual significance.

The health benefits, while secondary, can also be appreciated in light of modern medicine.

Whether circumcision retains any relevance for Christians today is debated, but the passages in Genesis remain pivotal for understanding God’s redemptive plan to bless all nations through Abraham.

Just as Abraham was set apart as belonging to God, the ritual of circumcision marked that special relationship which point forward to our faith in Christ.

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