With that, we reach the point of the Abraham narrative in which circumcision, as a covenant marker, is introduced. As we listen to the words of God to come, we can think back through the Abraham story, and realize just how long it has been (both in terms of the text of Scripture and the passage of time) since God has first called Abraham to Himself and for Himself, to be His light to the nations (chapter 12). In verse nine of the seventeenth chapter of Genesis we read “Then God said to Abraham, ‘As for you, you must keep the covenantal requirement I am imposing on you and your descendants after you throughout their generations. This is My requirement that you and your descendants after you must keep: Every male among you must be circumcised. You must circumcise the flesh of your foreskins.’” (17:9-11a)
Well this pretty much clinches the argument for those that insist that circumcision must be undergone for entrance upon the covenant (for justification), so Gentile believers need to line-up to undergo the procedure as did Abraham. Putting aside that Paul does speak of the circumcision of the heart (with a reminder that he is not the one that comes up with that idea – that would be the Hebrew prophets), we need to take into account the fact that this is the point at which circumcision is finally introduced to Abraham. Are we to presume that Abraham, up until this point (actually, shortly thereafter, when the circumcision is performed) Abraham has, in fact, not been in covenant with God (not righteous, not justified, not in right standing, not “saved”)? Of course not. Such a proposition would be ludicrous. We could not suggest such a thing for even a moment.
However, with what follows, this idea gains traction. We read “Throughout your generations every male among you who is eight days old must be circumcised, whether born in your house or bought with money from any foreigner who is not one of your descendants. They must indeed be circumcised, whether born in your house or bought with money… Any uncircumcised male who has not been circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin will be cut off from his people---he has failed to carry out My requirement” (17:12-13a,14). Clearly, this is difficult to square with Paul’s position. The language has not changed. We are still hearing about descendants. This includes the “nations” of which we have heard so much. It seems rather straightforward, and if we are listening to Paul with the story of Abraham in mind, as this story is crucial for the comprehension of the extension of God’s covenant and its associated justifying, then those that insist on circumcision as crucial for entrance upon the covenant must win the day.
Is that what is being presented? Well, in a word, no. We are not looking at circumcision as that which allows Abraham, or anyone else for that matter, to be counted among those justified (those looked upon as being righteous). For Abraham, the circumcision is the mark of God’s covenant. It did not bring Abraham into covenant. Naturally, at that time, there is no Jesus. There has been no crucifixion. More importantly, there has been no Resurrection. That’s significant, because the Resurrection changed everything. For Paul, it marked the beginning of the new creation. For Paul, it is the Resurrection that allows for the circumcision of the heart. It is the Resurrection (as the culmination and summation of the Christ-event) that marks the beginning of the fulfillment of the promise to Abraham concerning the multitude of nations (that have filled the earth) that are his descendants.
Conversely then, not only does the Resurrection begin the process of truly encompassing all nations under the covenant tent (thinking of Isaiah and the lengthening of stakes), but it is the Resurrection and its associated proclamation of Jesus as Lord that begins to create a people and a kingdom that subsumes distinct peoples and nations, creating a new nation of covenant people whose features, in imitation of Christ as the quintessential human being, supersedes all other heretofore recognized distinctions. This is yet another reason that, for Paul, circumcision and its related covenant markers fall by the wayside. Besides, if we, from our point of view on Paul, looking at the situation from a position thousands of years removed, entertain the necessity of circumcision because of what is to be found in Genesis seventeen, then we must jettison Paul and deny the influence of God’s Spirit upon him as he took the message of the Gospel into the Gentile world. We are probably not going to be willing to do such a thing, though there were many in his day that were happy to do precisely that.
At the same time, the astute reader would have noticed that, in the recounting of the selected passage from Genesis seventeen that has to do with circumcision and its requirement, some statements were omitted. Those statements were “This will be a reminder of the covenant between Me and you” (17:11b) and “The sign of My covenant will be visible in your flesh as a permanent reminder” (17:13b). The mark of the covenant was to be a reminder of the covenant standing. It did not provide the standing. What provided the covenant standing (righteousness, justification, salvation) was belief. True for Abraham, true for all. Circumcision did not convey righteousness (justification, covenant inclusion) upon Abraham. Similarly, simply uttering the words “Jesus is Lord” (if there has been no circumcision of the heart, and putting aside any plucking of out of context proof-texts from a letter to Corinth), if there is no belief in the God that is at work in Jesus, does not convey righteousness (covenant standing, justification, salvation). However, considering that, historically, saying “Jesus is Lord” did and does not exactly earn one any special favors or privileges, with this being ever so true in Paul’s day, Paul would find it hard to believe that anyone would say “Jesus is Lord” without it being a core belief. For this reason then, the words, as they belie a believing response of faith and loyalty, serve as the covenant marker, standing in for circumcision and all that eventually accompanied that particular rite.