We find out in the book of Joshua that Israel failed to keep this covenantal requirement during their years in the wilderness. They failed to continue their expression of gratitude to the grace shown them by their supreme patron, thus dishonoring themselves. Should we not find this to be quite odd? This was God’s covenantal requirement, and Israel had clearly seen their covenant God acting on their behalf, fulfilling His age-old promises, in both their deliverance and their time in the wilderness before re-entering their Promised Land. Yet they failed to exercise this requirement that would have been quite basic to their honor-and-shame-defined world. Perhaps they were waiting to see if the God that rained down plagues on the Egyptians, led them in pillars of cloud and fire, parted the Red Sea, delivered manna daily, and made water flow from rocks, could actually bring them into the place that He had for them? If He managed that, then they could trust Him, and then, they would express their gratitude by re-engaging in this covenant requirement, showing their God that they were willing to once again trust Him and accept His covenant.
It seems as if there might very well have been an underlying attitude that they were doing God a favor by fulfilling and then continuing the practice of circumcision as a sign of covenant. That attitude appears to be well reflected in the fact that, rather than look to the requirement as a sign and symbol of gratitude to their God for His demonstration and extension of grace, mercy and faithfulness to them as children of Abraham, it became a source of pride and a basis for excluding other peoples from the blessings associated with the covenant. God had told Abraham that through him, and then through his descendants as well, all nations would be blessed; and part of Israel’s charge was to be a light to the nations. Israel, however, held up the very thing that symbolized a covenant that was designed to extend His blessings to all peoples, and pointed to it as the sign of their God’s favor on them and them alone. They were not actively seeking to extend the honor of their patron by loudly sharing about His good deeds, which would be the standard practice of grateful clients.
Israel, not unlike we find through the history of Christendom through this very day, took a gift of God and used it to build walls of separation, so as to keep God’s blessing all to themselves (as if the covenant God was ever going to bless Israel---or anyone else for that matter---in its maintaining of exclusionary practices). Rather than seeking to expand their patron’s clientele and the implied kinship group of their patron, which would have been customary, they acted to limit the influence and honor of their patron, whilst limiting his roster of clientele. The sign of the covenant became a tradition that basically served to indicate that they were graciously choosing to be God’s people, and by extension, that the God owed them His blessings. It seems as if Israel accepted the premise that their God was limited, that the things with which He could bless them were a limited good, and that the honor that could be gained by being in His patronage was a limited good, so they had to protect their own interest by limiting who could participate in their God’s circle of grace.
Circumcision, the symbol of God’s covenant faithfulness, and the mark that served to indicate recognition of the Creator God as one’s patron, was also meant to consistently remind God’s people of their responsibilities in accordance with that covenant, which included extending the covenant family of their patron, and the associated blessings, to include all the peoples of the world. If the responsibilities were forsaken, then the symbol itself was pointless. The one that has been brought into the covenant, and then proceeds to shrink back from the covenantal duties to be the light that extends God’s blessings, instead throwing up walls and barriers and exclusionary principles, brings shame and dishonor to both himself and his patron, and might as well not even bear the marks of covenant. God said to Abraham that “Any uncircumcised male…will be cut off from his people---he has failed to carry out My requirement” (Genesis 17:14). This is very strong “shaming” language.
Making an application then, if we find ourselves falling into patterns of separation that keep us from being covenantal people in line with God’s covenantal purposes, which is the continued extension of the Christ’s kingdom through the preaching of the Gospel that goes forth with Resurrection power for eternal life (here and now) for all who believe; but instead, find ourselves withdrawing into the walls of our churches in a supposed fostering of holiness as we await the “end times,” or making and keeping Christianity a private and eminently personal matter between us and God that is almost entirely concerned with getting and staying saved so that we can simply escape earth and spend eternity in heaven, or encouraging a mentality of “us against the world,” we dishonor our patron and fail as His clients. It is likely that God would see that as nothing less than a failure to carry out what He requires from His chosen people, and a dishonoring slap in the face to Him. God’s warning to us is that such a person is not part of His covenant people---they are cut off.