Blood covenant was a binding practice of religious contract and was common among the people in the middle east in the ancient times. God established circumcision as a symbol of the covenant between God and Abraham. The name for the act of circumcision is bris, which means “covenant.” According to the God’s covenant with Abraham, “When he is eight days old, every male among you will be circumcised, generation after generation; including the slaves born in your household or bought from a foreigner as slaves. Whether born in your household or bought as slaves, they must be circumcised. So my covenant will be written in your flesh as an everlasting covenant. Any uncircumcised male, who has not been circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin, will be cut off from his people for having broken my covenant” (Gen 17:12-14). The scar of circumcision became as outward evidence of the covenant. The Jews continued circumcision from the time of Abraham, and it remained as a sign of their covenant with God.
In his covenant with Abraham, God’s demand from Abraham and his descendants was their faithfulness to God obeying his commandments. From God’s part, there were three promises:
1. Land: Israel shall own Canaan, the promised land.
2. Seed: A great nation will emerge from the descendants of Abraham.
3. Blessing: Salvation offered to all the world through the seed of Abraham (Gen. 22:18). That seed is Jesus.
Circumcision became the sign of incorporating into the people of Israel and becoming a covenant person with God. Just as a wedding ring reminds of the marriage covenant with a person’s spouse, male circumcision of Israel was a reminder of their permanent commitment and covenantal union with God. The Israelites had no female circumcision. The women’s incorporation into the body of Israel and covenantal relation with God were through their wedding to a circumcised Israelite.
THE DAY OF CIRCUMCISION
Number eight, according to the Biblical numerology, stands for recreation. God completed creation of the universe, including a day of rest in seven days. So, eighth day means a new beginning. The covenant with Abraham through circumcision was also a new beginning of salvation. So, circumcision, which signals the beginning of the child’s covenant with God and initiation into Israel, was held on the eighth day. The importance of the eighth day is clear from that fact that even if the eighth day was a Sabbath when work was prohibited, circumcision was performed on that day as an exception.
The selection of eighth day for circumcision, regardless of Sabbath observance, was the decision from God. One reason is that the newborn baby will live a complete week, inclusive of a Sabbath. Hence, the baby experiences the “holiness” of a Sabbath before he enters the covenant with God and thus joins the community of the Jewish people.
The medical science found out that the eighth day after birth is the best day for blood clotting and so it is a suitable time for circumcision. Blood clotting depends on platelets, prothrombin, and vitamin K. Prothrombin levels and vitamin K are at their peak.
PLACE OF CIRCUMCISION
The Israelites could perform the circumcision either in the synagogue or at home. In John the Baptist’s case, the priests and relatives came to do it at home. Since Zachariah was mute, they wanted Elizabeth to name the child.
If the circumcision of John took place in the synagogue, Elizabeth could not be present for the ritual. According to the Mosaic Law, the mother was unclean for seven days if she gave birth to a boy. After the circumcision of the child on the eighth day, the mother “shall wait for thirty-three days to be purified of her bleeding. She shall not touch anything that is consecrated nor enter the sanctuary until the days of her purification are completed” (Lev 12:4). Since Elizabeth could not enter the synagogue for forty days after John’s birth, the performers and the participants of circumcision came to Zechariah’s house to perform the ritual.
NAMING OF THE CHILD
Naming of a child also took place along with the circumcision on the eighth day. The naming of John was on the eighth day after his birth along with his circumcision (Lk 1:59-64). Same was the case with Jesus. “When eight days were completed for his circumcision, he was named Jesus, the name given him by the angel before he was conceived in the womb” (Lk 2:21).
CIRCUMCISION OF HEART
Moses reminded the Israelites that a physical circumcision should lead to the circumcision of heart. The covenantal relationship through circumcision involved love of God with whole heart and whole being (Deut 30:6). “Circumcise therefore the foreskins of your hearts, and be stiff-necked no longer” (Deut 10: 16). Jeremiah warned the Israelites: “Be circumcised for the LORD, remove the foreskins of your hearts, people of Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem; Or else my anger will break out like fire, and burn so that no one can quench it, because of your evil deeds” (Jer 4:4).
Physical circumcision is not a requirement in the new covenant Jesus established because his salvation is not just for Abraham’s descendants but is open for all believers in Jesus. Every Christian has to circumcise his or her heart by being faithful to God according to the teachings of Jesus. “Circumcision means nothing, and uncircumcision means nothing; what matters is keeping God’s commandments” (1 Cor 7:19).
Since Joseph and Mary observed Jewish practices, they circumcised Infant Jesus on the eighth day and named him according to the revelation from Angel Gabriel. Besides the covenantal scar of circumcision, Jesus also made the bloody scars on his hand and feet and the spear of his heart. Thus, he had even the physical circumcision of the heart.
Through Baptism, we made a covenant with God and got the privilege of calling God, Father. Though we do not have to shed blood, we have to consecrate our heart for the Christian responsibilities that God wants us to do at home, church, and community.