Coming to grips with these two covenants, their purpose, their participants, the different promises associated with each will give us a firm grasp on how God relates to various groups of people and what is necessary to become one of God's treasured possessions. The ideas postulated here will comprise a new paradigm from which to understand the relationship God has with Israel and those from among the nations who want to join with her as well as shedding new light on some of the central issues debated among the first Believers; Circumcision and Torah. So we will begin a new journey of understanding, seeking to formulate a way of looking at the covenants into which all the Scriptures will fit with a minimum of difficulty or contradiction.
Let us begin by looking at the promise and covenant God made with Avraham. This covenant was given and confirmed several times, the primary records found in Genesis 12:2,3; 15:5, 18; 17:1-14. The following are the promises and stipulations associated with this covenant. Avraham will become a great nation, he will be a blessing to all the nations, those who bless him will be blessed and those who curse him will be cursed, his offspring will be as numerous as the stars of sky and the sand of the sea, he is promised the land of Israel, and kings and nations will come from him.
Let us look at the history of these covenants in grerater detail. God first appears to Avram in Ch. 12 and tells him to go forth from his native land and he will make Avram into a great nation and bless him. And Avram went. Simple promise, simple obedience. Once he got to the land, God appeared again and promised the land to his offspring. Avram built an altar in thanksgiving. So far they have a very simple and good relationship, a relationship based on friendship and trust. In Ch. 13, God again tells Avram of the great blessing he is going to give him and Avram listens and trusts. One of the congregants at Beit HaKadosh lives in a house I own. He is a tenant like Avraham is a tenant on God’s land. We do not have a lease because our relationship is based on trust and friendship just as Avram’s was at this point. No lease, no covenant, just promise and friendship.
Now we move to chapter 15. God tells Avram his reward is great. It’s been a while so perhaps Avram is starting to question how God is going to accomplish this and God promises that he will have a son to inherit. And Avram trusted God, or was shown trustworthy, and God was pleased. Then an interesting thing follows. Just after it says that Avram believed God, he asks for proof. Personally, I think there is a break in time between v. 6 and 7 in which Avram began to question. He asks for proof that God is going to keep his word, he asks God to enter covenant-a legal agreement between two parties that stipulates conditions and the consequences for failing to meet those conditions. This covenant is in response to Avram’s request and God acquiesces. Up until this time they had a relationship based on friendship without threat or consequences. Avraham could leave the land, he could lie about Sarah, he could question but there were no real negative consequences to the promise or his relationship with God. They had no legal agreement, just a friendship in which trust and forgivenass operated freely. Now, however, there is a binding contract between the two of them that if broken, will have negative consequences. There was a sacrifice and YHVH bound Himself with an oath to do for Avram what he had promised. The covenant is literally ‘cut’ in Gen 15. God walks through the pieces of the sacrifice alone, he is the one soley responsible for the maintenance of the covenant and the promises. There are no stipulations placed on Avraham whatsoever. And it is a very personal covenant. The promises are given only to Avraham and his physical descendants.
However, chapter sixteen shows that Avram did not believe even the covenant God sealed with him. Instead of trusting and waiting, he had a child by Hagar the Egyptian. This put a wrench in the whole works, even to this day. In chapter fifteen Avram asked for proof that God was going to keep his word and he still didn’t believe him. His faith and trust in his friend (YHVH) had been eroding. It was as if my friend living in my house hit some hard times and fell behind in his rent. I have a choice in either believing that he will eventually pay what is owed because of our friendship or I force him to sign a lease so I have legal recourse to throw him out at some point. For my friend, and for any good friend, such a requirement would be hurtful, it would show that I no longer trutsted him. YHVH may have felt the same way when Avraham asked for proof and to add insult to injury, still showed he did not trust YHVH to fulfill His end of the bargin.
Now God is going to demand proof from Avram. He and all his progeny will shed their own blood to enforce the covenant. This was a physical act done to the members of a physical bloodline. It was a sign that a particular man was a physical descendant of Avraham and was, therefore, an heir to the promises. It was done to a child on the eight day, a child that did not know good or evil, and that child, because of the circumcision and the fact that he was Avraham’s descendant, was part of the promise. There are no other stipulations. No behavioral stipulations, no religious stipulations. The only thing that removes one from the promises is if one’s parents neglected to circumcise a child and he did not rectify it later. It was, however, meant to teach something. Circumcision is a reminder, a sign, of Avram’s lack of faith and a warning to all his offspring not to show the same deficiency. If they were to become the light to the nations, the core tribe in the people of God, they must trust in YHVH and His word. Y’shua Himself said that those who would believe without seeing would be the most blessed.
Let’s reveiw the benefits of circumcision and the covenant made with Avraham. A circumcised descendant of Avraham becomes part of a people that is to bless the world, is under the special protection of God and is given the rights to the land of Canaan. It is concerend with this world and has no impact whatsoever on the olam haba (world to come) nor is it concerned with the individual’s relationship with YHVH, it is a corporate concern. To be part of it there were three requirements. First, one had to be a descendant of Avraham, second, one had to be circumcised, and third, one had to be chosen by God. The third stipulation was apparently abandoned after Jacob for all his sons participated. This covenant is, therefore, severely limited in scope. God chooses who one’s parents are and the parents had to care about the promises and they would circumcise the male child so he could participate. This covenant is all about physical descent and is limited to it.
The major reason for YHVH choosing Avrahm was to create a nation from Him. What was God’s reason for creating this people, this nation? Up to this point there had been a few extraordinary men who stood out from the crowd and been righteous among a lot of wicked people. From the time of creation to the time of Avraham, you can count those men on one hand. With Avraham, perhaps the most righteous of them all, he would create a people, not made up of the extraordinary but of ordinary people, who would encourage one another in righteousness, and He would give them a place and special protection in which to create a righteous environment. It was to be a people who would exeplify Avraham’s original relationship with YHVH, relationship based on mutual trust and friendship. And to this people, he would eventually entrust His very words, He would manifest His special presence among them and from them would come the Redeemer (Rom 9:4-5). Avraham’s descendants were to be the core group of people from which God would build a nation seperate from all the nations of the earth which God would use to bring His truth to the world. All the descendants of Avraham who respected the covenant and were circumcised could be participants in this endeavor.
Now we shall fast forward about four hundred years. God’s plan is soon to reach fruition. The descendants of Avraham have become very numerous and God has heaped curses on the nation that enslaved them. He will soon form them and the other peoples with them into a great nation and bring them into a land from which they can disseminate His truth. God had His core group of people that will begin to accomplish His mission. They come to Mt Sinai. And through Moshe He makes another covenant.
First, let us examine the purpose of this covenant and the participants involved. The participants involved were those that came out of Egypt. This group was comprised of the physical descendants of Avraham through Jacob as well as ‘many other people’ (Ex 12:28) or a ‘mixed multitude’, the language of which seems to indicate that the others may have been even more numerous that the physical seed of Avraham, no doubt many of those who esteemed Moshe in Egypt. By definition, these people were not participants in the covenant made with Avraham for they were not his descendants nor were they circumcised (unless they were from the upper caste in Egypt). They were probably people placed in slavery by the Egyptians from other lands as well as some sympathetic Egyptians. Representatives from many nations, no doubt.
What was the purpose of the covenant? It was to take this people who had come out of Egypt and give them the framework by which they would become His treasured people and a holy nation of royal priests. This covenant, in contrast to the one given to Avraham, is primarily concerned with behavior. It begins with the ten words, the basis for all covenants that follow and the basis for any relationship with YHVH from eternity past to future. They are then given the basic social and religious structure, the material contained in Ex 21-23, from which they would build a nation. Notice that there are no threats, it is a covenant in the same sense that YHVH had a ‘covenant’ with Avraham. It was based not on the threat of punishment but on trust and promises. In Avraham’s case, the promise was the land and progeny and the simple obedience was to go to the land. In the case of this first attempt at covenant, the promise was to be God’s segulah (treasured possesion) and obedience to the ten words and the short legal and religious section that followed. Remember the point of the nation was to create a people with Avraham’s attitude and YHVH was treating them at this point as if they had it. There is another important note here. This was people that was free to choose their destiny. They were not slaves, they did not have to enter into this covenant. It is also worth noting that this covenant is again concerned with the here and now and not the hereafter, it is not a covenant for the olam haba. It is a covenant that elevates people to a special privilege. If this people wanted to attain this privilege they needed to do some things, they needed to keep the commandments given in Exodus 20 to 23. They are behavioral and religious commands. If they did these things they become a royal priestly nation. If they did not do these things they would not be His treasured possession. We can use the Catholic’s priesthood as an example. When a man decides to be a priest, he voluntarily takes on rules that do not apply to other Catholics. He also gets privileges that other Catholics do not have. If he violates those rules (by getting married for example), he is no longer a priest but he’s still a catholic (even a good one). The Mosaic covenant is the same. Anyone who wants to be a part of it may do so by voluntarily taking on the additional stipulations and thus getting the privileges associated with it. One can be righteous and not be a priest, but one cannot be a priest if one is not exceptionally righteous. This covenant is not based on anything physical, it is purely behavioral. And that behavior can be put into practice by anyone regardless of descent, and that individual will have the privileges of the covenant that God has promised. Circumcision cannot make someone something they were not before, it cannot make a Gentile a descendant of Avraham, nor does circumcision make a descendant of Avraham a royal priest. That covenant, those ‘vows’, are something that is entered into voluntarily.
Part of the confusion surround the use of the term ‘Israel’. In popular understanding, and ion the minds of many since before the first century, ‘Israel’ and ‘Jew’ are synonomous terms. Israel and having the blood of Avrham are interchangable. Therefore most people see the coevant made with avraham that eventually required circumcision and the coveant made under Moshe as inseperable, one cannot have one without the other. This leads to the conversion process in present day judaism in which circumcision, or at least drawing a drop of blood somehow changes one’s physical descent and position in the olam haba. It also leads some messianic groups to make claims for descent in order to put them in a position to be avraham’s children and heirs to the promises.
Israel, however, has a broader definition. A descendant of Avraham Isaac and Jacob or Israel is part of physical Israel. However, the group at the base of Mt. Sinai were from many nations, not just Avraham’s. It was here the nation of Israel and a religious and political entity with it’s own ‘covanant’ and set of promises was formed. I will call this ‘Conceptual Israel’. Physical Israel is to form the core of this nation but it is not exclusive to it, it includes the sojourner from any nation. And not all of Physical israel is included in conceptual Israel. The rebellious ones like Korach were excluded. This explains Sha’ul’s statement that not all of Israel is Israel.
God gave this covenant, a covenant creating the nation or conceptual Israel, to a ‘mixed multitude’ in the middle of nowhere so it could not be tied to any one group or nation nor to any one geographic location. Anyone who obeyed the terms of this covenant would be part of that ‘holy nation’ and ‘royal priesthood’, one of God’s instruments for bringing His truth to the world. It was not specific to the physical descendants of Avraham, and to the adherents of that covenant. They were the physical custodians of the covenant, and they were given the land of Israel to maintain as a ‘base of operations’. But one did not have to participate in the covenant made with Avraham to be a priest to the nations. In fact, it is impossible to become a descendant of Avraham, either you were born one or you were not. No physical mutilation will bring one into his bloodline. Nor did one have to be in the Land to be a priest to the nations, a priest can operate from anywhere, as the people of Israel have throughout the ages.
So the covenants, while related because the descendants of Avraham are the central players, are not one in the same. One can participate in one and not the other. A physical descendant of Avraham may choose to participate in neither by refusing to be circumcised and ignoring Torah. He can participate in one and not the other, by being circumcised and ignoring Torah or he can, as God desires, participate in both and fulfill the calling of his heritage. A person who is not a physical descendant of Avraham only has two options. He cannot participate in the Abrahamic covenant because he is not of that bloodline. Circumcision does not change that. Keep in mind that many other nations at that time practiced circumcision but that did not qualify them for the promises for they were not of the seed of Avraham. They did, however, have the opportunity to participate in the holy nation by obeying the stipulations of the covenant given under Moshe. This covenant depended on behavior and not descent or mutiation.
Another way we can look at this is through national citizenship, which is related to the resident alien or sojourner in Israel (Geyr). When a person comes to America, the land of opportunity, he has the same rights and responsibilities as on who was born here (except the vote). He can run a business, he can enjoy all the beauty of the land, he can avail himself of government programs, he pays taxes, if he breaks the law he is punished accordingly. If he takes the oath of citizenship, he will have all rights and responsibilities regarless of his ancestry. The same was true in Israel. Num 15:15-16 (among other places) makes it very clear that the same rules and laws of Torah apply to the sojourner as apply to the native born. The language is clear that it is talking about the Torah and the commandments of the covenant. And what were the benefits of living in the land and abiding by the rules? They will be part of the holy nation and royal preisthood and share in the blessings of the presence of YHVH. They will rise with the nation, their livestock and crops will be abundant, they will dwell in security, they will be among those called by the name of YHVH. These are the benefits of those who obey the laws of the covenant.
Is this borne out in Tenach and in history? First, we know that the descendants of Jacob were circumcised when they left Egypt because the Passover regulations required it. They could not eat the Passover or participate in the blessings if they were not circumcised. This act is not related to the Mosaic covenant in any way, it hadn’t been given yet. It is tied directly to the Abrahamic covenant. One of the primary promises of that covenant was the land of Israel and in order to receive that promise, all the descendants of Avraham had to be circumcised. The Passover regulations in Exodus 12 and circumcision are tied directly to the physical descendants of Avraham for both the promise of release from slavery and the land are promises made to Avraham and his physical descendants. They needed to obey their one stipulation for the whole thing to work. This is why they were again circumcised upon entering the land under Joshua (Jos 5). It was because their inheritance of the land as the physical descendants of Avraham, the twelve tribes of Israel, was directly related to the covenant made with Avraham.
Their deed to the land depended on their circumcision; no circumcision, no land. However, the privilege of living on it and using it as the ‘staging ground’ from which to take God’s message to the world and their being a light to the nations was dependent on them acting like priests; the Mosaic covenants. It is analogous to the tough love of a parent (Israel is God’s firstborn son, after all). They will always have a home with their parents, but the privilege of living there is based on their abiding by the rules. When the rules are broken there is discipline and if the violations continue and are severe, the child (older teen ager, that is) may be removed from the house. Unless the parent takes it upon himself to legally disown the child (no circumcision), his home will always be there if he repents and comes back. Physical Israel’s name will always be on the lease (Avraham’s Covenant) but if they don’t pay their rent (Mosaic Covenant), they will not be able to live there.
The only place physical circumcision is mentioned in the Mosaic Covenant is in Leviticus 12, almost as an afterthought regarding the regulations for the purification of women after childbirth. God is reminding the descendants of Avraham of their duty as his descendants, they must circumcise their sons, their deed to the land depends on it. The other two places circumcision is mentioned is in Deuteronomy 10:16 and 30:6, both in regards to the command to circumcise the heart. 30:6 is a promise related to the “New Covenant” and 10:16 is a warning. It is a warning that physical circumcision is not the basis for this covenant, it is a matter of the heart and of obedience-behavior. God will not regard them as special if they do not obey the terms of the covenant, if they do not have faith and a love and devotion to God (circumcision of heart), if they remain stiff-necked like their fathers, they will see their father’s end (death in the wilderness). This covenant is not based on a physical descent or a physical operation but on fear and love of God, wholehearted service and obedience to the commands.
In fact, this passage specifically relates to the sojourner (Geyr). It says that God has a special love for the Geyr and that Israel should make sure to treat him well. Why? Because a descendant of Avraham has the advantage of being brought up in an environment that encourages righteousness among a people that love God (at least this is the way it’s supposed to work). The Geyr had left his wicked land and culture and desired the best things, he desired to be part of the covenant and the people. This was not an easy thing to do. God wants to make sure that Israel does not treat the land or the Torah as their own personal possession, not to be shared with anyone else. That they did not look down on the Geyr as inferior because he did not have the blood of Avraham in him. They were to apply Torah to him in the same manner, giving him the same privileges and requiring him to take on the same responsibilities as any of the physical descendants of Avraham. They were to treat him as one of their own because God considered him thus.
They maintained their physical identity however, they continued to be Geyrim. They lived in the land and participated in the blessings but they never became physical descendants of Avraham, they could not. In fact, there is not a single instance in all of Tenach (or in the Ketuvim Natzrim; the writings of the Natzrim) of a person who was not a physical descendant of Avraham being circumcised. Not a one. And this is probably one of the things that identified them as sojourners, as aliens. There were times in Israel’s history when they were accomplishing their task, taking the truths of God (Torah) to the nations, yet there is not one example of a convert in the modern understanding; a gentile who becomes circumcised in order to become part of the people of Israel. Not one. Is this because it was never even considered in the time of Moshe and the prophets? Circumcision was required only for the physical descendants of Avraham and if a person was not of Avraham’s lineage, it would never occur to them to circumcise one who wanted to live in the land and participate in the covenant. When they wanted to live in the land they agreed to abide by the laws of the land which was Torah, and because they obeyed Torah they would participate in the blessings of that covenant. In fact, during the time they were in the wilderness, the physical descendants of Avraham experienced the blessings of the covenant, including the specific presence of God, while not being circumcised, in direct violation of the covenant made with them through Avraham. Clearly, the blessings and requirements of one covenant are not specifically related to the other.
I will also point out that there is no process mentioned in all of Torah of ‘conversion’. What is required of one to come into the covenant? To pledge loyalty to the God of Abraham and to agree to abide by the rules. That is what a covenant is about; an agreement between two parties. The closest to conversion we come is in Deut 10. This is exactly the example we have in Ruth. Moabites were prohibited from ever entering the congregation of Israel, yet she was admitted and actually became a contributor to the line of David and the Messiah. What did she do? She did what Deut 10 requires. She pledged the God of Israel as her own, she identified with the core group, their values and laws, and she desired to live in the land. Unfortunately, as a woman, she cannot be a test case for the circumcision issue but I think it significant that there is no comparable male example. Did men come into the community of Israel? Of course. Did they follow the same procedure as Ruth? Yes. Were they circumcised? There is no evidence that they were. But just as was the case with Ruth, they lost their previous identity and became part of Israel.
In addition to Deuteronomy 10, Isaiah 56 is probably the most comprehensive Tenach discussion of ‘conversion’ to the nation of Israel. Is addressed specifically to the foreigner (56:3) and assures him that when they join themselves to the Lord (not to Avraham or his descendants), serve Him, honor his name, keeping the Sabbath (the sign of the Mosaic covenant) and holding fast to the whole covenant, they will be brought to His holy mountain (Mt Zion) and to His house of Prayer (the Temple) where they will worship God. There is no mention or even hint of circumcision. In fact, since it is addressed specifically to the foreigner, who is still a foreigner, he cannot be circumcised. Yet God makes clear that the rewards of the covenant are his if he obeys the stipulations. Then he makes an interesting statement in v.8. Isaiah says that God will gather to Israel not just their outcasts but others, a clear reference in this context to Gentiles, which is the whole purpose of God placing the descendants of Avraham in Israel and giving them Torah; to teach the nations the truth so they can come into intimate relationship with God.
The most important point to be made here is that a Geyr is no different in the eyes of God than the native born Israelite. The covenant was just as much for the Geyr as it was for the Israelite (Deut 29:10; Josh 8:33-35). The Torah was to be taught to them, just as it was taught to the native-born (Deut 31:12). The Geyrim will one day be truly united with Jacob (Isa 14:1, 2) and will have a permanent inheritance in the Eretz Israel (Eze 47:22). Adonai Himself promises to preserve the Geyrim (Ps 146:9). The whole Torah was to apply to the Geyrim. All the festivals of Israel were to be celebrated by the Geyrim; Shabbat (Ex 20:10; 23:12; Deut 5:14), Pesach (Num 9:14), Shavu'ot (Deut 16:11; 26:11), Sukkot (Deut 16:14), and Yom Kippor (Lev 16:29). The Geyrim offer sacrifices at the temple (Lev 17:8; 22:18). They are not to eat blood but pour it out on the ground (Lev 17:10-15). The unintentional sin offering is to be presented by the Geyr (Num 15:26, 29), they give tithes (Deut 14:29; 26:12, 3) and may even be involved with the sacrifice of the red heifer (Num 19:10). The cities of refuge were for the Geyr as well as the native born (Num 35:15). Negatively, defiant sinners (Torah breakers) among the Geyrim are to be cut off from the people of Israel (Num 15:30). The Geyr who blasphemes is to be put to death (Lev 24:16), as well as the Geyr who offers his children to Molech (Lev 20:2). Adonai will not listen to the Geyr who sets up idols in his heart and separates himself from God, and He says he will cut him off from His people Israel, just as He would a native Israelite (Eze 14:7, 8). The point of all this being, all the statutes and ordinances in the Torah applied to the Geyrim as well as the native born (Lev 18:26). And therefore the blessings and privileges do as well.
And keep in mind that God continually differentiates the two, continually stating that these things apply to both the native Israelite (the physical descendants of Avraham) and the Geyr (the Gentiles who have come into the community) thus showing that the Geyr does not, as modern conversion understanding postulates, become a son of Avraham through circumcision but that he remains a Geyr maintaining his uncircumcised identity. Yet all of the stipulations and the privileges of the covenant belong to him.
Two examples from the first century and before will illustrate this idea about the Gentiles joining themselves to Israel. They are found in the writings of Josephus and Philo. Josephus tells us the story of how Queen Helena and her son Izates of Adiabene (Book 20:2 of Aniquities) embraced Judaism. They worshipped God according to the Jewish religion and observed Jewish customs. They did not, as some suppose, just embrace ‘ethical monotheism’. Ananias, the first to teach them, did not require circumcision, following in the footsteps of Jeremiah, said that “he might worship God without being circumcised, even though he did resolve to follow the Jewish law entirely; which worship of God was of superior nature to circumcision”. The king even wanted to be circumcised but Ananias maintained it was not a necessary component of the covenant. Another Jew, Eleazar, came along and told the King he was being disobedient to the whole torah because circumcision is it’s foundation (he was probably a Pharisee and of the circumcision faction). Annanias understood that becoming a King and a Priest in the people of God, the ‘superior’ covenant of Moshe, was not based on flesh but on one’s behavior and heart. Eleazar said that if one was going to be part of the holy nation, one had to participate in the covenant made by Avraham. He was combining the two whereas Annanias understood the difference between a covenant passed through blood and a covenant based on behavior.
Philo has this to say;
“All of like sort of Moshe, all who spurn idle fables and embrace truth in it’s purity, whether they have been such from the first or through conversion to the better side have reached a higher state, obtain God’s approval, the former because they were not false to the nobility of their birth, the latter because their judgement led them to make the passage to piety. These last Moshe calls ‘proselytes’ or newly joined because they have joined the new and godly commonwealth. Thus, while giving equal rank to all in-comers with all the privileges which he gives to the native born, he exhorts the old nobility to honor them not only with the marks of respect but with special friendship and with more than ordinary goodwill. And surely there are good reasons for this. They have left, he says, their country, their kinfolk and their friends for the sake of virtue and religion. Let them not be denied another citizenship or other ties of family and friendship, and let them find a place of shelter standing ready for refugees to the camp of piety”(Spec leg 1.51-52) There is no mention of circumcision as the means of entering the covenant. While he does defend the practice of circumcision by the Jews earlier in the same document, his defense is one of the physical practice by the descendants of Avraham and is not concerned with the question of covenant or ‘conversion’.
This sheds new light on the debate in the early Natzrim community, particularly in the writings of Sha’ul, about circumcision. Sha’ul was making a contrast between the covenant made with Avraham based on faith (the relationship based on friendship and trust before covenant and circumcision), and what had become the popular understanding of the mosaic covenant, in which entrance had been based on circumcision and maintenance based on mechanical obedience. After the Babylonian captivity and the introduction of hellenism, the understanding of who was a member of the covenant and how that was determined changed. When Antiochus prohibited the fundamental rituals of Judaism, including circumcision, they took on an even greater importance, they became things that were ‘covenant markers’. Circumcision was one of these ‘markers’. To some, it was the ultimate marker, it was the thing that identified one as part of the covenant and in relationship with God, one could not be accepted by God as a ‘Jew’ (which was now equal to a member of the community of Israel) without it. Perhaps it was not a large contingent but it reflected the paranoia the Jews felt about Gentiles (and their negative influence, which became defined as impurity) after the Babylonian captivity and led to the struggle in the Natzrim community over the issue. This was a confusion of the covenants. One did not ‘prove’ one was a son of Avraham by any act, one needed only to be a physical descendant and be circumcised. And they had, after the Babylonian captivity, tried to keep the Mosaic covenant to themselves, maintaining it was only for the physical descendants of Avraham when that was not it’s intention from the beginning. It was available to anyone who would come. Which is just what the Natzrim believed, and what caused such a problem every time Sha’ul said that he was taking their Messiah and their Torah to the Gentiles.
This violent protest is proof that Gentiles who came to faith weren’t merely noachides in the Messianic community, merely righteous in God’s sight but they were part of the community of Israel. If the Natzrim were just preaching adherence to the Noachide covenant, why did the rest of the Jewish community get so upset? If they were simply encouraging righteousness among Gentiles, why would they react so strongly against it? If, however, the Natzrim were welcoming the Gentiles into the fold of Israel without circumcision, one of the primary identity markers in Judaism for the Pharisees and others, then they would be very upset. They were corrupting the system and allowing all these converts in without circumcision, they were ‘doing it wrong’. The Natzrim were recognizing Gentiles as full fledged members of the community of Israel without circumcision.
Let’s look a two specific instances in which Sha’ul explained this phenomenon, Ephesians 2 and Romans 11. We will look first at Ephesians 2 with commentary inserted;
Ephesians 2:11 So then, remember that at one time you Gentiles by birth, called... present tense, these were uncircumcised gentiles... "the uncircumcision" by those who are called "the circumcision"-- a physical circumcision made in the flesh by human hands..... Sha'ul is setting up a contrast between the circumcised and the uncircumcised..... 12 remember that you were at that time without Messiah, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world.... These are the things that characterized the Gentiles before they became Natzrim. They were outside of Israel and did not have the promises given to Israel nor could they participate in the covenants because of the attitude Jews had in the first century.... 13 But now in Messiah Y’shua you who once were far off have been brought near..... The Greek here is 'engus' which is near or close to. It is used in the Septuagint to translate four Hebrew words; 'ach' which is brother, or blood relative, 'etsel' which is above or over, 'mul' which is opposite and 'qarov' which is near. With what is coming, 'near' is probably the least appropriate. The gentiles have been made brothers, they are the opposite of what they were, they have come over (converted) to the nation of Israel. by the blood of Messiah.... 14 For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. 15 He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace....This obviously does not refer to Torah, which, both in the flesh (Yahushua) and in it's written form is the unifying force of the community, unity in faith and practice. These were the commandments separating Jews and Gentiles that had arisen in response to Hellenistic pressure and is also a reference to the curses of the covenant that had previously been broken.... 16 and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it. 17 So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who wee near; 18 for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father..... The access of both to God is the same, it is not based on the flesh. Just as Torah allowed the sojourner to offer sacrifices and participate in the life of the Mishkan, so now thy had access to God through Messiah equal to the physical descendants of Avraham.... 19 So then you are no longer strangers.... Xenos-foreigner, alien; used to translate Geyr in the Septuagint among other words.... and aliens.... paroikos-dwelling beside, stranger, foreigner; translates 'goy', Geyr, 'toshav'. The repetitiveness may be to classify the two types of gentiles, those who were unabashed pagans before; 'goyim', and those who had attached themselves to the synagogue; the 'Geyr'....., but you are citizens.... from polis, citizen equal in rights and privileges... with the saints... hagios-holy ones, consecrated persons, saint; used in the Septuagint to translate 'qadosh' and it's derivatives, among others, specifically in Ex 19:6 where ISRAEL is called a holy nation.... and also members of the household.... oikeilos-household, what is in or of or belongs to a house; used to translate 'bayith', house, 'sh'er' relative used in Lev 18 to talk about blood relatives with whom sexual relations are prohibited.... of God... how many households of God are there? We cannot go with the dispensationalist idea that the Jews and the Gentiles have separate households, there is only one!..., 20 built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Messiah Yahushua himself as the cornerstone. 21 In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; 22 in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God.
The physical seed of Avraham is the foundation on which the holy people of God is based, but the people is more than just the descendants of Avraham. It is similar to what Sha’ul talked about in Ephesians 2 when he said that the Natzrim community was based on the foundation of the apostles and the prophets, but not all Natzrim are apostles and prophets, but they are one community. The people of God is made up of any who embrace the covenant, the core of whom are the descendants of Avraham. They have promises based on physical descent that assures that there will always be a people group that will be achieving God’s goals in the world.
It is obvious that Sha'ul chose his words carefully to convey a point. Gentiles through Messiah are part of the holy nation and royal priesthood that is Israel. And for those who would say that they had to be circumcised at this point, Sha'ul makes a point in 3:1 of addressing them as gentiles, present tense, not converts. His illustration of the olive tree in Romans 11 makes a similar point.
Romans 9 to 11 prove this point explicitly.
He begins this section of Romans by stating his desire that his people, his race, his fellow physical descendants of Avraham, would come to the same understanding of the Messiah that he had. It would only make sense that they would for they are the ones that have all the advantages, even being the physical people of the Messiah. The we have this curious statement in v.6 and 7, “It is not as though God’s word had failed. For not all who are descended from Israel are Israel. Nor because they are his descendants are they Avraham's children.” Literally, ‘for not all of Israel are these Israel’, referring to the fact that the people of Israel (the royal priesthood and the holy nation created by the Mosaic covenant) is comprised of more than just the descendants of Avraham (the physical descendants that inherit the promises of Avram) and that not all of the descendants of Avraham are part of that holy nation. The two are not interchangeable. Really, what is going on here, and the point that he makes later on is that participation in the covenant that makes one a priest has just as much to do with election as it does an individual’s choice. That is how he can say that not all of the descendants of Avraham are part of the priesthood because not all are chosen, and there are some that are chosen from among the nations that participate in the priesthood. The children of the promise are those who exercise Avraham’s faith on which a relationship with God is based.
He illustrates this with his analogy of the olive tree in Romans 11. The analogy is taken from Jeremiah 11 in which God tells Jeremiah not to pray for the people of Israel because they had broken his covenant with them. This was not because they were no longer circumcised but because they were no longer obedient to Torah. He states that while they were a thriving olive tree with beautiful fruit, he will set it on fire and break off the branches (Jer 11:16). The Olive tree is Israel and the root is the patriarchs, specifically Avraham and his intial faith and relationship. The whole tree gets it’s nourishment from the root, from that original relationship and the people it created (and the faith on which it is based). This illustrates the fact that the physical descendants of Avraham are the core of the tree, they are the supporting structure. The wild olive tree is the gentiles. Sha’ul is talking to Gentiles (11:13) so the ‘you’ of v. 13 is the same as the ‘you’ of v.17-20. The gentiles become part of the people of Israel by being grafted into the tree of which the physical descendants of Avraham that are part of the mosaic covenant are alread a part. Those descendants of Avraham that are not part of the mosaic covenant and it’s new form are broken off. These two people together, descendants of Avraham and the Gentiles who join the nation of which they are the core comprise the righteous remnant of Israel (11:5), the true holy nation and royal priesthood.
And Rabbi Sha’ul’s whole point is that all of this is according to the plan of God. A large number of the physical descendants of Avraham have not embraced their responsibility under the priesthood and allowed Torah to be written on their hearts under the eteranl covenant inaugurated through Israel’s Messiah, Yahushua. Look at v. 12. Though the supporting structure is weakened when few of the descendants of Avraham are part of the tree and the broken branches are littering the ground, and many gentiles have been grafted in, the whole structure will become much stronger when the physical descendants of Avraham rejoin the tree and become the support they are supposed to be. And because of the reasons outlined earlier, it is much easier for these descendants of Avraham to be grafted back in (11:24). And God has decreed that the Gentiles have a role in restoring the ‘natural branches’ by making them jealous. How does a Gentile make Israel jealous? If a Gentile has received the gift of the spirit of God which enables him or her to be Torah pious (without circumcision), that Gentile will have something (the spirit) the Jews does not but knows he should. That will make him jealous, “why has this Gentile received a promise from My God according to our prophets without being one of our people?” If, however, that Gentile is a ‘full convert’ in the sense of being circumcised, why should the Jew be impressed, his Torah obedience is expected and the spirit can just be dismissed as the convert achieving a higher spiritual plane than the onlooking Jew. Circumcision removes the impact. A Gentile will also provoke a Jew to the Torah he should be doing, as well as his or her Gentile friends.
Today this is a witness to both groups and has the opportunity to bring both traditional Judaism and adherents to any form of Christianity to an understanding of the truth, an understanding that is compromised by requiring circumcision of Gentiles according to the current understanding of it’s significance by both groups. First, it shows the Jews that a gentile can place full value on the same things they do while maintaining a belief in a divine Messiah they have been taught to abhor. It also shows the gentiles that if they want to truly follow the messiah of the 'New testament' they need to also follow Torah. By submitting to a ritual circumcision, the witness to both groups is compromised. The Jews already know converts are more Torah observant in a lot of cases so that's no witness to them, and the gentiles who know anything about the plain reading of the the new testament know that circumcision is not required. So to them, a gentile who becomes circumcised has crossed over and become something they are not, so they do not have to do what the ‘convert’ does (Torah). The early Natzrim were so successful among both groups for precisely that reason. They became what both groups should have been all along. Gentiles need to obey Torah (as do Jews), and Jews need to know Messiah (as do gentiles). But each maintained their own identity, yet were one people, equal in privilege and responsibility.
Sha’ul makes this explicit in In Ephesians 4. Here he discusses unity within the Natzrim community and describes the various offices within that community (v. 11). He is writing to the Ephesians, mostly Gentiles, and telling them that God gave some to be apostles, teachers etc. He is implicitly (remez) recognizing that God will call some of them to these positions (see also I Cor 12:28). Titus is the best example of this. He performed an apostolic function for he was an overseer for many Natzrim communities and was one of Sha’ul’s trusted fellow workers (Titus 1:4-6). And there is no question that he was uncircumcised. (Gal 2:3) (The list of greetings at the end of Ephesians gives more examples) He also tells them to submit to one another, which would include Jews, in some cases, submitting to Gentiles (Eph 5:21). This clearly states that there is no difference between Jews and Gentiles within the community of the Natzrim when it comes to position and authority.
The fact that the Natzrim accepted gentiles on equal footing is one of those practices reinstituted in the community that Judaism had abandoned. Some things in Judaism just are not correct. Their idea of conversion, as they have redacted it back into Tenach, is not. What then does it mean to be authentically Natzrim? A Natzrim is a Jew or an uncircumcised gentile that follows the Messiah from Nazareth and practices Torah. It is obedience to Torah and Messiah that makes one a member of the community, not the marks of the flesh or who one’s parents were. A Gentile who follows the Messiah of Israel is obligated to Torah the same way that the sojourner who lived in the land was. That is the plain (P'shat) reading of the Ketuvim Natzrim.
Yochannon and Yahushua prepared the way for this idea in some of their teaching. Yochannon shattered this myth of exclusivity when the Pharisees and the Sadducess came to him (Matt 3, Lk 3). He told them in no uncertain terms that their birth was of no value if their deeds were not in line with the plan of God. He told them that God could raise up true servants, true seed of Avraham, who would fulfill their destiny out of the rocks. He used this illustration to make the point that their physical makeup was no more important in the plan of God than that of the rocks. If the rocks could serve God, they would be more worthy.
Yahushua continued this idea when he commended the faith of the Roman centurion (Matt 8). He says that many will come from, the east and west (gentiles) and will sit down with Avraham in the Kingdom but the faithless disobedient physical sons of Avraham will be kept out. He was making the point that those who exercise Abraham’s faith in obedience to the commandments of God will have the reward of Avraham and his faithful descendants. This idea is developed more in Sha’ul’s writings (Rom 9:6-7 above). None of the writers of the Brit Chadashah make the claim that Gentiles come into the physical line of Avraham, they cannot. But through their faith demonstrated in obedience to Torah (in either the Mosaic or New Covenant) they will inherit the promises and blessings of an intimate relationship with God.
This also helps us to understand the harsh language Sha’ul uses in the book of Galatians. He is reacting against those in the Natzrim community who have brought with them the idea that in order to come into covenant relationship with God, in order to receive all the promised blessings, one had to be circumcised. Sha’ul’s point is that the Galatians have received the promises and blessings of the covenant, both the mosaic and new, through faith and without circumcision. Entering into a covenant relationship with God is by one’s faith and God’s grace, it cannot be earned. In Galatians 5:1-6 Sha’ul is desiring to keep the Gentiles from being circumcised. He is, in this case, understanding authority. The previous chapter was about the Galatians joining a system of Torah understanding that was somehow perverted and he likened it to slavery. Therefore, if the Galatians allowed themselves to be circumcised under their authority, they would be obligated to obey Torah as this group understood it, for they had been ‘converted’ under their authority. And they would have bought into the idea that they had to become something that they were not to attain something that had already. They were seeking to be justified in God’s sight through bodily mutilation and specific works when that is impossible, justification is by grace. In v.5:6 he make the statement that in Messiah, within the Natzrim community, neither circumcision nor uncircumcision matters, it is ‘expressing faith through love’ or, as he states in I Cor 7:19, it is keeping God’s commandments (Torah) that matters. Could part of the problem in Galatia be that these were Torah observant believers in Messiah whom Sha’ul had assured of their place in the kingdom of God, their inheritance under the covenant, and that they were the unique sons of God, and then a new group came in and told them that they had none of those things without circumcision. (remember Eleazar?)
This says a few other things as well. The Natzrim did not even offer circumcision for if they did, the Galatians would have been asking Sha’ul for it, so they could be circumcised under an authority they could be comfortable with. And Sha’ul never argued that they needed to be circumcised to come into the fullness of the promises, he continually minimized it’s importance, stressing instead the essential nature of obeying the commandments of God. Jews and Gentiles are united in a community where the marks of the flesh fade into the background, and obedience and lifestyle are the marks of the true man and woman of God. In the covenant of Messiah being circumcised or not is of no consequence because the new covenant is based on the Mosaic covenant in which this was originally the case. It was Jews and Gentiles equally comprising the nation of royal priests. And the proof that this was Sha’uls idea was his statement in 5:11 that he was being persecuted for going against the accepted wisdom of the day which required circumcision to come into covenant relationship with God.
This idea of Gentiles coming into the community without circumcision and participating as full members with all the responsibilities and privileges is illustrated by those who came into the Natzrim community under this understanding. The first is that of Cornelius in Acts 10. The point of the story is that Gentiles have received the same gift (the spirit) as did the Jews; in God’s eyes they were equal. They had both repented and received salvation. Before we go to the issue of whether he was circumcised, we need to define what ‘equal’ and ‘salvation’ refer to. For that we need to go back to Acts 2 since Kefa refers to that event as the same (Acts 2 and 10). What is salvation in Acts 2? The context shows that it is not referring to a place in the olam haba. I find it difficult to believe that by saying the things Kefa did (in Acts 2) he convinced this group of pious Jews in Jerusalem for a pilgrimage festival that they were going to hell and they needed to repent to save themselves from eternal torment. Kefa’s use of Joel shows the current apocalyptic understanding that that Day of the Lord was at hand and if they wanted to be delivered from the wrath of God that would fall on the earth, they needed to come into this community of remnant Israel, the only ones who will be afforded special protection. Throughout Acts the giving of the spirit is evidence of one’s entrance into this community (not in the charismatic sense, however!) So when the spirit fell on the Gentiles in Cornelious’ house, God was showing the Jews there that God had brought them in as well.
Was he circumcised? The text is silent, it only says they were immersed. Has it been overlooked? The events of Acts 11 only make sense if it didn’t happen. If Cornelius was circumcised when he was immersed then why would the group in Jerusalem jump on Kefa for eating with uncircumcised men? Kefa should have just told them that they were circumcised and it would have solved the problem. Instead he defends his eating with the ‘uncircumcised men’ when he stayed with them a few days.
Keep in mind also that Cornelius, and the other examples that follow, were not pagans who had no knowledge of Torah and Judaism. Cornelius was devout in his Judaism. It wasn’t that they did not know that circumcision was important in the covenant God had with Israel. It would seem rather unlikely that they were going to learn about it’s importance and do it later, once they understood Torah. If that is the case, the arguments of Acts 15 don’t make sense. Sha’ul and Bar-nabba had been laboring in Antioch for at least five years before the issue came up. If these Gentiles were learning Torah and then becoming circumcised, why didn’t Sha’ul reason with the ‘circumcision faction’ that they were learning Torah and it naturally progressed to the act of circumcision after a time, certainly five years would be plenty. Instead they made the case that it should not be required at all. And this was not an issue of salvation. The Gentiles discussed up to this point were already 'God Fearers', they were allready the 'righteous of the nations' and already had a place in the world to come. It was an issue of comming in to the Natzrim community, representative of the community of Israel.
Two other examples are in Acts 16. First is Lydia and her household. Again, they were already Torah obedient, they were praying on Shabbat. They were immersed but there is no mention of circumcision for the male members of her household. The experience of the jailer is the same. It is obvious that the omission of circumcision is not an oversight on Luke’s part but the omission of an event that did not happen in the first place.
This was conversion in the Natzrim community following the precedent of Deut 10 and Isaiah 56. Col 2:11 is Sha’ul’s clearest reference to the passages in Deut, relating that God had done a circumcision to these Gentiles, not physically but spiritually. This is an argument against those who are claiming that circumcision in a prerequisite to entering the community of Israel which is why he uses circumcision terminology. He is saying that if you want to maintain that circumcision is required to come into the community, then accept the fact that God has circumcised them spiritually as the Torah states. The Gentiles are coming into the community of Israel through a spiritual experience that has substituted for the physical rite. Sha’ul understood that in the Natzrim community there would not be any inequality of position due to birth or ‘mutilation of flesh’ but that all would have equal privileges and responsibilities. God would truly bring Jews and Gentiles together in His national family, Israel. (Col 3:11)
I think we need to rethink the assumptions on which our understanding is based. We are looking at Torah a certain way and saying it must be this way. Is it possible our understanding of the covenants and circumcision's role in them is wrong? Is the function of circumcision something other than what has been traditionally ascribed to it since the maccabean era? I have always believed that scripture all agrees if we adjust the paradigm by which we understand it. If we can reconcile Sha'ul's statements about Torah to show that it is still required for the follower of Yahushua, certainly we can rethink circumcision and covenant to make sure that all the scriptures will be in agreement.
The picture we have in the time of the early Natzrim is that of Jews and Gentiles (who remained as they were called, physically) working together to advance the Kingdom of God as they understood it. All were meticulous in their Torah observance, they were filled with the Sprit of God and they believed and served Israel’s Messiah, side by side, citizens of God’s people Israel, equal in privilege and responsibility. As such it was a testimony to all the people of the world. A Gentile in close relationship with a Jew was a bridge between the Gentile world and that of the Jew. They would show that Torah can be positive to their fellow Gentiles, that the Jews were not as bad as they thought, that YHVH was not just for the Jews. They would show the Jews that not all Gentiles were idolaters, pigs, anti-Semites and later, persecutors. This is a crucial mission that means nothing if they are under obligation (from both the Jewish and Gentile’s point of view) due to a physical circumcision rather than profession and trust in Israel’s Messiah. A Jew that comes into this community is also a bridge between his fellow Jews and the Gentiles. He will show the Gentiles that not all Jews look at all Gentiles negatively, he will show his fellows that Torah is not their personal possession and that their God loves people other than the physical descendants of Avraham. Both physical Jews and physical Gentiles who love Messiah and are Torah pious have a role to play in the Natzrim community that is unique and will not be able to be performed adequately by the other. By enforcing circumcision on those Gentiles and making them ‘physical Jews’ (which is impossible), that whole group and their unique mission is lost. God had a wonderful plan in putting together the Natzrim community in the first century, a plan to reach all the peoples of the world with the truth. They were a bridge between Jews and Gentiles, showing that all people who find common ground in Torah and in the Living Torah Yahushua, can work together as equals in the Kingdom of the one true God.
Ultimately, what is being said is this. Circumcision is the sign that one is a physical descendant of Avraham and an heir to the promises made to Avraham. They were to comprise the core of God’s community Israel. To this community, people from the other nations are included, people who maintain their physical differentiation from the physical sons of Avraham, and thus do not (and cannot) participate in the covenant made with Avraham although they become the ‘spiritual sons of Avraham’ because they emulate his faith. Torah and the new covenant are available to anyone regardless of birth and by taking on the responsibilities of the covenant, anyone, Jew or gentile, becomes part of the holy nation and royal priesthood.
Appendix: What about the difficulties?
What about Exodus 12:43-50? First of all, neither this passage (Nor Joshua 5) are part of the Mosaic covenant. The reason for both circumcisions was because the physical descendants of Avrham needed to be circumcised before He could deliver them from Egypt because that was one of the promises made to Avraham and his descendants. In order for them to experience the deliverence (and the entry into the land) they needed to uphold their part of the covenant. It was part of the covenant and for the physical descendants to expereince that part of it (or any part) they needed to be circumcised. And Exodus 12 is not a chronological chapter, it is certainly accpetable to place verses 43-51 (v.51 makes the point explicitly) before verse 25. None of the other places the passover is mentioned is circumcision a requirement so I tend to think that this was related specically to this event because the physical deliverence was related to the Abrahmic covenant, not the Mosaic. And keep in mind that the Isrealites, up to the time of Joshua did not practice circumcision and we know they celebrated the passover during their time in the desert. And God did not stike them down or punish them for it. In fact, of all the things Israel did wrong, and of all the times God stressed thier covenant responsibilities thropugh the prophets, circumcision is never mentioned. That it because it is Shabbat, and not circumcision, that is a sign of the Mosaic covenant.
Specifically Num 15 makes my point, believe it or not. The same law applies to the alien-this means, by definition, that he was uncircumcised because the conventional wisdom about 'conversion' is that when a gentiles becomes circumcised he is no longer an alien but a son and the Talmud prohibs a Jew from reminding a convert he is one. Therefore, the laws of Torah apply equally to the circumcised and the uncircumcised since God Himself speaks of their seperate identity.
I realize that this idea flies in the face of the conventional wisdom but I find it easier to try to figure out one passage like Ex 12 than to try to harmonize all the other passages in the Brit Chadasha and the total silence of Tenach on the issue of the circumcision of the gentiles. To me the interpretation that has the most validity it the one that makes the most sense historicaly and scripturally with the least number of difficulties.