“And I will establish My covenant between Me and between you and between your seed after you throughout their generations as an everlasting covenant, to be to you for a God and to your seed after you.” (Genesis 17:7)
The first milestone in a Jewish boy’s life is the brit milah (covenant of circumcision).
Let’s look at why it’s so significant for the Jewish People and what it means for Gentile Believers.
The Genesis of Circumcision
Circumcision is actually an ancient custom, originating perhaps a couple of hundred years before the time of Abraham. As far back as 4,000 BC, young boys were circumcised as a rite of passage to manhood, as is evidenced by ancient Egyptian tomb carvings.
Yet, God made this practice a holy rite of passage unto Himself beginning with Abraham.
After he left his pagan homeland of Ur, Abraham entered into a divine covenant with the Almighty God.
Through Abraham’s son Isaac, He would establish an everlasting covenant:
“Then God said, ‘Yes, but your wife Sarah will bear you a son, and you will call him Isaac. I will establish my covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his descendants after him.
“And as for Ishmael, I have heard you: I will surely bless him; I will make him fruitful and will greatly increase his numbers. He will be the father of twelve rulers, and I will make him into a great nation.
“But my covenant I will establish with Isaac, whom Sarah will bear to you by this time next year.’” (Genesis 17:19–21)
The sign of the covenant that God sealed with Abraham was the brit milah or the covenant of circumcision.
Abraham and all his descendants were to be set apart by the ceremony of circumcision. It was to be a reminder of their everlasting covenant with God throughout all generations.
“This is My covenant, which you shall keep, between Me and you and your descendants after you: every male among you shall be circumcised. And you shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskin, and it shall be the sign of the covenant between Me and you.” (Genesis 17:10–11)
It’s a graphic reminder that our bodies, even that which performs the sacred act of creating life itself, is to be sanctified and devoted to the Almighty.
Naming the Baby
“On the eighth day, when it was time for His brit milah, He was given the name Yeshua (Jesus), which is what the angel had called Him before his conception.” (Luke 2:21)
Throughout the generations of Israel, this covenant has been faithfully transmitted. In fact, we read in the Brit Chadashah (New Covenant) that the Jewish Messiah was circumcised on the eighth day according to the Law of Moses.
In the above verse, we see that Yeshua also received His name on the day of His brit milah, which was customary then and still is today.
Yochanan the Immerser (John the Baptist) was also named at his brit milah. In fact, a debate arose after the ceremony over his name.
The logic of the day was that the child should be called Zechariah after his father or another relative, but his mother spoke up and said, “No, he is to be called Yochanan (John).” (Luke 1:60)
The Brit Milah: A Serious Matter in the Hebrew Scriptures
A portion of Scripture concerning the brit milah is rarely preached from the pulpit, but gives us great insight into the importance of this mitzvah (commandment) to God.
While Moses is following through on God’s command to deliver Israel from Egypt, God actually seeks to kill Moses simply because he had failed to circumcise his son.
“At a lodging place on the way, the Lord met Moses and was about to kill him. But Zipporah took a flint knife, cut off her son’s foreskin and touched Moses’ feet with it. So the Lord left Moses alone.” (Exodus 4:24–26)
Yet another incident reveals the brit milah’s importance.
When Joshua led the children of Israel from the wilderness into the Promised Land, the first thing God commanded him to do was insist that all the male children be circumcised in order to remove the “disgrace of Egypt.” (Joshua 5:9)
The brit milah is such an important Jewish observance that it takes precedence over all holy days, even the holiest day of the year — Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement).
If the eighth day after birth occurs on this solemn day of prayer and strict fasting, the bris (as it’s commonly called in some communities) must still proceed as usual.
Hannah, one of our ministry writers, had the joy of attending her grandson’s bris in Israel on the High Holy Day of Yom Teruah (Feast of Trumpets), as well as Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year) despite what seemed insurmountable odds.
Her daughter Courtney was still connected to an intravenous infusion, and the mohel (a Jewish man specially trained in circumcision) could not be there because Orthodox Jews don’t drive on High Holy Days. He would have to walk quite a distance to the venue.
The brit milah was nevertheless performed on the eighth day after Peleh’s birth! Mazel Tov!
Why the Eighth Day?
The uniqueness of the brit milah for the Jewish people is found in Genesis 17 where God commanded that all male children be circumcised on the eighth day as a sign of the covenant.
Why the eighth day? According to Jewish tradition, the number eight symbolizes new life — a new cycle following the seventh day of rest that completes the week.
Doctors have since discovered that the eighth day is optimal for blood clotting mechanisms in the body to heal.
Brit Milah in Traditional Jewish Observance
While circumcision is a relatively simple procedure, within traditional Judaism, elaborate customs have been developed around this observance (although these customs do vary somewhat between communities).
The location of the brit milah is often at home or at a special venue, such as a hotel or banquet center.
This event is accompanied by a catered celebration in which honored guests such as friends and family are invited to witness the moment the child enters into this holy covenant.
The person performing the circumcision, called a mohel in Hebrew, is usually designated as the father’s shaliach (representative), since it’s the father’s responsibility to circumcise his son.
The mohel must be an observant Jew who is a respected spiritual leader in his Jewish community. He must also be specially trained to perform the rite of brit milah.
Several special, honored participants play a role in the brit milah of the child.
The first honored role is that of kvatterin, the person who takes the baby from the mother’s arms to the room where the circumcision will be performed. In Orthodox Judaism, this is the only honor given to a woman during the bris.
As the baby is ushered into the room, the guests recite in unison Baruch Haba B’shem Adonai (Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord), which is from Psalm 118.
The participant honored next is the kvatter who transfers the baby from the kvatterin to the person standing next to kisei Eliyahu (the chair of Elijah).
Interestingly enough, the prophet Eliyahu (Elijah) plays an important role in many Jewish customs, including the brit milah.
It’s traditionally believed that Elijah attends each brit milah as an honored guest.
Because Elijah the Prophet was the faithful guardian of the covenant in his generation, the child entering this same covenant is first presented to Elijah.
In the Chabad community, “one of the attendees is given the honor of placing the baby on the chair of Elijah as the mohel chants, ‘This is the seat of Elijah…’ The mohel also asks that Elijah stand to his right and protect him, so nothing will go wrong during the circumcision.” (Chabad)
The baby is next transferred from the chair of Elijah to the father, who then presents him to the person who will hold the baby during the ceremony, the Sandek.
The Sandek sits on a chair and holds the baby securely on a special pillow to await the work of the mohel.
Both the mohel and the father recite special blessings and prayers before and after the procedure, which is performed swiftly. No anesthetic is used, but the baby is given pain killers beforehand and a few drops of sweet Kiddush wine.
Brit Milah of the Heart
As vital as this ceremony is, understanding the spiritual lessons of circumcision is, perhaps, of greater importance.
The Torah and the prophets emphasize that circumcision reminds us that our whole being — every part of our lives — needs to be submitted to God.
“… Circumcise your hearts, therefore, and do not be stiff-necked any longer.” (Deuteronomy 10:12–16; see also Deuteronomy 30:6 and Jeremiah 4:4)
A heart that loves God is a circumcised heart.
Such a heart is accomplished through the work of the Ruach HaKodesh (Holy Spirit) and is not something accomplished with human efforts, unlike the physical act of brit milah which teaches us that some human effort is required in keeping covenant with God.
“The Lord your God will circumcise your hearts and the hearts of your descendants, so that you may love Him with all your heart and with all your soul, and live.” (Deuteronomy 30:6)
Brit Milah in the Brit Chadashah
At some point in Judaism, the question arose regarding Gentiles who wanted to join themselves with Israel’s faith. In addition to living a Torah observant lifestyle, converts were required to undergo a mikvah (ritual water immersion) and brit milah.
This issue was also discussed at the Jerusalem Council as described in Acts 15. Here, the mikvah became the primary requirement for Gentiles to be joined in faith through the Messiah.
The Brit Chadashah (New Covenant) reaffirms that the spiritual lesson of the brit milah is a circumcision of the heart accomplished through Messiah Yeshua (Jesus).
It’s in union with Him that the heart is circumcised by stripping away the old nature’s control over the body. (Colossians 2:9–11)
“In Him also you were circumcised with a circumcision not made with hands, but in a [spiritual] circumcision [performed by] Messiah by stripping off the body of the flesh (the whole corrupt, carnal nature with its passions and lusts).” (Colossians 2:11, AMP)
Although the circumcision of the heart is emphasized as of primary value, the New Covenant never denounces the brit milah.
In fact, before Timothy was sent to minister to the Jewish people (his mother was Jewish but his father was Greek), Rabbi Sha’ul (Apostle Paul) made sure that he was first circumcised. (Acts 16:1–3)
Likewise, most Messianic Jews continue to practice the commandment of brit milah, keeping in mind that the outward sign of circumcision doesn’t make anyone righteous. We understand that our righteousness is made through Yeshua the Messiah.