The token of the Abrahamic covenant during Old Testament dispensations. Those who received it thenceforth enjoyed the privileges and undertook the responsibilities of the covenant. It symbolized some aspects of separation or dedication (1) to God, to whom Israel belonged; (2) from the world, the uncircumcised with whom Israel might not mix; (3) from sin (Deut. 10:16; 30:6; Jer. 4:4; 9:25–26; Ezek. 44:7).
The subjects of circumcision were (1) male Israelites, properly when eight days old (Gen. 17:12), but sometimes at a later age (Ex. 4:25; Josh. 5:2–9); (2) slaves born in the house or bought with money (Gen. 17:13); (3) strangers who wished to eat the Passover (Ex. 12:48).
Circumcision was not peculiar to Israel. It was practiced in Egypt and also by nations with whom Israel had not come in contact. The significance of circumcision was that it was the manifest token of the covenant that the Lord had made with Abraham and his seed. It does not matter that other nations also practiced circumcision for to them it did not have the same meaning or purpose. The various Canaanite tribes appear to have been uncircumcised (Gen. 34:14–17; Judg. 14:3; 1 Sam. 31:4; 2 Sam. 1:20).
With circumcision was connected the giving of a name; but there is no express mention of this custom until New Testament times (Luke 1:59; 2:21). It would follow naturally from the fact that Abram’s name was changed at the institution of the ordinance (Gen. 17:5, 10–14).
There was much controversy in the early church with regard to the obligation of circumcision (Acts 15:1–31). The Church under direction of Peter and the Twelve, and acting under the guidance of the Spirit, declared that circumcision was not obligatory for gentile converts. However, it apparently did not settle the matter of whether or not Jewish members of the Church should have their children circumcised. As one reads the scriptures on the matter, it becomes evident that the real issue was not circumcision only but also the larger question as to continued observance of the law of Moses by members of the Church. The word circumcision seems to have been representative of the law in these instances. The controversy was renewed later on in Galatia, as we read in Gal. 2:1–15; 5:2–6, 11; 6:12–16. These passages, along with Rom. 2:25–29; 3:1–2; Philip. 3:3; and Col. 2:11, contain Paul’s teaching on the subject.
The Jewish part of the church membership, especially in Jerusalem, appears to have been very reluctant to cease from the rituals and ceremony of the law of Moses (Acts 21:17–25). This is a marked contrast to the Church among the Nephites, in which there seems to have been a cessation of the law immediately upon their awareness of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. (3 Ne. 15:1–4; Moro. 8:8). See also Abraham, covenant of; Law of Moses; Proselytes.