WHY DID GOD COMMAND ABRAHAM TO PHYSICALLY CIRCUMCISE ISHMAEL?
by Shawn Brasseaux
Physical circumcision is, without a doubt, the sign of the Abrahamic Covenant. It indicates death to the flesh, a testament to man’s inability to accomplish God’s will in his own strength. Hence, God ordered Abraham to physically circumcise his son Isaac—the father of the Jewish people. Abraham’s male children through Isaac and Isaac’s son Jacob were to undergo this ritual forever. It was a signification that they were the heirs of the Abrahamic Covenant. Yet—and this is most unexpected—God also ordered Abraham to physically circumcise his descendants through his elder son Ishmael too. Why should the Ishmaelites be physically circumcised? Are they also heirs of the Abrahamic Covenant—possessing just as much right to it as the children of Isaac? Recognizing the sequence of events is tantamount to making sense of this matter.
GENESIS CHAPTER 12. Although occurring historically in chapter 11 (cf. verses 27-32; Genesis 15:7; Acts 7:2-5), God promised childless Abram that He would make a nation of him. Here is the Abrahamic Covenant: “ Now the LORD had said unto Abram, Get thee out of thy country, and from thy kindred, and from thy father’s house, unto a land that I will shew thee:  And I will make of thee a great nation, and I will bless thee, and make thy name great; and thou shalt be a blessing:  And I will bless them that bless thee, and curse him that curseth thee: and in thee shall all families of the earth be blessed.”
GENESIS CHAPTER 16. Abram and wife Sarai are still without children, still waiting 10 years since the original promise (cf. 12:4 and 16:16). Finally, Sarai suggests Abram marry and have a child through her Egyptian slave girl, Hagar. Ishmael is thus born to Abram when is 86 years old. Please note this was Sarai and Abram’s plan, not God’s instructions.
GENESIS CHAPTER 17. Verse 1 says Abram is 99 years old now. The LORD God appears to him and changes his name from “Abram” (“exalted father”) to “Abraham” (“father of many;” verse 5). Here, the issue of a covenant reappears. JEHOVAH GOD is working to build on His promise He gave over two decades earlier in chapter 12. He also renames Abraham’s wife “Sarah” (verse 15), promising to give Abraham a son through her (verse 16). This worries Abraham that He might slay 13-year-old Ishmael (verse 18).
Read from Genesis chapter 17: “ And I will establish my covenant between me and thee and thy seed after thee in their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be a God unto thee, and to thy seed after thee.  And I will give unto thee, and to thy seed after thee, the land wherein thou art a stranger, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession; and I will be their God.  And God said unto Abraham, Thou shalt keep my covenant therefore, thou, and thy seed after thee in their generations.  This is my covenant, which ye shall keep, between me and you and thy seed after thee; Every man child among you shall be circumcised.  And ye shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskin; and it shall be a token of the covenant betwixt me and you.  And he that is eight days old shall be circumcised among you, every man child in your generations, he that is born in the house, or bought with money of any stranger, which is not of thy seed.  He that is born in thy house, and he that is bought with thy money, must needs be circumcised: and my covenant shall be in your flesh for an everlasting covenant.  And the uncircumcised man child whose flesh of his foreskin is not circumcised, that soul shall be cut off from his people; he hath broken my covenant.
“ And God said unto Abraham, As for Sarai thy wife, thou shalt not call her name Sarai, but Sarah shall her name be.  And I will bless her, and give thee a son also of her: yea, I will bless her, and she shall be a mother of nations; kings of people shall be of her.  Then Abraham fell upon his face, and laughed, and said in his heart, Shall a child be born unto him that is an hundred years old? and shall Sarah, that is ninety years old, bear?  And Abraham said unto God, O that Ishmael might live before thee!  And God said, Sarah thy wife shall bear thee a son indeed; and thou shalt call his name Isaac: and I will establish my covenant with him for an everlasting covenant, and with his seed after him.”
Having looked at Isaac, we turn to Ishmael now: “ And as for Ishmael, I have heard thee: Behold, I have blessed him, and will make him fruitful, and will multiply him exceedingly; twelve princes shall he beget, and I will make him a great nation.  But my covenant will I establish with Isaac, which Sarah shall bear unto thee at this set time in the next year.  And he left off talking with him, and God went up from Abraham.
“ And Abraham took Ishmael his son, and all that were born in his house, and all that were bought with his money, every male among the men of Abraham’s house; and circumcised the flesh of their foreskin in the selfsame day, as God had said unto him.  And Abraham was ninety years old and nine, when he was circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin.  And Ishmael his son was thirteen years old, when he was circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin.  In the selfsame day was Abraham circumcised, and Ishmael his son.  And all the men of his house, born in the house, and bought with money of the stranger, were circumcised with him.”
Abraham’s descendants through Isaac continue the ritual today in Judaism because it was later incorporated into the Mosaic Law: “And in the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised” (Leviticus 12:3). Although different from the Jewish custom, modern Muslims practice male circumcision too. While the Abrahamic Covenant (“the covenant of circumcision;” Acts 7:8) passes from Abraham to son Isaac to grandson Jacob and 12 grandsons, the LORD God promised not to forget about Ishmael. He would bless Ishmael too, but Ishmael would not inherit the covenant (Muslims disagree, generating the Jewish/Muslim conflict we know all too well). Still, why did the LORD command Abraham to physically circumcise Ishmael? In Scripture, physical circumcision—the cutting off the male’s physical foreskin—signifies death to the flesh (see next paragraph). Abraham struggled to produce a son in his own strength (Ishmael), but that was not God’s promised son for him. Therefore, the LORD instructed Abraham to be circumcised, in effect saying: “Abraham, your labor, your legalism, your works-religion, can never substitute for My grace, My efforts, My gifts.” (This is borne out in the Book of Galatians, chapters 3 and 4, as well as the Book of Romans chapter 4.)
Romans 2:28-29 identifies the reason for physical circumcision: “For he is not a Jew, which is one outwardly; neither is that circumcision, which is outward in the flesh: But he is a Jew, which is one inwardly; and circumcision is that of the heart, in the spirit, and not in the letter; whose praise is not of men, but of God.” The outward/physical circumcision is to be a reflection of an inward/spiritual truth. In the future, under the New Covenant, God will remove Israel’s sin nature and replace it with a new nature, a new heart, a new spirit (see Ezekiel 36:25-28 and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on Israel). Deuteronomy 30:6 says to this point: “And the LORD thy God will circumcise thine heart, and the heart of thy seed, to love the LORD thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, that thou mayest live.” Here—in their restoration, in their kingdom—He will accomplish His will in and through them. They will no longer be guilty of idolatry, but will rather be His vessels to reach the nations with His Word.
It is important to note the LORD God did not instruct Abraham to be physically circumcised in Genesis chapter 12 or chapter 16. Ishmael was born in chapter 16, and physical circumcision was implemented in chapter 17, and Isaac’s birth came to pass in chapter 21. Physical circumcision with respect to Ishmael meant he—the product of Abraham’s flesh (works-religion)—was not heir of the covenant. He had been “cut off” in chapter 17. Abraham, now circumcised, then impregnated Sarah to result in Isaac’s conception. Physical circumcision as touching Isaac meant he—the result of God’s work (grace)—was heir of the covenant (reaffirmed concerning Isaac’s birth, not Ishmael’s).