By Joshua Spurlock
Perhaps one of the most dramatic mitzvot (commandments) in all of Scripture is the mitzvah (commandment) of circumcision, which HaShem (the LORD) commanded Avraham (Abraham) and all of his descendants to observe from generation to generation. It’s a life-changing thing, with life-long effects—not the least of which is a permanent social classification.
Considering the private nature of the mitzvah, it may not seem to be nearly as significant as it actually is. But think about it: HaShem told Avraham to irrevocably change his physical nature; an intentional effort to alter the way someone is at birth. This is the true triumph of the tzaddik (righteous one)—conforming the natural to the will of HaShem.
In Parashat Eikev, HaShem uses that powerful symbolism to declare one of His most important mitzvot—circumcise your heart. But don’t take it like a calloused order from an demanding Superior. HaShem has given His mitzvot in love for His people.
“Behold, to the LORD your God [Elohekha] belong heaven and the heaven of heavens, the earth with all that is in it. Yet the LORD set his heart in love on your fathers and chose their offspring after them, you above all peoples, as you are this day. Circumcise therefore the foreskin of your heart, and be no longer stubborn.”
– Devarim (Deuteronomy) 10:14-16, ESV
The circumcision of the heart and the circumcision of the flesh work together. Avraham and his descendants have been brought into covenant with HaShem, and circumcision of the flesh was given to them as a sign of that covenant. The best part of that covenant, a true relationship with HaShem, requires that the heart be circumcised as well.
The offspring of Avraham must therefore believe as he did—with a faith that changes attitudes and actions—thereby acquiring the circumcised heart of their father. HaShem therefore commands Bnei Yisrael (the Children of Israel) to be “no longer stubborn.” In other words, the circumcision of the heart is to mark a starting point of a lifetime of change—just as circumcision of the flesh is intended to be permanent.
Perhaps more importantly, this circumcision of the heart is to be the greatest triumph over the natural man, to take the instincts of a soul inclined toward sin and bend it to the will of HaShem.
The Natural and Supernatural Man
Shaul (Paul) uses similar language in describing a miraculous undertaking by Yeshua HaMashiakh (Jesus the Christ):
“In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ [Mashiakh], having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God [Elohim], who raised him from the dead. And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God [Elohim] made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses.”
– Colossians 2:11-13, ESV
Can you see the supernatural language used here?
Shaul describes this “circumcision” as being done by Mashiakh Himself and equivalent to the death of the old self and the resurrection from the dead. In other words, this is a dramatic event. Throughout Shaul’s commentary, we read more of the language of death and resurrection and it’s connection to the natural and supernatural self.
“What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus [Mashiakh Yeshua] were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ [Mashiakh] was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father [Av], we too might walk in newness of life.”
– Romans 6:1-4, ESV
“But God [Elohim], being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ [Mashiakh]—by grace you have been saved.”
– Ephesians 2:4-5, ESV
Indeed, what can be more supernatural than the resurrection from the dead? Is there a more definitive triumph over the natural?
“We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. For one who has died has been set free from sin. Now if we have died with Christ [Mashiakh], we believe that we will also live with him.”
– Romans 6:6-8, ESV
But what does the spiritual circumcision overcome? What is the “natural” that HaShem wants us to conform to His will?
The Natural Man
It would be a mistake to think that HaShem’s desire that we triumph over our natural instincts is somehow an opposition to the physical world in exchange for the spiritual.
On the contrary, we see over and over again that HaShem encourages us through His Word to enjoy good food (Devarim / Deuteronomy 14:24-26), the work of our hands (Kohelet / Ecclesiastes 3:12-13, 22), and marriage (Mishlei / Proverbs 5:18).
That does not mean, however, that everything man instinctively does is good. Judaism teaches that humanity has a Yetzer HaRa (evil inclination), the unrestrained natural desires of man (“Inclination, Good and Evil”, Jewish Virtual Library). Drawing on the Torah, Jewish sages cite two verses that imply the existence of this “Yetzer”, or impulse that can lead to evil.
“The LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention [yetzer] of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.”
– Bereshit (Genesis) 6:5, ESV
“And when the LORD smelled the pleasing aroma, the LORD said in his heart, “I will never again curse the ground because of man, for the intention [yetzer] of man’s heart is evil from his youth. Neither will I ever again strike down every living creature as I have done.”
– Bereshit 8:21, ESV
Judaism does not argue, however, that the Yetzer HaRa is pure evil. Rather, it is a desire to do the physical things in life, that, if left unchecked, would lead to evil (“Inclination, Good and Evil”, Jewish Virtual Library). The Tzaddik must ultimately restrain his Yetzer HaRa and use it in HaShem’s service.
Likewise, Shaul says,
“Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.”
– 1 Corinthians 9:25-27, ESV
Jewish sages also teach that, in the fullness of time, HaShem will ultimately slaughter the Yetzer HaRa (Babylonian Talmud, Succah 52a). In other words, the natural desires of man that encourage him to sin will some day be defeated.
Likewise Yokhannan says,
“For all that is in the world—the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride of life—is not from the Father [HaAv] but is from the world [Olam HaZeh]. And the world [Olam HaZeh] is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God [Elohim] abides forever.
– Yokhannan Alef (1 John) 2:16-17, ESV
Yet in the here and now, we are still commanded to conform our natural desires to HaShem’s will. In this sense, we are to render our natural desires as “dead” and subservient to the desire for HaShem that comes from His Ruakh HaKodesh (the Holy Spirit).
“But that is not the way you learned Christ [Mashiakh]!—assuming that you have heard about him and were taught in him, as the truth is in Jesus [Yeshua], to put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God [Elohim] in true righteousness and holiness.”
– Ephesians 4:20-24, ESV
And this is the connection to circumcision: the act of changing one’s natural body is then paralleled to the act of changing one’s internal nature. Just as it takes real effort to alter how one was born physically, so does it take effort to change the internal desires and inclinations.
Hence, Shaul connects the concepts behind circumcising one’s heart with death and resurrection. One dies to the old, natural, and impulsive way of living—but is resurrected to a life that seeks to put HaShem first in all things, through Messiah Yeshua.
HaShem’s Work, Our Action
If you are feeling intimidated, you should be. It is no easy task to change the inner person from one who harkens to natural impulses to one who subjugates his cravings to HaShem’s will. You desperately need HaShem’s assistance. But there is good news! HaShem promises that He Himself will do that very thing in you if you will but trust Him.
“And the LORD your God [Elohekha] will circumcise your heart and the heart of your offspring, so that you will love the LORD your God [Elohekha] with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live.”
– Devarim (Deuteronomy) 30:6, ESV
As noted previously, this is precisely the work that our Lord Yeshua HaMashiakh has done for those who put their trust in Him. So victory is at hand!
As Yokhannan says of our Lord,
‘But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God [Elohim]…’
– Yokhannan (John) 1:12, ESV
And Shaul says,
‘Therefore be imitators of God [Elohim], as beloved children.’
– Ephesians 5:1, ESV
Again Shaul says,
‘…put on the new self, created after the likeness of God [Elohim] in true righteousness and holiness.’
– Ephesians 4:24, ESV
But if this is true, then why are we still plagued with the evil desires of our past?
Because while Yeshua has given us the power to achieve victory, and the promise that we will have it, we still must choose to take up our cross and follow him daily (Cf. Luke 9:23).
“Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, to make you obey its passions. Do not present your members to sin as instruments for unrighteousness, but present yourselves to God [Elohim] as those who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God [Elohim] as instruments for righteousness.”
– Romans 6:12-13, ESV
We have been resurrected to life by faith in Yeshua HaMashiakh, and yet our service to our old way and our new way are still described as being our decision. We have power from above to walk in the light (Yokhannan / Alef / 1 John 1:7), but we must employ it.
In Jewish prayer, there are multiple prayers that ask HaShem for help in this choice. Those who pray them ask HaShem to make our Evil Inclination subject to Him as part of the morning blessings of Shakharit. It’s your choice, but HaShem never intended you to handle it alone.
What It Looks Like
So if you succeed in circumcising your heart and subduing your natural inclinations that are contrary to the will of G-d, being transformed into the image and likeness of the Son of G-d (Cf. Romans 8:29) who always does what is pleasing to His Father (Cf. Yokhannan / John 8:29), what actions will be the result?
The answer appears shortly before HaShem’s command to circumcise the heart:
“And now, Israel, what does the LORD your God [Elohekha] require of you, but to fear the LORD your God [Elohekha], to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the LORD your God [Elohekha] with all your heart and with all your soul, and to keep the commandments [mitzvot] and statutes of the LORD, which I am commanding you today for your good?”
– Devarim (Deuteronomy) 10:12-13, ESV
Shaul likewise describes what it looks like to put to death the old self:
“Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. On account of these the wrath of God [Elohim] is coming. In these you too once walked, when you were living in them. But now you must put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk from your mouth. Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old self with its practices.”
– Colossians 3:5-9, ESV
And what of the way in which we should be walking out this obedience?
Shaul lists compassion, humility, forgiveness, patience, love, thankfulness, and peace (Colossians 3:12-15). In short, it is the fruit, and evidence, of HaShem’s Ruakh in you.
“But the fruit of the Spirit [Ruakh] is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. And those who belong to Christ Jesus [Mashiakh Yeshua] have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.”
– Galatians 5:22-24, ESV
So what fruit is your heart bearing in your life? Do you find yourself doing what “feels right” and acting on impulse? Or are you working daily to conform your desires to HaShem’s will as taught by the Lord Yeshua?
It’s not enough to just deny the body. The true tzaddik needs a change of heart; an irrevocable cutting away of the natural man’s rule in his life.
As the Lord Yeshua says,
‘Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.’
– Mattityahu (Matthew) 26:41, ESV
May HaShem’s Ruakh give you strength to live out the work that our Lord Yeshua has accomplished, putting on the new self, created in the likeness of G-d.