The Sabbath and Circumcision

20140108-080505.jpgBy Leif L.

Circumcision a Prerequisite to Sabbath Observance

We have already explored the fact that Sabbath observance was meant for the Jewish people, and not for the Gentiles. It is part of the covenant that God made with Israel – a covenant which was a holistic system, of which Sabbath was a ritual observance and an integral part.

Isaiah 56 is often used by Sabbatarians to show that Gentiles should keep the Sabbath. However, I believe that considered in context it actually teaches the opposite:

Do not let the son of the foreigner
Who has joined himself to the Lord
Speak, saying,
“The Lord has utterly separated me from His people”;
Nor let the eunuch say,
“Here I am, a dry tree.”
For thus says the Lord:
“To the eunuchs who keep My Sabbaths,
And choose what pleases Me,
And hold fast My covenant,
Even to them I will give in My house
And within My walls a place and a name
Better than that of sons and daughters;
I will give them an everlasting name
That shall not be cut off.
“Also the sons of the foreigner
Who join themselves to the Lord, to serve Him,
And to love the name of the Lord, to be His servants—
Everyone who keeps from defiling the Sabbath,
And holds fast My covenant—
Even them I will bring to My holy mountain,
And make them joyful in My house of prayer.
Their burnt offerings and their sacrifices
Will be accepted on My altar;
For My house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations.”
(Isaiah 56:3-7 NKJV)


1. This passage is intended for Gentiles, the “son of the foreigner.”
2. This “son of the foreigner” has “joined himself to the Lord,” “hold[ing] fast his covenant,”
3. “Keeping the Sabbath” is part of “holing fast” the covenant that God made with Israel
4. This also includes animal sacrifices in the temple (verse 7)

The Gentile who “joins himself to the Lord” is a convert to Judaism. He voluntarily partakes in the initiatory rites required to be accepted into Judaism, and thereby takes upon himself the identity of the Jewish people, and thus binds himself to observe all of the obligations and ritual observances of the Torah. Isaiah indicates that this includes Sabbath keeping and sacrifices.

“Shabbat is only given to the Jewish people or those converts to Judaism that will join them.”- Rabbi Chaim Sunitsky

Our Sabbatarian friends overlook at least three important interpretive points that are either explicit or implicit in this passage:

1. It is speaking to Gentiles who have converted to Judaism
2. Conversion to Judaism (for males) was always preceded by circumcision
3. These converts not only were bound to Sabbath observance, but offering animal sacrifices at the temple

This is My covenant which you shall keep, between Me and you and your descendants after you:Every male child among you shall be circumcised. Genesis 17:10 (NKJV)

Circumcision (for a male) was the main initiatory right of the Abrahamic and Mosaic covenants; it was and is always a requirement for becoming Jewish, and becoming Jewish must precede Sabbath obligation. Therefore, circumcision is actually the superior of the two commandments.

This is evidenced by Jesus’ discussion with the Jews in John 7:

Moses therefore gave you circumcision (not that it is from Moses, but from the fathers), and you circumcise a man on the Sabbath. If a man receives circumcision on the Sabbath, so that the law of Moses should not be broken, are you angry with Me because I made a man completely well on the Sabbath? John 7:22-23 (NKJV)

If the eighth day of a Jewish boy’s life fell on the Sabbath day, the dilemma was whether to keep the Sabbath but violate the eight day rule, or fulfil the circumcision mandate and break the Sabbath. But circumcision was a law from the time of Abraham, older than the Sabbath law given by Moses, and therefore circumcision was the superior law. Before a boy born to Jewish parents could properly keep the Sabbath, he must be circumcised.

Through this reasoning, Jesus illustrates the superiority of the commandment of circumcision over the commandment of the Sabbath. This fact was known by Jesus, is acknowledged by Jews and was understood in the early Christian Church, so has a three-fold authority.

In the Jewish oral law, it is written:

A non-Jew who observes the Sabbath whilst he is uncircumcised incurs liability for the punishment of death. Why? Because non-Jews were not commanded concerning it…. The Sabbath is a reunion between Israel and God, as it is said, ‘It is a sign between Me and the children of Israel’ (Ex. 31:17); therefore any non-Jew who, being uncircumcised, thrusts himself between them incurs the penalty of death…. The Gentiles have not been commanded to observe the Sabbath. (Midrash Deuteronomy Rabbah 1:21 (Soncino edition, p. 23), as quoted in C. Mervyn Maxwell and P. Gerard Damsteegt, eds., Source Book for the History of Sabbath and Sunday (Berrien Springs, Mich.: Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary, 1992), p. 75.).

In 387 AD John Chrysostom wrote:

The rite of circumcision was venerable in the Jews’ account, forasmuch as the Law itself gave way thereto, and the Sabbath was less esteemed than circumcision. For that circumcision might be performed, the Sabbath was broken; but that the Sabbath might be kept, circumcision was never broken; and mark, I pray, the dispensation of God. This is found to be even more solemn that the Sabbath, as not being omitted at certain times. When then it is done away, much more is the Sabbath. (Homilies on Philippians 10)

A question for Christian Sabbath-keepers: have you passed through the obligatory rite of circumcision and conversion to Judaism, in order to make your Sabbath observance legitimate?

Edited August 2014

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