Speaking to the Galatians, Paul declares, “For freedom Messiah has set us free; therefore, stand firm and do not be burdened again by a yoke of slavery. Behold I, Paul, say to you that if you are circumcised, Messiah will be of no benefit to you” (Gal 5:1-2). But if circumcision is the marker of the covenantal relationship between God and Israel, then why does Paul tell the Galatians that it will lead them into slavery?
The answer lies in Genesis, the book that Paul discusses immediately before he discourages his audience from circumcision. The apostle’s reference to a “yoke of slavery” (ζυγῷ δουλείας; zugō douleīas) in Galatians 5:1 follows from his allegory of Hagar and Sarah (Gal 4:21-31), which is based on the narrative in Genesis 16 and 21. In between these two chapters, God gives Abraham the covenant of circumcision—known in Hebrew as brit milah (ברית מילה). The Lord tells Abraham, “This is my covenant (ברית; brit) which you shall keep, between me you and your offspring after you: Every male among you shall be circumcised (המול; himol)” (Gen 17:10). For the biological descendants of Abraham (i.e., ethnic Israelites), circumcision was to be a “sign” (אות; ‘ot; Gen 17:11) of their unbreakable relationship with God.
Yet, the Genesis passage mentions another group to be circumcised alongside the ethnic offspring of Abraham: Gentile slaves. God says to Abraham, “He who is eight days old among you shall be circumcised (ימול; yimol). Every male throughout your generations, whether born in your house or money-bought (ומקנת־כסף; u’miqnat-keseph) from any foreigner (בן־נכר; ben-nekhar) who is not from your offspring” (Gen 17:12). According to the first book of the Bible, the initial recipients of God-ordained circumcision were either ethnic Israelites or Gentile slaves. So, from Paul’s perspective, any Galatians who accepted circumcision were reaffirming their status as slaves rather than the free “offspring of Abraham” they had become through adoption in Christ (Gal 3:29).
Some readers of Galatians assume that Paul identifies the entire Law as a “yoke of slavery” for Gentiles, so that Torah observance of any kind impedes their faith-based freedom. However, this cannot be the case since Paul tells his Gentile listeners, “Do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but [to] serve one another through love. For the whole Law is fulfilled in one word: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’” (Gal 5:13-14). Here, Paul encourages the Galatians to use their “freedom” (ἐλευθερία; eleutherīa) to observe the command in Leviticus 19:18. Generally, Paul was not against Gentiles keeping the Torah, but he did believe that Gentile circumcision would serve as a reminder of slavery. Whereas being circumcised would recall the Galatians’ former status as slaves, fulfilling the Torah prescription of neighborly love proves that Gentiles are free indeed.