The covenant and circumcision (Gen 17:1–17:27)

“When Abram was ninety-nine years old, Yahweh appeared to Abram, and said to him, ‘I am God Almighty.  Walk before me, and be blameless. I will make my covenant between me and you, and will make you exceedingly numerous.”

Thirteen years later, Yahweh appeared to Abram when he was 99.  Again there is talk of a covenant but in the sacerdotal tradition.  Here it is not Yahweh but El Shaddai, the almighty one, another name for God, who asks Abram to walk with God and be blameless.  This covenant or alliance with Abram will make his descendents ‘exceedingly numerous.’

“Then Abram fell on his face.  And God said to him, ‘As for me, this is my covenant with you.  You shall be the father of a multitude of nations.  No longer shall your name be Abram, but your name shall be Abraham.   I have made you the father of a multitude of nations.  I will make you exceedingly fruitful.  I will make nations of you, and kings shall come from you.  I will establish my covenant between me and you and your offspring after you throughout their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you.  I will give to you and to your offspring after you, the land where you are now an alien, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting perpetual possession.  I will be their God.”

Abram falls on his face, and God tells him that he will be the father of a multitude of nations.  No longer will his name be Abram, but Abraham ‘exalted ancestor’ or ‘father of many.’  This is the name change from Abram to Abraham.  Throughout generations there will be an everlasting covenant.  Abraham will get the land of Canaan, the land where he was living as an alien, as a perpetual holding.  This designated land is less than the Yahweh covenant, since it only includes Canaan, not all the land from Egypt to the Euphrates.

“And God said to Abraham, ‘As for you, you shall keep my covenant, you and your offspring after you throughout their generations. This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and your offspring after you.  Every male among you shall be circumcised.  You shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and you.  Throughout your generations, every male shall be circumcised when he is eight days old, including the slave born in your house and the one bought with your money from any foreigner who is not of your offspring.  Both the slave born in your house and the one bought with your money must be circumcised. So shall my covenant be in your flesh an everlasting covenant.  Any uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin shall be cut off from his people.  He has broken my covenant.”

This sacerdotal covenant alliance story emphasizes male circumcision as the main part of the covenant.  Circumcision becomes a big deal.  It has been practiced among many ancient and contemporary groups for either religious or hygienic reasons to cut the foreskin of the penis.  In fact, despite their differences Islamic males practice circumcision also.  Every male shall be circumcised by removing the flesh of the foreskin, when he is eight days old.  This includes even male slaves born or brought into the house.  So be careful if you are going to be a slave.  The uncircumcised male should be cut off from his people because he had broken the covenant.

 “And God said to Abraham, ‘As for Sarai your wife, you shall not call her name Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name. I will bless her, and moreover I will give you a son by her.  I will bless her, and she shall give rise to nations.  Kings of peoples shall come from her.’  Then Abraham fell on his face and laughed, and said to himself, ‘Can a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old? Shall Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?’  Abraham said to God, ‘O that Ishmael might live in thy sight!’ God said, ‘No, but your wife Sarah shall bear you a son, and you shall name him Isaac. I will establish my covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his offspring after him.  As for Ishmael, I have heard you.  I will bless him and make him fruitful and exceedingly numerous.  He shall be the father of twelve princes, and I will make him a great nation.  But my covenant I will establish with Isaac, whom Sarah shall bear to you at this season next year.’  When he had finished talking with him, God went up from Abraham.”

Then God said to Abraham that you shall not call your wife Sarai, but Sarah, the princess. She will be blessed and give you a son.  Nations and kings shall come from her.  Abraham laughed at this.  How can a child be born to a man that is 100 years old and his wife who is 90 years old?  Obviously this was a problem that just occurred since the older patriarchs were having children in their old age.  Perhaps they had younger wives. The name of Sarah’s child would be Isaac, who would have an everlasting covenant.  Once again, the son is named before the birth, or even before the pregnancy.  Abraham reminded God of Ishmael.  So Ishmael will be blessed as the father of twelve princes and a great nation, but the covenant will be with Isaac.

“Then Abraham took his son Ishmael and all the slaves born in his house or bought with his money, every male among the men of Abraham’s house, and he circumcised the flesh of their foreskins that very day, as God had said to him. Abraham was ninety-nine years old when he was circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin.  His son Ishmael was thirteen years old when he was circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin.  That very day Abraham and his son Ishmael were circumcised.  All the men of his house, slaves born in the house and those bought with money from a foreigner, were circumcised with him.”

That very day, Abraham at age 99, his son Ishmael at age 13, and all the male slaves in his house were circumcised.  So far, the two covenant requirements for Abraham are walk blameless with Yahweh and be circumcised.

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