Genesis: Folklore of Faith, lesson 20

Genesis 17 – Circumcision and Covenant Introduction:

Good morning and welcome to the Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church. I hope that you had a good week and a happy Valentine’s Day. I am reasonably sure that St. Valentine himself would not be too happy with the way American advertisers urge us to remember the day of his death as a martyr, but it is nice that we do have a day in the calendar to honor love and friendship rather than war and conflict. 

 Abraham and Sarah:

This week we are looking at Genesis 17. In this section we finally get to call Abraham and Sarah by those names instead of Abram and Sarai. There are a couple of times in Scripture where people receive new names. In some tribal cultures, it is normal to be given a new name as your status in the tribe changes. Usually the new name is bestowed upon you by an authority who knows something about your inner qualities. If you read the Leatherstocking Tales by James Fennimore Cooper, for instance, Natty Bumpkin receives several names, the most famous of which is the Deerslayer. In our story for today, our ancestor in faith goes from being known as the exalted father to be being Father of Many Nations, or Abraham. We lose some of the tribal nature of the Genesis tales by not translating the names. Don’t you think it would make the liturgies more exotic to remember the Father of Many Nations rather than just saying Abraham?

Sarai’s change of name appears to be less significant than Abraham’s. Sarai is simply the older form of the name Sarah. Both names have the same root as the Hebrew word for prince, so Sarai and Sarah both mean princess. There is a possibility that the name Sarah was connected to the name Israel, which would link Sarah directly as the matriarch of Israel. This is intriguing and makes sense, but it is a bit of a linguistic stretch. The most likely reason for the name change is to conform to Abraham’s new status as the Father of Many Nations and to emphasize that Sarah will be the mother of the covenant.

 Priestly Account of the Covenant

Gen. 17 probably came from the priests of ancient Israel. Several times I’ve mentioned that Genesis was not written by a single author but was compiled by a brilliant scribe, perhaps Ezra himself, who used many different sources at this disposal. We are focusing on Genesis in its final form, but it is helpful from time to time to notice some of the original matters used in making Genesis. Our lesson for today, for example, was written in a whole different style than the passage we read last week. Even with the same translator, we can feel the difference in these verses. The style is very formal and assertive, and it makes a point of saying that Abraham fell down to worship God. Except for the opening verse, God is not called the LORD, and Gen. 17 shows a lot of interest in properly observing religious rituals. For these, and a few other reasons, scholars are reasonably sure that chapter 17 comes from the priests, while Ch. 16 was from the J source. We can’t prove this, but it does make sense of the notable change in style. It also helps explain why there is yet another story of the covenant. By placing this additional story of the covenant where he does, the author of Genesis emphasizes that this is a strengthening and focusing of the covenant on Sarah and her son.

 Read Gen. 17 El Shaddai:

In our lesson for today, God reconfirms the covenant with Abraham. Interestingly, God assumes the name El Shaddai, or God of the Mountain in this story. Some of you know the wonderful song by Amy Grant titled El Shaddai. Translators usually render El Shaddai as God Almighty, but that loses some of the significance of the name, just as we saw in the earlier story when God was called El Elyon. El Shaddai means God on High, referring to a specific mountain. Originally this story may been connected to the later story of Abraham offering his son on Mt. Moria or it may anticipate the later story of Moses on Mt. Sinai. Now it serves as a story of recommitment after the birth of Ishmael. God reminds Abraham of the promise he originally made. The covenant is for all time, a point often missed by Christian readers of Genesis.

 Abraham Laughs:

Ch. 17 clarifies that it will be the son of Sarah who is the bearer of the covenant with Abraham. We will return to this theme next week as we continue with chapter 18, but it is worth noting now. When Abraham was told that Sarah will conceive, he fell down on his face laughing – not in pleasure but in derision. Abraham doesn’t believe the word of God, but he is not rebuked for his lack of faith.

Perhaps God himself recognized the humor of the situation and planned on it. After all, it was God who named the boy Isaac – he who laughs. I, for one, place great hope in the fact that God has a sense of humor. Isaac should be the patron saint for all of us who love to laugh at the daily absurdities of life. Later in Genesis, Abraham will laugh for joy. Later all his doubts will be eased, but for the moment, he laughs as he contemplates Sarah getting pregnant. He laughs, but he does what God asks of him. That is what faith is all about.

First, though, Abraham puts forward his son Ishmael as the answer to the promise. God tells him that Ishmael will be blessed. Ishmael will be the father of twelve tribes. He will be great in the world, but it is Isaac who will be the father of the chosen. The story of faith will continue through Isaac and Jacob, but Ishmael is not forgotten. He is blessed.

 Sealing the Covenant:

In ch. 15 it was God who sealed the covenant with Abram. This time it is Abraham who must seal the covenant in his own blood. Every male in his household was to be circumcised, including Abraham himself. Keep in mind that he was 99 years old at the time. This was no small sacrifice to make on his part – especially since the tool used was probably a stone knife.

Can you imagine what Abraham thought when he heard that? Worse yet, think of the reaction of the folks back in the tents when Abraham comes back down from the mountain and says, “The God of the Mountain told me that I have to circumcise all the males.” After he explained the procedure, I’m sure there were some skeptical comments about Abraham’s sanity. “You’re going to do what to me?” And I’m pretty sure that Sarah laughed, although that’s not recorded in this story. The most important aspect of Gen. 17 is not the change of the names; it is the ritual of circumcision.


I realize that we are living in an age when people will discuss any subject on radio and when you cannot watch a basketball game without advertisements for embarrassing products, but I am a little embarrassed to discuss circumcision on the air. There is no way to avoid it, though, if we are going to talk about the Bible. It is a very important biblical topic, and it serves as a reminder that the Bible is less prudish than we are. Biblical faith is very concrete, very human, very real. At times it was very painful, too. It is also easily misunderstood. A student wrote in her history exam several years back that Magellan was the first man to circumcise the globe. And there have been many students through the years who thought that Abraham circumscribed his sons, which may be true, but is irrelevant.

As we shall see, circumcision plays a particularly important role in Judaism, but it is not distinctly Jewish. Many tribal societies in the world today observe this ritual. In fact, I was rather surprised to see a rite of circumcision performed on television on show depicting tribal life in South America. Islamic tradition asserts that Abraham and Ishmael were circumcised, and most Muslim men are circumcised. The age varies from country to country and tribe to tribe, though. And, as we know from recent controversy, some African tribes practice sometimes quite shocking versions of female circumcision, but that is quite different from circumcision in the Bible.

Despite claims to the contrary, circumcision is not really a matter of hygiene although it has been viewed that way in the past. There is little indication that lack of circumcision causes problems for men. Many ancient cultures practiced circumcision; others did not. We know that in the time of Genesis, the Egyptians and Babylonians practiced circumcision, but Israel’s neighbors, the Philistines did not. The Greeks were also opposed to circumcision, and under their influence the practice died out in much of the ancient Mediterranean world.


As far as we can tell, both historically and from anthropologists, there are several related reasons for circumcision. It is a form of ritual mutilation, much like tattoos, cutting, or other ways of permanently marking the skin. Often circumcision is a rite of passage into adulthood, and it appears that its purpose in most cases is to provide a male parallel for menstruation. The shedding of blood is important in the ritual. Circumcision is sometimes done in preparation for marriage, which we can see in a later story concerning Dinah. Israelite women were forbidden to marry an uncircumcised man. It is interesting that the literal meaning of the Hebrew word for ‘father-in-law’ is circumciser. At some point in the distant past, the father of the bride who had the honor of preparing the groom for the wedding. It was probably an effective way to make sure that a son-in-law tried treated his future father-in-law with respect.

 Circumcision and Covenant:

What makes circumcision in later Judaism so different from all these other uses of the procedure is that it was to be done when a child was eight days old. It was a permanent sign that a boy or man was an Israelite. In short, it had become a ritual of tribal or national identity. It is not surprising, then, to see that circumcision was connected with the naming of Abraham in Gen. 17. Nor is it surprising that it is the Priestly source that gives all of the details about when and whom to circumcise. Today circumcision is a household ritual performed either by a specially trained person, known as the mohel. The Brit Mihal, or rite of cutting, is a very sacred and festive moment in Judaism, and is followed by a feast celebrating the occasion. There have been many times in history, though, when Jews were punished severely and even killed for having their sons bear the mark of the covenant.

 A Broader Covenant:

It was not just Ishmael and Abraham who were to bear the mark of the covenant. It was for every male. Remember those 325 armed men that Abraham took into battle? Remember all of the shepherds and other servants? Those men became part of the covenant. I find this very intriguing, although it is easily overlooked. Most of these people were not related to Abraham. We know that some of them were Egyptians. Most likely, his household was very international, but they all bore the mark of the covenant. Throughout the OT, the nation of Israel included many non-Israelites. Some of them served high office. The exclusivity we associate with the covenant was largely a response to foreign domination after the Exile.


There is a very stern warning in this instruction on circumcision. Any male not circumcised will be cut off from the people. There is a clear pun in the Hebrew here, by the way. The sign of the covenant is required for the people of the covenant. It is the mark of identity. Without the mark; there is no identity. At the risk of making a too banal analogy, we can compare this commandment with the law that all children born as US citizens must have a Social Security number. Without that number, you are cut off from society. You cannot work legally, attend school, drive a car, and so forth. Likewise, according to Gen. 17, if a parent failed in this obligation of marking his or her son as an Israelite, the child would be cut off. He would be outside the covenant.

 Christianity and the Covenant:

This chapter does not have the importance in Christianity that it does for the people of the covenant. For centuries Christians taught that the circumcision of Jesus ended circumcision just as the sacrifice of Jesus ended sacrifice. This was hotly debated in early Christianity, but Paul argued persuasively that Gentiles, which meant the uncircumcised, could be included in the New Covenant that Jesus made through his blood. To accept circumcision, for Paul, was to accept the old covenant and all of its rules and prohibitions. Zinzendorf accepted this reasoning of Paul. Moravians did not circumcise their sons, but Jews who converted to the Moravian Church were encouraged to live according to the covenant to which their circumcision bound them.

So, what makes Genesis 17 revelation for Christians, or is it merely ancient history? That depends. I think it is helpful for Christians to understand the importance of this ritual and the covenant for our Jewish brothers and sisters. It is also helpful for us to fully appreciate the stories of the Old Testament, many of which center on the covenant. If we want to understand the Bible, we need a grounding in the themes of Gen. 17. But there is more. Christianity rejected circumcision as a ritual and requirement of faith very early, as we have seen, but the NT does use the meaning of circumcision repeatedly. The apostolic authors spoke of a circumcision of the heart rather than the flesh. Jesus contrasted a physical circumcision with a spiritual circumcision. The early church recognized that there was an important message about identity and morality in the ritual of circumcision.


To be a Christian is to belong to the invisible body of Christ that extends through all the ages and into eternity. To be Christian is to be a living representative of Christ in this world. To be a Christian is to be something different, to live under the special obligation of love for neighbors and enemies alike, to live for Christ rather than self. To be Christian is to be part of the new covenant that is opened for all races, nations, and tongues; to be part of a spiritual priesthood, a royal people.

The sign of that new covenant is baptism, the ritual of dying and rising with Christ to a new life lived in freedom and love. And just as Abraham circumcised the infants so they would grow up in the covenant and never doubt that they belonged, we baptize our children in the faith “for the promise is to us and to our children.” Just as ancient circumcision was a means to carry the covenant to all generations; we baptize each generation as witnesses to the love of Christ. Unlike the circumcision of Abraham, though, baptism is for girls as well as boys. In Christ, there is no Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female but all are one.

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