< March 08, 2009 >

Commentary on Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16

 

God's promises are the central feature of the Abrahamic story.

They occur in almost every chapter (Genesis 12-25). The promises are spoken by God in the first person, and most of them directly to Abraham (two of them are to Hagar). This appointed Genesis text is focused on promise, spoken regarding both Abraham (verses 1-7) and Sarah (verses 15-16).

These promises are at heart nothing new, given the promises in 12:1-3, 7; 13:14-17; 15:1, 4-5, 7, 13-16, 18-21; 16:10-12, but there are elements of freshness. Especially to be noted:

  • the language of "everlasting" and "kings"
  • the stress on "descendants" (repeated thirteen times)
  • a more global understanding of covenant ("a multitude of nations")
  • a heightened sense of the centrality of the relationship between God and Abraham ("to be God to you")
  • and new names for Abram, Sarai, and God (El Shaddai, either God of the mountains or breasts, not God Almighty, a translation from the Greek and Latin)

These differences suggest that these promises are a renewal of the covenant established by God in Genesis 15, only now in a somewhat different time and place (especially given what has taken place in chapter 16).

Perhaps the most striking point of newness is God's promise to Sarah (17:15-16). Sarah is made a co-participant in the divine promise regarding a son and his descendants. She has a promise in her own right, not simply through Abraham. Up to this point in the narrative, Sarah had not been associated with the promises given to Abraham, at least by name. In fact, Sarah (with Abraham) understood that she need not be the birth-mother of the child that God promised Abraham. Accordingly, she proceeded with a customary way of gaining children in that culture  through her slave-girl Hagar (16:1-6; so also Jacob in Genesis 30:1-13).

There is nothing unfaithful about this move; in fact, 16:15-16 sounds very much like a fulfillment text. Indeed, at the beginning of our text in 17:1, Ishmael is already thirteen years old! Abraham must have thought that he was the fulfillment of God's promise (see 17:18). But such is not to be, for reasons unknown, though Ishmael is showered with promises (see 16:10; 17:20; 21:13, 18). In fact, Isaac's only unique promise is focused on the language of covenant (17:19, 21). Covenant here is understood as the formalization of already existing promises. A special relationship between God and Abraham already exists, and will be continued with Isaac.

The promises to Abraham and Sarah are unilaterally declared by God, with no prior conditions stipulated. However, to speak of unconditional promise is not to claim that the human response is irrelevant. While faith to so respond is a gift from God, the word from God is resistible. People may remove themselves from the sphere of promise, though God does not "roll over" at the first signs of resistance. The promises will never be made null and void as far as God is concerned, and are always available for the faithful to cling to or be drawn back into.

The reader might ask: does not Abraham have to do something for this covenant to be established (see the imperatives in 17:1, "walk before me and be blameless")? Blameless is understood to be faithfulness, not sinlessness or perfection. These imperatives assume an already existing relationship; Abraham's faith and righteousness have been unambiguously stated by the narrator (15:6). 

But does not Abraham have to do something for the covenant to be continued? Does not Genesis 17:9-14 (removed from the lectionary text!) claim that circumcision is a condition? Yet "covenant" is not to be identified with circumcision, despite what verse 10 suggests (see verse 4). As 17:11 states, circumcision is "a sign of the covenant between me and you." This covenant shall be marked in the flesh (17:13); circumcision is an enfleshed sign of the covenant. Circumcision creates an external, but hidden mark of group identity that persists in the face of life's exigencies.

Circumcision does not make the covenant conditional. It is a response to God's establishment of the covenant, as a sign of an already existing relationship, not a means by which it is to be implemented. Human unfaithfulness can lead to severe consequences, namely, being cut off from the people or excommunication (17:14). This is an action by God, not a court, and relates to individuals not the community. The last clause in 17:14 (breaking covenant) is not causally related to the first clause (not being circumcised). Neglecting circumcision is a sign of unfaithfulness, which threatens the relationship between God and the individual involved.

Being faithful or unfaithful to God is the essence of the relationship with God and that is what may be at stake in neglecting circumcision. Abraham responds faithfully to God's command regarding circumcision and is circumcised himself (17:23-27). On the other hand, circumcision can become an empty sign; circumcised ones may have an uncircumcised heart (Jeremiah 4:4; 9:25).

Circumcision is common among Israel's neighbors. Strikingly, God does not create a rite that would separate Israel from its neighbors. Rather, God takes an already existing practice from the larger culture and "baptizes" it for use in the Israelite community; it is not a mark of distinctiveness from other peoples.

Note that although Ishmael is circumcised (17:23), that does not make him a member of the covenant community. At the same time, he is given many promises by God. Indeed, as the reference to Ishmael's many descendants implies (17:20; 25:12-18), God's promises to him are brought to a lively fulfillment in nations and kings. Abraham's descendants will, finally, include not only the literal descendants of Isaac and Ishmael, but many spiritual descendants as well (the vast majority of Christians and Muslims are not physical descendants of Abraham).

Abraham and his family are surrounded with divine promises. They will not see the fulfillment of all of these promises in their lifetime (though a taste of fulfillment will be important, especially descendants). Faith will inevitably mean, for all of God's followers, living with promises as promises, short of fulfillment.