Commentary on Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16
Last week’s Old Testament reading featured God’s covenant with Noah and “all flesh.”
This week’s reading looks at another iteration of covenant, this time God’s covenant with Abraham (who is called Abram until v.5). Throughout Genesis 17, “covenant” (Hebrew berit) serves as a Leitwort (“leading word” or “catchword”), appearing thirteen times in the chapter; that is, the word “covenant” here is a literary device that emphasizes the theme of the chapter and links all of its sections together.1 At first glance, God seems to establish this covenant with Abraham alone — “between me and you (singular)” (17:2). It becomes clear again, however, that God’s relationship with the one becomes a blessing for the many, the family of Abraham: “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” (17:7).
God’s covenant with Noah was clearly unconditional: a promise. However, God’s covenant with Abraham as presented in Genesis 17 involves more action, though these commands appear to be more like human responses than actual conditions.2 The first imperative occurs with God’s initial address: “I am El Shaddai; walk before me and be blameless.” The vocabulary here — “walk” (Hebrew hithalek) and be “blameless” (Hebrew tamim) corresponds to the description of Noah at Genesis 6:9, providing further connection between these two covenantal moments: “Noah was a righteous man, blameless in his generation; Noah walked with God.”
The other human action mandated in Genesis 17 is circumcision, which seems to operate here as both condition and sign: Abraham must do it, yet the doing of it is the sign of the covenant (17:11). Though the language of “remembering” is not used here, a comparison with the rainbow, the sign of the Noachic covenant, may be helpful. When God sees the rainbow, God remembers the covenant. Creation is marked in a way that reminds God of God’s commitment to it. Similarly, Abraham’s family is marked to show its privileged relationship with God. God marked creation, while the men in Abraham’s family mark themselves; yet, no matter who makes the mark, the relationship with God remains.
God promises Abraham two things: descendants and land. (Although the lectionary does not include the promise of the land of Canaan [Genesis 17:8] in the appointed reading, I strongly recommend preachers consider adding that verse; structurally, it clearly belongs to the speech-unit that begins at v. 4, and in terms of content, it is a fundamental part of the promises to Abraham.) This two-pronged promise, which is repeated in Genesis 12, 15, and 17, sets up all the narrative drama that will follow until the Israelites enter the Promised Land.3 Over and over again the descendants of Abraham will face obstacles to the realization of one or both parts of the promise: barren women, the patriarchs’ migration out of Canaan, enslavement in Egypt, and desperation in the wilderness. This pattern adds both literary interest and theological poignancy to the story: will God — can God — keep these promises? It is a story that stretches not only across the Pentateuch, but also across the Bible as a whole. When Israel finds itself in exile in Babylon, it will ask again: has God kept these promises, or has God abandoned us?
Abraham and Sarah’s own childlessness provides one of the first moments of anxiety over the promise. They are old, and the prospect of parenthood for them is genuinely laughable. After God tells Abraham that Sarai, now Sarah, will have a son, Abraham “fell on his face and laughed.” To fall on one’s face in the Hebrew Bible is to take a posture of obedience or worshipfulness, as at Genesis 17:3, when Abraham’s falling appears there to be a sign of assent to the covenant. In v. 17, the falling is joined with laughter, and obedience mixes with incredulity.4 It is as if Abraham’s body knows what to do upon hearing this news, but his mind can’t quite catch up.
Although v. 17 falls just outside of the appointed lectionary passage, I think it is an especially fitting addition to the reading in the season of Lent. After all, the cross is, in the Christian narrative, the ultimate obstacle to realizing the promises of God. God has promised a redeemer, a newly anointed king of kings, a savior to deliver the nations from sin and suffering. But that redeemer will be executed by the empire, and who could really be raised from the dead? The prospect is as impossible as ninety-year-old woman having a child with a hundred-year-old man. When we hear the promise of the resurrection, we know to fall on our faces in reverence: God is speaking to us! Yet surely we must also laugh incredulously; this is a foolish promise.
Laughter may seem a little uncouth during Lent; after all, this is a season of spiritual practices, of discipline, forty somber days in which we pack up our Alleluias and put them in storage. Even so, we do well to remember every year that the promises of the Gospel are foolishness in the eyes of the world. Friday’s cross looms large over creation. Empires win every time, and no one ever comes back from the dead. Who could think otherwise? So we laugh, even as we fall to our knees in prayer and praise. We wait for Easter, when we witness the promises fulfilled, and our stubborn, doubt-filled laughter turns to the laughter of joy.
1 Claus Westermann, Genesis 12-36 (trans. John J. Scullion; CC; Minneapolis: Fortress, 1995), 256.
3 Walter Brueggemann and Tod Linafelt, An Introduction to the Old Testament: Canon and Christian Imagination (2nd ed.; Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2012), 65-73.
4 See Westermann, Genesis 12-36, 268.