Commentary on Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16
Does God have enough room for me too?
In Tim Rice’s lyrics for the rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar, Judas voices this painful insecurity as he asks “Does he [Jesus] love me too? Does he care for me?” As I read God’s relationships with people in the stories of Genesis that lead up to this covenant in Genesis 17, I can imagine people sobbing like Judas on the brink of suicide as they ask these same questions.
When God looks with favor on Abel’s offering, I imagine Cain’s violent anger welling up from a deep longing to feel included (Genesis 4:5). When God first makes a promise to Abram that sets him on a journey to take possession of Canaan to the detriment of the native inhabitants, I can imagine the Canaanites in distress as they ask what fate God has in store for them (Genesis 12:6–7). When God shows a commitment to Abram’s well-being and wealth in spite of the fact that he abandons his wife Sarai, I imagine Sarai asking “where do I fit into this divine promise?” (Genesis 12:10–20). When God assures Abram that his slave will not be his heir, I imagine Eliezer distraught over the fact that he must be pushed aside to make room for God’s blessing (Genesis 15:2–4).
The book of Genesis was written by authors who identify with the Bronze Age patriarchs—Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Jacob’s sons—who are treated as the ancestors of the Iron Age Israelites. Almost certainly, these ancient authors did not craft their stories expecting their audience to sympathize with the plight of those “others” who are auxiliary to the lineage of God’s special promise. But I believe that being intentional about attending to these marginalized voices from the biblical text can make a world of difference in the lives of so many of God’s children in the communities with whom we share these stories as the word of God.
The confirmation of God’s ongoing promises to Abram forms the main focus of the narrative in Genesis 17. God re-affirms a promise to make a great nation through Abram’s descendants and emphasizes the promise with a new name for the patriarch: Abraham (Genesis 17:2–7). But the context of this re-iterated covenant contains laudable differences from the examples of the aforementioned “others” who suffer in the wake of God’s partiality.
Within Genesis 17, we see that God explicitly names Sarai—who is crowned with the new name, Sarah—as the mother of nations and kings (Genesis 17:15–16). God makes it clear that there is no covenant without her. When Abraham asks about the fate of Ishmael, God makes it clear that this covenant through Sarah and Isaac does not disinherit Ishmael from an abundance of blessings (Genesis 17:18–20). And this entire chapter follows a profound story in which Hagar, an enslaved woman impregnated and abused by Abram and Sarai, encounters God in the wilderness and receives a promise of abundant descendants just like God’s desire for human flourishing repeated in promises to the patriarchs (Genesis 16:10; see also Genesis 1:28; 8:17; 9:1, 7; 17:2; 22:17; 26:4, 24; 35:11).
These expressions of inclusiveness beyond God’s narrow relationship with the male protagonist Abraham deserve to be celebrated for their message about God’s blessings. Even as the book of Genesis focuses on androcentric and ethnocentric promises, God has room for promises to foremothers and lineages that branch away from the Israelites. These positive elements of the text should not blind us to the fact that some voices remain marginalized such as the Canaanites who are being disinherited (Genesis 17:8) and the female descendants of Abraham that cannot bear the sign of the covenant. In addition, Abraham’s enslaved males who are circumcised do not actually partake in the blessing intended exclusively for Abraham’s “seed” (Genesis 17:12). Given this tension, responsible readers should strike a balance between affirming the inclusions while also attending to the exclusions in the biblical text and churches.
As a final addendum, I would like to make a note about names. In one sense, the literal meaning of these Hebrew names can be important for supplementing the message in the story. For example, the name Abram can be translated as “exalted father,” but the name change to Abraham, “father of multitudes,” matches God’s promise of many descendants for Abraham. (For Sarah the correlation between the name and the text is not as apparent: Sarai most likely means “my princess” and Sarah means “princess.”)
In another sense beyond their meaning, these names deserve special attention because of how the practice of attending to names reflects our value system as readers. Making the effort to pronounce these Hebrew names in the way that they are actually written in Hebrew can show our respect for the characters in the Bible, the cultures that produced our sacred scripture, and our Jewish neighbors.