Second Sunday in Lent (Year B)

The persistence of such privileging, and of those who are victimized or rewarded by it

Ends of the Earth, Globe.
Ends of the Earth, Globe via Wikimedia Commons.

February 25, 2024

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

God, in Genesis 17, reaffirms the covenant—or agreement—that God made with Abram earlier, in Genesis 15 (the Abrahamic Promise), that Abram will become a “father of many nations.” So apt and therefore reliable are God’s promises that God states that, in preparation for the unfolding of the divine plan, Abram’s name needs to undergo a change to something more suitable: “Abraham,” which, the text explains, means “father of many nations” (17:5). 

By this point in the text, the promises that God made earlier seem less incredible. While in Genesis 15 the elderly Abram is still childless, by Genesis 17, this problem has been remedied by Abram’s elderly wife, Sarai—albeit in a problematic manner. In a troubling account in the previous chapter (Genesis 16), Sarai gives her Egyptian slave woman Hagar to Abram as a second wife, and he promptly impregnates her. Hence, by the time God again reaffirms the covenant with Abram in Genesis 17 and changes his name, Abram is already well on his way to becoming “Abraham.” 

His changed circumstances might explain why Abram seems less anxious in Genesis 17 than in Genesis 15. It might also explain why he remains silent as God goes on for several lengthy verses describing how Abraham will have numerous descendants and will receive the land of Canaan in exchange for upholding the covenant with God. 

God, however, adds a new requirement in Genesis 17: that Abraham should circumcise himself and all his male heirs going forward (17:4–14). The verses on circumcision (as well as God’s gift of Canaan, a land which, problematically, already has residents living on it) have been neatly excised in the lectionary reading. The excision lessens the tension and ambivalence present in this tale. The most evident concern is circumcision, an act that can only be performed on males. The requirement of circumcision, hence, seems to imply that it is only males who are of importance to God’s covenant with Abraham. After all, circumcision is the marker of the covenant, and only males can be circumcised.

Yet, immediately after God’s statement about circumcision, God changes course. God seems to affirm that women do indeed matter—or more precisely, the identity of the mothers who will give birth to Abraham’s heirs matters. God states that Sarai, Abram’s elderly wife, will also undergo a name change, to “Sarah,” in preparation for her upcoming pregnancy (17:15–16). It is Sarah—and not Hagar, God implies—who will become the matriarch, the ancestress, of the heirs of the Abrahamic promise. 

This news seems to catch Abraham off guard, and he laughs in disbelief and gently corrects God. Surely God does not mean his ninety-year old wife, Sarah, but Hagar, who has just borne Abraham a son, Ishmael (17:18)! In response to this, God doubles down and reiterates how the ancestress of the promise will indeed be Sarah, with her son, Isaac, though Ishmael will receive a consolation prize for also having Abraham as his father (17:19–21).

This episode raises several issues, which can be useful to ponder as subject matter of a sermon. The first is the lingering ambivalence about the importance of women to the covenant. On the one hand, women seem superfluous to God’s covenant—indeed, unable to be circumcised. God never says anything directly to Sarah even when she, likely in an attempt to bring about God’s promises, gives her slave woman to her husband to impregnate. Surely, if it was so important that Sarah be the one to birth the heir, God could have mentioned this to her or even to Abraham a bit earlier! On the other hand, despite God’s mysterious silence, God appears adamant in Genesis 17:19–21 that it is Sarah and her child who will inherit God’s promises to Abraham. 

So which is it? Do women matter or not? Maybe they only matter when it concerns their potential as would-be mothers? This ambivalence exhibited in this story opens up space to talk about modern issues, such as the silencing of women’s voices, the discounting of women’s pain, and their labor, as well as issues of infertility and reproductive rights.

This story also opens up space to discuss issues centered on socioeconomic and racial inequity and inequality. This story ultimately privileges Sarah (and her son) over Hagar, the slave woman, and her son. Hence, the story centers on God’s privileging and choice of a richer, more powerful woman over her powerless, poorer, and possibly browner counterpart—one who, without choice or voice, was handed over to her slave mistress’s husband to be utilized sexually. Read in this light, God’s selection and privileging of Sarah and Abraham raises troubling questions. It reminds us of the persistence of such privileging, and of those who are victimized or rewarded by it.

Finally, the excision of certain verses from Genesis 17, in order to create a more streamlined lectionary selection, encourages us to think about excised or silenced voices both in the text and in the world. Whose voices and stories are deemed worthy enough to be heard, and whose, in contrast, are dismissed or, worse, silenced? Who are the Hagars (and Ishmaels) of the world, and what are they trying to say? And how can we, especially as preachers, discern, listen for and to, and even lift up and magnify these voices in a responsible manner?


Vista at Ghost Ranch, Abiquiu, New Mexico

Sermon Brainwave at Ghost Ranch

Only a few spots remaining for this preachers’ retreat with Working Preachers Karoline Lewis, Joy J. Moore, and Matt Skinner.

Hosted by Ghost Ranch in New Mexico July 29-August 2, 2024, this conference is for preachers who want to learn, workshop, discuss, renew, and worship together.