A Covenant for All: Reflections on Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16

Lectionary Reflections
Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16
March 1, 2015
Second Sunday in Lent

This second Sunday in Lent offers for our preacherly delectation what appears to be perhaps the most boring chapter in all of Genesis, that lengthy screed about Abraham's circumcision and his need to use the flint knife on any other uncut foreskins in his immediate vicinity. Well, at least he gets a new name in exchange for the painful action — he is after all 99 years old! — but that new name may be only a dialectical equivalent of the old one. He begins the chapter as Abram ("mighty father") and ends it as Abraham ("father of many" or "expansive father"). There may be some small difference in the actual name, but the upshot is that YHWH wants him to know that he is in covenant with his God, and the special sign of that "everlasting covenant" (Gen. 17:7) is that he and all males who would be in this same relationship with YHWH must not possess penises with foreskins intact.

To say the least, it is an odd way to run a religious railroad. First off, the Israelites were hardly the only folks who practiced circumcision in the Near East. The Egyptians were doing this long before the Israelites were the gleams in anyone's eyes. Was it originally a question of good health — no foreskins, less disease and discomfort? Possibly. But there is little way of knowing the origins of the idea. We can only know that it became for Judaism, as a result of this story, the sign and seal of the covenant with their God. It always must be remembered that when the most ancient references to that covenant are proclaimed, the Hebrew says quite literally "to cut a covenant."

It is quite obvious that there are several problems with this act as a covenant sign. First, not many can ever know just who is in this covenant, since the public display of one's privates was long seen as taboo and deeply shameful. Any number of stories describe the shame of public nudity, from the garden of Eden, to Noah's drunken lack of clothes to the later priestly need to keep their genitals hidden by the judicious wearing of the holy belt. An even larger problem with the sign is that it excludes one half of the Israelites, namely their women! Genital mutilation is hardly the same thing; women just do not have the requisite plumbing to join this covenant fully. It hardly takes a genius to imagine that some man dreamt all this up.

So what are we 21st-century Christians to do with all this? Genesis 17 is quite clearly priestly stuff, written by sacerdotal types who were always on the lookout for actions and clothing and rituals that would separate them from the unwashed masses. Just because I am circumcised, an act done without my consent not long after my birth, hardly makes me a "son of the covenant," at least in any strictly Jewish sense.

Well, I am happy to report that once again even the most grudging of texts, steeped on the surface in propaganda and ideology, has been redeemed for us preachers by the subtle fun of the narrators of Israel. While the demand for circumcision is being promulgated by YHWH, Abram/Abraham is highly skeptical of the whole thing, and that for one simple reason: God's grand promise of an everlasting covenant with the patriarch's multitudinous offspring is called into the most serious question by the terrible and painful fact that Abe's wife, Sarai/Sarah, cannot have any children. YHWH may pontificate about it in all manner of grandly divine ways, accompanied by full orchestra with trumpets and trombones blaring, but Abe and Sarah have no kids; that does tend to throw a serious crimp in the Godly plan, does it not?

At least Abraham thinks it does, and here the storyteller has some very serious fun. YHWH first says, "I will make my covenant between me and you, and will make you exceedingly numerous" (Gen. 17:2), at which point Abram "falls on his face." Such an action could be seen as an act of genuine worship of the God who has made to him such a marvelous promise, the act of a man prostrating himself before his God in reverence and awe. However, the usual Hebrew verb for such an action is rather different; when people prostrate themselves before YHWH they "ishtachawa'," literally perhaps "fall on their noses." I am thus made suspicious by Abe's action here, and my suspicions are compounded by what the patriarch does in Genesis 17:17. After YHWH has demanded circumcision (Gen. 17:9-14) and after YHWH has changed Sarai's name to Sarah (there really is no difference in the meaning of these two names) and has claimed that "she shall give rise to nations; kings of people shall come from her" (Gen. 17:16), Abraham once again "falls on his face," but this time the narrator adds "and he laughed." Here is no act of reverence, no sign of awe; here we see genuine skepticism in the face of the promise of YHWH, a skepticism born out of human reality; Sarah is barren. Abraham is 99 and Sarah not much younger; no kings will emerge from her dead womb, because nothing will come from there at all.