When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the Lord appeared to him and said, “I am God Almighty; walk before me faithfully and be blameless. 2 Then I will make my covenant between me and you and will greatly increase your numbers.”
3 Abram fell facedown, and God said to him, 4 “As for me, this is my covenant with you: You will be the father of many nations. 5 No longer will you be called Abram; your name will be Abraham, for I have made you a father of many nations. 6 I will make you very fruitful; I will make nations of you, and kings will come from you. 7 I will establish my covenant as an everlasting covenant between me and you and your descendants after you for the generations to come, to be your God and the God of your descendants after you. 8 The whole land of Canaan,where you now reside as a foreigner, I will give as an everlasting possession to you and your descendants after you; and I will be their God.”
9 Then God said to Abraham, “As for you, you must keep my covenant,you and your descendants after you for the generations to come. 10 This is my covenant with you and your descendants after you, the covenant you are to keep: Every male among you shall be circumcised. 11 You are to undergo circumcision, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and you. 12 For the generations to come every male among you who is eight days old must be circumcised, including those born in your household or bought with money from a foreigner—those who are not your offspring. 13 Whether born in your household or bought with your money, they must be circumcised. My covenant in your flesh is to be an everlasting covenant. 14 Any uncircumcised male, who has not been circumcised in the flesh, will be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant.”
15 God also said to Abraham, “As for Sarai your wife, you are no longer to call her Sarai; her name will be Sarah. 16 I will bless her and will surely give you a son by her. I will bless her so that she will be the mother of nations; kings of peoples will come from her.”
17 Abraham fell facedown; he laughed and said to himself, “Will a son be born to a man a hundred years old? Will Sarah bear a child at the age of ninety?” 18 And Abraham said to God, “If only Ishmael might live under your blessing!”
19 Then God said, “Yes, but your wife Sarah will bear you a son, and you will call him Isaac. I will establish my covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his descendants after him. 20 And as for Ishmael, I have heard you: I will surely bless him; I will make him fruitful and will greatly increase his numbers. He will be the father of twelve rulers, and I will make him into a great nation. 21 But my covenant I will establish with Isaac, whom Sarah will bear to you by this time next year.” 22 When he had finished speaking with Abraham, God went up from him.
23 On that very day Abraham took his son Ishmael and all those born in his household or bought with his money, every male in his household, and circumcised them, as God told him. 24 Abraham was ninety-nine years old when he was circumcised, 25 and his son Ishmael was thirteen;26 Abraham and his son Ishmael were both circumcised on that very day.27 And every male in Abraham’s household, including those born in his household or bought from a foreigner, was circumcised with him.
I bashed Abraham (so renamed as of this chapter) pretty hard in my last post, and I was still in a bash-y sort of mindset when I was reading this chapter. The main question I kept asking myself was “Why him? Why did God chose Abraham? What was so special about him?”
The answer? Nothing, really, except Abraham was a ready listener. I’ve already illuminated Abraham’s many shortcomings or possible shortcomings (twice denying his wife to save his skin, questionable faith when sleeping with Hagar…) But everything I’ve read about Abraham shows that he listened to God, and was ready to receive his message. Sometimes he was incredulous, as in this chapter when he laughs at the idea of a man one hundred years old having a child by a woman who is ninety (17:17), but wouldn’t you laugh, too? But when God said “leave your country” (Gen 12:1), Abraham left. When God said “I am your shield, your very great reward.” (Gen. 15:1), Abraham believed him (15:6). When God requested a sacrifice, Abraham brought it forthwith (Gen. 15:9-11). And when God made circumcision a sign of his covenant with Abraham – more about that in a minute – he did it. Not only did he make sure he and his son were circumcised, but the Bible takes care to tell us that “all those born in his household, or bought with his money, every male in his household,” (17:23) were circumcised.
Abraham’s failures occurred in the God’s silences. That lays the blame at God’s feet – let me see if I can phrase it a different way. Abraham’s failures occurred when he stopped listening for God. No, God is not going to verbally converse with us all the time, not even with Abraham, but He is still there, it’s just up to us to seek His guiding hand and follow it. Abraham didn’t trust God when he gave Sarah to the Pharaoh. Some argue he didn’t trust God when he left for Egypt during the famine in the first place. I’ve argued that he was also guilty of at least impatience with God if not flat out faithlessness when he agrees with Sarah to sleep with Hagar. But don’t we all fail in our faith sometimes? Maybe even on a daily basis? And when faced with really dire consequences – starving to death, being killed by the Pharaoh, seeing the end of your bloodline in a patriarchal society – it’s hard to trust God’s plan.
And you know what the beautiful thing about that is? God forgave Abraham. His forgiveness is so pervasive it’s not even really mentioned, just implicit. At any time God could have cut Abraham off for his faithlessness, but He recognized Abraham’s human fragility and forgave him for it. Perhaps even Abraham’s lapses in faith are even part of God’s grace: You can’t hold a conversation with a drowning man. Perhaps God let Abraham go to Egypt, even though He was fully capable of saving him from famine, because He knew Abraham was not in a good place to listen. But, when the time was right, God continued to talk to him, because He knew Abraham was ready.
And perhaps that is why God waited until Abraham was a full one hundred years old to make this covenant with him. Think of your grand- or great-grand parents and all the wisdom they have accumulated over their lifetimes. Age generally seems to give people a larger world-view. I hope, as I get older, to be less bogged down in petty details but also able to enjoy all of life’s small pleasures more fully. Abraham, wised-up and mellowed-out, wouldn’t balk at a little genital mutilation the way a twenty-something year old man would.
Something I learned about circumcision while reading this chapter: It wasn’t unheard-of before Abraham. In fact, Egyptians and Phoenicians were among some of the populations who practiced circumcision at the time. At least for me, knowing that it had a certain degree of cultural norm before the Abrahamic Covenant makes it seem like a less bizarre request. There are a myriad of proposed reasons as to why any group performed circumcision – some in direct conflict, including both to limit sexual arousal and to improve sexual performance. But Abraham’s circumcision, the one that we are most concerned with here, was to signify this new covenant with God. It is symbolic. God said to Abraham “Any uncircumcised male, who has not been circumcised in the flesh, shall be cut off from his people.” (17:14) People means family means offspring, so it makes sense that cutting the organ used for procreation symbolizes the cutting off from offspring should the covenant not be followed.
Should we still circumcise today? I don’t have any boys, so I haven’t had to deal with that question directly. Paul argues against it in the New Testament, others say it still holds as a symbol of faith. I really don’t know. It’s a topic I’ll think more upon as we cross it again, as it’s mentioned nearly 100 times in the Bible. (Thanks, Google!)
For now, I’m just thankful to have a God that is patient with us. It is something I will try to remember when things aren’t going my way. Sometimes things don’t go our way, that’s true, and we chalk it up to not being part of God’s plan. But perhaps it is not part of God’s plan because he is just waiting for us to be still and ready to listen. Again, it’s not easy to quiet yourself in the midst of a crisis (whether that crisis be dealing with as little as a traffic jam or as large as car crash), but it’s something I’ll try to remember, since God always remembers me.