Through the Bible: The Covenant of Circumcision

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Sorry I’ve been a bit behind this week, folks. It’s been a challenging sort of week. But challenges or not, we press on.

So here we have the all-important covenant of circumcision. The part of the Bible where God tells his people that the way they will prove to him that they are definitely his people is by performing a painful ritual on their men’s most private parts. He also changes the names of Abram and Sarai.

I cannot say that I remember focusing terribly much on the circumcision in and of itself. It was a thing that Jews had been ordered to do but we, of course, did not have to. I believe it was often explained as something that God required for the health of his people. I never gave any thought at all to circumcision, honestly. I did not give a lot of detailed thought to the penis in general. It just didn’t seem that applicable to me.

I did give a great deal of thought to the naming thing because I loved the idea of names having specific meaning and power. I liked the idea that God would change your name based on your place in the world. The concept of power in naming (or un-naming) was one of the ideas that stuck with me on a fundamental level from Madeleine L’Engle’s second Time novel. So I was very into that. It’s not exactly unique to the Christian faith but I wasn’t aware of that, as we didn’t study other faiths.

So. God commands a sacrifice of foreskins and changes the names of some folks and makes another prophecy. Oh, and Abraham laughs at him, which is fairly understandable. So we’ve actually got kind-of a lot happening here; let’s take a look.

The Covenant of Circumcision

When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the Lord appeared to him and said, “I am God Almighty[a]; walk before me faithfully and be blameless. Then I will make my covenant between me and you and will greatly increase your numbers.”

Abram fell facedown, and God said to him, “As for me, this is my covenant with you: You will be the father of many nations. No longer will you be called Abram[b]; your name will be Abraham,[c] for I have made you a father of many nations. I will make you very fruitful; I will make nations of you, and kings will come from you. 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. 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.”

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.[d] 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.

Response: So is this a… retelling of the same story we’ve already heard, only with more detail? Because God has already made a covenant with Abram. He already told him that he was going to increase his numbers greatly, he already told him he was going to have a son. Did he actually not tell him all of this until after Ishmael was born? Because then it would make sense why this magical promise did not appear to be in any of their minds when Sarai gave her servant to him.

Certainly there is precedent for this. Even the creation story essentially has two totally different versions side by side. That’s not strange but what is strange is that it’s never been mentioned in my memory. I suppose because part of taking the Bible literally must be that they would never tell the same story twice in this way, that that might make it sound more like a myth or a legend and less like a book of facts. But to me, this sounds like a retelling of a story, a different version. I don’t know if that’s true but that’s what it sounds like.

Also, what immediately strikes me is a completely unfair double-standard here. We haven’t gotten to it yet but in a bit Sarah and Abraham will entertain angels (one of which is maybe Jesus pre-incarnation) and Sarah will hear the prophecy that she is pregnant and she will laugh to herself because it seems pretty absurd. But those angels will call her out and she will get in trouble, for laughing, but specifically for lying about laughing because she was afraid. We’ll get to that later but what strikes me here is that Abraham laughed to himself as well but he was not called out for that. He doesn’t get in trouble like Sarah did but it’s just because he wasn’t held to the same standards she was. This makes me grumble.

There’s another reason we wouldn’t teach that this might be the same story told a different way, of course. Because if it was, then things get much more complicated. See, claiming God came to Abram and Sarai (and possibly it is the names being the same that makes it a different story…? I don’t know) before the birth of Ishmael then the story of Ishmael’s conception is easily painted by Christians as Abram not trusting God. That’s not true, of course. In that first story God does not tell Abram how he will give him a son – only that he will. With such a lack of specificity and a culture that was very accepting of concubines and multiple wives, Abram and Sarai’s route makes perfect sense. But from the evangelical Christian perspective now, it seems easier. However, if the promise didn’t come until after, then it isn’t a lack of trust in God’s promise at all. They can claim it is a lack of faith in God’s design for marriage, I suppose…? Although that’s fairly laughable in the context. Anyway.

The point I’m looking at here is that God agrees to bless Ishmael, only because Abraham asks, but he doesn’t seem to have much interest. It is again, sort-of a screwed up thing. Ishmael is clearly loved by Abram. God wants his children to come from a miracle, which is his call. But his indifference is, as usual, fairly cold seeming. Also he fails to mention that the great nation he’s going to make him into are going to be people he orders slaughtered repeatedly by Abraham’s descendants. Which seems awkward at best, and probably not exactly what Abraham was hoping for his child.

Finally Abraham goes and has invasive surgery performed on every single male, bought or free, in his camp. That just seems like a really terrible day. I am imagining a lot of people were maybe not thrilled about that. Surely everyone cannot have been on board? How did he present it? Did Abraham himself perform all those surgeries, because that sounds like an extremely exhausting day of a lot of dicks. Did he save himself for last, or did he go first? Also, how long exactly do you think it takes to get used to going by new names, even if they are similar to your previous ones? Does God get annoyed if you mess up?

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