Genesis 17: The New Covenant

By Mary Jane Chaignot

This chapter focuses on another encounter between God and Abraham. Many scholars think the priestly writers added this during the exile. It's really their version of chapter 15, which is more authentic. Yet regardless of when this was written, it is essential to the story.

The covenantal promises in chapter 15 were one-sided. True, the promises that were made presupposed that Abraham would be loyal to the covenant. Still, only the smoke and fire passed through the pieces; Abraham sat and watched. He was a passive recipient.

Thirteen years have passed since then and since God has spoken to Abraham. Now, like so many other times, the Lord appears suddenly, without warning, abruptly declaring, "I am God, the Almighty." The Hebrew word is El Shaddai. This is a new name for God. Previously, everything has been "Yahweh," translated, "the Lord." And, frankly, like the great "I am that I am" pronouncement to Moses, scholars don't know how to translate El Shaddai. Some think Shaddai derives from the word, mountain, so it could be "god of the mountain." However, others see imagery of the female breast, so Shaddai could refer to a female deity. Still others think Shaddai derives from the word, "destroy," and infer a translation of "powerful, omniscient." Since God has already initiated the covenant, He is now ready to put it into force. Hence, the translation, "the Almighty." In any event, this is another disclosure by God of His name.

In chapter 15, God made the covenant agreement; Abraham received it. In this chapter, the covenant resembles a contract. Abraham receives two imperatives, two commands. "Walk before me and be blameless." The phrase, "walk before" typically expresses the service or devotion of a faithful servant to a king. This is in contrast to "walk after" which expresses passive allegiance or a repudiation of vows (as in, "walking after other gods.") Here, it means that every step is to be taken with an awareness of God's presence. Additionally, Abraham is to be blameless, complete, whole someone who is to put all his energies into one pursuit. He is not to live like others around him, but is to give himself wholeheartedly to God.

As before, commands are immediately followed by two promises. "I will make my covenant and multiply you exceedingly." Notice the future tense; this is God's intention. The person who walks before God and is blameless is the kind of person God will multiply abundantly.

This time, Abraham does not argue or question, but falls on his face in worship – an appropriate response. The contrast between this and the cry of complaint in 15:2-3 is oftentimes attributed to the growth and maturity of Abraham. Yet, there has also been a substantial change in his situation. He has a 13-year-old son named, Ishmael, so, of course, he hears these words differently. God's words do not seem so impossible now. Ishmael is an important factor in their fulfillment.

God continues. His covenant "between me and thee" is so significant, it is signified by a change in name. Abram, meaning "exalted father," is changed to Abraham, "father of a host of nations." In Genesis 12:2, God promised to make his name great. Here is a linguistic fulfillment of that promise. In Hebrew another syllable is added, literally, making his name longer, bigger. Beyond this linguistic pun, however, the expansion of his name corresponds with the expansion of his role as a father of many. He will no longer be the father of just one family, but of "many nations." Giving someone a new name was highly significant. Names were not just for identification, but were inextricably tied in with personality, with the essence of one's being. So a new name marks a new era, a new life of promise.

Not surprisingly, then, following the name change is a reiteration of the promise. Five times we hear a promise. God says: I will make you fruitful. I will make nations of you. I will establish my covenant. I will give you land. I will be their God. The first ones have to do with promises of increase. When God said, "I will establish this covenant as an eternal covenant," this is more than just a promise. It is something that will last forever and ever. It describes a relationship to God that rests on the promise and has binding reassurance.

But, perhaps, the last promise is the most interesting. Here God says, "I will be their God." This focuses on Abraham's descendants. His descendants, like the priestly writer, are in exile. Even though they have been expelled from the land, God will stand by them. He will be their God.

Following this incredible self-disclosure, the subject turns suddenly. There is a second side to this relationship. Abraham must keep this covenant and the sign will be "in your flesh." Just as the rainbow was the sign of God's covenant with Noah, circumcision was to be the sign of the covenant with Abraham. It is taken for granted that Abraham knows what is being asked of him. There are many independent sources that attest to this practice among ancient cultures. It does not appear, however, that the peoples in the immediate vicinity of Mesopotamia practiced circumcision at this time.

When circumcision was part of an ancient culture, it was most often associated with the time of puberty, or used as a prenuptial rite. It occurred at a crucial point in time in a male's life, and often signified his entry into the adult life of his group. God, however, instructed Abraham that the rite should take place on the eighth day after birth. Some see this as being highly significant, given that the child has just completed a seven-day unit of time corresponding to the seven days of creation. Later writings will continue this thought by instructing that an animal is not fit for sacrifice until the eighth day. More importantly, however, by breaking with established traditions and separating circumcision from puberty or a marriage rite, God made available a whole new avenue of interpretation.

It is called a "sign of the covenant" between God and His people. It is intended man-ward, to help them remember their status as God's people and their obligations to keep the law, even though at this point, no law has been introduced. Also as a permanent marking on the body, it signifies the eternality of the covenant between God and man.

Yet, the question remains, why circumcision? Let us recall that one of God's promises was to be fruitful and multiply. By using this symbol, then, God joins the act of faith with the act of reproduction. The organ of procreation is itself hallowed.

What is truly remarkable about this discourse, though, is that the rite of circumcision is equally imposed on "born" and "bought." The "born" would have been blood descendants of Abraham. The "bought," however, would have been outsiders, slaves, or prisoners of war. They, too, were to be full members of the community. Anyone who refused to participate would cut himself off from the covenant. Anyone who deliberately excluded himself from the religious community could not be a beneficiary of the covenantal blessings, and in essence doomed himself and his line to extinction.

But before Abraham has a chance to act, God gives him more information. He makes it very clear that Sarah is not to be left out. Indeed, the promise is to be fulfilled through her. As a sign of inclusion, her name is also changed—from Sarai, to Sarah. Since both names essentially mean "princess," the significance of the change means that Sarah's life was to be marked by a new beginning, too.

Twice God states, "I will bless her." Not only will she have a son, but nations and kings of nations will also come through her. Abraham responds by "falling down." However, this time he falls down laughing to himself, thinking, "Shall one be born to a 100 year old man? Or Sarah—shall a 90 year old woman give birth?" The very thought is so incredible that he asks for a blessing for Ishmael. Obviously scholars cannot say for certain what caused Abraham to laugh. But because he immediately asked for a blessing for Ishmael, it is pretty obvious where his heart is. Might his laughter, then, be a dismissal of God's statement? For thirteen years, he has accepted Ishmael as the promised heir; he cherished him, raised him, and implanted all his hopes upon him. He has his son; conversations about incredulous possibilities are not necessary. Remember that our first information about Sarah, given at the very beginning of their story, included the statement that she was barren. It was easy to exclude Sarah from the promises. The closest she would ever get to motherhood was through surrogacy or adoption. They tried that, but it didn't work out. Now God changes the story.

In this light, Abraham's laughter doesn't seem so out of place. We, too, are left wondering how a one-hundred-year old man can father a child, and how a ninety-year-old woman can give birth? Yet, this is exactly what God has in mind, and he repeats His promise. "Sarah, your wife, will bear you a son and you shall call him Isaac." And all this would happen within a year. Twenty-five years after the initial promise, the end is in sight. Moreover, the name "Isaac" means, "he laughs!" It is a reminder of man's ludicrous attempts to act independently of God's will, and sometimes even in defiance of it. The name expresses God's absolute delight in exercising His will and in fulfilling His promises.

God's speech continues with blessings for both sons. To Isaac belongs confirmation of the eternal covenant. But, Ishmael is not to be excluded, because God has heard the prayer of Abraham—another play on the name Ishmael, which means "God hears." Therefore, Ishmael will also enjoy the blessings of fruitfulness and multiplication; his success will be divinely guaranteed. He will become a great nation and the father of twelve princes. But the everlasting covenant is to be with Isaac.

At this point, God departs with considerable fanfare—a nice parallel to his appearance at the beginning of this chapter. The chapter ends with Abraham's obedience. The carrying out of the command is described in great detail. The commandment is precisely fulfilled.