As God Shaddai establishes his covenant with Abraham for the generations to come, he asks for a response. All the males are to be marked as belonging to him, and it is a very personal marking: circumcision (17:10). It’s the sign of the patriarchal covenant (17:11).
We’ve seen the Hebrew word ʾôṯ (sign) three times:
- The heavenly lights were signs that earth is under heaven’s rule (1:14).
- YHWH put a sign on Cain, marking him as under royal protection (4:15).
- The spectral bow in the threatening clouds was the sign of the Noahic covenant, the promise that YHWH would never give up ruling humanity no matter how difficult we were to manage (9:12-17).
The sovereign required Abraham’s male descendants to bear a sign in their bodies—a sign that they belonged to him, that they lived under his authority. If anyone proclaimed their independence by refusing to have their foreskin cut off, they were to be cut off from the nation (17:14).
Since circumcision was a male rite, it raises to question of how important women were in the Abrahamic nation. By Abraham’s time, power resided with men, and women already suffered gender disparity. Jewish culture has tended to reflect those values, so that even today women cannot enter certain areas in traditional synagogues. But observe how the narrator weaves this story: Sarai was as much a part of this covenant as Abraham. The sovereign who changed Abram’s name to designate his role in the covenant changes Sarai’s name also (17:15).
There’s no change of meaning: Sarai and Sarah both meant princess. It’s an appropriate name for the princess of his kingdom. She receives a new name, a new identity associated with her crucial kingdom role—the future of nations and kings (17:15). From God’s point of view, her role is as important as Abraham’s. We’ve already seen that God intended men and women to reign equally and co-jointly, and that this will be the case again when all things have been restored.
To Abraham, this announcement that Sarah will be the future of nations and kings seems absurd. She’s 90, and childless. Abraham doubles up laughing (17:17). Okay, the text says he “fell on his face and laughed” and muttered about the absurdity. Earlier he “fell on his face” in obeisance (17:3), so he probably tried to hide the fact that he was laughing at his king by acting as if he was bowing again.
When he pulls himself together, he offers an alternative to help cover the king’s gaffe. He already has a 13-year-old son, so he proposes that Ishmael could “live before God” as the prince who will inherit the coming kingdom (17:18). The king rejects Abraham’s offer, insisting that Sarah will yet bear an heir, and instructing them to name him Isaac (18:19, 21).
Isaac means “he laughs.” His birth will bring laughter to Abraham and Sarah’s tent—not the laughter if incredulity, but the joy of a new generation of the kingdom of God.
Having completed his covenant business with the servants, the king departs for now (17:22). Abraham carries out his sovereign’s orders, circumcising the males in his household (17:23-27).
So what relevance has circumcision for non-Jewish people today? Right through the Old Testament era, circumcision was a key boundary marker, a sign of who belonged to the people of God. Then in the first century, the Jewish Messiah re-established the kingdom of God not just among Jews but also among people of other nations. This raised the question as to whether gentiles must be circumcised to belong to the people of God. A Pharisee from Tarsus answered that question with a resounding, “No!” Paul argued that gentiles should not be subjected to the requirements of either the patriarchal covenant or the Sinai covenant. He understood that Jesus was now Lord over all nations. God had been faithful to his promises, and was now drawing the nations back under his reign, in fulfilment of the Noah covenant. The earliest church placed a few requirements on gentile Christians, requirements that echo the Noah covenant (compare Acts 15:28-29 and Genesis 9:4-6). The inclusion of gentiles under God’s reign fulfils the promises to Abraham and Noah, but gentile believers are not subject to the stipulations of his covenant with Abraham or Israel. (That’s Paul’s argument in Romans 4 and Galatians 3 – 4.)
The sign of our participation in the new covenant is the love we show towards each other, just as the king shows his love toward us. God is bringing all people together in the Jewish Messiah, so the old divisions of humanity no longer apply: Jew/Greek, slave/free, male/female (Galatians 3:28). What joy! There’s the kingdom story right there!
What others are saying
K. A. Mathews, Genesis 11:27–50:26, New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2005), 193:
The covenant promises in chap. 17 echo what had already been announced to Abram but with the new emphasis on the covenant’s perpetuity (vv. 7, 8, 13, 19; cp. 13:15) and the new feature of the “sign” of circumcision (v. 11). Circumcision of the male’s foreskin as a sign and seal is especially fitting for the covenant’s orientation toward future generations (vv. 7–10, 19). The Lord provides also new assurances to Abram by conferring the names “Abraham” and “Sarah,” attributing promissory significance to the couple’s status as progenitors of new “nations” (gôyim, vv. 4–5, 15–16; cp. 12:2).
Jason S. Derouchie, “Circumcision in the Hebrew Bible and Targums: Theology, Rhetoric, and the Handling of Metaphor,” in Bulletin for Biblical Research, Vol. 14 (2004) 185–186:
The rite was performed on the male reproductive organ to remind the recipient that the oath of undefiled allegiance was binding on both him and his offspring (cf. Gen 18:19) and perhaps also to remind both covenant parties of the divine promise of posterity (e.g., Gen 12:2; 15:5; 17:4–5, 19; 18:10). [With the following footnote:]
Goldingay rightly observes that circumcision “requires the cutting of the part of the male body through which God’s promise will be fulfilled” (“The Significance of Circumcision,” 9). For Abraham in his old age, this ritual would have been a clear reminder of his dependence on God to see the fulfillment of the promise. Less convincing is Goldingay’s comment (p. 8), drawn from K. E. and J. M. Paige, that “circumcision was a ritual which tested a man’s trust in his wider community, as he lets his son be circumcised and thus lets this son’s reproductive potential be both threatened (if the operation goes wrong) and realized (if it is effective).” While the link with procreation fits the context, there is little support within Gen 17 that the narrator was applying this sociological interpretation to circumcision.
… Meredith G. Kline has insightfully suggested that, like the dismembering ritual in Gen 15:7–18 (cf. Jer 34:17–20), circumcision graphically portrayed the covenant curse of excision and threatened the cutting off of descendants (Gen 17:14). [Kline, Kingdom Prologue, 193]
Stephen G. Dempster, Dominion and Dynasty: A Biblical Theology of the Hebrew Bible (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2003), 81–82:
Abraham and Sarah will produce heirs for the throne of creation. …
The whole scene is so patently outrageous that Abraham domesticates the promise again and pleads with God to accept Ishmael as the seed of promise. When the answer is negative, Abraham cannot contain his laughter: ‘God just can’t be serious!’ God’s response is to ensure that the old man will never forget the outrageous promise; he must name the firstborn of many descendants Isaac (‘laughter’, Gen. 17:17–19). The joke is on the old man.
Read Genesis 17:9-27.